Saturday, 10 July 2010

Blackwater Lake

Vancouver Island Backroad Mapbook 4th edition - Map 39 G3
Atlas of Canada Link:Blackwater Lake
Latitude and Longitude: 50° 11' 2" N 125° 35' 9" W
Decimal Degrees: 50.184° N 125.586° W
UTM Coordinates: 10U 315386 5562301
Topographic Map Sheet Number: 092K04

Trip Date: July 1st, 2010

Blackwater Lake is a long narrow, somewhat winding, lake with a range of shoreline features including reed and sedge filled bays, rocky points, and an interesting estuary at the south end of the lake where the water from Amor lake flows in via a short creek.

Paul and I  arrived mid-morning after camping for two nights on Mohun Lake. The steep path down to the water was somewhat off-putting but we decided it would be worth it. The little beach where you put the canoes in  was sandy and clean with a view to the southerly stretch of the lake.

We paddled south, the wind for the most part at our backs, and Paul was dive-bombed by a defensive gull who apparently thought he was getting too close to her nest. We stayed to the western shore and when Paul pointed out that I was paddling past a beaver lodge I looked at the lodge and into the water and saw large plumes of mud stirred up below my canoe. We did not, however, ever see the beaver, so I'm not sure where she surfaced.

Along the shoreline of the wide curve of the southern estuary we noticed that small cones had collected in hollows in the silt along with what at first looked like deer droppings. Upon further observation I believe they were actually pieces of the peat-like material that formed a mat higher up on the beach. The pieces of compacted soil had been rounded by wave action and jostling with the cones and together they had uncovered the colourful sand below. Fresh water clams were secured in several of the indentations.

We tentatively ventured onto the delta of the estuary at the end of the lake and gingerly walked around taking photos. The ground was muddy and appeared to have recently been underwater.

 I took multiple shots of the inflow to stitch together later with Photoshop.

The drop in water left some lillies to flower without boyancy.

We paddled back along the eastern shore and eventually spotted two fluffy balls of feathers that turned out to be ambulatory gull chicks with black spots all over their heads. The call of the mother was unlike most gull's I had heard, and the distinctive colouration of the chick's heads made me confident I would be able to identify them at home. It has not proved easy. The chicks were near a cliff face, hinting that they may have been Glaucous-Winged gulls. The raptor-like call also suggested this. In memory the parent's seemed mostly white and smaller with greater wing to body capacity that Herring or California gulls, leading me to wonder if they might have been Bonaparte's Gull, but I think I would have noticed the black head.

Passing the put-in we ventured down stream towards Farewell Lake. On the way we investigated an abandoned canoe.

Abandoned canoe
water line higher
on the inside

The outflow wound around a bit, then presented us with a large log jam. Paul got out to look beyond the jam, but there was another one only a few hundred yards downstream. We decided to head back upstream.

It had threatened rain for most of our paddle, and the wind had been strong at times, but as we made our way back towards the put-in, blue sky took the place of the clouds. Climbing back up to our vehicle we shed sweaters and shirts.

I was able to take some shots for a high dynamic range photos which captured well the quality of this beautiful Sayward Forest lake.

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.