October 18, 2020 – It seems like the only normal thing in 2020 has been the autumn season. By late September, we had already experienced our fair share of chilly days in Virginia. This welcoming drop in the temperatures seemed to trigger the leaves to change color on time. Although tired from the busy work week, we needed to escape to the mountains, specifically to our backyard national park, Shenandoah National Park. We were going to take on what seemed to be a family favorite of late: the Black Rock Summit Trail. This easy 1.0 mile loop was where we took our son for his first hike, and now we were going to take our daughter there for her first hike.
We arrived at the park entrance to find a short line of cars. I think this was the first time I’ve ever had to wait in line to get into Shenandoah. It seemed like everyone wanted to escape quarantine madness and get outside. I don’t blame them. All along the way, people were pulling off at scenic outlooks to take photos of the fall foliage. The parking lot for Black Rock Summit was full when we arrived but we had no trouble finding parking on the side of the road. Our 3 year old son was able to hike the entire trail on his own this time which certainly helped! The paths on this trail are well marked and it is a short hike to get some amazing views, highly recommended if you have young kids in tow.
From the moment he stepped foot in a canoe, my son has never been satisfied with just sitting and taking in the views….. He wanted to paddle! He was not even 2 years old and at the time there was not a paddle small enough for him. This was my chance to make him one. As with all projects, we both learned a lot and had a blast making it.
Selecting the wood:
Traditionally, canoe paddles are made from hardwoods. The definition of a hardwood is a species of tree that will yield a seed that has a coating on it, either in the form of a fruit or a shell. (Oak, maple etc). Softwoods, yield seeds that do not have any particular coating. Example: many conifers. The terminology is sometimes misleading because there are some softwoods that are actually harder than hardwoods, but in general, hardwoods are usually indeed harder. These trees take much longer to grow to the equivalent size and as a result are usually denser.
For a project such as this, you will likely not find the board of wood that you need from Lowes or Home Depot. Your best bet is to go to your local lumber mill or wood working store. In this case, we were fortunate enough to find our wood from Woodcraft. If you haven’t spent much time in a lumbar yard, some of the terminology might be confusing. You will hear the term “board foot”. This is the unit for which wood is sold. IT is misleading because it is actually a unit of VOLUME not length. A board foot describes a piece of wood that is 1inch thick, by 12 inches wide, by 12 inches long. Hence 144 cubic inches. For our project, we used a 3′ x 1” x 4” foot long piece of hard maple.
When you are selecting the wood, make sure that there aren’t any knots or wood defects in the areas that you will be using, ESPECIALLY in the shaft of the paddle. These knots can lead to weakness in the paddle and could eventually fracture down the road.
hand bench plane (I used a #4 Wood River plane)
jigsaw or bandsaw
sandpaper (120 and 220 grit)
woodburning pen (optional, if you want to add designs to the wood)
woodstain (if you want to stain the wood)
linseed oil (optional)
Selecting the design:
When selecting the design of the paddle, keep in the mind where the paddle will be primarily used. Is it flat water? whitewater? tripping? leisure paddling? There are numerous types of canoe paddle designs to choose from. These mostly differ in the shape of the blade of the paddle. Different paddle shapes will move different amounts of water. I’ve always prefered the beaver shape paddle, it is not too wide and it is not too narrow.
The Woodworkers Journal: provided a template for one of their Northwoods canoe paddle. A beavertail shaped paddle. I didn’t use these exact dimensions because we are completing a scaled down version for my 2.5 year old son. But I was influenced by the overall shape. Notice how the design templates are for one half of the paddle, when you are finished tracing that half, flip it over and trace it again to create the complimentary side. This will allow for the most symmetrical template possible. If you’re going to making many paddles over the years, consider making this template out of wood for safe-keeping over the years.
Once the outline has been drawn on the paddle, use a bandsaw or a jigsaw to cut out the paddle. If you spend extra time making the cuts as precise as possible, this will save you time later with the hand carving, shaving and sanding. I used a Bosch jigsaw.
Here is the video of the northwoods canoe paddle making process.
The key point to make during the remainder of the carving process is to maintain symmetry through the axis as well as throughout thickness. Use a gauge to mark the very center of the board on it’s axis as well as its thickness. The line, will let you know how close you are to your desired thickness of the blade. You may decide to vary the wood thickness based on the type of wood as well.
