Otter tail, beaver tail, regular?

OK - I have my canoe paddle length (shaft etc) vetted out now after the session with Karen Knight this last weekend and it turns out the first all-around paddle I got is right on length. So I can safely invest in one of the animal-related paddles if I want. But what Karen uses for free style is something much wider (and rounder)…

Can anyone talk in simple terms that an idiot about canoeing can understand about why you would choose a particular shape of paddle? My next goal is to paddle straight (lose the yaw) and to be able to manage the basic free style turns on inside and outside edge without always taking a swim.

Animal paddles

– Last Updated: Jun-09-10 9:29 AM EST –

Assuming that your vision of "regular paddle" means what it means to me..... a sugar island type with a blade of about 8"x22" or 8"x24".....

In terms of raw power: sugar island will have the most, beavertail next, ottertail the least. Where raw power means most is paddling and controlling a canoe into the wind.

In terms of horsepower to use the paddle: sugar island will require most, beavertail next, ottertail the least.

In terms of cadence (over long haul not sprint): ottertail is easiest to maintain high cadence, beavertail next, sugar island paddle will be the slowest cadence.

In terms of maintaining perpendicular strokes: The ottertail and beavertail have the advantage over the still wide near the top blade of a sugar island paddle.

In terms of control: all these paddles will give excellent j stroke control

Most FreeStylers

– Last Updated: Jun-09-10 10:18 AM EST –

ICF and Marathon racers have led the way in selecting 8.5" wide blades. That leaves length; FreeStylers generally choose between 22 and 26" in length, with gently rounded tips for easier catch and sloping shoulders to work closely under the boat.

The "animal sticks" Otter, beaver, pine marten, whatever, compromise effectiveness for FreeStyle. They blades are too long and too narrow; they don't grab enough water and are difficult to carry across the hull into cross maneuvers, the length compromising the catch on cross strokes. Best place for an animal paddle? The wall, with something pleasing painted on the blade.

FreeStylers trend towards larger blades because they are often using the paddle to do two things at once, say a drawing turn and a high brace. The paddle is set in a position that affects both but compromises both turning and bracing efficiency. More surface area solves the problem, providing enough resistance to turn the boat and keep the paddler dry.

Because you are a petite person, look towards the 22" end of the length spectrum. You may want to try the paddle before purchase, shaft and grip size and shape are critical and most paddles are made for men; too large for many women.

Both should fit the hand at it's "angle of repose". If too large or too small, fatigue sets in much sooner.

Grey owl's carbon Raven/FreeStyle is a good, medium price pointed paddle at ~$200. Fox Werks and several others make workable wood sticks from ~$125 on up.
Marc Ornstein makes the best custom paddles available from ~$300-$400 depending on finish, etc.

The advantage if a custom stick is fit. Marc will have a bag full of demo paddles at the Adk FS event in Raybrook in mid July.

Otter tail
I don’t know anything about freestyle but I have regular canoe paddles and an otter tail paddle. the regular paddle blades are between 7 and 8 inches wide and 20 to 24 inches long. The otter tail blade is only 5.5 inches wide but about 27 inches long. It really lowers my cadence because there is a much longer blade to lift out of and put into the water. It is really better for bracing and turning than my other paddles but far far slower than a bent shaft paddle or the same shaft length for straight ahead paddling.

So for rough water or twisty rivers with deep water I like the otter tail. For shallow water I like the regular shape best. For long hauls in a straight line I like the bent shaft best.

Hope this helps.


Bring your canoe tonight. It’s going to rain so you’ll get wet whether you decide to swim or not.

I’ve got three very different paddles with me today and we can swap out. They’re probably a little long for you, but you can get an idea of blade shape.

I’m the guy with the green Bell Yellowstone Solo :wink:


Ottertail is used when soloing tandem

There are good reasons why that shape is better for tripping in a tandem and for soloing a tandem.

The long length makes it of course a deep water paddle. It has virtually the same surface area as my FS paddles including Dogpaddle. I have a number of otters hanging on the wall and my favorite(blade dimensions) is five in wide by thirty three long… a Kettlewell quill.

