Jill Ellis is an artisan. Describing her as a paddle maker would be a serious understatement of her craft. For full disclosure I have been a fan of Jill’s for several years. Jill has advertised my book and DVD for free on her website, and I have included her amongst the businesses that I try and help promote for free through banner advertisements on my web site.
I have purchased many items from Jill, it all started with socks, paddle socks and norsaq socks. I have so many of Jill’s socks I could certainly create a beautiful rainbow (with a hint of black, yes no surprise quite a few black paddle socks are in my collection). Jill’s paddle socks protect all my paddles from the rigors of travel and have saved them from many a ding as luggage slides around in the back of the jalopy on the way to the next paddling adventure. You can get your own paddle socks here.
Jill makes norsaq. Not rolling sticks, but real norsaq. Pray tell me, you say, what is the difference? A norsaq is the device that the Inuit hunters used to accelerate a harpoon. It has a hole in one end designed to accept the harpoons “launch” pin, and another hole further along it to accept the other pin. There is a groove running down its length where the harpoon shaft lays, and it has a grip at the far end where the hunter grasps it. You can ask for no holes if you just want a norsaq to roll with. By contrast a rolling stick is a device to help roll the kayak, a transition between a paddle and a hand roll, loosely based upon the shape of a norsaq.
The norsaq Jill created for me demonstrates another aspect of Jill’s craft, she “blings” her woodwork, she carves and burns beautiful images into the wood by hand. In this case she added the logo for Rolling with Sticks with the intricate stick figures kayaks and waves. This norsaq is small compared to those that many others make. Jill has done her research and believes that this size most accurately reflects the size and shape that the hunters used.
So why do I say Jill’s norsaq are “real”, well she does make harpoons! I don’t actually know of any other professional harpoon makers in North America, if you know of other harpoon carvers please let me know as I would love to see what they make. Jill’s harpoons are magnificent. They are replicas that she has created using the historical records of early European “invaders” who documented the hunting implements of the Inuit. Jill has modified only one aspect of the harpoon and that is the material of the tip, she uses a hard wood rather than carved a walrus penis bone or a Narwhal tusk. She says this is to help deal with the Customs regulations, but I think it is because she is a big softie at heart and would not want to harm a Narwhal just to make an authentic harpoon.
The harpoon Jill made for me is perfectly balanced, when I grip the norsaq in anticipation of launching it, the harpoon tilts gently upwards, ready to arc across the sky and land on its prey. One common area of problems with harpoons is the fit of the launch peg into the norsaq, or more importantly the release of the peg as the harpoon leaves the norsaq. Jill supplies every harpoon with a matching norsaq. The combination of norsaq and harpoon she provided me release very smoothly, with the minimum of interference with the flight of the harpoon. Of course every harpoon comes with its own sock, a black harpoon sock, of course, for me.
So, paddle socks check, norsaq check, harpoon check, what’s left? Oh yes a paddle! In the fall I connected with Jill and we started talking about the paddle she would build me. I am a fussy customer, I “know” what I want, right… Jill wanted to know a lot more than just what I thought I wanted, details of my physique, my kayak my paddling style, what I wanted to use the paddle for etc. A lot more details than the simple what length, width and loom size that some paddle makers have asked me.
The paddle I wanted was specifically for rolling. Some people take the position that the paddle has nothing to do with rolling and so is irrelevant. When you teach enough people you will quickly see that people have a natural tendency to rely on the paddle for power and leverage when they are learning. I have been using very narrow bladed paddles to produce the minimum of lift, this helps me decrease my dependency on the paddle. When teaching a beginner I hand them a long wide blade as I feel that being successful on a few rolls is more important initially than decreasing dependency on the blade. Once they have the basic mechanics down I can help them use a more appropriate blade.