When working on a project like this, I want to emphasize the importance of knowing your tools and how to maintain them and to keep them functioning at their very best. There is no better example than the bench hand plane. If your tool is properly sharpened, maintained and tuned, this part of the project can be the best part. If your plane is not set up correctly, this could lead to a very frustrating experience.
In addition to keeping your tools finely honed, it is crucial to take into account the wood’s grain direction. Ideally your board is free of knots, this will make for the easiest planing. If there are knots, just be cautious of the grain drain direction change in these areas which could leave to tear outs. One way to battle this is to take shallower cuts if necessary. There are numerous tutorials online about how to read grain direction on a board.
Here is a useful video on how to set up a hand plane.
The handle is probably the most difficult part of the carving process. There are many different methods to tackle this portion. Some paddle companies will actually do this part all by a large drum sander. Others will use files to whittle away the handle. I prefer to use the spokeshave, although this can be a little, especially if you are making sharp turns. I sanded parts of the handle afterwards with a belt sander.
This step is entirely optional; I really wanted to put a logo on our canoe paddle, with a maple leaf (representing our Canadian heritage) and an oak leaf to represent our currrent home, Virginia. Similar to the wannigan I constructed, the wood burning process is a very enjoyable part of the paddle making process. Now if you were a professional furniture or paddle maker, you could consider just getting an ironing brand. Who knows? Maybe one day we will start canoe paddle business. It certainly seems like there are quite a few out there. There is one paddle company in Minnesota named: “Sanborn Canoe Company” that appears to be doing well. They specialize in artisan paddles.
There are different ways that you can finish your canoe paddle handle. While some people will varnish the entire paddle, others leave the handle unfinished. I opted for the latter. I left the handle unfinished and unvarnished. I later added 3 coats of boiled linseed oil on the handle. The decision to oil or varnish your handgrip is purely personal preference. I found that over long canoe trips, the feeling of a varnished hand grip can make your hand a little raw after thousands of strokes. Finishing with linseed oil, gives the handle a buttery smoothness, similar to an axe handle. Over the years of use, the grip will darken naturally.
For the canoe enthusiast, I can’t think of a more rewarding experience than using a paddling that you’ve created. It is also a fantastic father son bonding experience. As with other projects, I always find that I learn so much from even the smallest of projects. In this case, the big take home point, is that maintenance of your tools and knowing how to calibrate and hone them is essential to getting a precision job done. The hand plane was a joy to use once sharpened and calibrated. This holds true for the spokeshaves as well. Obviously with any project, the use of a work bench with clamps to suspend your work also makes the task of carving your paddle infinitely easier. Have fun.
**This is the best canoe paddle carving I have found on the internet. It features Ted Moores (craftsman) and this video from the 1990s was produced in Ontario, Canada.**
Summer solstice 2016, we set out to explore Quebec in La Verendrye Wilderness Reserve. I can’t believe it was 4 years ago. I have finally found some time to piece together all of these ancient clips into a video. Hope it provides some entertainment.
It is the largest estuary in the United States and a national treasure…..we need to do everything we can to protect it for future generations to come. Go to www.cbf.org to learn how to get involved or make a donation.
I came across this great canoe video series, following the journey of four young men, as they make their way across Newfoundland and Labrador. There appear to be 13 episodes in total. I thought I’ve been in some buggy areas before in my life, but it is a fraction of what these guys endured. Amazing journey. Enjoy!
“On July 12th, 2019, Noah Booth, Alex Traynor, Dave Greene and Chris Giard will embark on a 35-day canoe expedition where they will paddle, portage and track their canoes 700 kms from the Menihek Hydro Dam to the coastal village of Nain, Labrador’s northernmost permanent settlement. The route is designed to traverse Labrador in its entirety where they will travel through three major ecosystems, and cross two heights of lands.