THe shape has to do with stress on your body. Sugar Island blades being wide transmit turning surfaces well and thats why they are good for FS. Narrow blades dont that well and thats why they are good for touring if your stroke has a little too much twist in it. They are easier on your body.

If you get a big boat turning it generates a lot of force. Adjusting a boats turn requires a lot of force and you will feel every dyne with a Sugar Island. Its far easier also to twiddle a long narrow paddle to get within an inch of your goal. There are things like pinwheels and dock turns that require lots of fine fast inwater movements that are easier with an ottertail.

FreeStyle is built on a different method of paddling…smaller dedicated solos, using cross moves(for the majority of us cross cant be done centered in tandem), a slow cadence and for each maneuver the stroke number including initiation placement and conclusion at about six or less. Soloing a tandem for the same move may require double the paddle moves.

And most of the ottertails strength lies in its underwater abilities. Seldom does the paddle rise in the air unless for a Canadian stroke.

Much of the length of the ottertail is used to work way under the boat negating the need to correct much. Heel over a tandem and the pivot point is under your knees…as you are a foot inboard at the most it takes little paddle reach to go through the pivot point with each stroke. That lessens the need to do any correcting as the “sidewheel” feature of canoe paddling is in essence gone.

Yes, and if you watch Knight’s freestyle
routine, it is clear she needs a big blade and a lot of leverage to force around even her small boat with a minimum of smooth strokes.

It’s possible to keep a good cadence with a shorter, larger blade as long as one shortens the stroke, getting the paddle out before it passes the hip. That’s where a canoe that does not need to be J-stroked to run straight will be appreciated. I think the Flashfire and Wildfire probably can be managed like that.

No room left
Thanks much, but I have both kayaks on the roof already. And I need the Vela tonight so I can get to someone quickly if needed since I am a leader. I have mail to a couple of our local folks about days for a session at Snyder’s - maybe we can all meet up on a date there. Or I meet you to borrow them for a day.

Comfort vs Performance…

– Last Updated: Jun-09-10 1:34 PM EST –

Same ol' issue Celia....Performance vs Comfort. Karen's pulling an airshow on she's not going to be paddling for miles. As said previously.....Performance paddle(max-catch = wider/[longer]) and one paddle for your touring day(2-6hrs) = a little less "catch" to it. It's all subjective, need to personnaly demo to see what your physical makeup likes.

Tail and quill paddles: primary virtue
… is simply a feeling of tradition, in my opinion. Indians used skinny paddles before they knew how to laminate paddles. Maine guides stood up in boats with 6’+ beaver tails.

The short answer is that I agree with CEW’s pithy: “Best place for an animal paddle? The wall, with something pleasing painted on the blade.”

You can already see contradictions in this thread: tail paddles are better for high cadence; no they’re better for low cadence.

First of all, I disagree strongly that paddles will perform similarly just because they have the same surface area. Would two bike wheels perform similarly if one was tall and thin, the other short and wide, but they both had the same surface contact area on their tires? Of course not.

Note that no serious flatwater racer, whitewater paddler, or freestyle flatwater paddler uses a tail or quill paddle. And I bet darn few wilderness river trippers, although they may own them, use wooden tail or quill paddles when the chips are down in the wilderness and their survival is at stake.

I’m saying all this in order to give a sense of perspective to what I am assuming is a question about a “first canoe paddle” purchase. (Sorry if I’m wrong about that.)

More perspectives are available if one is an experienced single blader. Then, she can paddle anything with anything, and may very well enjoy the subtle varieties of paddle shapes. Secondly, if one has lots of disposable income … what the hey! … buy a bunch of styles, have fun, and experiment.

My favorite all-around straight paddle for whitewater through flatwater freestyle is one I designed myself and had custom made for me by Brad Gillespie. The blade is a Sugar Island variation, about 8.5" by 21.5".

I consider grip shape to be crucial, and custom designed my own, but that would prolong this too much.

