What Summer Camp Never Taught You About Canoe Paddles

Most people's experience with canoe paddles is based in a childhood memory clouded by mosquitos and homesickness. The canoe paddles at the average summer camp probably had a metal shaft and a wide, plastic blade. Just the sort of cost-efficient entertainment you can give a nine year old out in the woods.

But did you know that there are many different kinds of canoe paddles? Or that the basic design is thousands of years old? Did you know you can make your very own paddle? There are many fascinating things about canoe paddles that summer camp never taught you.

Form Follows Function 

Canoes were originally used in North America, the Amazon Basin, and Polynesia. The paddle design was basically the same in all instances. It consisted of a long pole attached to a wider blade. There were some variations, with Hawaiian paddles having quite long shafts, but the idea was the same.

There are many different variations of canoe paddle design. Each type is determined by function. Smooth and deep water canoeing needs a longer, narrower paddle (the traditional shape). Shallow canoeing paddles have resin tips to protect them from splitting if they hit a rock. Paddles for whitewater rafting are stiff and short for power in close quarters.  

Canoe paddles come in many different materials as well. Materials include:

  • Solid hardwood
  • Laminate wood
  • Plastic
  • Aluminum
  • Kevlar

There are even paddles with bent handles. How much the handle is bent varies, but it's designed to get the most power out of each stroke. It accomplishes this by keeping the blade perpendicular to the boat for the longest amount of time, giving the stroke some extra "push." These kinds of paddles are best for flat, long distance canoeing.

Depending on the materials and construction method, paddles can get quite expensive. A handmade solid cherry paddle is obviously going to cost a pretty penny. But there are also Kevlar canoe paddles that can cost hundreds of dollars. These paddles are for serious hobbyists and racers that need extra strength and power. When seconds count, a light and strong paddle can make all the difference.  

Canoe paddles are an ancient tool that ensured the survival of many people. These days, canoeing is mostly for fun. Next time you're thinking of getting out on the water, make sure you've got the right type of paddle for the job. And don't forget to grab a spare!