Ah Yes…The age old question of what kind of paddles and oars are the best. As with all river gear, the shapes, styles, weights and materials of paddles and oars have evolved tremendously since the days of the Anasazi in the Southwest, the Aleut people in Alaska and other ancient river runners around the world. Blade shapes have continually changed, increasing and decreasing surface areas as well as overall lengths as new river runners have emerged and new rivers have been run. Of course, in the beginning the only material used was wood, usually whatever type was readily available. Hand carved on the banks of the river and when they broke, no worries, just hike a short distance to find a new tree to make a spare. To this day, the boatman on the Zambezi river use these large and heavy style oars harvested from trees on the rim of the Batoka Gorge below Victoria Falls. In the last 30 years, technology has helped the paddle and oar industry with a variety of new materials offering lighter paddles and oars with interchangeable parts to alter lengths and change out blade designs and shapes. This new generation of river running equipment has become the preferred and the norm for the modern day boater. Fortunately, there are still some river runners who appreciate and embrace the past days of paddles and oars made of good old Wood! Although you still can find wood oars produced by the major manufacturers such as Sawyer there are only a few master craftsman still practicing the age old art of crafting one of a kind custom paddles and oars for the discerning river runner. At the top of these master craftsman is a Oregon woodworker named Kenny Kiley who started Blunt Family Paddles (BFP) some 8 years ago. After an apprenticeship with and under the tutelage of the late master paddle maker Keith Backlund, Kenny has developed his own style and innovations in this disappearing art. One of the great innovations being practiced at BFP is the ergonomically correct bent shaft kayak paddle made of all wood. These beauties are the ultimate in comfort, power and feel and I personally have never used or seen a better kayak paddle!
There are a variety of differences between paddle and oar materials, whether it be wood, aluminum, fiberglass or carbon fiber. Personally, I feel that the most important factors are feel, durability and weight. Even though wood is not the lightest material to use, its durability and feel in the water far make up for it. This makes for a great paddle on the Rio Grande and Rio Chama.
Of the many important tools we use as New Mexico river runners, the paddle or oar are at or near the top. I have always preferred wood oars and rafting paddles over other materials. However, I wasn’t convinced that wood was the best material for kayak paddles until BFP convinced me. Now I know just how wide the variety of wood paddles can be. I can have the most flexible paddle available made from wood if I like, just by substituting wood types. I personally prefer a stiff shafted paddle which is why I have a shaft made only of Ash. The best way I can describe it is that when I initiate a paddle stroke and my blade enters the water, I can feel my boat moving past my paddle as opposed to my paddle passing by my boat. That’s Power! Thanks Kenny and BFP for making me a better paddler and boatman and helping to evolve the wonderful world of river running!