Protect Your Paddle, and Beware the Jokester

“Through backpacking and climbing, Kooch-i-ching shall expand westward into the Rocky Mountains. But the canoe and stout paddle shall remain its primary means of mobility." So wrote John L. Holden in 1972.

Alex Ernst, Kooch-i-ching’s wilderness trips coordinator, is no stranger to the company of a paddle, nor to the adventures through which a paddle propels us. This is a speech he gave during a Red Lodge church service this summer.



A year ago, Cleveland spoke of the ax. Here, I speak of the paddle.

A paddle is the simplest of tools, one piece of solid wood with no moving parts. Without it, a man (or woman) in a canoe would be rendered useless. I know this all too well. My first year as a trip head, all our paddles were stolen at night as we slept on the Prep break-in trip. We tried using our hands and wannigan lids, without much success. Eventually, we got our paddles back. But I’ll never forgot that feeling of helplessness when they were gone. Now, I often sleep with my paddle if I fear that it may be snatched in the night, by a jokester or beaver. Beavers like the salt from your sweaty hands and have been known to chew on canoe paddles!

Alex Ernst holds his beavertail paddle during a Red Lodge church service. (Kate Downey)

Alex Ernst holds his beavertail paddle during a Red Lodge church service. (Kate Downey)


The first paddle I could call my own was one that I made from a solid piece of ash, as some of you have done. With care, a wooden paddle can last many years, and I am still partial to them. Author and Maine Guide Bill Riviere coined the phrase “Put the ash to ‘er!” as an exclamation of excitement and encouragement among paddlers. In Rivere’s 1969 book Pole, Paddle and Portage, he wrote:

Rounding a wind-swept point and close-hauling into a stiff blow one canoe partner inevitably shouts to the other: ‘Put the ash to ‘er!’ It’s not meant to be an order but rather a cry of exuberance, an acceptance of the challenge of the wind. It is heard at canoe races, at daredevil whitewater competitions. Even in the far north, as a canoe approaches a bend around which awaits the roar of wild water, someone cries out: ‘Put the ash to ‘er!’ The cry is the same whether the paddles are made of ash, maple, birch, spruce or even aluminum.

Our paddles at Kooch-i-ching are plastic and aluminum, but proper care is still in order. Always lean your paddle upright. Do not leave it lying flat on the ground, for many paddles are stepped on and broken in this way. Do not dig the blade into the ground or push off rocks with it. This not only wears the blade but can weaken it where it joins the shaft. Hang paddles to store them, especially wooden paddles. Otherwise, they can warp. Some say the paddle is an extension of the arm and should be treated as such. American author and environmentalist Sigurd Olson once said:

A man is part of his canoe and therefore part of all it knows. The instant he dips his paddle, he flows as it flows, the canoe yielding to his slightest touch, responsive to his every whim and thought. The paddle is an extension of his arm, as his arm is part of his body.

After many miles of portaging and paddling, the paddle is a good friend. A reliable companion. Simply holding your paddle, like holding your ax, gives one a feeling of strength and comfort. Comfort in all memories of waters paddled and portages crossed, shared between you.

You can tell a lot about a person just by watching them take a few paddle strokes. Can they hold a straight course? Do they use excessive force and then need to overcorrect their steering? Do they tire quickly? Is their stroke efficient? Countless times I have met canoeists and taken stock of them by watching a few of their strokes.

I remember meeting a girls trip on the Allan Water. They had big 18-foot Alaskan canoes and were out for four to five weeks! I spoke with the trip leader for a while, and they looked pretty tough. It was not until I saw them paddle away from us that I was really impressed. They knew the art of the paddle. I thought to myself, “Man, I wish our guys paddled like that!”

We must all paddle through life. Sometimes on calm waters, sometimes in choppy water, sometimes wind-bound, even getting stuck on a rock. One thing I have learned is this: If we only paddle on calm waters, if we never test ourselves to paddle the wind and current, we do not grow and become strong. It is through these challenges that you will develop into strong young men.

I feel that the paddle has played a large role in making me who I am today, and I still seek lessons from it. My most recent being that it can have healing powers. I have had times of back or shoulder trouble, only to go on a canoe trip and have these ailments “paddle away.” Some would say it can also heal the heart, even the soul. In his 1956 novel The Singing Wilderness, Olson wrote:

There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.

I have a few challenges for you all. Get your own paddle. Bring it to camp with your ax—we can store it for the winter, or you can take it home. Additionally, make time to paddle, to practice, to reflect. If your first stroke of the season is when you launch your canoe from the sailing beach to load up the bus, then you are not working to your full potential. Lastly, take what you have learned from the paddle this summer home with you.

This winter, if you are having a hard day at school, think back to a day paddling in the rain, or portaging over blowdowns, and your math test will seem less daunting. Think back to a moment where you felt strong and proud of what you just accomplished. I know this has helped me in life and can help you, too. I will leave you with this quote by Douglas Wood:

The river pulls. An unseen lake calls. The paddle whispers, the canoe glides.
Alumni, Foundation, Kooch, HistoryBen Woods