Sunday 4 July 2010

The Aleut Paddle for Canoes

Canoe purists are attached to their single blade paddles.

I've come to understand that it is, at least partly, about identity. Kayakers swarm over every inch of  fresh and salt water these days, and canoeing seems have lost devotees to this new fangled craze.

Canoe lovers respond to this distressing situation in at least four ways that I have observed. We 1. ignore it and go on paddling the way we like, 2. defend canoeing by pointing out the advantages and pleasures, 3. examine the kayaking trend to see what all the fuss is about, and 4. strengthen our attachments to the beloved open boat, spurning the skirt and double blade and paddling proudly to our own drummer. I have done all of these at various times and today I want to rock the boat a little by suggesting something that may make the canoe purist's blood either freeze or boil.

First let me say that I agree that there are a lot of good reasons to use a single blade paddle with a canoe, especially when kneeling or sitting on a high seat, and especially when in a tandem canoe. The tandem canoe and single blade paddle evolved together and they should stay together.

 Except. It's not that simple. Pack canoes have been paddled with double bladed paddles since Nessmuk set out in his first pack canoe, the Wood Drake, in 1880. John Macgregor popularized the "kayak blended with canoe" Rob Roy 15 years earlier. Macgregor and Sears (Nessmuk) together galvanized interest in solo paddling in open and semi-open boats. That was 140 years ago.

 Image of a Rushton Pack Canoe  - Courtesy of St. Lawrence University

The Pack canoe has had a variety of revivals since 1880, but the first fellow in recent years to generate some interest in open solo canoes was Bart Hauthaway, a former Olympian and Olympic coach in slalom kayak. According to industry guru Charlie Wilson, Hauthaway penned and molded upwards of 30 variants of pack canoes and sold Old Town Canoes a mold and model of the Pack canoe concept in the late 1950's or early 60's which Old Town produced for several years.

Peter Hornbeck, Charlie Wilson and Joe Moore, Dave Curtis, and a variety of other enthusiasts started building high end pack canoes using Kevlar and carbon starting in the 1990's. By 2008 most major manufactures of performance canoes produced a pack canoe or high performance small canoe.  Today you can pick up the 33 pound Roylex Pack canoe from Old Town for around a $1000, spring for a custom built composite in the $3,000 range, or  purchase or make your own wooden hull with one of the many patterns that are now readily available.

As Charlie Wilson says, "The reason all these builders make pack canoes is simple. They are very light, easy to get into and out of and easier to load gear in than a kayak while retaining the left right left cadence of the kayak paddle. Anyone will reach a destination with an absolutely minimal learning curve."

Many canoeists do not consider a pack canoe to be a "real" canoe. They prefer to call them "deckless kayaks" but a review of the literature reveals that kayaks were originally considered to be in the class of boats called canoes, and became separated in people's minds partly as a result of the camp movement of the early 20th century which focused almost exclusively on tandem open canoes designed for stability and carrying capacity. Everyone who experienced camp and those rugged tandems, associated them with the term "canoe."You paddle a tandem canoe, of course, with a single blade paddle.

The meteoric rise of kayaks in the latter half of the 20th century eclipsed the market. Open tandem canoes sales stalled and the venerable crafts took a romantic association with bygone days, a slower pace, and a certain tradition and aesthetics. The camping culture started in the 1920's has almost been forgotten in recent years, but those of us who remember it try to keep the spark alive.

The divide between canoe devotees and Kayak enthusiasts can be wide in places, but there are also a good number of us who have a foot in both boats, so to speak.

Because of this divide, when I recently suggested to some canoe lovers that a "canoe" be paddled with a double blade, and, horror of  horrors, a Greenland Kayak paddle at that; feathers were ruffled, postures were taken, and the temperature dropped a few degrees.

But, suggest it I did and still do. First, let me show you the paddle that I think may span the divide, then make the case for when and with what canoe's I think it should be used, and you can respond to my ideas in the comments section. Here is the paddle in use in my Spitfire:

Looks kind of fun doesn't it? And here it is up close:

A thing of beauty, wouldn't you say?

This paddle was carved by Nanaimo paddler Charles Alton, based on a design unearthed in the Finland National Museum in Helsinki (FNM #228), with significant adaptations for use in a canoe.

