“It already pushes water, why should it look nice?”

My first semester here at Jack Mountain is coming to a close. It’s an odd feeling. We’ve been out here a little over two months and just started to fall into the swing of things.

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I’m sure there will be an article about that adjustment, but for now let’s talk about final projects. In the second to last week here students are given almost free reign to work on a project that we touched on that really intrigued them. It’s a good idea from a guide training standpoint. Throwing a bunch of ideas at a wall and seeing what sticks may not work when you only have one wall, but doing the same with eleven different walls does. We’ve each found a niche that we really enjoy and in this week we’re allowed to pursue that.

I chose to make another canoe paddle. Not only getting a blank and carving it, but actually felling a tree, splitting out a board and using that. I plan on getting into canoe and kayak guiding, so it seemed the only path I could take with this project. It didn’t quite go as planned, but we’ll go over it anyway.

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The first step is finding a good tree to bring down. That cannot be stressed enough. The spruce I felled took about forty-five minutes to bring down, and then another hour or so to split. Unfortunately, once split it became apparent that the tree had started to rot from the roots up. I planed down more with my axe hoping for a section that I could work with. No such luck.

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As with most roadblocks, there’s always a few options for getting around it. Felling and planking another tree would have cut into the carving time. Another option presented itself in the form of buying an extra blank from professor Paul. Path of least resistance and all that right?

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              (Jeremy and my blank)

The blank I ended up using was a piece of butternut walnut. It’s a softer wood than I’m used to working with, so I moved as slowly as I could pulling out the form. With my previous paddle I used my drawknife for a lot of the removal. For this the spokeshave was a much slower, less aggressive tool. It took about two days to pull out the basic paddle shape, at that point you start the detail work.

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This is the part I struggle with. It’s true of any woodworking projects I do. I get it to were it does what I want it to do, and then any extras are a different project in my mind. So something like a canoe paddle, where function and form are married so closely brings me out of my comfort zone. I made a paddle, then after a discussion with Paul started sanding down and scraping out little details on the spine and throat. It felt superfluous to me. The paddle already pushes water, why does it need to look nice?

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Because you’re an idiot Christopher, that’s why. As I said before, form and function are almost the same thing with a paddle. The gentle curves create less drag, the softness of the handle wears less on the hands. This is an idea some people (read as; Christopher) have trouble grasping. What feels like fluff and extravagance to me, isn’t. It’s the fruition of a deep understanding of how water interacts with objects moving through it, how human muscles and joints cope with resistance and pressure over a long paddling session. It’s, to put it bluntly something I need to beat into my head until I get it.

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                 (Grips of my paddles)

That’s not to say that I’m not happy with the paddle. The grain in my plank had some beautiful whorls and sweeping loops that I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t been pushed to really focus on the details and bring them out. I also added a few personal touches, staining the guide style grip grey and carving in a raidho rune, as well as burning in an allusion to a line from the havamal. (If I can’t make a project nerdy, why even do it?)

This is all words for now. The real test will come once the varnish on the blade dries, and I can take her out on the water. Until then the project isn’t finished in my mind. It’s just a pretty board until it propels me through a river, or across a lake.

If you have questions about the process of carving a paddle, or anything else please don’t hesitate to comment below, or email me.

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