A dichotomy of paddles – East meets West
Many people only think of the skinny Greenland “stick” when they think of traditional kayak paddles. Reducing Traditional Paddling to just the Greenland qajaq and paddle is doing a disservice to the vast array of other cultures that developed their own versions of hunting waterborne human powered craft, many of which came from the Arctic regions of North America.
If I had to guess I would say that the Aleuts with their distinctive Bardaika are the second most recognized lineage of traditional paddlers. It is interesting to note that their craft with the bifurcated bow are actually called iqyax̂ by the Unangan (Aleutians), the name Bardaika comes from Russia. It is perhaps no surprise that the usage of these names from both cultures became jumbled given the close proximity and the history of migration of people between both countries.
The Aleutian Islands are not just renowned for their beautiful iqyax̂, they are also the home of a terrific powerful paddle design. The Aleuts used their kayaks to hunt, as well as transport goods, cargo and people considerable distances. The kayaks were built for speed, high performance, and were very long. These flexible craft are capable of astonishing speeds. The Russian influence has been credited with converting them into multiple paddler’s kayaks, it was not unusually for them to carry three people while hunting. The paddles were equally advanced, the closest modern paddle to the Aleutian paddle is perhaps the wing blade although the comparison quickly falls apart when compared in use. The iqyax̂ design is a high side craft with a deep cockpit, the paddle is correspondingly long to allow the blades to submerge. Unlike the Greenland paddle the Aleutian paddle has a definite power face, it is not symmetrical. The power face has a pronounced rib running along the center. The rib provides stability during the power phase of the stroke, if the blade is used with the smooth face as the power face there is a remarkable difference in its feel. Some kayak historians I have spoken to question if the rib is on the power face or not. My experience has been that the rib really aids in the strokes stability so I believe it should be used as such.
I recently had the privilege of being sent two very different paddles to test. One an Aleutian paddle from East Pole paddles in Estonia and the other a Greenland Paddle from Gear Labs in Taiwan. To be absolutely clear, I paid for neither, nor am I being compensated for writing about them, other than the fact that paddles are now part of my growing collection of paddles I share with the local paddling community to promote their usage. You can read more about my paddle collection in this recent article.
It is worth noting the geography in the previous paragraph, an Aleutian paddle made in Estonia, and a Greenland paddle made in Taiwan. This is a sign of the times for Traditional Paddling. To some it is exciting to consider the growth in popularity of Traditional paddling and the proliferation of interest globally in the construction and use of the traditional paddling equipment, to others it is disturbing that these paddles and their materials transit the globe rather than are made locally using local material and employing local crafts people. Whatever your opinion, I ask that for a while you suspend judgement and consider instead what is unique and interesting about these two paddles.
East Pole Aleutian Paddle
East Pole paddles uses Western Red Cedar for their paddles, the grain density of the cedar is lower than some used by other paddle makers, this creates a very light paddle. The lightness comes with a drawback, softness. The cedar is soft and prone to damage. I felt compelled to bone the surface, I used a deer antler. This tends to create a layer of denser wood on the surface which protects it from the inevitable bumps and scrapes on the rocks.
I like to use longer narrower Aleutian paddles than my more regular Greenland paddles. The paddle East Pole sent me was 89″ long and 3.5″ maximum blade width the loom length was 22″. I paddle with a lower cadence with an Aleutian paddle, a combined effect of the extra length and greater surface area of the blade. Each stroke feels very powerful, and unlike a Greenland paddle I tend not to worry about canting the paddle blade, the power face rib “sets” the blade angle as it slices through the water. I would love to understand the hydrodynamics of this blade. But whatever the science behind it, it is one powerful paddle. When I have spoken to Greenlanders about paddles they pooh-pooh the quest for light weight instead preferring the security of strength. A good Greenland paddle is considered one you can do a pull up on and it not break. Aleutian paddles have a thin loom and their long length makes them potentially vulnerable to breaks. I have seen many Aleutian paddles break when people over muscle a Greenland Roll, especially a reverse sweep roll.
After having used the East Pole Aleutian paddle for a few trips I would consider it a good long distance touring paddle, it is powerful, light and is comfortable to use all day. I do not recommend using it to practice rolling with, as its wood was chosen for a different purpose and absolute strength was lowered to ensure the paddle would be very light to allow you to keep paddling all day. There are stronger paddles available, Adanac Paddles in Canada makes a great Aleutian paddle for example, but correspondingly the denser wood comes with greater weight – everything is, after all, a compromise.
You can contact East Pole paddles through their website.
Gearlab Greenland Paddle
I have previously used several different Gearlab Greenland Paddles, you can read about my previous experiences here. Each iteration has been an improvement both in design and construction. Their latest example continues this trend. The previous generation introduced the use of replaceable tips made of a more forgiving material than the carbon used in the rest of the paddle – much like the bone tips used by the Inuit’s of Greenland. This latest generation has improved the paddle in two significant ways. First the most obvious change, the blade profile. The new blade design creates a sharper edge profile, this dramatically changes the paddles feel in the water. It becomes especially apparent when sculling. Sculling rolls are substantially easier using this sharp design, a plus for anyone looking to advance their rolling skills. The sharp edges also made the paddle very smooth during the forward stroke, it canted easily and there was little discernible flutter.
The second change is internal, the entire paddle is now reinforced with a vertical plane of carbon spanning the center between the two power faces. This has added both greater absolute strength and considerable rigidity. Previous paddles from Gearlab had been some of the most flexible, comparable to very light cedar. This new design is as rigid as the paddle from Superior Kayaks, quite a radical change. I found that it increased my confidence in the paddle but I did miss the forgiving nature to the flexible blade at times. Gearlab paddles are available in shouldered or shoulder-less, the shouldered version provides a soft transition that allows you to index the blade and maintain a comfortable grip. My personal preference is for shoulder-less paddles as I like the ability to seamlessly slide and extend the paddle during strokes turn and rolls. Gearlabs paddles have a distinctive circular narrow loom which feels small when you grasp it, yet due to the way you actually hold the paddle at the transition between the loom and the blade I have never found it too small for my normal sized man hands. I look forward to seeing what Gearlabs do next, they seem to be constantly innovating.
You can contact Gearlab through their website.
If you are ever in Minnesota are are interested in trying these or any of my paddle collection feel free to contact me through my website.