This is a video of me repairing a Souris River Quetico 17 that is owned by all of us while residing in the US Forest Service. This canoe had a million miles on it and showed signs of working ridiculously hard during the Pagami Forest Fire of 2011. It was oil-canning and had some major, over-flexed stress marks/cracks that while they were still not leaking, would eventually need attention. On this canoe, I ended up levering the bottom out to close to it’s original shape and then applying reinforcements to the chines (where the side meets the bottom). The damage to this canoe would indicate to me that it was dragged over a fair number of beaver dams or other obstacles. Very reparable and I will be releasing more vids of this repair/restore in the future.
Remember the principle is always the same with applying patches. Clean, sand, wipe the dust, apply resin, stick on patch, apply more resin, smooth out the bubbles, check and re-check.
For all the many, many years we’ve been selling canoes, renting canoes, and paddling canoes, we have had questions about paddles. The paddling world seems obsessed with proper paddle lengths being very accurate. When selling paddles, our customers will blow 45 minutes of their lives feeling the top handle of the paddle and swinging the paddle – air paddling. I’m still not sure what anyone really learns by swinging a paddle through imaginary water while standing, but they do it all the time. In our outfitting, it is safe to say that 70% of our rental customers do apply some strange methods for measuring their paddles. It is usually related to a “technique” developed (and mentally imprinted) at a summer camp when they were a kid or something that Grandpa always said to do when selecting a paddle.
The measuring techniques that I usually get to witness include:
jamming the paddle on one’s toe and have the top handle touch one’s nose
jamming the paddle palm grip under an armpit. If you look slightly in pain, that must be the one.
stand on one’s tippy-toes to shoulder height to accommodate the available selection
hold the paddle from ground to chin, nose, forehead, or other “high water marks”
Again, some people would be a bit obsessive with that straight shaft paddle length before heading out into the Boundary Waters.
Get a Grip
The other “deep” concern is the top of the paddle. It can be a palm grip or a modified palm/T grip, or a regular T grip. T grips often cause the greatest concerns. When handing a T-grip paddle to the customer, I could see the aversion to the T grip about 98% of the time. Consternation, concern, dread, etc. There’s always a lot of gripping and handling of that T-grip paddle. In many cases, there is a concern that the paddle will be the central focus of the Boundary Waters trip as if when seated in the canoe, the top grip of the paddle will be the center of focus for the next 7 days. My 30+ years of experience with customers and guiding and paddling has easily proven otherwise. Thirty seconds in the canoe and everybody completely forgets about that canoe paddle grip. At the end of 7 days of paddling, I would ask if they had “issues” with the paddle and 99% had none regardless of paddle grip. Some even touted how handy a T-grip was out there compared to a palm grip. When a canoe tries to drift away, a T grip paddle can be used to catch the gunwale and bring it back in while one’s feet remain dry. Why get wet if you don’t have to? It sounds minor, but that little convenience can brighten one’s day while loading the floating canoe (as it should be) with gear at the top of the portage which is usually next to the top of rapids. A palm grip is worthless in this realm particularly if there is a strong current.
So, what is actually critical in sizing a paddle properly? Well, tt depends on a few variables. The stern paddler has no canoe behind him/her so a longer straight shaft paddle would not be a problem. Generally, a longer straight shaft paddle is desirable in the back because the stern paddler is in charge (and hopefully control) of all steering. A long paddle aids in a more effective, smoother, J stroke. At the end of each stroke -in the back of the canoe-, a longer paddle allows the ability to reach further behind the canoe which affects more leverage on the canoe like a ship’s rudder. In the simplest terms, a ship always has the rudder at the very back of the hull. Swinging it one way or the other makes the bow of the ship correspond by altering its course, as it should. A paddle does the exact same thing as a rudder- in the stern of the canoe. This is not to be confused with “ruddering” the canoe which is a very undesirable technique used by lazy stern paddlers who rely on their wives to provide power while they steer. “Put your back into it, honey!” (A blog post for yet another day)
In the bow of the canoe, that paddler is there primarily to contribute propulsion but not really steer. For flat-water paddling, which the exception of maneuvering near shore, they should be paddling straight ahead, pulling the canoe forward in a coordinated effort with the stern paddler. Does it have to be a coordinated effort? Well, no. Everybody can be flopping around and doing their own thing and the canoe will usually get to it’s destination, but coordinated paddling is most efficient and a future post in this blog.
