By Seth Huntington

Our new birchbark canoe was nearly complete with its first launch a few weeks away. Six new canoe paddles are needed, so the novice paddle maker took the rough sawn tree boards and roughed out six blanks. In time, five of the blanks were carved into usable, but not yet finished paddles. The remaining, sixth, blank had been set aside until the last, given that the wood provided superficial signs that it may not provide the inherent strength needed to serve a strong paddler. 

So on this rainy afternoon, the carver utilized his drawknife exposing hidden wood and gathering wood shavings on the floor. After an hour of work, he was convinced that this board would not result in an adequate paddle. Thus, the lengthy process from tree board to canoe paddle would not continue, owing to the many deficiencies observed in the integrity of the wood. 

Still seated at the shaving bench, he laid down the drawknife when a sudden flash of nearby lightning from the growing storm outside caught his attention. His mind drifted for a few moments before the clap of thunder brought him back to his seat at the bench. Still listening to the storm, he picked up the drawknife and, without thinking, curled up a few more wood shavings from the old board. The renewed work revealed the trail of some boring insects, blue-gray stains foreboding weak, soft wood, and too revealed the hidden knots where young branches once hung, fell, and the tree then closed in over them. 

He lifted his gaze from the board, again concluding the wood was not suitable and that he was wasting his time. Too much work for nothing in return. 

Lightning outside flashed and threw light on the bench and paddle. He gained an appreciation of what that tree had survived over its many years of life, of the scar of insects, blue-gray bacterial infections, lost branches, storms, and time itself. True, the tree was gone, yet this board remained. It was neither pretty nor sturdy, but a relic of a tree that once lived. In that moment of understanding he sensed a connection to the board. From somewhere, a thought arose within – that if the carver would finish the paddle, even if it were but a decoration, the board would serve him well and the parent tree would provide some benefit to him. 

Working now with purpose and energy, the carver shaped the wood into a canoe paddle over the next several hours. The scars of the tree’s life were now fully exposed in authenticity. Through his labors there was understanding and connection. He admired his new show piece then cambered the blade and then held the creation, which was now both light as a feather and unique.

He imagined the bench of his shaving horse as a canoe seat and with the paddle made a few strokes in the imaginary waters he floated upon. 

Maybe I COULD use this paddle to propel a canoe just one time. He held the grip in one hand, the shaft above the paddle blade with the other and made a stroke, pausing to rest the blade behind him on the floor. Instinctively, he tested the paddle for flex by pressing his hand down on the shaft. The paddle flexed and he thought maybe this paddle would be usable after all. He rotated the paddle so as to flex the other face. He pressed his hand on the shaft … Then…

SNAP came the sound.

Used by permission of the author, S.T. Huntington. Written July 2022. All rights reserved. No duplication or publication without permission of the author.