The key objective of the expedition is to gain a cultural and environmental perspective of one of Canada’s last remaining wilderness frontiers and become the first modern day team to connect Labrador City to Nain in one trip. Throughout, the journey will be captured through film to produce a documentary that will be submitted to film festivals, as well as be promoted through their social media platforms and sponsors. In doing so, they will highlight and pay homage to the historic travellers such as the Naskapi and Montagnais Innu people who have used these lands for generations as ancestral hunting grounds as well as the European explorers such as A.P. Low, William Cabot and most recently Herb Pohl who have mapped these lands through extraordinary exploration.”
I remember the simple days back when it was just me and my wife. If we wanted to take a day trip out to the mountains, such a feat could be accomplished within a moments notice. Some light packing, some food and water and we were good to go. These days, with two kiddos, a simple day excursion requires enough packing for an expedition – everything from maps, first aid kits, spare clothing, food, water, toys for the car, diapers, and the list goes on. Although it definitely takes more energy to embark on such trips, the reward is also greater. There is nothing better than seeing a child’s reaction to the marvels of our natural world. Every breath of brisk, fresh air seems to infuse them with energy as they are pulled from one discovery to another. Whether they are seeing a new animal for the first time – hearing the rush of the river as it crashes into rocks, or feeling the textures of different tree barks, I believe that there is not a better classroom out there.
One of the beautiful overlooks from Route 39
More views from Route 39 of the Maury River
For Earth Day 2020, we planned for a trip to the scenic, 936-acre, Goshen Pass Natural Preserve in Goshen, Virginia just outside of Lexington in RockBridge County. Elevation: 1,350 ft (411 m). We were blessed with absolute perfect weather. High of 64F and sunny. We knew that our prime spring hiking days were coming to a close so we wanted to get out there before the Virginia vegetation took over. Even this late in April, it was still perfect, the mountains were later to bloom than the city. Awesome. Mountain flowers were in bloom and the new buds emerging on trees, created an emerald backdrop with beautiful displays of every hue of green.
The drive from Richmond to Goshen Pass is about 2 hours from Richmond, and it is a pretty one. The gentle rolling hills, and well kept farms provide a peaceful journey as you course your way through the mountain. The natural preserve is Virginia’s oldest state-managed natural area. The region was acquired in 1954 to protect the gorgeous 3.7 long gorge along the specatcular Maury River. There is certainly magic here still yet to be discovered. There is an old-age chestnut oak forest, pine-oak-heath woodland and rare species of plants.
Picnic area off Route 39
These are stocked trout waters, special license required.
Our original plan was to hike a 3.0 mile circuit that started at the famous Swing Bridge over the Maury River. Despite the website, saying that this area was open, we arrived to find that the bridge had actually been boarded shut! Fortunately, this area is large enough to explore without the main hike. We drove back 2 miles on Route 39 to reach the Maury Memorial overlooking the Maury River. This area has a shelter, several well kept picnic areas, grills, portable restrooms and best of all, great access to the Maury River. We decided to spend the day here, catching crayfish, observing wildlife, tenkara fly fishing and just enjoying the outdoors. Surprisingly the area was really quiet. Other than one other family, we had the whole river access to ourselves. I learned later that this segment of the Maury River was popular for whitewater kayakers during certain parts of the year. This is certainly something I would like to check out in the future. The area by the swinging bridge appeared like a good put in for a fun run. I guess what they say is true, the Goshen Pass area is one of the most beautiful spots in Virginia.
Public access for hiking at Goshen Pass Natural Area Preserve is available via a parking area off Route 39 and swinging bridge across the Maury River, both maintained by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) as an access point for the Goshen-Little North Mountain Wildlife Management Area (WMA). DGIF requires a WMA Access Permit for visitors age 17 years and older who do not possess a valid Virginia hunting, freshwater fishing or trapping license, or boat registration. Contact: the DGIF Field Office in Verona (540) 248-9360 or go to http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/access-permit/ for information on acquiring a WMA Access Permit.
The transition period from March to April is one of the prettiest times of year in Virginia. Cherry blossoms make their display, snowing petals in the gentle breeze for just a couple of weeks before the landscape flourishes with green. It is also the nicest time of year to go scouting for new clear waters to paddle. The mountains to the west is where I have the best luck in finding such waters. While the coastal plains of Virginia offer incredible wildlife and scenery to paddle in, I’ve always been in love with the backdrop of a bare forest against a sparkling mountain lake. In my heart, Lake Moomawand Switzer lake hold the top two spots in my ranking of favorite Virginia mountain lakes, but I’m always open to see if they can be dethroned.
