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traditionalTraditional Kayak Paddles

By Curtis Gashlin
Photographs from the National Archives online

Some may think, “Who cares why a particular paddle is what it is?” Or, “Who cares where a particular paddle type originated?” One could say that Greenland and Aleut paddles are the original, traditional kayak paddles. I have been curious about the origin of kayak paddles, and I had to check into it.

It turns out that historically paddlers had varied needs, just like we modern paddlers. There were different types of kayaks for different activities and specialized paddles for those varied kayaks.

Hunting

The hunter’s kayak is long and skinny with zero freeboard. The paddle was also long and skinny. The skinny stick made it possible to paddle silently and the Arctic hunter had to sneak up on his prey.

Distance

The blade shape is also efficient over long distances and he commonly paddled many miles to reach his food source. This type of paddle took up little room on a kayak’s deck, which was often crowded with many hunting tools tied to it.

Rolling

Rolling was a vital skill. A capsize was a life or death situation. Arctic paddlers would have to be able to right themselves from any position they found themselves in, including tangled in line or while holding objects too valuable to lose. The skinny stick made it possible.

See the match up of the skinny paddle to the hunter’s kayak for the hunter’s needs (above). This blade shape was used in West Greenland with a similar paddle also used in East Greenland. The Aleut paddle (below) was used with the larger Bardaika seen in Alaska and other regions.

traditional

Euro Paddle, Just Another Traditional Paddle?
Picture (below) from North American region using “euro “ type paddle

traditionalWhy is a paddle with a wide blade called a Euro paddle? Well, it beats me. That is the question that got me looking.

The Inuit had many varied types of kayaks and paddles across the arctic regions. They had larger kayaks that were capable of carrying multiple passengers. Some of these larger kayaks were solo kayaks used for hunting.

The picture (right) shows a Euro paddle being used in a bigger, wider kayak, much like today’s common sea kayak or Greenland style touring kayak. The sea kayak is bigger, higher, and has significant freeboard, and it is no longer a hunting boat.

That is not to say that the aboriginal arctic paddlers didn’t use long, skinny sticks with these wider, longer kayaks, but we can see that they did use a wide-blade “Euro” paddle too.

This of course was before regular contact with the Europeans.

Did the double spoon blade evolve from a canoe paddle that someone decided to make with a blade on both sides? I don’t know. I heard that story, but I don’t necessarily believe it.

Today’s modern goal in kayaking is not subsistence hunting, it’s about fun, exercise, being out in nature, for sport, and the joy we find on the water. The type of equipment and shapes of the blades are immaterial to our personal goals (unless, of course, your goal is to replicate the culture and techniques of the original kayakers).

This is certainly not a history lesson, but offers some thoughts to consider and my simple and short discovery of why I think a spoon blade “Euro” paddle is just another traditional paddle. Modified as they are with new designs and materials, modern paddles are still traditional to their birth.

By Curtis Gashlin

About The Author ~ ACA Instructor & BCU 3 Star Certified kayaker, Curt Gashlin is an enthusiastic member of the Mosquito Lagoon Paddlers based in East Central Florida as well as the Orlando chapter of the Tampa Bay Sea Kayakers . He's been kayaking since 2002. Visit Central Florida's Mosquito Lagoon Paddlers

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