Canoe paddles are simplicity itself. You have three basic parts: the grip, the shaft, and the blade. Traditionally paddles were made of wood, often with blades laminated with different colors or types of wood for decoration. But today, paddles come in many different styles depending on intended use.
There are two basic types of grip, the palm grip and the T grip. The palm grip is the more traditional grip that fits into the palm of your “off hand” (left hand on a right handed person). The palm grip is more comfortable to use (especially on longer trips), is easier to manufacture, and more durable than the T grip. Palm grips are seen on cheaper paddles generally because most serious paddlers prefer the T grip which gives a better feel for blade position. However, for expedition paddling a palm grip may be preferable for some.
It’s something most people don’t think about, but how stiff do you want your shaft (get your mind out of the gutter). A shaft with a little flex will be more comfortable to paddle and less tiring, while a stiff shaft will be more responsive and have more power (and may be a little heavier unless we start talking carbon fiber $$$). Some paddles exhibit a bent shaft (usually 11 degrees) just above the blade. These bent shaft paddles are a lot more efficient by maintaining a true vertical blade angle of 90 degrees with the surface of the water. These paddles are properly used with the tip of the blade angled forward so that during the power part of the stroke when the hand passes your waist the blade is vertical in the water.
DA BLADE, DA BLADE
A bigger and stiffer blade has more power, but can be very tiring to use all day. So every paddler must make compromises as to power verses comfort and usability. More experienced paddlers will usually go for power while most of the rest of us should go for comfort and ease of use.
A durable rental paddle will have a plastic T grip with vinyl coated aluminum shaft and UV resistant plastic blade. A bit heavy, but it gets the job done, and is almost indestructible. Most wooden paddles have a great feel and flex, but are not as durable. High end paddles using Kevlar and carbon fiber exhibit great stiffness and strength, and are very light, but can be very expensive ($300 or more). A friend if mine once said to me, “Here, try using my eleven ounce carbon fiber bent shaft paddle for half a day, and see if you can live without it” (I could not).
For us, the rule of thumb for paddle length is determined by standing with the blade on the ground, the grip should top out at your necktie knot. Of course the best way to determine the proper length for your peculiar self is to paddle several different lengths and decide what works best for you. Bent shaft paddles are generally paddled a little shorter, and expedition paddles a little longer.
A MOMENT IN TIME
And hold on to you paddles if you overturn. We had a family from “up north” and when the parents overturned the teenagers continued on down the river. After waiting hours for the parents to show up the teens admitted they had retrieved both of their parent’s paddles from the river. Finally, we went looking for the parents at dusk. Paddling down the river we spotted a campfire just below where the parents had capsized. Upon approaching the campfire we observed two naked forms wrestling in the grass beside the fire. The parents were evidently taking advantage of the teens absence. Believe me, it was most embarrassing for all concerned, and a moment none of us will ever forget (but for very different reasons).