Because the canoe that gets wider behind the bow paddler as opposed to the stern of the canoe which “pinches” off behind the stern paddler, a “too long” paddle in the bow can be problematic.
As the bow paddler finishes a stroke with a paddle that is too long, the paddle can hit the canoe bottom/side (chine) behind the position. A long paddle also ends up catching waves as it is swung back forward for another stroke. It also can end up reaching forward at an angle that has zero benefit for propulsion whereby the paddle waits for the canoe to catch up to it and then the paddler finishes out the actual stroke.
If anything, the front paddle can easily be a bit short with little detrimental impact on moving the canoe forward with reasonably good proficiency.
So, what determines paddle length for a “rule of thumb” sizing? Two things:
The canoe being paddled
Torso Length: From seated butt to shoulders, that is the only part that matters when sizing a paddle. Unless you are planning on standing up for the entire trip, leg length is relatively meaningless. The goal with paddle sizing is to make certain that the entire blade of the paddle swings through the water while seated in the canoe. If 1/3 of the blade doesn’t immerse on a stroke, that paddle is a bit short and the paddler is not getting the most bang for the buck in each stroke based on the natural body framework. Sure, the paddler could drop their arms a bit to make sure that the paddle goes deeper, but that’s one more thing of which to be conscious, so a closer fit is generally desired.
The canoe: If you are in a narrow canoe that will be loaded down, the top of your shoulders will be closer to the water. You will need a slightly shorter paddle. If you need a 56″ straight shaft paddle and are in a Souris River Quetico 17, you would need a 52-54″ straight shaft paddle in Wenonah MN II. The Wenonah has lower seats in it and due to it’s narrow size, sits lower on the water. Shorter paddles are the generally rule for more efficient paddling. The Paddle Measuring Technique – Rule of Thumb Method
For general purpose canoes like a Souris River Quetico 17, Souris River Quetico 18.5, Grumman 17 or an Old Town Discovery 174, sit in straight-backed chair and have somebody measure from the chair seat to the nose. For a straight shaft paddle, add 26″ to that number. So, if the distance from seated butt to nose is 30″, add 26″ and your straight-shaft paddle length is 56″ For a bent-shaft paddle with a 14-15° bend, add 20″ .
For a Wenonah canoe, measure from seated butt to chin (instead of nose) for your base measurement and you should be fine.
Summary- Does Size Matter?
So how important is all this for recreational, general purpose paddling? If your straight shaft paddle is 2″ too long based off the Rule Of Thumb method, but it’s all that is available, does it matter? Nah. If you were in an Olympic canoe race it “might” matter, but for regular paddling it doesn’t mean much especially with a well-designed, general-purpose, canoe. Paddling specialty racing canoes – yes, it will matter more. The more specific the intended use for a canoe designed for say, racing; the more an accurate canoe paddle length will matter. And, this will be the case particularly for racing paddles AKA bent-shaft paddles. Even then, perfect paddle length only applies to two, tuned paddlers, looking to shave seconds, (not minutes) off their time to win a race. For all the rest of us, this is meaningless and a complete waste of mental energy in my opinion. Over time, you may find a paddle length that most naturally fits you, but if the one you are presently using is off an inch or two, you’d be surprised at how quickly you’ll forget about the paddle in 2.5+ foot white caps. At that point, you will be really much more concerned about the canoe and how IT handles rough water. Again, a whole other blog post.
After almost 30 years of outfitting, it appears that the first remembered aspect of any wilderness canoe trip is generally the portages. Portages on a new canoe route remain the unknown challlenge. You can see it the little red, dotted line on the map and you know it’s gonna be a long one. Stare at the map as hard as you want, you still have no idea of the terrain until you start lugging your stuff over the portage.