Yes that's right, Charles designed this paddle for use in a canoe. He retained the grooved power face and asymmetrical Aleut profile and the Aleut length (some Greenland paddles are considerably shorter). He told me that the Aleut themselves have been known to use 96 and 100 inch paddles, but for starters he designed this paddle at 95 inches. 95 inches is longer than the 92 inches often produced in the Aleut style by contemporary Greenland Paddle makers.  Charles gave it a squared end, a longer than average loom, and included custom designed drip rings made from medical tubing. As Charles explained, "I made the drip rings out of 1/4 inch surgical tubing. I happened to have some on hand, in black. There is a cable tie inside the tube that holds the whole assembly together. After I pulled the cable tie tight and trimmed off the excess I was able to work the ends of the rubber tube over the lumpy end of the tie and hide it." They work great. The paddle itself is made from Red Cedar. It is light and a little springy and feels warm and comfortable in the hand.

In ongoing trials comparing the Aleut and traditional "Euro" blade double blade, I find the Aleut to perform better than a Euroblade in small pack canoes and slightly rockered solo canoes (I paddled with a similarly sized Greenland paddle in the Wenonah Rendezvous).

It performs adequately but un-remarkably in larger tripping boats such as the Wenonah Voyageur. In response to this observation Charles suggested a slightly larger blade and longer length for tripping canoes, and I believe this change would increase the effectiveness of the paddle with heavier boats.

The blade edge is thicker than some Greenland Paddles on the market, but slims towards the tip. I initially found the paddle fluttered but realized it was largely due to my familiarity with standard double blades. Once I reduced the pull strength and increased the cadence of my paddling, the merits of the paddle suddenly became apparent.

Firstly, when using this paddle the arms can be held lower than with other paddles, the narrow blade does not have to be lifted out of the water as far or as forcefully and the length means that a high angle stroke is not required. The narrowness of the blade naturally mitigates wind resistance and the shape of the blade means that at whatever angle the blade is used, a significant amount of blade connects with the water. In short it is comfortable,  forgiving and versatile.

Secondly, the entire length of the paddle can be comfortably and pleasingly utilized to make wide sweeps. One commentator on the Canadian Canoe Routes forum said, "What Greenland paddles have over the long Euro blade is that they are relatively easy to use in a vertical position to hang turns. That may be because of their relative shortness." This is an advantage over a Euro blade, not over a single stick. The awkwardness and length of even a short Greenland paddle loses out to the nimble precision of a well wielded single blade. Also, and not unremarked by a few canoeists, Greenland style paddles get your hands wet doing this kind of thing -- i.e. if you dip the end you plan to hold in the water first, your hands will get wet.

Thirdly, it just looks so nice and a person can learn to make his own thereby allowing creativity both in design, length, and material.

So what about that Aleut grove? Well, frankly, neither Charles nor I have noticed any advantage over the single ridge or rounded surface, but it is a nice aesthetic reminder of where the power face is, and perhaps there is an advantage I have not noticed yet.

When I was first playing around with this paddle, Paul agreed to take video's of me using both the Aleut style blade and my Gray Owl Zephyr.  It is a little hard to notice the difference from the video, but when I put more force behind the strokes my arm height increases with the Euro blade.  Have a look:

Now, when Paul shifted to a higher vantage point, you can see a little better how the paddle looks in use. At the time of filming I had not read anything about Greenland paddles or Aleut paddles, but note how I intuitively grasped the paddle as is generally recommended. The paddle "whispers to you" you how it wants to be used.