So I asked for a narrow blade, I also expressed my desire for a shoulder-less short loom and relatively short paddle. Jill makes every paddle as if it were for herself. Her paddles are clearly not mass produced. There are no tool marks. There is just the evidence of wood gently carved and sanded into Jill’s distinctive blade shape and then lovingly finished with oils and wax. Jill only uses hand tools, such as a drawknife for most of the work, spokeshave for smoothing, then hand sanded, through several grits until she reaches a baby bare butt smoothness.
The wood Jill used is old growth quarter sawn Western Red cedar heartwood, the tips would traditionally have been finished with carved whale bone or similar material, but Jill chose curly hard maple, which has a distinctive light color, hard finish and beautiful grain. Each tip was beautifully carved with my Qajaq Rolls logo.
Jill doesn’t reveal all the magic behind her paddles. She finishes each paddle with a mixture of oil and wax; Tung oil, plus Carnauba, Beeswax, and one secret wax she has sworn never to reveal.
Jill doesn’t just make Greenland style kayak paddles, she also makes Aleutian style paddles from the west coast, these she fashions with a distinctive double groove on the rib face of the blade. As well as kayak paddles she caters to canoeists. She has provided paddles to some of the sports greats and they have even been featured in movies. Jill is expanding her business into other traditional paddling areas and she is currently working on a traditional Inuit hunting line deck basket which will hold the harpoon line.
This weekend I had the first chance to take the new paddle afloat. It was a chilly day, the air temperature was in the forties Fahrenheit, with a light breeze. The water temperature on the Mississippi River was just above freezing. The Mississippi river has been rising very swiftly the past week due to the rising Minnesota temperatures and recent snow falls.
I was paddling with a pair of other paddlers from the ISK and we headed upstream at first to ensure we knew what the current would feel like to battle against. We paddled north towards the local power station dam. The flow peaked at in excess of 4.4 mph. we didn’t have an exact reading but close to the power station outfalls I am sure it was considerably faster. There were small standing waves and aggressive boils which attempted to control the kayak at every opportunity.
As I mentioned earlier the paddle was deliberately made for me to use during rolling training, but I felt it was appropriate to put it through its paces on the river as well. The narrow blade had one obvious effect and one not so obvious effect. First it does not take a rocket scientist to anticipate that the small wetted surface area of the blade would result in needing a rapid cadence to maintain a good speed. I was paddling fast to overcome the river flow, but as my fellow paddlers can attest to, it was not a problem. With a smaller area comes a reduced effort to swing the blade through the water, as a result I was able to maintain a rapid forward motion using swift strokes as needed. The second more unexpected consequence of such a narrow blade was its instability during aggressive paddling. I generally hold my paddle very loosely to help decrease any pressure on my wrists. When I was paddling very hard I found that I needed to hold the paddle at a strongly canted angle to ensure it did not oscillate during the power phase of the stroke. I put this down to the narrow width having less stability than a wider blade would provide and any turbulence or edge vortices having a greater impact on the blade angle than a larger slower moving blade would have. When canted the blade performed very well.
After reaching and recovering in the relatively quiet resting spot of the back eddies under the dam we played in the power station outflow for a while. The water tried very hard to take control on the Tahe’s long bow, whipping it in every direction possible. The paddle provided ample control, enabling me to resist the waters action with bow and stern rudders. One particularly aggressive boil tried very hard to flip me in but an equally aggressive low brace kept me upright.
After some more gentle river paddling we returned to our launch site and I rolled a few times. I felt confident when rolling with the paddle in my hands, I did not miss the wider blade. The paddle felt very natural throughout the mornings paddling. I did enjoy the flexible feel of the wood, with each powerful stroke I could feel it spring back as the blade exited the water creating a sensation of it popping upwards and out.
Jill Ellis clearly knows her stuff, and has created for me not just a great paddle for rolling but a whole suite of traditional paddling products that meet the needs of paddling aficionados as well as those just getting into paddle sports. As I use this paddle more and learn to throw the harpoon this Spring I am sure to write more about these great traditional tools.
You can reach Jill via her website, keep a close watch at what she will be adding this Spring, to her line of ‘Traditional tools’: Adanac Paddles