BACKSTORY A few modifications to the common ottertail result in a perfectly balanced paddle. BEST FOR Solo paddling. The quill’s narrow blade cuts smoothly through the water with lots of flex and little resistance. Because of its minimal impact on the body and effortless movement through the water, Mike Ramsay of Badger Paddles says a quill-shaped blade is his go-to paddle for everyday use in the bow or stern on lakes. A blade that’s less than five inches wide and about the same length as the shaft.
A roughly six to eight-inch wide, spatula-shaped blade made of laminated wood. BACKSTORY This contemporary design may have evolved from white-water slalom blades designed for maximum bite in turbulent or shallow water. The Sugar Island is short and squat with square edges, and it often features a resin, an epoxy, or an aluminum tip to protect the blade edge from splitting. BEST FOR Rocky waters and those on a budget. Sugar Island blades are designed to pull lots of water near the surface and thus work well in shallow water. What’s often missing is the smooth flexing characteristics of a paddle carved from a single piece of wood. “The big advantage is that you get a stronger, more warp-resistant paddle that can be really pretty,” says Brian Dorfman of Grey Owl Paddles.
A leaner Sugar Island with a laminated blade and a bent shaft that’s designed for short, fast strokes. BACKSTORY Canoe racers discovered that bending the shaft of the paddle 10 to 15 degrees forward kept the blade vertical in the water through the stroke, improving efficiency by 10 to 20 per cent. (At first, most people use the bent-shaft back- wards, says Dorfman. The blade should be angled forward.) The innovation trickled down to recreational use. BEST FOR Fitness buffs, racers, or long distances. Bent-shafts are great for high-intensity paddling, but hinder the stern paddler’s traditional J-stroke for steering because the blade is off-kilter. As a result, they’re typically used with a “sit-and-switch” technique, where bow and stern paddlers switch sides every six to 10 strokes to travel straight.
A moderately slender, five- to six-inch wide blade that’s roughly symmetrical from top to bottom. BACKSTORY Two hundred years ago, the fur-trading voyageurs paddled with a relatively small blade area that enabled a fast cadence of 60 strokes per minute. This was the fore- runner to today’s ottertail, which has emerged as the most popular traditional paddle shape. BEST FOR General lake-water paddling. The otter- tail works equally well in the bow or stern of the canoe, and it’s Becky Mason’s blade of choice. The long blade is flexible and easy on the joints, but it’s only suited to deep water because it requires at least one metre of depth to submerge the entire blade.
An inch or so wider than the ottertail, the beavertail is shaped like a teardrop. BACKSTORY The Crees of northern Quebec carved paddles from boreal spruce, with blades that were widest at the tip. This indigenous paddle inspired early whitewater canoe paddles, typically made of ash. Today, for added durability, beavertails come in laminate or plastic versions, for use on rocky rivers. BEST FOR Versatility. A beavertail can be more useful than an ottertail in shallow water. Some companies are now making compact beavertails that are good for whitewater paddling. Recently, however, Andy Convery of Echo Paddles says he has noticed a pronounced decrease in beaver- tail popularity in favour of slimmer blade types. “Compared to an otter- tail, it feels clunkier in the water.”