The Things We Carry: Part 2

Like a chef's knife, a climber's ice tool, or a woodsman's ax, a paddle can tell you a lot about its owner. In the days when the whims of European fashion sent brigades of voyageurs crisscrossing the North American continent in search of beaver, you could tell a boatman's place in his canoe at a glance, not to mention his position in the hierarchy of the trade. Avant and gouvernail (bowman and steersman, or sternman) stood at the head of their profession. These aristocrats of the paddle also stood in the ends of their canoes whenever "white horses" danced in the river ahead, and they wielded formidable seven- to nine-foot-long blades in consequence. Not so the milieux in the middle of the boat, however. They were the commoners in the voyageurs' ranks, and they contented themselves with much shorter paddles than their betters. Kneeling only inches above the water's surface, the milieux were compelled to keep up a killing pace for hour after hour. According to historian Peter C. Newman, the standard cadence was 45 strokes a minute, though themilieux in express canoes were expected to better this by a third, taking a stroke every second. It's no surprise, then, that their idea of a perfect paddle was one that was short and light, with a blade only a little wider than the shaft.

No matter. The milieux may have been the humble engines of the early trade's transport system, but they still had their pride. Forced to paddle in lockstep with their fellow boatmen, each milieu proclaimed his individuality by staining his paddle bright blue or green and then painting it with a distinctive design in red or black. This was only giving credit where credit was due. Today the birch-bark canoe may be the most widely recognized icon of the trade, but it was the voyageur's paddle which provided the driving force, carrying the valuable pelts all the way from remote arctic rivers and mountain tarns to the North West Company's warehouses in Montreal, the last stop but one on their epic journey to the London auction houses. 

Paddles are no less important to canoeists and kayakers now, of course, and while most contemporary designs bear the unmistakable stamp of their aboriginal antecedents, modern materials have broadened the range of possibilities enormously, with laminated wood and wholly synthetic blades greatly outnumbering ash beavertails on outfitters' walls. Product engineering and the demands of competition have produced new shapes, as well, shapes that you won't find anywhere among the teardrops, broad and narrow ovals, and tapered rectangles displayed on the pages of Adney and Chapelle's Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. Bent shafts, spoon blades, dihedrals, variable-offset ferrules — there really are many new things under the sun

Despite this embarrassment of choice, however, most paddlers play favorites, forging enduring loyalties which may or may not have any rational basis. I'm no exception. I've lost track of how many different paddles I've owned or used over the years, but when I'm gearing up for a canoe trip, my first thought is always a paddle like the one I used on my first ventures afloat. It's a simple ash beavertail, nearly identical to the blades once crafted by the Micmacs of Maine and the Canadian Maritimes. The name describes the blade's shape accurately, but for those who've never seen a beaver's tail, the working end of my paddle is a blunt oval some seven inches wide and 24 inches long, a good compromise between power and speed. Best of all, the shaft is just the right diameter for my hands — few things are more irritating than a paddle shaft that's too big or too small — while the grip is little more than a rounded wedge, never varnished and now polished smooth by years of use. A bonus: Grip and shaft are warm when it's cold, cool when it's hot.

It's obvious that I'm a fan, isn't it? And Farwell is, too. We own six beavertails between us. At first glance, they all look alike. But they're not. One is very long, a true avant's blade that sees most use in the bow of a big, slow-turning freighter or when paddling a tandem boat solo. Two more are fairly short, best suited to a quick, eating-up-the-miles pace in a canoe that sits low in the water. The remaining three are almost identical, intermediate in length between the two extremes. Almost identical, that is. Of the three, my hand invariably reaches for the same blade time and time again. It rests in my palms with the easy familiarity and latent responsiveness of a dowser's hazel wand. The other paddles may look like it, but this one is mine. And I know the difference. On the water, my paddle is my truest friend. In a hard chance, it's my lifeline. Over many years, my hands and muscles have gradually molded it to my needs. Putting it another way, I have mastered it. Without me, it is helpless, an inert shape lying in the bilge, belying its origin in living wood. Yet though I have mastered it, it also commands me. Without it, I too am helpless, unable to shape my course on the water, fated to be taken wherever the whim of wind or current carries me.

My paddle, though much shorter than an avant's, is still unfashionably long — almost as long as I am tall, in fact, yet light in weight for all that. The grain is straight and tight, yielding a beautiful figure on the blade, a figure not unlike that on the sounding board of an heirloom fiddle. And while I'll never coax a reel or a gavotte out of my paddle, the blade does make music of a sort, thrumming gently as I slice it forward in the water at the end of each stroke, in preparation for the next. The result? As I drive my boat onward from dawn to dusk, my paddle sings to me. Its song is older than the voyageurs, older even than the Micmac, as old as the music that Ulysses' boatmen once knew when they smote the sounding furrows with their oars.

Romantic twaddle? It could be, I suppose. The music is real enough, however. And there's no doubt that life's hardships are a lot easier to bear if they're tempered by a touch of romantic imagination. Just ask the voyageurs. Why do you think these hard-worked, pragmatic men lavished so much time and trouble on their blades, after all? Was the decoration simply a way to identify their property? Or was it something more — a testament to their own inescapable bondage to the blade that shaped their fates in the cold waters of the headstrong northern rivers, perhaps?

In any case, my paddle does what I require. It reaches out to seize hold of an eddy when I want a breather, acts as a lever to put the current to work in swinging a heavily laden boat around in its own length, and provides a just-in-time brace to forestall many a capsize. It also draws my boat safely toward shore at the end of a long day, just as it brings me within reach of my hat, tugged from my head by a gust of wind in an unexpected quarter — before it swirls away to be lost forever. Nor does the beavertail's utility end when I'm on dry land. It even helps me on the portage trail, saving me from the trouble of lugging a separate yoke, putting a spring in my step at the same time as it eases the load on my shoulders.

And that's not all. Mile after mile, day after day, it gradually tones and strengthens the muscles of my back and arms, till they exhibit the same lively elasticity as the beavertail's parent ash. The paddle's strength becomes my strength, in other words. My blade also sharpens my senses, propelling me down silent backwaters where wary mink patrol pebble beaches, where moose calves stand drinking in tannin-stained pools, and where speckled trout sip mayflies from the margins of small eddies. Whether talisman or tool or both, however, my paddle deserves the best of care, and it gets it. It hangs in a cool and shady place when not in use, and I'm always cognizant of the difference between use and abuse. Anytime a river runs swift and low among a maze of cobbles, my ash beavertail defers to a sturdy plastic blade — a less elegant tool, to be sure, but one far better suited to the task at hand. After all, there's magic in water, and my beavertail is the wand that summons the spirits to my aid. I'd be foolish indeed if I were to hazard it unnecessarily.

I've lost count of all the paddles I've owned and used, and I've no doubt I'll own and use many others in the years to come. But this weathered beavertail, this paddle that's taken me down (and up) so many rivers, across so many big lakes, and into so many remote mountain ponds, this paddle is uniquely mine and mine alone. The grip bears the impress of each callus on my palm, the blade boasts small scars from the rocks of a myriad of streams, and the shaft is gently bowed by numberless strokes against countless headwinds. In short, this is a paddle like no other. This paddle is mine.

Copyright © 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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