Confession: I am the guy on the canoe trip who pitches his tent according to where the sun will rise. I’m the person who shoots nostalgic, postcard-like photographs of canoes lined up on the riverbank, who quotes from Thoreau simply because Thoreau was there, who noted in his journal the precise sunset times for each date and latitude so he’d know exactly when to set up the tripod for magic hour. I’m that guy.
You probably know this person. He sings folk songs in the stern when the headwind is strong so the wind carries his off-key voice upriver. He picks blueberries for his bannock. He knows most of the important knots. He smiles when it rains. He paddles harder when there’s a chance to overtake another party and beat them to the best campsite. He owns three titanium sporks, one of which was a wedding gift.
Yeah, that guy.
On a recent canoe expedition in a remote stretch of the North Maine Woods the only outfitter within range of our launch had no paddles to rent except the kind with an aluminum shaft, a plastic blade and a plastic grip.
Does the guy who still brings those 80s-era barrels on his canoe trip at least in part because they’re so very photogenic want to hold a plastic paddle? Not in the least. He’s something of a wilderness snob, to whom the sight or feel of a plastic paddle is anathema.
I realize that other materials might be stronger, lighter, more durable, come in bright colours, cost less, and not directly involve the destruction of a living organism. I respect that some outfitters expect the precious gear they rent out to be treated like a grizzly treats a beach ball. (Or a Goodyear.) I’m honestly not unaware that the canoe is plastic, those translucent neon water bottles are plastic, those allegedly photogenic barrels are plastic.
Yet in the face of evidence in favour of plastic, I respond with this: Imagine a pair of paddlers plying a lake, singing songs into the wind, propelling themselves in a siren-red canoe on the surface of the reflective, undulating water of an idyllic lake as summer slowly wanes into autumn. What kind of paddles are they holding?
They’re holding wooden paddles.
(So imagines the wilderness snob.)
At some point on our trip I said to my friend Mike, “Next time, we bring our own paddles.” He, a custom furniture maker and my paddling partner on many expeditions, replied, “Next time we make our own paddles.”
I can build you a paddle in my mind. The rough-cut rectangular slab of reddish-brown mahogany—six feet long, fourteen inches wide, an inch and a half thick—is coarse and prickly to the touch, calling to mind the defensive outer layer nature gives a cactus or a hedgehog. Inside this bristled skin could be a patio bench or a quartet of nightstand table legs or the re-commissioned altar of an old parish church. But trust me when I tell you: inside this board of wood is a canoe paddle. You’ll be able to confirm this from the form the wood exhibits once the outer later is removed.
There will be a strong, perfectly balanced piece of smooth, light-amber mahogany, fifty-eight inches long. One end—about forty percent of the total length of the form—will appear to be flat: its tapering aspect ratio, nine-to-one at its widest point, may remind you of the tail of a beaver, though this particular paddle design is named after the beaver’s very distant aqua-mammal cousin, the (in fact pointy-tailed) otter. The other end of the finished piece—the remaining sixty percent, roughly—will appear as a long cylindrical shaft, like a thick broom handle, perfectly round except for a cloved grip on its end, like someone grafted a pear onto the end of carrot.
In your hands—one of which cradles the half-pear tip while the other grips the shaft just above the beaver tail—the paddle will draw your body sideways and downwards in a way that suggests both a desire for balance and an opportunity for locomotion. Indeed, the feeling of imbalance inherent in the form of the object, as held, is corrected, in a sense, by the function of its motion. This, in the end, is how you know you’re holding a paddle (and not a table leg or a church altar): you experience the urge to paddle.
Voilà—I’ve just built you a paddle. Except I didn’t. I think I just imagined you a paddle. It was Mike who truly built it.
A master craftsman (a term I’ll apply notwithstanding his humble protestations), Mike built a paddle—two, in fact—from that slab of mahogany. First he sketched a design from mathematical calculations onto a drab yellow piece of fibre-board, and then deftly ran that board through a band saw along the paddle-shaped pencil lines he’d drawn.
Having refined the shape—partly by calculation, partly by squinting at it in the way a surveyor peers at a horizon line—with calipers, a sliding bevel and an orbital sander, he leaned the scale model of the paddle against the still-rough mahogany and declared himself satisfied that, having never attempted such a project before, a paddle—two, in fact—would emerge.
In stage two, Mike—earmuffed to dull the noise of machinery—fed the mahogany slab through a surface planer until it was smooth and whiteish and emitted the pungent, nostalgic aroma of a freshly built Mennonite barn. Then he re-traced the form of the model paddle in duplicate on the mahogany surface and fed it again to the band saw, slicing it lengthwise in two, one long thin slab for each eventual paddle.
And here the stories of the two paddles diverge slightly, like a river that empties from a lake in two places and re-converges a few miles downstream. Mike lay one slab back on the band saw and cut a near-perfect outline of the paddle, tracing a line down the shaft and around the blade and again up the other side to the pear-shaped grip, expertly rotating the board to accept the whirring saw-blade at its desirable angle.
With the second slab—the second paddle—my untested hands insulted the saw with the inexactness of their motion, and in one fatal moment, as I tried to back the board away from the blade of the saw in order to attempt to angle it around the blade of the paddle, I miscalculated where my forward progress would recommence and accidentally sent the saw-blade almost half an inch deep into what would become the shaft of the paddle. Ruin!
Or so we initially thought. Despair, however, was short-lived, as Mike engineered a solution that involved cutting out—with a router and chisels—a ten-inch-long section of the shaft to the depth of my accidental cut, and replacing it with a ten-inch-long cut of scrap mahogany, which he glued as an inlay into the cavity. Thereafter our two paddles became distinct: his, still solid; mine, now technically two pieces of wood enjoined.
The day and the woodshop grew hotter, and to our roughly hewn semi-shaped boards we plied the woodworker’s hand tools—the spokeshave, the rasp, the hand plane—until, at last, the shape of the emergent canoe paddle crossed over from a state of angular coarseness to one of curvaceous refinement, resembling little of the original prickly, reddish-brown board from which we started.
We sweated our way through the last artisanal stage—softening, smoothing, and rarefying the wood with increasingly fine grits of paper on an orbital sander until the surface, to the touch, recalled the cold glassiness of marble or silver, yet retained just the faintest expression of warmth and fibrousness that characterizes the uniqueness of wood—and considered our efforts satisfactory when our clammy, grit-dusted hands felt relief in the creamy expression of finished wood.
To close, we applied with a rag a varnish of linseed oil and resin to return the surface of the paddle to the colour of aged Bourbon, and to protect the wood from the lakewater it was designed to cleave.
I swear I wasn’t born a wilderness snob, nor did I cultivate the personality absent a critical self-consciousness. (Sometimes I lay in my tent at night and think, “Did I really need to look down my nose at those bespandexed amateurs with their portable MP3 speakers and two-fours of light beer in the wilderness?”)
Fortunately a good wilderness snob surrounds himself with knowledgeable, humble friends. My gratitude to the craftsman for ensuring that never again will we paddle in plastic. Except for those blue barrels. They’ll never fall out of style.