Pros and Cons List

  1. This paddle is well suited to a pack canoe or lightweight solo canoe because it requires less effort to produce the same results.
  2. It is light.
  3. It naturally encourages a gentler force with a higher cadence. Paddling seems effortless.
  4. The drip rings work.
  5. It can be used easily for wide sweeps with pleasure -- no sharp blade to deal with.
  6. It is aesthetically appealing.
  7. It can be used for fending off attacking seagulls or that suddenly spotted deadhead or rock much easier than with a Euro style blade because of the balance and shape.
  8. It is awkward but not impossible to scull and do the j-stroke and other canoe strokes with this paddle. All are very difficult with a Euro blade.
  9. A more quiet paddle than a Euro blade, it allows you to see more wildlife.
  10. Low angle straight blades like this allow you to proceed in very shallow water without hitting bottom.
  1. Despite point 8 above it is awkward to do any kind of stroke other than the straight forward left-right pull.Sculling is not as effective as I would like but draws and sweeps work fairly well.
  2. Without a ferrule it is awkward to carry in the vehicle and on portages. Ferruled paddles are available from several paddle makers, but some people have noted that this both reduced the smooth use of the paddle for sweeps and other strokes, and reduced the aesthetic appeal.
  3. Like all double blades, your lap and hands get wet. The good news is, that with Charles' drip rings and the inherent lower angle of use, this is significantly decreased.
  4. This paddle is not well suited to large heavy solo canoes. The Euro blade allows for more powerful strokes to get the craft up to speed. Charles suggestion of a larger blade, may help with this.
  5. One of the big advantages of this paddle to kayakers, that of increasing the ease of rolling, in not utilized in a canoe.
Given a choice of this paddle or my Euro blade, I would choose this paddle every time for use with my Spitfire or any similarly sized boat.

The main advantage is the flexibility of use (being able to easily use it for more than one kind of stroke) and the increased cadence with reduced strain and effort.

While I have not used it with all of these boats I would imagine it would work well with any of the Hornbeck and Hemlock boats, as well as the Rob Roy, Wee Lassie, Rapidfire, Merlin II, Magic, Heron 17R, Advantage, Bucktail, Yellowstone,  Argosy, Vagabond, Prism, Seal Solo, Packer, Solitude, Tranquility, Swift Adirondack Pack, Shearwater and Osprey, Old Town Pack, Vermont Tupper, and  the Bluewater Mist, Adirondack, and Splitrock. To name but a few. 

Final Thoughts
Of course I have only been using this paddle for a few weeks, but I wanted to get this post up to let people know about this as an option. Using this paddle reinforces for me the growing conviction I have that paddle shape matters a lot, and that long thin blades are often better than short fat ones for recreational flat water paddling.

I still always carry a single blade and when I am out solo I use the single blade a lot to idle along enjoying the scenery. When I am with other paddlers who like to go places, however, this particular paddle really allows me to keep up without feeling exhausted at the end of the day.

It also has something most double blades do not -- a feeling of grace and tradition. This style of paddle, made from wood, is beautiful, functional, and minimal. In short, it satisfies the aesthetic sensibility as well as the practical one. I think it is the perfect match for a light, elegant solo canoe.


  1. Richard ... I really enjoyed this post. Since I got my Wenonah Prism I've pretty much been paddling with my Nimbus kayak paddle. But I do wonder if maybe it pushes just a bit too much water and that maybe something like your new paddle would be preferable. I certainly like the feeling of wood under my fingers.

  2. Thanks Harold,

    I think that this type of paddle would work great with your Prism. The Aleut design is longer than most Greenland style paddles, and I think that is part of the winning formula for use with a solo canoe. There is a fellow in town making them and if you are interested I can get you his name.

    You are absolutely right about the feeling of a wooden paddle; it is a totally different experience and I think it is maybe about half of the appeal.


  3. UPDATE:

    I have now been paddling with this paddle for about a year and have abandoned my traditional double. I recently re-sanded and re-oiled it and while there are a few dents, the durability of cedar is better than I expected.

    With regard to the CONS list above, I would retract my statement that it is more difficult to carry on a portage. Having made a few longish walks with canoe and paddle, I don't find it to be any more difficult to carry than a single blade, only slightly more likely to catch on foliage because of it's length. It is more pleasingly balanced than a single and so in that regard easier to carry over the length of the portage.

    Also, I have to highlight that one of the main advantages of this paddle is the ability to do multiple types of strokes. When turning I slide the paddle all the way over to one side and grasp the end of the blade and that long lever action really spins the boat around nicely.

    I think the reason I am so attached to this paddle is that all the points on the PROS listed above remain true, but most of the CONS have dwindled in importance and I have become more familiar with using this paddle.

    The only time I would now use a traditional Euro style double is with a wide solo canoe(30 inches or wider at the gunwales) such as a solo prospector. My Solo Plus was just at the width where I found the Greenland blade starting to lose it's advantage and the Solo Plus is 29 inches at the gunwales with a maximum width of about 33 inches.

    I recently paddled the Clipper Solitude with this paddle and found it adequate but noticed I easily overpowered the paddle. I needed again to remind myself to only overcome inertia with strong pulls and to then relax into a higher cadence and gentler pull strength. It was more challenging, but once I adjusted, the experience was positive. The Solitude has a 28 inch beam.