With two kids in tow, (Lake moomaw and switzer lake) are just a tad too far for a daytrip. (3.5 hours and 2.5 hours respectively). A quick look at a map of Virginia led me to investigate the Ragged Mountain Natural Natural in Charlottesville, Virginia.
At an elevation of 737 ft. This beautiful 980-acre region is home to the charlottesville reservoir, a gorgeous clear lake with more than 4 miles of shoreline. This area offers seven miles of trail through its oak, hickory, pine and maple forests. The densely wooded area is home to white-tailed deer, black bears, bobcats, and dozens of species of birds including the popular pileated woodpecker in this area.
It had been a long time since I’ve used our Deuter Kid Comfort Active (child backpack carrier), actually haven’t used it since Utah (September 2019). Our 2.5 year old has also gained some weight since that time, but we have all been cooped up and ready for a decent hike. We started at the main parking lot and made a 3.0 mile round trip to the floating bridge. This hike is certainly not as remote as Shenandoah National Park, as you can still hear cars on the inner roads but it is still certainly peaceful.
The trails were laid out clearly without any brush (another reason why I like spring hiking). We sat down and had a small snack at the floating bridge before making our way back across the dam and to the main parking area. In front of the parking lot are several picnic tables with a great view of the lake. We sat down and had lunch in the brisk spring breeze after working up a sweat. Down at the canoe launch are actually several canoes and kayaks that people just leave there unattended on the racks. I told our son that we would be back to paddle this lake one day, when it wasn’t as cold.
Whether you come here for the trails, water or wildlife, there is something here for everyone. It is a great trail for kids too, as it is not too strenuous. Stay healthy, stay safe everyone.
Directions (open 7:00am to sunset)
Physical Address: 1730 Reservoir Rd., Charlottesville, VA 22903
From I-64 in Charlottesville, take Exit #118B/US 29 North. After 0.4 miles, take the first exit for US 29 Business. At the end of the ramp, turn left onto Fontaine Avenue. Go 0.3 miles on Fontaine Avenue to Reservoir Road and turn right. Follow Reservoir Road for 1.7 miles to the sign on the right just before Camp Holiday Trails. This is the lower parking area. To reach the upper parking area, continue past the lower lot, stay right and pass the yellow gate, and travel up the paved road to the top of the dam and park by the kiosk and tool shed.
The City of Charlottesville owns and manages the land, parking areas, and trails at Ragged Mountain. The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority manages the water and related infrastructure.
Dogs are not allowed at Ragged Mountain natural area (other than approved ADA service dogs).
The winters in Virginia continue to get warmer and warmer. We have not yet had our first real snow fall yet and it is mid January. 2019 was the 2nd hottest year in recorded history, falling just behind the year 2016. The effects of climate change have made itself blatantly clear all over the world. The australian wildfires, rising sea levels and record shattering heat waves. This past weekend, it was 70 F in Richmond, Virginia! It was unsettling warm and sunny, we made the most of this situation and decided to venture to a new local park at the recommendation of a friend. We made our way to Three Lakes Park in Chamberlayne, Virginia.
Our son was eager to run once again in open space. He had been cooped up and had a mild case of cabin fever. He grinned from ear to ear as he sped through the forest. Nothing beats real world interaction to solidify things that he has read in his books. He was able to identify several birds and ducks as different parts of the tree. While we were walking, I realized that everything seemed just a little bit easier. I then realized at 27 months, he is now able to hike on his own! We completed a circuit just under 1 mile and he was able to walk the entire way! He even found a little hiking stick to call his own. After spending some time throwing rocks in the lake, he spent his energy on the large playground until the Nature Center opened at 12:00pm.
There’s no question that the future of our planet is at stake. We are all stewards of the planet, and we can dictate its course. We can either change the speed at which it is damaged, or change the speed at which it is recovered. Most importantly is the fact that the future is in the hands of our children. Get them outside to enjoy the beauty of our planet, so they know what it is exactly that they will be fighting to protect. A small act performed by millions can change the world. Start with your local conservation organization.
