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How do you make a canoe paddle in the wilderness?

Glenn MacGrady

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Here's a very foreseeable survival situation unique to canoe trippers: You've lost or hopelessly broken your paddle.

To stay alive, you must make a new one so you can paddle out. How? For thousands of years our ancestors could and did do this.

What are the minimum tools needed to do the job? What are the steps?
 
I have experimented with this using poplar logs and axe. I split the log in half, and then split another piece the length of the log about one inch thick. From there it was pretty easy to use my oxhead and a knife to carve a reasonable facsimile of a paddle. It was not pretty, but it would have worked. The First Nations in this area have been devoted fans of the crooked knife ever since they were introduced. I have watched a variety of videos where they have used a combination of small axe and crooked knife to make some pretty nice things. A good crooked knife is still on my list of things to get, and I will take it tripping with me.
 
I talked to a fella a few years back who was planning a return trip to Woodland Caribou to retrieve his canoe that was stashed in the woods. He was tripping solo and realized he'd left his spare paddle at a portage earlier in the day. He turned around, into a headwind, and was paddling hard when his paddle broke and he was stuck. Said he wasn't worried as he'd made some paddles before and figured he could make something but was unable to. The only trees in the area were small jack pines and for whatever reason he couldn't fashion something that would work.

I don't remember how far he had to go to reach his paddle he'd left at the portage but after thinking about it for a day or so he pushed his SPOT button and was taken out by helicopter I believe and had to leave his canoe behind.

It doesn't seem like it should be that difficult to come up with something functional but after hearing that story I've wondered if it isn't harder than it sounds.

Alan
 
Here's a very foreseeable survival situation unique to canoe trippers: You've lost or hopelessly broken your paddle.

To stay alive, you must make a new one so you can paddle out. How? For thousands of years our ancestors could and did do this.

What are the minimum tools needed to do the job? What are the steps?

That is quite a scenario.

So, I either don’t have a spare paddle, or have broken it was well. Unlikely. If I’ve lost the spare paddle I’ve probably lost the canoe as well, so I’m up a creek without either. My spare paddle does tend to be on the beefy side for just that one is none and two is one rational.

To stay alive I must make a new paddle. Also unlikely; most of the places I paddle will see someone come along in a day or three.

Minimum tools? Well, it would have to be what I have on hand. I don’t usually carry an axe or hatchet, so I’d have to make do with a saw, various knives and a Leatherman. If I have the Spares & Repairs bag I’ll also have a rat tail file, sandpaper, epoxy, fiberglass glass cloth and etc. Can I fix the broken paddle?

If not I sure hope I can find a piece of dimensional lumber scrap, maybe a 1x6 about five feet long. More likely a pressure treated 2x6.
 
I remember that story too, wasn't too impressed.

I would have probably thought the same but I didn't hear the story online, I met him at a canoe race in MN. From what I could tell he was an experienced canoeist and wasn't new to canoe tripping. It would be interesting to know why what he tried didn't work and what else he had along for equipment. Axe? What type of knife? Duct tape? Extra cord?

Alan
 
Perhaps my memory is bad, and I might be confusing his story with a couple of others, but I seem to recall that he was upset that the emergency helicopter wouldn't take his canoe out. That's because it's an emergency rescue operation for people with serious medical problems. He could have solved the problem with some preparation, for instance, getting the numbers for some local fly-in camps, calling them on a sat phone, and getting picked up. Would have cost him the same amount of money in the end, and he wouldn't have tied up the SAR's people who could have been on a life and death mission.
 
I accidentally started using my pole for a double paddle and discovered that it worked surprisingly well. I would just cut a 2" sapling 1o' long and use that as a double paddle.
Turtle
 
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I ..... he pushed his SPOT button and was taken out by helicopter

I entered WCPP shortly after that happened, when I picked up my permits I was asked if I carried a spare paddle by Claire, she related the story and rolled her eyes. He was using paddles he built himself.