    There are a good number of small solo canoes and pack canoes on the market with gunwales widths between 24 and 27 inches and a length under 16 feet (Mist, Packer, Rapidfire, Osprey, Argosy, H20 15, etc). These canoes are the ones best suited to this paddle.

    MY CONCLUSION after a year of using this paddle is that solo canoes of the size mentioned above, alternately paddled with a Greenland style paddle and a traditional single are efficient, fast, easy on the body, and very versatile and comfortable. This is an unmatched and wining formula.

  4. Thoughly enjoyed reading this article!

  5. Thanks Jill,

    Looks like you are a bit of an expert on these paddles yourself. Had a look at your website. Nice! Really appreciate your craft quality.


  6. Nice post and all I can add is that after reading this I am on the look out for a used Spitfire canoe! I have been kayak fishing out of an old sit in for years are recently purchased a sea kayak. Immediately, I found a Greenland paddle and will never go back to a euroblade. My friend who sent me this uses a light weight canoe and was wondering about using this type of paddle. Even when I have used my sixteen foot ram x canoes I always used a kayak paddle. Never as technical I just like the "balance" Peace from a newbie.

  7. Hi Anonymous,

    Good to hear of your experience. The Spitfire is perhaps the perfect boat for paddling with a Greenland style blade, but as you have discovered, it works well in lots of others too. I now own a Bluewater Mist, and it also responds well under my Aueutian.

    The weight factor is significant when comparing solo kayaks and canoes. Despite the increased use of lightweight materials, the extra decking of kayaks adds weight. For fair weather paddling, this makes a world of difference.

    Thanks for the comment. Balance and peace. Makes it sound almost spiritual...

    Kind regards,


  8. Richard, Thanks for a great post. I have been carving my own canoe paddles for a few yrs. now and wanted to try a GP paddle in a sol canoe. Your post is the only one out there. I also do belive this is a great system. I will be carving my next GP paddle a little longer as I also feel that it needs to be around 95 or more. Good to have some one else come to the same coclusions ai I have. I paddle a Vagabond solo. thanks glen

  9. Thanks Glen,

    My canoeing friend and single blade paddling guru, Paul, paddled a Vagabond for several years. I haven't paddled one yet, but hope to someday. Do you have photos of your paddles anywhere? I would love to see them.


  10. I'm a GP kayaker for the last 5 or 6 years and I was looking for a drip ring system that might work with my paddles...I'll have to give that surgical tubing/cable tie design a try! Meanwhile, you might want to contact Paul at Northern Light Paddles and see if he can make an extra-long middle section for his break-down modular Aleut paddle - it should be a snap for him. They are not wood - but they fit on airplanes!

  11. P2S, Nice paddles!

    and Northern Light Paddles has one of the best websites I have seen lately. I really appreciate their gallery. Thanks for the recommendation.


  12. Have been using an Aleut paddle as my main paddle since I constructed it, along with a Baidarka, at the Skin Boat School in 2003. I have always used the singe ridge side as power face. Recently was told that it should be used with the flat face as power face, with the ridge on other side for strength. Contacted a couple of the few experts that might have some knowledge on this and found that there is little "proof" of either side being the power face. I will continue to use the ridge as the power face because it feels right for me and am open to being proven wrong by documentation, no opinion.

  13. Thanks for sharing such a beautiful post

  14. Hi Richard, I was hoping to make one of these paddles - do you happen to know of some plans somewhere I could follow to make this paddle?

  15. Hi nomi34, I am sorry to say I do not know of any plans. Charles came up with the design after looking at a photo and descriptions of the paddle in one of his many books on kayaking and related topics. He has carved many kayak paddles and made over 30 boats, I believe. This paddle represents the combination of his years of research and thought on the topic and thousands of hours of paddling. I have seen a few other similar paddles over the years, but none as minimally elegant and well balanced as this one.

  16. hello Richard. i have been looking for information like this for a few days. i am so thankful you took the time to write this article with included photos. i will start building my paddle next week and hope to add a comment midsummer 2020 after extensive use to see if i have found the same results. thanks so much, paddle on....

    1. Cool, I would be interested to hear if you are using the paddle with a canoe, I'm assuming so, but would love confirmation. If so, what canoe are you using?