Sunday, December 27, 2009

Paddles and Hammers

My garage has a certain ungarageness to it. We haven't parked a car in it for over seven years. Half of the garage is a boathouse, the other half is a blacksmith's smithy.

I've been blacksmithing for about a decade now, and it is now as much a part of my life as paddling. I certainly can't be faulted for not getting my recommended daily allowance of iron. I've thought a lot about why I am drawn to elemental activities; combinations of air, fire, water, and earth. Water is easy to explain. Fire, air and earth all combine to create a rich experience when I light up the forge.

Needless to say, plastic never did that much for me.

Blacksmithing and canoeing have a lot of similarities. They are inherently simple activities with subtleties that can take years to master. With all the jigs and tools I use in forging, my hammers are my most valuable tools, with personalities and quirks all their own. The hammer is the most important tool in working with iron.

I own approximately two dozen canoe paddles. I just counted sixteen in the garage, physically verified by touching the top grip of each one as I moved down my rack. There are two hanging on the wall in my living room: functional paddles I choose not to use because of their historical or sentimental value. I'm sure that there are another half-dozen in my office, stashed behind the comfy chair in my office. Then there are few floating around out there...loaned to friends or temporarily forgotten in the back of the car.

The paddle, I believe, is as important to one's paddling experience as the canoe. Like a hammer to a blacksmith or a fly rod to an angler, it's your primary tool to connect. It doesn't matter how nice the canoe might be; if the paddle is garbage, your experience will reflect your choice. A bad hammer is worthless, except if you want to beat it into a really bad tomahawk for a neighbor kid. For the record, the kid told his mom and she was cool with it.

So when non-paddlers see my rack of paddles, they always ask the same question: "Why do you need so many paddles?" My response is always the same: "Why do you need so many shoes?" You wouldn't go hiking in ballet slippers, and you probably wouldn't run in hiking boots or dance in Bean boots. They all have their function, and so do my paddles.

I love my traditional paddles. They're mostly cherry, a Canadian bias: they use cherry up north, we Yankees lean towards ash. Not that I don't have ash traditionals, I have a few, plus a quilted maple, a birdseye maple, and a sassafras. They all are frequently used, and the ones I use the most are on their third of fourth coat of spar varnish. Their handles are polished smooth, not varnished but oiled, and my hand did the polishing over countless miles. When the water is deep, I lean toward traditionals.

I love my bent-shaft carbon paddles. At 13 ounces, they're almost too light (as if anything could be) and their stiffness transmits power to the water like a Porsche transmission. Their blades slice quietly into the water and emerge with barely a sound. My cadence is high and the canoe accelerates quickly. It's wonderful to race with a couple of light bent-shaft paddles.

I love my whitewater paddles. They're beefy, almost clumsy-looking, and when hung on the rack with the other paddles, they look like a bulldogs in a kennel of greyhounds. But like a bulldog, they're built for strength, not speed. Layers of fiberglass over thick wood blades inspire confidence, and you need not fear breaking one as you race down (or in this case, up) a Class II or III rapid. They sometimes seem to enjoy the carnage.

There's my Black Widow, which was the fruit of a collaboration between Rutabaga and Bending Branches. It's my favorite straight-shaft paddle you can buy off the shelf. It's perfect for an all-around paddle, even if I do say so myself (I designed the grip).

The list could go on, but there's no need.

Then there's the collection of paddles I've rescued from the edge of death, paddles that were destined for the dumpster. What a spokeshave, sandpaper, varnish and epoxy can do is almost miraculous. My kids' first paddles were such rescues. Starting with a big paddle with a split blade and work it down to the good wood will guarantee a fine kid's paddle that'll outlast two or three kids. I've passed along dozens of these rescues to friends and family, and it's fun to make something from what could have rotted in a landfill.

I'm sure some of you have your special paddles and feel a special connection to them. It might seem strange to folks who don't paddle, but if you have one (or twenty) special paddles, allow me to most emphatically validate your feelings of affection. It's a canoe thing. If you get it, there's no need to explain. If you don't, no amount of explanation is sufficient.

Respectfully submitted,



Green Laker said...

When non-cyclists ask me why I have so many bikes in my fleet, I ask them how many clubs does a golfer have. They can have up to 14, so I can still squeeze a couple more in.

canoelover said...

Exactly. If you're going to have a vice, canoes, kayaks, or bikes are good choices.

Silbs said...

I love the shoe analogy. Mostly, I don't try to explain. I sure would like to get my wife to visit your garage. I get a lot of flack for all the "stuff" I have in there, and we still both get our cars in.

Tim said...

I love the line about paddling and blacksmithing being "inherently simple activities with subtleties that can take years to master." Well put.

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