Getting on the Stick: the Greenland Paddle
The fall issue of Adventure Kayak magazine includes an interesting story about Greenland kayak paddles, oftentimes called Greenland “sticks”. It made me stop and think that I need to give this type of kayak propulsion another look, especially since I took the time to make one a few years ago. For those who don’t live and breathe kayaking (are there really people like that?), let me offer a brief explanation of what those weird-looking skinny paddles are all about. Greenland paddles originated hundreds of years ago among the native Inuit people in Greenland and Iceland. When the sea kayaking craze came to Western Civilization in the second half of the 20th Century, we borrowed kayak designs from the Inuits but we smugly thought we had better ideas when it came to paddle design. So what did we do? We stuck wide blades on the ends of a narrow shaft. This is the basic paddle design that most people envision when they hear the term “kayak paddle”. It worked. But sometime in the past 15 years or so a few modern sea kayakers decided that maybe the Inuits knew a thing or two about paddle design. After all, their existence depends on thousands of years of adapting and refining the tools they use for hunting.Turns out slender Greenland paddles offer many advantages over fat-blade “Euro”-style counterparts. Quoting from the Adventure Kayak article by James Roberts:
“When used correctly, there is less stress at the catch, as the power is gained during the middle to end of the stroke and the release, rather than as a forceful initial load.” ‘It eliminates that impact on your joints,’ agrees Greenland-style devotee and coach, Cheri Perry, ‘it’s easier on your shoulders and elbows.'”
Another advantage is that a quality Greenland stick will cost you less than a quality Euro paddle. You can find dozens of stick-maker websites. Most charge $150 to about $300 per paddle. Of course, as with anything, you can pay more.
Perhaps the most fun and rewarding aspect about Greenland paddles is that you can make them yourself. If you decide to go this route, you need to be either: A) a competent woodworker with a properly outfitted woodworking shop, or B) the friend of such a person. In my case I was “B”. Knowing that my neighbor Craig was into woodworking, I suggested we get together to make a Greenland paddle. He had no idea what that meant but after my explanation of the project he readily agreed. We followed a very good set of directions published online by Chuck Holst.
I originally wanted white cedar but it wasn’t available in our area in the size needed so I selected a piece of basswood at the lumber store. Craig and I spent evenings in his woodworking shop when it fit our schedules. Over the course of two months my Greenland paddle emerged from the raw chunk of wood. That was nearly five years ago. It took me until recently to give my Greenland paddle a fair shot. After trying it out a few times I concluded it wasn’t as efficient as my Euro-blade paddles. I stuck it on a shelf in the garage for the past few years, never bothering to take it with me on most trips. In reality the problem was not with the paddle but rather in the way I was using it. After reading the article in Adventure Kayak I’ve forced myself to give it another look. And you know what? The Greenland paddle stroke technique has started to click with me. It requires a slightly canted, angled stroke through the water, while a Euro paddle requires a full-on 90-degree angle. Two weeks ago I used mine for a 10-mile solo crossing. That trip took me slightly longer than it would have using my Euro paddle, but after the first hour or so I felt I was finally getting the hang of the Greenland stroke.
I love the way James Roberts concludes his article about Greenland paddles:
“While commercially available (Greenland) paddles are on the rise, the best way to get a blade that’s perfect for you is to shape it yourself.”
Roberts also quotes his mentor, Turner Wilson:
“All of the marketing we’re exposed to urges us to try the latest and greatest gadget. It is a joy to step back from that precipice of consumption and say, ‘not so fast’. What about these objects that express a deeper understanding , that form can and does truly follow function? This penultimate tool is one of the best expressions of this — elegant and beguiling in its sophisticated simplicity, honed by experiential discovery.”