The Wetfoot Blog

Sunday, April 3, 2011

March Gear Review - Paddles

As the winter snow and ice begin to melt, the outdoor enthusiast begins to prepare their gear for the coming season: paddling season!

If you have been at Camp Manito-wish YMCA in the past, you know that the heart of our tripping program revolves around canoeing. Chances are that you have also paddled the famous orange canoes that fill the waterways of northern Wisconsin each summer.

Canoe journeys that last a couple hours and 45-day canoe expeditions both require some essential pieces of gear: a canoe, a paddle, and a personal floatation device (PFD). This month we will discuss the paddle and break down what one should look for in this pivotal instrument for motion.

To the canoeist, the paddle is an extension of the body. It is as much a tool as it is a work of art, a fine balance between efficiency and beauty. Composed of wood, aluminum and plastic, or lightweight composite materials, the paddle can be found in many different styles, lengths, and weights. Paddles can be mass-produced on assembly lines or handmade in woodshops.

Purchasing a paddle that is absolutely perfect for you can be a daunting task. For the recreation paddler who is on the water only half a dozen times per year, a simple test of height can suffice. Place the blade on your toe and aim for a length between your chin and your nose. The more advanced tripper will appreciate the improved efficiency and comfort of a correctly-sized paddle.

Paddles are designed for general use, whitewater, tripping, and classic soloing. When choosing the right paddle for each job, consider its shape as well as how you will hold it. Most trippers will sit on a seat and prefer to have their lower hand drop just below the gunwale while whitewater paddlers will kneel and keep their hands above the gunwale. These different body and hand placements will require longer and shorter shaft lengths, respectively.

Scott Macgregor from Canoeroots magazine recommends that you find the best paddle for each occasion through trial and error. If possible, borrow paddles from friends, retailers, or outfitters in order to feel how the length and style fits you. If the paddle does not feel correct within the first couple of minutes on the water, it will never feel correct.

Shaft length is arguably the most important aspect of the paddle you choose. Macgregor recommends that you position yourself on the water in the boat you are going to paddle with a broomstick. Use the stick exactly how you would use a paddle, the remaining dry part is the length of the shaft that you will need for that boat.

Your personal preferences and budget will be the determining factors for the remaining paddle characteristics like paddle face size, handgrip style, a bent or straight shaft, and materials and construction. Again, given the seemingly infinite number of paddle designs, demoing a paddle or swapping paddles with your tripmate is a great way to narrow down your options.

Once a paddle is chosen, you will stay attached to it for a very long time.

Break out the oars ladies and gentleman, its paddling season!

Ryan Wagner

Wilderness Program Director

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