Changing My Religion with a 4000 Year Old Paddle
By Beau Miles
I tend to buy non-perishable things with the intent of using them until December, 2079. December 21st, 2079 actually, my 100th birthday, where I’ll eat a fat chunk of banana-liquorice cake with a Sheffield made fork, served on a plate I now own, sliced using a knife I’ll keep sharp, lose, and find, for 75 years. Having checked the time on a beautiful time piece to make sure the date is in fact my birthday, I’ll happily throw my watch, plate, knife and fork into the garden where they can dissolve over millennia into dirt. Until that time, I expect my knife, fork, plate and watch to perform without glitch.
Dropping my favourite things from high places, burying them, covering them in salt for weeks at a time, depriving them of oil, or use, is to test my 100-year theory in a short space of time. If gear can bounce back with a lick of oil or a sponge bath to perform much like they did when new, I tend to take photos of them, tell stories about them to Helen, then write letters to the German or Tasmanian who made the thing in question.
When buying stuff, I go through a battery of rational and irrational customs to find out if the item I’m about to own is good, or not. After much deliberation – prodding, patting and sniffing as if it were a newborn child, I spend my hard-earned money, or walk away. It’s a mostly easy decision based on the thing in question being beautifully designed and well made. Practicality beats prettiness every day of the week. Sometimes, rarely, when the thing in question has found itself over time being used as much as being looked at, such as a teapot, things morph to become both beautiful and practical. If Helen and May are safely in the river during a bushfire, these hybrid heirlooms are the things I will throw into my backpack when leaving the house.
Before I was lucky enough to receive a box of goodies from the likes of Patagonia, I spent my cash on the fewest number of items I could. Versatility, dependability, woolliness, thickness, weightlessness, heft, and triple-seamed inoffensiveness after a week of sweat means I’ll likely purchase the item for a premium price. My favourite brands were very much paid for before their co-branded brethren turned up in the mail. Which begs the question why I recently responded to an email from Gearlab to accept a parcel of goods, none of which I needed, and in fact some of which I was sceptical of, or had jettisoned in the past as being superfluous or outdated. At first, I said thanks-but-no-thanks, but after another round of kind emails linked to sublime looking gear being used in mouth watering locations, I said sure, buckling like a parent giving their tantrum fuelled five-year-old a biscuit.
A long cardboard box arrives, housing what looks like a prop for a plane. The Greenland paddle I unpack makes more sense. Designed over millennia by subarctic hunting communities, these long and slender beauties were built on the opportunistic availability of driftwood and small coastal trees producing chunks of hand-width material. Compared to fat, adjustable, modern paddles, I’d always thought the modern use of Greenlander paddles was for lawyer-types who listen to vinyl instead of a playlist on their iPhone. Modern day Greenland paddles seemed to promote a certain type of experience and deep relationship to the culture and history of kayaking, and not necessarily used for going forward any great distance – at least, certainly not going forward better, easier or faster.
Spoiled with adjustable, powerful, bucket-like wings that can pull your arm off if you pull hard enough, I’ve recently settled on 15-degree paddling, whereby one blade is offset marginally from the other, called feathering. Other paddlers, based on the kind of paddling they do, and the conditions they head out in, and likely what they learnt in the first week of their paddling lives, will go with 30, 45 or even 60-degree paddling offsets.
Paddling becomes a fleshy kind of personality trait that’s much like a dimple on your cheek or a scar on your knee. Creaking body, breathing within push and pull, flexing unknown muscles, humming, and all the other things I know intimately to the point of not really knowing at all, makes a paddle feel like you have the world’s longest arms. Tennis players have racquets, sowers have needles, kayakers have paddles- all of which make us capable of extraordinary acts of humanity.
Based on the kind of paddling I’d turned out over a few decades, which is as much about the kind of gear a paddler uses to allow that travel, the thought of paddling anywhere significant with a fence paling that has no left or right, up or down, and gripped with wide hands on a section that’s wide and tapering, seemed like going against a well grooved, liked, attractive part of my everyday. It was like filling the dimple in my wife’s left cheek with chewing gum, which might seem like a good party trick at the time, but might alter my ability to get home safely. Besides, I really like my wife’s dimple, and my current paddle, both are practical and beautiful and low maintenance.
After two days of paddling down Australia’s biggest river, I pull the Kalleq (230cm) from its nifty carry case. It feels great, which feels wrong. Light and simple and firm there’s not an ounce of play in the split/join- called a ferrule, and the carbon fibre coating feels as if I’m rubbing my hand over the bonnet of a new Mercedes. For someone who likes wearing second hand business shirts and drinking tank water with floaties, the experience is clean and unfamiliar, as if I’ve walked into the wrong change room after the longest shower I’ve ever taken. I put one end of the paddle on my shoulder and pretend it’s a rifle, aiming at a twig on a faraway branch. A raven in the tree spooks and flaps off. As I look along the stock of the paddle the sun shines on the hexy, magnificent skin of this new age material. What I hold is stronger than steel and lighter than graphite. It feels magnificent.
For the next seven days, I try not to like the paddle. Actually, I quickly forget to dislike it, or like it, or think about it at all. Much like the easy, third mouthful of water you drink when you’re thirsty, low and behold thirst has completely gone and you’re starring off into the distance without a care in the world. The ultimate compliment when operating at capacity is not thinking- more to the point, not thinking about the very thing that’s making all the moving parts work so well.
I wrote recently in an upcoming chapter of my book that changing your spots as a freckly redhead feels somewhat genuine in that I have spots, and I’ve grown to like them. Smudging them out would be to look back at unfamiliar, avatar version of myself. I imagine Van Gogh looked back at himself with a smaller ear with equal measure of captivation and shock, perhaps even a cursory throb of pain.
Getting rid of freckles or a chunk of ear is much the same as shelving a beautiful American made paddle that has became- or so I thought, a personal piece of my paddling DNA. That is, a piece of gear that I could throw out on my 100th birthday knowing that it still worked beautifully and had served me well, and was part of the whole story of doing and being. So there you have it. I now operate an ancient form of paddle, made from space-age material, as if I’d been handed one when I was a boy, growing freckles and identity.
Thanks for the paddle Gearlab, the pleasure was all mine. Click on this > Gearlab to see this new versions of old kit: https://www.gearlaboutdoors.com/.
*This writing first appeared in my notebook, as is, written beneath an ancient, giant gumtree. The following day our paddling group passed the only living canoe tree I’ve ever seen. The powerful link between what was in my hands, and what the canoe tree meant, was not lost on me. ** Baby May was sent via the stork (long limbed wife) shortly after the paddle, thus the delay in Gum-tree blog turning into a digital version *** FYI: Baby May is super dooper!
- The original article is released on Beau Miles.