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Starting Out

Can't Go Up the Creek Without One: Choosing a Canoe Paddle

By Farwell Forrest

By the time you've rented (or borrowed) a canoe a couple of times, you'll have begun to appreciate the importance of having a good, properly-fitted paddle. A good canoe paddle is a magic wand, but a bad paddle—or a paddle that's too big or too small—is often little better than the piece of rough-sawn 2 x 4 that was my first blade.

Before we get started, however, we'd better be sure we're talking the same language. A paddle doesn't have as many parts as a canoe, but it's good to know their names, anyway. Take a look at the sketch.

Blades for 

What goes into making a paddle? Not much There are just three main components: a grip, a shaft, and a blade. That's it, though the picture's complicated a bit by the fact some folks use "blade" to mean "paddle." In practice, however, this is seldom a problem. Note that grip, shaft, and blade can all be carved from one plank (as was the case with my old 2 x 4) or crafted separately and then glued, pinned, or swaged together. And not all paddles have straight shafts. In some cases, the blade is set at a slight angle—typically 5-15 degrees—to the shaft. This increases the efficiency of the forward stroke, though at some small cost in efficiency elsewhere. Not surprisingly, bent-shaft or "hooked" paddles find favor with racers and people who take long trips in skinny canoes. They're not too popular with whitewater paddlers.

Of course there's more to most paddles than this. Many are wonders of composite engineering, lovingly built from laminates of carbon fiber, Kevlar, and fiberglass. Others are milled from wide planks of ash or birch. Still others—and these are probably the most common—are made by fitting molded plastic grips and blades to an aluminum shaft.

Choose the material to suit your taste and wallet. There are good paddles of every type—and bad paddles, too, unfortunately. Just what makes a good paddle? Easy. A good paddle is (1) light, (2) strong, (3) comfortable, and (4) cheap. Not surprisingly, no one paddle is going to be all these things. If you want both ultra light weight and high strength, you'll have to give up "cheap." Plan on spending upwards of $100. If you can settle for middling light weight, however, you'll find much less expensive choices.

Comfort is a personal thing. If you have small hands, you'll find that hanging on to a paddle with a fat grip or thick shaft is tiring. By the end of a long day, it may even be painful. The remedy? Try before you buy. Borrow or rent a variety of paddles until you find one you like. I prefer ash beavertails for most flatwater paddling and heavy-duty fiberglass rock-crushers for whitewater. You may have other preferences. Always pay attention to comfort, though. Better a cheap and ugly paddle that feels good in your hand than a beautiful (and expensive) one that doesn't.

Speaking of "fit," there's more to fit than meets the hand. Paddles come in different sizes. The size given in the catalogs—it's almost alway in inches, by the way, at least in American catalogs—is usually the overall length of the paddle (grip plus shaft plus blade). Unfortunately, paddle blades vary tremendously in size and shape, and the really important dimension is the length of the shaft. So be prepared to do a little arithmetic when you go shopping.

But how do you determine shaft length? If you've been paddling for a while, of course, you'll already know what it is. But what if you're just starting out?

No problem. Get a paddle—any paddle will do, so long as it's reasonable long. You can even use a piece of closet rod. Kneel on the carpet in your living room, and turn the paddle upside-down, placing the grip on the floor about six inches to the left of your left knee—or to the right of your right knee, if you prefer. Hold the shaft vertical, with your hands positioned about where you'd place them if your were paddling. (You'll have to pinch the shaft with your upper hand. You obviously can't hold the grip!) Now move your upper hand up and down the shaft until your upper arm is more or less horizontal. When it is, have someone measure the distance from the floor to your upper hand. (Too shy to ask for help? Then just stretch a measuring tape along the shaft of the paddle and note where your hand falls.) This is your shaft length. Add it to the blade length of the paddle you've got your eye on and you'll have a reasonably good idea what size you need.

It's not quite this simple, of course. Solo paddlers in beamy boats will probably want a somewhat longer paddle. Paddlers in skinny canoes with low-mounted tractor seats may opt for something shorter. And paddlers who sometimes paddle while standing (fishermen, for example) may want a much longer shaft, though they'll probably switch to a shorter paddle when they sit or kneel. Still, the size you arrive at in your living room is a good starting point. Borrow or rent a few different paddles—some shorter, some longer—and see which you like best.

Once you have your paddle, you're ready to go up the creek. Don't forget a spare! 'Nuff said.

Be sure to research canoe paddles in the buyers' guide!

Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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 • How to Size a Canoe Paddle
 • All About the Canoe Paddle
View Paddles in Buyers' Guide

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