I always carry a bent shaft in addition to a straight because I find bents the best for prolonged straight ahead motoring, no matter whether I am kneeling or sitting. There are no tail or quill bents. Think about why.

In summary, as initial all-around paddles for a solo open canoe in flatwater through 1+ swift water, I would recommend:

– a rectangular (Sugar Island-ish) straight paddle, having rounded corners, an elliptical bottom, sloping shoulders and a symmetrical, hooded T/palm grip; plus

– a bent shaft.

I hate to say this but…
You probably have to try as many sticks as you can to figure out what works for you.

It seems to be a pretty personal sort of thing because what I like isn’t what she likes isn’t what he likes.

I don’t believe the animal tail names tell you anything but a general shape.

Better to look at specific models from specific paddle manufacturers.

Me ?

I like my Zaveral ($) standard racing straight shaft paddle for going fast and Freestyle, my Bending Branches Traveler for when it’s too shallow and rocky for the Zav and my Mitchell Premier($) for whitewater.

"is simply a feeling of tradition, in my opinion. Indians used skinny paddles before they knew how to laminate paddles. Maine guides stood up in boats with 6’+ beaver tails."

think glue history and how to make a paddle in the woods.

I invite you to take a course in Canadian Style and bring whatever blade you like. I will have an ottertail for you for comparison. I suspect strongly you belong on the water.

And a sizeable tandem. Plus a buoy course to navigate. Remember those are waterproof grenades. Dont hit them.

I will await you my prey or fledgling (you choose) at AFS.

I vote for 3 paddles -
1. An ottertail style for waltzing the flat water, and REI happens to have one on special for less than $25. I have one of those, and it works fine, mid- weight, so if you want a lighter weight, go to a cherry ottertail.

2. A bent to use when you can see your destination.

3. I believe I have seen some of your posts about kayaks, so you should not be adverse to using your kayak paddle. When you want the best efficiency to get to your destination in sight, the kayak paddle will shine.

I’ll take that challenge.

– Last Updated: Jun-10-10 5:26 PM EST –

I'm your daisy!

Let's use the simplified Glaros FreeStyle Slalom Course. You'll be setting that up for your afternoon course anyway. Touches count and so does time.

I'll be in a Placid StarFire with a Quimby FreeStyle stick.

If those old timey sticks are so efficient, we'd see 'em in use in ICF, which has deep water courses, Slalom, Downriver and FreeStyle. When one wants speed one also wants efficiency to utilize all available power.

That said, damn few of us are getting paid to paddle as efficiently as possible. There's nothing wrong with paddling with a "something's tail" paddle and, if you like reconnecting with voyageurs who drew their sticks out of smallish spruce trees with crooked knives, go ahead!

I have a Kettlewell myself. It mostly hangs on the wall where it belongs, but I exercise it occasionally, if only to have proof positive humans are making SOME progress.

I’m answering a specific question

– Last Updated: Jun-09-10 11:34 PM EST –

Kayamedic, I think your eye is off the ball. The OP is not asking what paddle YOU would prefer to use when giving a 4 minute exhibition of "Canadian Style" paddling in a tandem boat on a pond.

I have seen you using a number of paddles on actual trips and none of them was a tail or quill paddle.

Regardless, the following is the question I assumed the OP was asking and which I was answering:

What blade shape would be the the MOST VERSATILE for a novice canoeist to buy AS A FIRST PADDLE in order to best learn the various strokes to propel, turn and maneuver an open canoe in flat and moving water?

My answer to THAT question is the kind of paddle I recommended.

I have nothing against tail/quill paddles, and own three of them. In fact, I've paddled with YOUR Kettlewell in YOUR exhibition boat. Sweet, but it's just not the paddle I would recommend as the most versatile first paddle for a single blade novice.

As for your challenge on the buoy course, I'll show up at any whitewater slalom venue you choose. You can use the quill paddle you usually use to eddy hop and surf your way down Poplar Hill Falls. I'll borrow a beavertail paddle from John Lugbill or one of the other competitors.