If you have spent some time canoeing up north, you might have run into paddlers lugging around a heavy wooden box along for the ride. Oddly enough, the paddlers hoisted this box on their back, with a thick leather strap banded across their forehead to support the weight. Inside this mysterious box were plenty of camping treasures: pots, pans, lights, games, matches and more. This traditional piece of canoe gear is known as the wannigan or wanigan. Essentially, it is a wooden box that serves as a mini camp kitchen – storing cookware, food and goods on a canoe or snowsledding trip.
The tumplines that are used for carrying these boxes are just as interesting. They are thick and durable bands of leather that serve as a harness for these heavy boxes, and they allow the wannigans to be “tumped”. For over 200 years, wannigans have been on canoe voyages. Their use can be tracked as far back in the hands of the hardy voyageurs (french canadian fur trappers). For them however, this was not a recreational camping box, but functional storage device that they hoisted through hundreds of miles of mosquito-ridden boreal forest, day in and day out. Life for them, was certainly hard.
Today, the spirit of the wannigan is very much alive and well in all parts of canada and the northern USA. There are certain camps in Ontario that continue to use traditional equipment such as wannigans on their canoe trips. Camp Keewaydin is a fine example. At these camps, children hoist these heavy boxes with them through Canadian boreal lands as they make their way through expeditions on their own.
There are those that feel that the wannigan is impractical or just downright unnecessary in the age of waterproof plastic bins. Love them or hate them, I believe that wannigans help remind us to exercise a little bit more caution on canoe trips. They remind us of the history of canoeing in Canada and serve as an important link to our past.
I’ve always wanted to build one to for the family and to keep traditional way of canoe camping alive. More importantly, I wanted something to build and share lasting memories for the kids.
Step 1: The design
The most important part of designing your wannigan is building one that actually fits your canoe! Since most canoe hulls are pretty close in size, the dimensions of all wannigans are relatively similar. Most wannigans are simple box designs, although there are some out there that are actually curved to the hull of the canoe.
Most wannigans are stained after their completion in a wood stain of one’s choice. I decided I wanted to create on in a more artisan fashion. In keeping with the tradition of this old piece of gear and the history of canoeing in Canada, I decided to paint this wannigan in the tradition of the Hudson’s Bay company. Known as one of the greatest companies in the world, this British company played an integral role in shaping the landscape of Canada and the fur trade. I always thought the classic Hudson’s Bay color scheme looked pretty cool. Basically plain white, with stripes of indigo, yellow, red and green, in that order. This color scheme and pattern was originally used on the Hudson’s Bay “Point Blanket”. This wool blanket was sold during the 1700 and 1800s and an item frequently traded with amongst First Nations people. The “point” system was a series of black lines at the corner of each blanket along the selvage. The number of lines would indicate how large the blanket was when it was unfolded. The pattern and design is seen today on numerous Hudson’s Bay Company goods, such as mugs, clothes, towels, canoes and even stuff animals.
If you are interested in learning more about the Hudson’s Bay Company, here are two great links.
Most wannigans have a lid that is flush with the sides, making the outline an even box. My brother created a wannigan in this style and we noticed that on trips with heavy rainfall, the wannigan actually started collecting water inside. To combat this problem, he cleverly sewed a Hudson Bay flag skirt for the wannigan which eventually worked to keep things dry. I decided in my design that I wanted to avoid this problem all together. I was going to make a lid that was slightly larger than the dimensions of my main compartment.
Creating a lid with a lip, would also allow me to wood burn a chessboard on the under surface to play during rainy day under the tarp or by campfire at night. The lip, would work to naturally keep the chess pieces from falling off the sides.
Step 2: The frame
I wanted to create a wannigan that did not have any metal screws. This one is held together by it’s joints as well as occasional wooden pegs and of course wood glue. The the large sides are from plywood and the ends are pine. While constructing the box, it certainly helps to invest in several large clamps at the ready. I subsequently applied several layers of colonial maple wood stain on the wannigan.
Step 4: The fiberglass.