When you hit the trail, you can encounter everything from black stinky muck that threatens to suck your shoe right off your foot, to hard, round, coconut-like rocks that test your ankles to see if you truly are a desk jockey, to slippery sloping tree roots, or a combination of all three. The most memorable moments (for myself) come from watching those who are improperly packed and carrying too much stuff in silly containers such as 5 gallon pails or 60 quart coolers with dry ice (gotta get all that fresh meat and milk in because a whole 5 days with less than perfect food and booze is just not right), garbage bags or even in little loose pieces. From what I can see, it appears that about 80% of all visitors to the BWCA pack and plan pretty much like I’ve described. My personal favorite is when they decide to cross a 210 rod portage (2/3’s of a mile) with three or more fishing rods (tips facing forward) with big long Rapalas hanging off the end of the rods and the treble hooks dancing wildly until they become a tangled hazardous mess. Top all of this off with a 70+ lb. canoe with a duct taped, old lifejacket for yoke pads and I can see where this excercise in poor planning can really make a lasting impression.
But while getting a lighter canoe is not going to solve all the packing/lugging inefficiencies, it does burn less calories so the improperly packed can declare at least one modicum of improvement in overall effiency and not feel completely spent at the end of each land-based maneuver. In other words, you’re not as tired because a really good kevlar canoe gets you there faster for the same amount of effort and is a lot easier to portage.
Interestingly enough, I remember Brand X kevlar canoes running ads on the radio in Ely, MN back in the early 80’s when I was guiding a lot. All the ads could sputter over and over was how easy the Brand X canoe was to carry on the portage. “They are so light on the portages. You gotta have one because the portaging is SO much easier.” Never once did I hear how the canoe actually handled on the water or how the canoe would survive after you hit an obstacle like a rock located 1.5″ under the surface in the middle of the lake.
People who could afford these expensive, super-duper, kevlar, Brand X canoes ran out in droves to buy them with “making their portages easier” first and foremost in their thoughts. Little or no thought was given to how they would handle on the water, or if they’d be tippy, or really suck when it came to turning in a crosswind. Light carrying weight was all that was considered, and everything else was ignored. I refused to follow the crowd and buy a Brand X kevlar way back before I was even selling canoes because I’d heard that those new kevlars absolutely did not hold up at all on the rocks plus they were difficult to control on the water. I was guiding newbies in canoes. Why would I want to make my guiding life more difficult and hazardous on the water just to be able to cross portages more easily?
Still, today, for the majority of our canoe customers, weight is still the number one reason for getting a kevlar canoe. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that for a whole bunch of good reasons, however, many people conclude that all kevlar canoes are the same in all aspects and will handle the same in all conditions. This assumption is ridiculously off base and people sometimes find out that they bought a light kevlar canoe that doesn’t act at all like a “normal” canoe (say a Grumman) should act and are quite disappointed not to mention $2400 poorer.
MY POINT: Weight can still be one of your top motivations for buying a kevlar canoe so long as you absolutely consider how that particular canoe handles based on your paddling ablility, your intended payload, and the conditions in which you’ll be paddling. If you are used to paddling a Grumman or other aluminum and end up with a Brand X racing hull, you may not like that kevlar canoe one bit especially during high winds. Don’t assume even for a second that all canoes handle even remotely the same. Before you plunk down the cash, really talk to the dealer. Ask a lot of questions about what can be expected of this canoe and how it should handle regarding stability, turnability, and remaining freeboard when loaded.
If the dealer tells you that low freeboard is good in a crosswind to keep the canoe from blowing you off course by allowing the wind to pass over, you must ask yourself where do the big waves go? When your canoe is barely sticking out of the water and the waves are 14″ higher than the center of your loaded canoe and hitting you broadside, where might they end up and how might that affect you? Ask how the canoe tracks (goes straight) and how hard it is to turn into the wind. Ask about the freeboard when loaded and the initial stability. If he keeps turning the conversation back to hull stiffness, paddling efficiency and top end performance, chances are good that he doesn’t understand what you are looking for and probably doesn’t really give a rip because he’s not listening to what you need. He’s telling you what he wants to sell to you.
Top-end performance sounds exciting but it’s like buying a Porshe to drive on winding country roads. With it’s tight suspension, high horsepower and highway tires, it might be a bit hard to handle on gravel and you’ll end up putting it in the woods. In my opinion, your first consideration regarding a lightweight canoes should be safety-based. It has to accomodate both on your own paddling ability and on the fact that you are on the water with your canoe much more than on land. Nobody ever drowns on a portage or by putting a canoe on top of the car.
Getting a lightweight canoe is definitely the way to go. I’ve become totally spoiled by the kevlar canoes. However, if you’re not a racer, getting a lightweight kevlar canoe with racing characteristics may not be the best choice for you. Buy the steak, not the sizzle.