As far as building a paddle, I saw a you tube video by some survival expert who's name escapes me where he showed how to do it. I carry an ax and pack saw, which are the tools he used, so here is how I would attempt it.

First, find a piece of bent graphite in the bush...just kidding

1st, find a log, preferably a standing dead softwood tree, (cedar is best iirc)about 6-8"', cut it to 50-60" in length. Then build some small wedges (hardwood if you can find it). Just keep splitting and batoning the hardwood, eventually you will make some wedges.

You need to split the log, either by finding a crack you can work the wedges into, or by starting at one end with the ax/wedges and working your way down.

Once you get the log split in half, you lay the log on the ground, flat side down, then cut across the grain every 6" or so down the log, but you only cut down enough to leave 1-2" uncut. Carefully knock these cuts off with ax and wedges so that you end up with a board the original width of the log, but about an inch or two wide. Now you trace out a blade (with a piece of ash from your fire)...(unless you refuse to make fires, then go sit on a rock, your screwed).
When you have the blade traced out on the board, you hold the board on edge on the ground and cut down to the lines of the paddle on the board and use your ax to carefully split off the cuts. You should end up with a rough paddle. Finish up with your knife, making it as smooth as needed.

I watched the video one time and I wrote this from memory. Hope I didn't leave out any steps?
 
I accidentally started using my pole for a double paddle and discovered that it worked surprisingly well. I would just cut a 2" sapling 1' long and use that as a double paddle.
Turtle

Turtle, excellent and simple solution. I assume you meant 12 or 14 feet long.

I have paddled beside folks using their poles as long slender double blades and they move right along.
 
Perhaps my memory is bad, and I might be confusing his story with a couple of others, but I seem to recall that he was upset that the emergency helicopter wouldn't take his canoe out. That's because it's an emergency rescue operation for people with serious medical problems. He could have solved the problem with some preparation, for instance, getting the numbers for some local fly-in camps, calling them on a sat phone, and getting picked up. Would have cost him the same amount of money in the end, and he wouldn't have tied up the SAR's people who could have been on a life and death mission.

That all could very well be. I didn't get any details of that end of the story other than he said he was really hoping they would have a paddle on board when they showed up. I can't blame him for not being able to call local outfitters with planes. While I don't do a lot of tripping in remote areas I haven't carried a SPOT or sat phone when I did. And if I were to carry one or the other it would probably be a SPOT, so I'd be in the same boat. I believe in WCPP float planes are only allowed to land on a handful of designated lakes, not sure if there's a way around it in a situation like this or not. Probably. Though I guess no matter what, had he had a sat phone, he could have called for a paddle rather than a rescue.

I do remember him saying the paddle that broke he had made but my take on the whole situation was that if he's made his own paddles he must have at least some rudimentary wood working skills so that if he said he couldn't fashion a paddle from what he had on hand it's probably more difficult than I'd imagined.

I'm with Turtle though in that the first thing I'd try would be a small sapling. Maybe shave two edges flat towards the end. Then get some more short sections, about a foot long, and shave them flat on two edges as well. Then try tying those short sections to the main pole with cord, giving you a few inches of width at the end.

Alan
 
It would be a hunt but my attempts would be to find a relatively straight length of timber. 12 feet long but you can go way shorter 10 feet if you stay low..and ahem use the timber as a double bladed paddle. It does work. It gets a bit inefficient when the wind comes up.

I'd advise every one try that. I have done that at some f ;;s symposia as a demo Most folks are terrified of losing their paddles.
 
If my memory serves me, he didn't break both paddles, he left one on a portage earlier in the day. When he realized he had left it, he which must have been on the next port, he didn't go back.
 
Here are some pics from a brief article in the Dec 1, 1941 issue of LIFE magazine detailing an Algonquin guide named Tuwassi carving a bush paddle from a birch log in one hour.
60+Minute+Paddle+-+Life+Dec+1941.jpeg


Below is one of Ray Mears' paddle carving videos. This one using downed cedar from the banks of the lower Missinaibi River. Tools were a folding bucksaw, axe, crooked knife again...

