Spring 2021

It’s hard to believe it’s been over one year since we initially went into lockdown to blunt the COVID-19 pandemic. This winter felt especially long, and with the temperatures warming up and flowers in bloom, the ushering of Spring was extra sweet this year. With the vaccine roll-out gaining momentum in the country, hope is in the air. Be safe out there everyone.

Winter hike on Beaver Lake

It is hard to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has raged on for more than 10 months in the United States. As the cold winter days settle in, there is no sign that this virus letting up either. As the air becomes drier and people are forced to spend more time indoors, the number of cases have skyrocketed. Hope arrived several weeks ago, with the first vaccinations administered to health care workers – our first solid foothold in this war. I was fortunate enough to get the first of the two part vaccinations, 3 weeks ago at my hospital. My reaction was similar to my flu vaccinations, I had mild chills for a couple days but otherwise bounced back quickly.

As I reflect on the past 10 months, there is no doubt this has been a difficult time for everyone in the world. During this trying time, it is no surprise to me that this pandemic has also taken a toll on mental health. Families and friends are separated and the feeling of loneliness and anxiety can naturally settle in. Everyone has their own way of finding center, of recharging and being uplifted. For myself, it has always been the outdoors.

In the winter, getting outside has its obstacles. But there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. For us, getting outside is a priority and to let the kids run and explore new lands. Everything is a little slower in the winter, so we prepared for that – waking up just a little earlier, bundling up on more layers and packing the right food and snacks.

Our closest state park is the good ol’ dependable Pocahontas State Park. We wanted to hike the Beaver Lake Trail once again. The last time we took on this short 2.4 mile hike was in the summer of 2019.  In the afternoon, it was going to reach a high of 46F with plenty of sun. I was surprised at how quiet the trails actually were. Breathing in the crisp, cool air while hiking under towering white oaks and sycamore trees was something that I missed. The trail certainly looked different without the foliage. It definitely sounded different, the chirping of birds cut through the bare forest, the snaps of twigs and sticks under our feet seemed to echo just a little louder.

It all felt good. The gentle wind on the face, the  slight chill through the body, the movement of muscles, the sunlight, and the calming sight of a bare lake in the winter made everyone feel better.

Whatever it is that gets you to center, I hope you get to do more of it. Don’t forget to check on family and friends that might be more prone to loneliness or depression, a phone call or video chat goes a long way these days. I hope everyone stays healthy and safe. Vaccines are on the way. We shall prevail.

Telephoto trial on the Piankatank River

We took the family to spend a couple of days on the Piankatank River. The water was calm and the wildlife was out and about. I was able to get a shot of the bald eagles that have been hunting our segment of the river for years. I’ve been breaking in the Sigma 100-400mm telephoto lens. I still have it attached to the trusty old Sony a6000 that’s been pulling it’s weight for the past 5 years now. Hard to believe it’s been that long. I still have much to learn about telephoto lenses, but it’s been a lot of fun. Happy Holidays to everyone. Stay safe and healthy out there…and keep those masks on! Cheers.

Shenandoah National Park – Black Rock Summit

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. 

 

Minh’s first hike in Shenandoah, Black Rock Summit. 3/31/2018
Our first hike up Black Rock Summit. Shenandoah National Park. 7/23/2016

Building a Canoe Paddle

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.

His first canoe trip.

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.

Equipment/Materials:

  • hand bench plane (I used a #4 Wood River plane)
  • spokeshave
  • jigsaw or bandsaw
  • sandpaper (120 and 220 grit)
  • woodburning pen (optional, if you want to add designs to the wood)
  • clamps
  • tack rag
  • spar varnish
  • woodstain (if you want to stain the wood)
  • linseed oil (optional)
  • orbital/hand sander
  • protective eyewear

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.

2. Planing

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

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.

Watch this craftsman at Shaw and Tenney (an oar and paddle company based in Maine) shape most of the paddle using a large drum sander. Some people will say that this method is not truly “hand made”. Nevertheless, the precision is impressive.

Woodburning

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.

The finish:

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.

Personal preference, but I left the handle, unstained and unvarnished. I used 3 coats of boiled linseed oil to give it a buttery smooth finish, that will feel much better in the hands. Over time, the wood will darken naturally from the oils on your hand as well as the elements.

In conclusion:

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.**

Maiden voyage…..all smiles