Wordless Instruction

Wordless Instruction

Buoyed by their enthusiasm, I sometimes paddle with friends Jeanne and Glenn. Last fall Glenn asked if I would help him make a Greenland style paddle as a Christmas gift for Jeanne. This long, tapered design has been in use for hundreds if not thousands of years and offers an alternative to modern high-angle paddles in space-age materials. I said yes.

At a local lumberyard that has access to unusual timbers Glenn found a flawless piece of western red cedar. The grain was vertically aligned permitting us to create a reasonably stiff paddle with the least amount of weight. Once we settled on the proper length for the paddle, I jointed and planed the plank to make it straight. We then explored our way to a pleasing taper from the tip of the blade to the handle area. I roughed out the shape on my band saw.

Knowing we had options, I suggested to Glenn he would most enjoy the process of making this paddle if he refined its shape with hand tools rather than power tools. As I demonstrated the effectiveness of my smallest Krenov-style plane and a small brass spokeshave he was convinced. Over the next three weeks we met as often as possible to work on the paddle. When our work periods included the lunch hour, Glenn kindly brought fried chicken and wrapped sandwiches.

Sometimes we worked on opposite ends of the paddle, moving toward each other; other times I turned away to let Glenn’s relationship to the paddle develop on its own. I tried to give him a minimum of instruction so that he would begin to relate to the tools and the material rather than to me. I wanted him to grow more intimate with all the connections between sensitive hands, fragrant wood, and his own neurological pathways as the strokes became familiar and repeatable. To the best of my ability I aimed for what Tao Te Ching calls “wordless instruction.”

Day after day Glenn removed material, looking for a pleasing shape and a proper feel in the hand. Gradually the paddle gained symmetry and the lines began to flow. Eventually we unified all the small facets from the tools’ passage over the wood by hand sanding through a series of abrasives until the paddle was extremely smooth. We also wet the wood with water to raise the grain, and when it was dry, sanded off the fuzz. We rubbed in some tung oil to reveal the wood’s final color and offer modest protection from the water.

But Glenn was not finished. In his mind’s eye he saw a loon and Jeanne’s initials on one of the blades. I encouraged him to draw out what he wanted to see on a piece of scrap paper, then on the wood itself. Meanwhile, I unpacked my wood burning stylus and turned on the pyrograph. After a little practice Glenn mastered the pace of stroking the pen over the surface of the wood while allowing it to recover its heat between strokes. He created a small, beautiful loon and wove the initials into a subtle water pattern beneath the bird.

In the end we held the paddle upright and rested the wood on the top of my toes while my wife took a photo of the proud craftsmen.

Perhaps a few hundred people a year make their own kayaks and paddles. For the most part, though, these tools for crossing water are made of carbon, fiberglass, Kevlar, and roto-molded plastic. Making a paddle from timber felled just across our northern border and using hand tools put us in touch with a non-industrial process, the joy of working together and working by hand. Again, as Tao Te Ching says, there is a rare satisfaction in being able to say, “we did it ourselves.”

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Paddling Lessons, II: Learning to Yield

(May, 2008)

When two great forces oppose each other,

The victory will go

To the one that knows how to yield (Tao 69)

A few years ago my brother and I arranged to paddle together on the first anniversary of our mother’s death. She had been a difficult person in our lives, chronically ill and prone to trying to trying to control her sons. By paddling together on this anniversary my brother and I would celebrate our good health and freedom, two riches she never enjoyed. One day in May my brother drove to Montana from Seattle. The next day we drove together up to Flathead Lake. At this time of the year it was not hard to find a campsite at Big Arm State Park, so we erected his old Sierra Designs Starlight close to the beach. We spent the late afternoon and long evening paddling around Cromwell and Wild Horse islands.

During the night the weather changed. From inside the tent we heard wind in the trees and waves breaking on the shore next to us. In the morning we crawled out to find the wild conditions that made for a restless night. As we stood on the shore wind bore through the strait between Wild Horse and Melita Islands, turning the blues and greens into a froth of white. We knew it would not be a good day to paddle in an area receiving the full brunt of the wind. Hoping for calmer conditions elsewhere, we decided to drive up to Westshore Campground.

Conditions at Westshore were much the same. Determined but with trepidation, we launched at the boat ramp and paddled south—downwind and down wave, hoping to reach Cedar Island about four miles away. On the way conditions become even more severe. The wind blew harder and the waves became more ominous. We drew closer to shore in case we got into trouble. By the time we reached the Douglas Islands we knew it was not wise to continue; the further south we went the more difficult the return trip would be. The water opposite the cliffs at Painted Rocks would have been chaotic and dangerous.

In the narrow channel between shore and Mary B Island we turned around. In the lee of the little island we hopped out of our boats, stood in the shallows and rested. We kept our boats from blowing away by holding onto the combing around each cockpit. We took a few minutes to reconcile ourselves to the work ahead of us; returning to Westshore would be exhausting, a hard beat against the wind. Resigned to the inevitable we resumed positions. Choosing safety over further adventure, we headed north against waves that broke over our decks and swept up and around our skirts. Waves swallowed the upwind arm when we reached for a stroke on the starboard side and ate the downwind arm as they rolled under us. Looking north we saw wind gusts rattle the surface of the lake and then flail us. It took our best effort to make any progress. Someone observing our struggle from his deck shouted at us, but neither of us could afford to pause between strokes, turn to the side, or respond. We never knew whether he was shouting encouragement, offering us a chance to come ashore and rest, or whether he was cursing us for being on the lake. Each wave required our complete attention. Photographs were out of the question. Using my ears I kept track of Jeff just off my stern on the port side. We saved words for later but listened to the sound of each boat meeting the train of waves. Hoping that the peninsula above West Shore would break the wind for us, we dropped into the crescent of Goose Bay and circumscribed its perimeter.

When the dock at Westshore finally came into view we felt a great sense of relief. Three miles of this kind of paddling had been enough. We pulled in next to the dock wanting to avoid having our boats smashed on the rocks adjacent to the ramp. But even as we stood on the dock, waves blew through gaps in the planks and shot into the air. A gust of wind caught Jeff’s paddle and nearly blew it off the dock into the bay. He caught it with a toe. Barely able to control the boats when we lifted them into the wind, we secured them to Jeff’s rack and climbed into his Forrester. Inside the shelter of the car we felt the buffeting of the wind and gave thanks to be out of it. In the warmth of the car we noticed maple leaves beginning to unfold. We began to relax.

As hard as the return trip was for us, Jeff and I learned our own limits and the maximum conditions we can face in our boats. We learned that sometimes it is necessary to abandon a goal, no matter how desirable it seems. In the face of forces far greater than our own strength and determination it was prudent to yield and turn back.

After this day, as much as I love to paddle, I can imagine choosing not to paddle. There are days when morning wind whips the willows and causes big pines along the shore to sway. On stormy days light and shadow shift continuously and each leaf or needle or wave crest becomes a chip in the mosaic of light. On such days I must be able to imagine sitting inside, relieved that I am not contending with waves that break over the bow or lift the boat from behind and spiral it down into deepening troughs. There are days for tea in the tent.