I don’t think there’s any piece of gear that’s as personal as a paddle. You can like your water filter, you can be happy with how your tent holds up in a rain storm, but it seems like a lot of people just flat out love their paddle. And why not? Without your paddle you’re not going anywhere (well, you’re not going anywhere quickly). Your paddle is your ticket from A to B and everywhere in between. It is literally the reason you get to see and do all the cool things there are to do in Algonquin (and everywhere else with a canoe route). You pick up a paddle and it feels like freedom. That’s a pretty cool feeling. You don’t get that from a tarp.
And just like with other things we love, most people think their paddle is the best. I guess that makes sense too. If you don’t think your most important piece of canoe tripping gear is the best option you can get, shouldn’t you be looking for an upgrade ASAP? Take a step back and it becomes clear that there isn’t really a “best” paddle. They come in all different shapes and sizes, with different uses and for all different styles of paddling/tripping. Maybe you prefer the all purpose beavertail style or the ottertail with a longer, narrower blade for more control from the stern. Maybe you want to channel the voyageurs with their tapered, squared off blade or you want a big old breadboard to move as much water as possible. It’s not so much a question of the “best” paddle, but the best paddle for you.
That said, my paddle is the best.
For the past 20 years, I’ve been rotating between a Ray Kettlewell Special and a pair of his Modified Specials. Ray Kettlewell is a Canadian paddlemaker who is probably very familiar to anyone who attended a camp in Ontario during the late 90s and early 2000s. It seems like every camp with a tripping program either had a deal with Kettlewell to supply paddles, or at the very least had a paddle order or two go through each summer. And why not? Ray’s design is great for tripping. With a long, narrow blade, well proportioned shaft and durable construction, these paddles were awesome for long days on the water. My Raykay Special spent five weeks in Quetico Park with me back in 2004, and seemingly came out stronger despite everything I put it through. Over the next 15 years those paddles went with me on every canoe trip, crossing big water, small water, navigating rivers and creeks and even running a few rapids (I wouldn’t recommend that last one with these paddles, but there’s a lot I wouldn’t recommend that I’ve done at one point or another).
My Raykay era came to an abrupt end over the Labour Day weekend in 2020. That’s when one of my modified specials snapped at the shoulders mid-trip, leaving me with a valuable lesson in packing preparedness (always bring a spare paddle) and forcing me to take a hard look at my remaining Kettlewell paddles. When I did, I realized that it was time to think about retirement, not just for the broken paddle, but the ones that were still (for now) in one piece. The thing is, 15 years puts a lot of wear and tear on a paddle (and on the paddler, but that’s a different story). Both of my remaining paddles were showing the same signs of thinning out along the shaft where I’d been jamming the pry of my J-Stroke. It seemed like it would be a question more of when, not if, the other two would call it quits.
So, I needed a new paddle.
But Ray Kettlewell wasn’t an option anymore. He’d retired a few years back, and although another company had taken up his design, I decided to explore my options.
I’m glad I did.
It didn’t take long before I got pointed in the direction of Badger Paddles. They are a Muskoka based company that’s been around since 2009. I’d heard pretty good reviews of their paddles, and I’m happy to report that the reality lived up to the hype. The first time I picked up one of their paddles (what they call a Tripper, their version of an Ottertail design) it felt like it did whenever I picked up a Raykay. While the design of the Kettlewell and Badger paddles are different, they both feel right as soon as you’ve got them in your hands. They feel like they belong in the water. Cut from a single piece of wood and finished by hand, the Badger paddle was lighter than my Raykay, but seemingly just as sturdy. Badger has a neat design feature they call a “transitional ridge” between the blade and the shaft that is meant to keep the paddle both strong and flexible. I have no idea if that’s true, or if it’s just really good marketing, but I do know that the paddle pulls water, steers well and is nice and light. It’s amazing how much difference a few ounces of weight makes when you’re on your fifth hour of paddling for the day with a couple more in front of you.
I always like to balance out my gear gushings with some “constructive criticism” but, honestly, I haven’t found an issue with this paddle yet. Of course, that doesn’t mean something won’t pop up. One of my favourite features of my Raykay was that I could treat it pretty roughly and it held up for what felt like forever. I don’t get the sense from my Tripper that it will stand up to the same level of care (or lack of care, more accurately). Despite what I said about its apparent durability a minute ago, it does feel more delicate than the Raykay ever did. I think that’s a function of the transitional ridge design, which makes the shaft seem narrower as it meets the blade and maybe more fragile as a result. But, honestly, that’s just me looking for things to worry about. Last summer was my first with my new paddle, and it held up well. It’s got a long way to go to live up to the legacy of my Raykays, but it’s definitely off to a good start.
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