While some May consider this next step to be unnecessary, I knew it would add many benefits. Yes, I’m talking about adding a layer of fiberglass on the inside of the wannigan. This layer would not only strengthen the box, but would also make the inside waterproof – also making spills infinitely easier to clean. I’ve never worked with fiberglass or epoxy resin for that matter and this proved to be the most challenging step. One thing I learned was to mix small batches! In larger quantities I found that the epoxy and resin once mixed generated a lot of heat and solidified very quickly. It is of utmost importance to mix as accurate ratios as instructed as possible. This is a messy business so make sure you’re protected and working in a well ventilated area.
Step 4: Wood-burning
This was one of my favorite parts of the project. With the help of my brother, we tracked down several hudson bay logos on the internet. I was looking for one that was actually NOT as finely detailed because that would prove to be much more difficult to burn. Once you are satisfied with your design, print the logo out in “reverse”. From there, I used the hot pen and a flat surface to heat the paper and ink onto the wood. This would allow just enough ink transfer onto the wood so you can burn your design into it. I noticed that woodburning is not as easy on a softwood such as pine. Woodburning the cheeseboard also proved to be quite laborious however still enjoyable.
Step 4: The painting
This process actually took the longest. To ensure that the white was actually as “white” as it could be with clean stripes, I had to make some careful preparations. First off, it is critical to use a primer before the paint to soak up any stain. I gave this layer of primer a full 24 hours to dry, I wanted to prevent any peeling of paint because I was going to be using a lot of paint tape. After it was completely dried, I applied 3 coats of white paint, latex, and water based. Once this layer was completely dried I carefully taped the areas that would be striped. To make sure that the colored stripes would NOT BLEED ONTO the white paint, I actually painted OVER the taped margins with white paint to fill any possible micro gaps and for capillary action to soak up any potential paint. This is a CRITICAL STEP.
Step 5: The finish
Choosing the finish was actually more difficult than I thought. Typically, for any stained wood surface, you have a variety of options. For something that is going to brave the elements, you want it to be UV protected as well as water resistant. For such purposes, marine spar varnish (an oil base) is usually preferred. I realized that my project was different than just stained wood…I was working with stained wood as well as carefully painted pattern with a mostly white background. The pure white color posed an issue. Most spar varnishes will actually YELLOW the white.
I had to search for quite some time before I was able to find the finish that would NOT stain the white. It was a water based spar varnish that particularly says: “no yellowing”, make sure you look for that statement, because there are plenty of water based varnishes that will actually YELLOW your project. Believe me, you do not want to sand and re apply the finish. Another method is to have a sample test piece of wood that you can test the finish on. The water based varnish dries very quickly so you have to work relatively fast. Once the coat is totally dry, usually in about 3 hours, VERY gently run a 400 grit sandpaper over the surface to remove any bumps that may have developed. You ARE NOT sanding at this point, it is a VERY gentle grazing with the sandpaper. I ended up applying 5 coats of water based varnish to the wannigan.
Step 6: The tumpline
Another piece of traditional canoe wear, is the tumpline. Classically this Is a piece of leather strap that is tied to the canoe or waningan to assist in carrying and distributing the weight. The broad band of leather is placed over the forehead and the load is rested on the upper back. It sounds like an unusual way to carry loads but it actually works to help ease weight from the shoulders.
you can virtually use any type of rope for the tumpline but I wanted this thing to last the years and also to be crafted in the traditional sense. I purchased a leather tumpline from “Pole and Paddle” for $85. A bit pricey but worth it in terms of quality.
As with most projects, the construction of this wannigan, turned out to be a much larger task than expected! I certainly don’t consider myself a woodworker but I tackled this project to also learn more about the craft. I was happy that I got my first experience with epoxy resin and fiber glass. I also have a much larger respect for the construction of a level and even box! I also got to try wood burning for the first time. All of these skills will come in handy in the future for bigger projects. At the end of the day, I was certainly glad that I built it. Although large, difficult to carry and heavy…….a canoe trip just wouldn’t be the same without this treasure chest. When you are out in the middle of boreal forest, with the water lapping on the sides of your canoe, and the distant calls of the loon fill the air, it brings me great satisfaction to know that I have a trusty kitchen with me, filled with tools, games and memories.
As I stare at this untouched wannigan, I wonder where this box will take us? How many seasons will it last? How many lakes will it see? how many portages shall it endure? and what adventures lie ahead? Only time will tell….