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Appalachia boasts some of the wildest rivers on the East Coast, including the Gauley, the Youghiogheny, and the New River. And though whitewater paddling is now popular in the region, it wasn’t long ago that paddlers first started exploring these rivers, designing their own gear and even building their own paddles. Inside Appalachia Folkways Corps Reporter Clara Haizlett spoke with some of these DIY paddle makers about their love for the craft and perhaps more importantly – their love for the water.
It was a cloudy day on the New River. I was in a canoe, pulling a wooden paddle through the water. The lyrics of a Bob Dylan song were stamped on the glossy blade.
The paddle’s maker was Jon Rugh, who was alongside me in a bright blue kayak. He told me it’s one he made for his wife, Rachel.
“I got a bird that whistles. I got a bird that sings,” he sang. “But if I ain’t got my Rachel, life don’t mean a thing.”
Striped with different kinds of wood, the paddle weighed less than I expected. But it felt sturdy, too. Rugh’s paddles are made for whitewater.
Wooden paddles aren’t commonly used on whitewater; most boaters use paddles made from fiberglass and plastic. When I was a raft guide for a summer, I’d occasionally see the flash of a wooden paddle on the river. I would crane my neck to watch it slice through the rapids. It was always the best paddlers who used them and each paddle had its own story.
Rugh started making paddles after studying sculpture and ceramics in college.
“I felt like I had a very wide pool of skills, but it was a very shallow pool,” he said.
He says he wanted to focus on one skill and become an expert at it. He chose paddle-making because of his love for whitewater kayaking.
Today, Rugh runs his own business out of his basement in Blacksburg, Virginia. It’s called Shade Tree Paddles.
In his basement shop, more than a dozen paddles hung on the wall. Both new and old, shiny and cracked, they all crowded together – waiting to get back on the water.
“This is one of the first paddles I ever made,” he said, as he reached for a cobwebbed paddle hanging on the rack.
“I used it maybe once, because it was not very good,” he said with a laugh.
He’s discovered that paddle-making is a slow, complex process that requires specific, high-quality wood.
“You’re making a paddle that somebody’s life is reliant upon, so you can’t make any shortcuts,” he said.
The Inuit are credited with inventing what we know as the kayak and the double-faced paddle. But these designs weren’t made for whitewater, and for centuries, many rivers were largely deemed unnavigable.
But with the technology that emerged from WWII, like fiberglass and synthetic rubber, adventurers took to the rivers – learning to canoe, raft and kayak on whitewater.
“People had to make their own gear, people had to make their own kayaks,” Rugh said. “And then there would be people who would build paddles.”
That includes people like Keith Backlund. In all of my conversations with different paddle makers, I kept hearing his name in particular. They say Backlund revolutionized the craft. His paddles were specifically designed for whitewater and they were so special they were known by his last name.
“They were these prized possessions,” Rugh said. “You’d say, ‘Hey, can I try a paddle?’ And they’d say, ‘Heck no! That’s my Backlund. Nobody touches my Backlund except for me.’”
Backlund died soon after Rugh started getting into paddle-making, but his legacy was carried on by the apprentices he took on during his career – the first of whom was Jim Snyder.
Rugh would study Snyder’s paddles and email him with questions – about both the building process and the business side of things.
“One of the things that Jim told me early on is that paddle-making is a vow of poverty,” Rugh said. “And like most things he is proven to be correct.”
Rugh sells his paddles for close to $600 each. While that might seem like a good chunk of change, when you consider the weeks and sometimes months of labor involved, Rugh says he would be hard pressed to go full-time.
For now, he works at a woodshop to support his family and just makes paddles on the side. But Jim Snyder has been a full-time paddle maker for about 47 years. I called him up at his home in Preston County, West Virginia, to ask him about it.
“Having real financial support for myself would have been a smart thing,” he said with a chuckle. “But I just wanted to play a lot. I didn’t care if I was poor, and hardly had enough firewood.”
Snyder told me it hasn’t been a financially stable career, but it’s been fulfilling.
“If you look at it, from my perspective, there was actually the danger of getting a job that would pull me into some career track that I didn’t really want to be in,” he said. “Because I really wanted to be a paddle-maker.”
Snyder says making paddles is a transformational process. Turning a tree in the ground into a paddle in the water is like bringing the wood back to life.
“When the wood is cut down and stored, it’s like it goes to sleep,” he said. “Then when it’s finally built into a paddle and used on the river, it thinks the wind is still blowing.”
And the paddles he makes are built to last a lifetime. For some paddlers, they are just a stylistic choice. But for Christine Vogler from Asheville, North Carolina, Snyder’s paddles have allowed her to keep kayaking.
“I simply cannot paddle without a Jim Snyder paddle,” she said. “It’s like my lucky charm.”
Vogler has a genetic condition that affects her connective tissue. When she started kayaking, she says her shoulder would dislocate all the time. She tried physical therapy, and eventually had surgery. But she kept having pain until she tried one of Jim Snyder’s paddles.
“I just was able to paddle without pain,” she said. “It was revolutionary for me.”
Paddle makers say wooden paddles aren’t as stiff as the ones off the shelf, making them more gentle on the body. For Vogler, it goes even deeper than that.
“For some reason it feels like you’re more part of the water – working with the water, moving with it,” she said.”Paddling with a wooden paddle feels more spiritual somehow.”
There aren’t many custom paddle-makers in the region like Rugh and Snyder and there’s high demand. Rugh has already started a waitlist for next year, and Snyder has stopped taking any new orders until things slow down.
Snyder says it’s a supply issue. He’s the supply.
“The supply’s not meeting the demand,” he said. “The supply doesn’t want to.”
Snyder says he’s not interested in scaling up. He’d rather spend his time on the river.
“In the summer, I work half a day and go play half a day. And that works just fine,” he said.
Back at his shop in Blacksburg, Rugh slowly chips away at a paddle – carving it slowly with hand tools.
“I’m trying to come to grips with the fact that there’s significantly more efficient ways to do this, but this is kind of how I like to do it,” he said. “So I think I’m just gonna keep doing it that way. Because otherwise it wouldn’t be so much fun.”
Rugh is always experimenting with new designs and trying them out on the river. I asked him if it’s ever frustrating. He said no.
“If I did it right the first time, then I wouldn’t have to build anymore, I guess,” he said.
Rugh says the craft has also kept him focused on being on the water.
“I get jealous of my paddles,” he said. “They get to go out more than I do.”
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.