Here's another where he makes a much more crude paddle from a beaver-downed log. Axe and regular belt knife for this one...

If you can get a hold of the latest season of Les Stroud's Survivorman, he does an episode (S05E03) in the Temagami forest. He "finds" a stashed canoe in the bush which floats but has no paddles. He has no axe either. Instead of using up the energy to try and carve a paddle, he uses a sapling to pole (standing) and propel (double blade style) the canoe sufficiently across some smaller lakes and creeks. It definitely works but looks exhausting.
 
I really like Robin's idea of removing large amounts of wood with the cross the log saw cuts and knocking out the wastage. I'd be tempted to do that on both side rather than splitting or trying to. Don't know for sure, have to see how it went.

I've been impressed with my axe with the Husquvarna carpenter's axe head, of course it chops and splits just fine but really it was made for this kind of task. The sharp is made a bunch flatter than a regular axe allowing you to chop a flatter surface, a regular axe will give you more of a series of "cups". For an emergency paddle it doesn't matter a bean (just a point to maybe consider if you were picking an axe. )
Another nice thing is the way the axe head is shaped to where you can grip much more in-line with the center of the head. More control.
Although much smaller, my Wetterlings axe has these same features. I did a report with pictures on both axes on the DIY and new gear evaluations part.

Not to be picking at scabs here but once you had the paddle shaped to where you were close to what you wanted, further wood removal could be done with careful "Battoning". (!!!) I'm thinking lights taps while you guided the blade to lift up a curl of wood.
You would have to be careful not to start up a long sliver that could run ahead of where you wanted the wood removed.

Now Glenn, last I heard, you didn't want an hatchet, axe nor were willing to sharpen much of anything. Have you seen the light? If you have and wanted some great guidance I'd sure recommend Mors Kochanski's book about woods craft skills, I've forgot the exact title. In the part where he talks about knife and axe, along with things to do, he also shows how you can cut yourself and how to avoid doing that. Really great book!

Best Wishes, Rob
 
I think that if you need to make a paddle in the bush, you could do so with an axe and nothing else, I don't think it would be real pretty, but use full none the less. So what you need is to find a tree of the right size, I would say no less than 10-12". Whit some of the branches, you have to make a few wedges to be able to quarter that log, so splitting it in half and then splitting one of the half in half again. Only need one of the quarter for a paddle. From there you remove the hart wood and the bark wood. you will end up with some what of a parallelogram, from there you start carving. One useful thing to do is to some what drawa center line on each face to have a reference. If toy have a crooked knife, it would make life easier, and the surfaces smoother, but really that is just to get you out.....

In all the years I've paddled, I never broke a paddle beyond repaire. Never lost a paddle either. but crap can happen i guess!!

Cheers
 
I think what some can and can't do is closely related to what some are willing or not willing to do. With no SPOT that fella would have somehow managed I am sure. To think without any practice you will come up with a paddle that is comparable to the $350 graphite composite racing paddle you are used to using is foolish. But I am sure with a little intestinal fortitude and calm thinking you could come up with a solution that is a better alternative to calling SAR.
 
We have only broken one paddle out in the wilds, a carbon shaft that snapped when a pack fell over on it at a portage. We had 2 wood paddles still so no worries. When wind bound on Aiken's Lake later in that trip I took out the FG repair kit we were taking at the time, whittled a beaver stick to a reasonable size to fit inside the shaft and then wrapped some glass around it. Worked fine the rest of that year then I redid the FG repair over the Winter since we chose not to spend $80 for a new shaft for a carbon bent we had found floating in a river in the first place. We still take that repaired paddle on trips.
 
... we chose not to spend $80 for a new shaft for a carbon bent we had found floating in a river in the first place. We still take that repaired paddle on trips.

So Robin was right, we might just find a fancy bent in the bush. lol

It's interesting to hear that a length of slender log could work reasonably well as a double blade. I wonder how much more effective it might be with carved flattish shaped blade ends?
 
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