Would I really appreciate a $140 paddle over a generic sporting goods store $35 paddle? What is the difference b/t a $140 paddle and a dirt cheap one? Flex?
What width should I consider, about 8"?
You will absolutely notice a difference between a $140 paddle and a cheap one. $140 is hardly expensive, as canoe paddles go, but paddles of about that price are pretty darned good, all things considered. A cheap paddle from a big-box store will feel like a 2x4 in your hands, if it’s a wood paddle. If it’s plastic and aluminum, it’ll just be heavy and clutzy. Oh, and the average $140 paddle will slice through the water quite cleanly, which is something no cheap paddle does well. Then there’s the weight difference, and you’ll surely notice that too. You mentioned flex, and that’s something that’s highly variable. There are good paddles with a lot of flex, and good paddles with almost none. You’ll have a “detectable amount” of flex with a decent paddle, though you may not notice it at all until you compare it to something stiffer.
As to your original question, it was said that you can’t push off rocks with a fairly light paddle, but I haven’t found that to be true at all. I’ve been pushing off rocks and logs with straight-shaft wooden paddles that are comparable with Bending Branches lighter wood models for years and have never even come close to damaging one. Now, I don’t make a habit of that, and I don’t use the paddle to get my boat unstuck or anything stupid like that, but an occasional poke against a rock or log to adjust where your boat is going when it’s not possible or practical to plant the blade in the water, or to push the boat sideways away from where you’ve been parked along the bank, and stuff like that, is no big deal if the blade has a rock guard. With one hand on the top grip and nothing else, or with the lower hand doing exerting no lateral force (that’s the typical method for pushing), the hardest you can push really won’t be very hard, since the boat will quickly react by moving the other way. Maybe you can’t expect a super-light bent or curved shaft to tolerate the worst you can do, but I don’t believe there’s a straight-shaft wood paddle out there that you can break with a one-handed push initiated from a floating (not grounded) canoe, where the applied force is in-line with the shaft and blade. In most cases, you’ll be pushing with no more than 10 to 15 pounds of force, and that’s nothing, compared to what it would take to break it.
The worst thing I’ve found when it comes to breaking paddles is rocky shallows, when the blade drops down into a tight gap between two rocks and there’s not enough room for the angle of the blade to change as much as what’s necessary as you complete your stroke while the boat is passing by that location. That’s a case where you’ve got that big long lever arm and a fulcrum right near the end of the blade, so it takes very little force on the paddle shaft to splinter the blade. That’s just bad luck when it happens, though a rugged whitewater paddle (heavy) will usually survive that sort of thing, especially if you “take the hint” when you feel the resistance start to build up and avoid prying it any farther.