Friday, October 14, 2011

1860-1875 Voyageur Paddle

Searching through the forums on Canadian Canoe Routes, I came across a this dated post by Dave (Watersong) with a link featuring an aged but interesting canoe paddle. Apparently experts at the Canadian version of Antiques Roadshow confirmed it is an authentic voyageur paddle dated to between 1860 - 1875. Very cool!

Aged Voyageur Paddle

Narrow Blade Width

Small pear grip

The relatively short length (56") with a long & narrow blade (35" long by just 3 inches wide!) makes it very consistent with true voyageur style working paddles. While the term "Voyageur" is used by many paddle makers because of its romantic connotations, most that bear the name are usually paddle designs inconsistent with historical evidence.

The main power of the large trade canoes were supplied my the grunt working Milieux Voyageurs who needed very narrow bladed paddles to prevent fatigue with their manic stroke pace. Also if a paddle was lost or broken, one would have to be carved from a log en route. From my own experience in making a few bushcraft style paddles, it is a whole lot easier to find and quickly carve a narrow blade from a log than try to carve a wider blade pattern with an axe and crooked knife. Add the fact that that along more northern trade routes, the diameter of the trees are limited by the short growing season and you have a practical limitation with blade width.

Although designed to power large 26-36 ft trade canoes, I personally believe that this design still has merits for the modern solo paddler. The relatively short shaft length of only 21 inches on Dave's paddle can be explained by the fact that voyageurs travelled in heavily loaded boats, some with just a few inches of freeboard. As a result, the paddler was in fact quite close to the water line and a narrow shaft makes sense to sink the whole blade into deep water for the propulsion stroke.

Today, many solo canoeists heel the canoe over to its side for added paddling comfort and maneuverability. This means the modern day solo paddler is also quite close to water line. Check out the pic from BB's article on the "Omering" technique

Solo paddling close to the water line

In my own experience with slender blades (both the Walnut Kingfisher and Sparrow Maple Solo, I've made the shaft shorter in comparison to the blade length but nowhere near as Dave's Voyageur. Still, they are a delight to use but of course have their limitations in shallow, rocky water so I tend to use them only for deep water style paddling rather than tripping.

This might be a fun design to replicated by carving from a log and recreating some authentic Voyageur history when the season begins again in the spring.

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