The Longest Paddle: A Story of Woodworking and Carving Out a Family

When I finished cleaning my tools and putting them away after finally finishing carving my 6-year-old’s stepdaughter’s first paddle today, I had to wonder why it had been so long since I worked on it.

paddlemaking tools

Spokeshaves, rasps, curved knives, and the grip of DD6’s paddle

A little background. My family has deep ties in Algonquin Park, and a lot of my family’s history has to do with rangers and guiding and paddling. Through Omer Stringer, we have ties to most of the major camps in Algonquin Park and to Roots through the Beaver Canoe brand. This is no brag; it’s just where we’re from. I’ve grown up with a paddle in my hand; when I graduated high school and was going off to university, my folks gave me a miniature paddle with some inspiring words including my mantra, paddle your own canoe. And our canoes and paddles have always been made in the family. I’ve used paddles made by my father and grandfather.

So for some time, I’ve seen this paddlemaking thing as a rite of passage of sorts. At the very least it’s a way to live a part of my family’s history. And if other people are making it — even major companies — then I should probably be able to myself.

So eleven months ago, I bought a little bit of pine and started taking measurements and drawing patterns.

Leo at 8 weeks, when I started this project.

Leo at 8 weeks, when I started this project. He’s 13 months old now.

I measured both the girls, took detailed notes in my Moleskine, adjusted to let them grow into their paddles, and got to work almost immediately.

Plank, Moleskine, and father-in-law's jigsaw.

Plank, Moleskine, and father-in-law’s jigsaw.

The cutout paddle -- the blank.

The cutout paddle — the blank.

DD6 -- DD5 at the time -- checking the length of the blank.

DD6 — DD5 at the time — checking the length of the blank.

Once the blank was cut, I slowly started shaping it. I bought a spokeshave and began whittling it down, but the progress was slow. I couldn’t seem to get the right technique.

The spokeshave carves off coils and curls of wood.

The spokeshave carves off coils and curls of wood.

It wasn’t until a little later, when my parents returned to Ottawa after cleaning out my late grandfather’s workshop, that I started really making progress. Not only did I get a pair of crooked knives that made shaping things much easier, but I got a new spokeshave. Well, new to me.

Curved knives, rasps, and the spokeshave,

Curved knives, rasps, and the spokeshave,

The spokeshave bore an engraving that identified it as belonging to Omer’s dad. It could very well have been a tool that Omer learned to make paddles on. It was almost certainly a tool used by my grandfather to make paddles for my family.

I moved quicker after that.

shavings

A carpet of shavings.

And then I stopped.

Summer was for being out of town and for working. Teaching, when I could get the work. And then I got a full-time gig teaching starting in September. Winter came. And for some reason, paddling and the cottage and open water seemed very far away. I stopped carving.

But something else happened, too. Over the interceding 10 months, our little family grew so much closer together. We solidified the bonds that we had been forging before that point. The girls started referring to me to third parties as their dad. NJ and I live and work together and have built a life together. Leo went from being a tiny puppy to being… well, a much larger puppy. NJ’s parents have become a second set of parents to me. Most recently, my parents became Grammy and Pappy to the kids. Their third set of grandparents, and the ones they see most often.

And on a weekend at the end of March break, after a week of spending time with family, it was time to finish what I started.

paddle grip

The grip, shaped with curved knives and rasps.

sanding

DD6 doing a pass on the blade with a medium-grit sanding pad. See the silver box near her? A tricorder. I’ll post about that soon.

And finally, it was all but ready.

finished paddle

The finished paddle.

The blade isn’t entirely regular. It’s the first thing I’ve really made in wood. The balance is just a hair lower than it should be. But the grip and the shaft feel great. And they’re made for DD6’s little hands.

There’s finishing to be done, but a phone call to Mom and Dad for some guidance on how to proceed has given me a direction. And there’s another plank for the youngest’s paddle in my workshop. She loves the shop, and was with me today while I was finishing this one. I hope she’ll help make hers.

The tradition continues. And for the first time, I really feel like a part of it.

Paddle your own canoe, folks.

-Trevor

PS: I post pretty regular updates to this and other projects (and plenty of pictures of a damn handsome labradoodle) over on Instagram. Why not follow me there and say hi?

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