I’ve always considered myself a bit of an asocial eccentric. I hate crowds. I like being alone in the woods. And I like objects that are utilitarian but well made: wooden canoe paddles, axes, and now pipes.
We don’t have too many lakes in Alberta (where I live). The canoeing in this part of the country consists primarily of whitewater river playing, running, and tripping. As such, the paddles I and my compatriots use most have to be powerful and indestructible, like the Werner Bandit. Beautiful in their own way, Werner paddles do lack something: the simplicity and warmth of wood.
At least once a summer my wife and I try to venture farther afield for an extended canoe trip. The lakes and gentler rivers of Northern Saskatchewan are a common destination. On a lake, nothing beats the feel of a wood paddle. With a pleasing shape, appropriate flex, and a thin profile, a good wood paddle is silent and nearly effortless in use. A graceful engine for a graceful craft.
Mountain Equipment Co-op carries several paddles from Redtail Paddle of Hastings, Ontario. I have several custom laminated Redtails in the “ottertail” shape. The grip of the most recent addition highlights the handcrafted nature of these paddles and the rough hewn surface rests beautifully in my hand.
I recently acquire a Grey Owl Voyageur 7″ (also available at MEC). While they lack some of the handcrafted sophistication of Redtails, Grey Owl paddles also lack some of the price. I intend the Voyageur to be a trusty lightweight spare for lake trips. It will usually only come out in shallower water, or on short river sections between lakes. On our recent 10 days on the MacLennan Lake Big Circle route the Voyageur got lucky and was used every kilometre — I loaned it to a fellow tripper rather than have them suffer the institutional plastic and aluminium rental they’d been stuck with.
Last year, I bought a guide to making wooden paddles. I didn’t get around to making my own paddle(s) last winter and my spokeshaves still long to shape raw wood into beautiful objects. This winter, I swear.
For many years I’ve had to keep myself from buying a pipe. I have strong memories of the smell of my fathers pipe tobacco and smoke. I remember visiting the tobacconist with him as a child and watching the proprietor make a custom blend. And when I’m in the wilds on a trip, on warm calm evenings, or watching leaves turn colour and fall, I always think the world would be a better place if I had a pipe in hand. A pipe, in theory, is a simple object. But with skill and imagination, pipemakers create pipes of near infinite variety.
So, last week, I bought my first pipe. I did a bit of research on-line before hand. I knew the style of pipe I wanted: a curved briar with a rough finish in or around the $50 mark. At Epicure (formerly Cavendish in Moore), the shopkeeper showed me several pipes of this style from Brigham, a Canadian pipemaker based in Toronto. The style I chose is called the Voyageur 136 (appropriate, as the aforementioned recent canoe trip in Northern Saskatchewan help me make up my mind to finally purchase a pipe). (Coincidentally, the Grey Owl Voyageur paddle is exactly $50 dollars too.) I’m still in the process of breaking in my pipe and resolve to use it only occasionally (less than once a month, and preferably on trips).
The appeal of pipe-smoking is that it is a personal affair — a unique form of expression. As a video blogger on YouTube put it, “It’s your pipe — smoke it how you want.” What will my pipe taste like on a dark winter’s eve, with large snowflakes falling and the crisp sound of snow crunching underfoot? Probably just fine.
I’ll wager not too many city-folk give much thought to axes as aesthetic objects. Even people living in the country, or in the bush, likely think of axes simply as utilitarian devices made for a rough purpose: chopping wood. They are, but to me that makes them beautiful works of art as well. Like a canoe, the more stripped down an axe is in form and material, the better it does its job and the greater joy it brings the user.
Unfortunately, axes have fallen on hard times in this modern world. Most axes are mass produced eyesores that don’t really do their job (effortless cut wood). Lee Valley hardware carries a line of axes produced by the Swedish firm Gransfors Bruks. Gransfors Bruks specialize in creating hand-forged heirloom axes in traditional shapes and sizes. Heads receive no cosmetic treatment after being shaped by the forging hammers. Slight imperfections do not detract form their utility and are evidence of the skill of the maker. In fact, each smith stamps his or her initials in every axe head as a commitment to quality. The axe heads are mated to rough hewn handles soaked in linseed oil. These are not mass-produced, anonymous factory axes. Gransfors Bruks axes are infused with the soul and art of the individual craftspersons involved in their production, and are a joy to hold and use.
I recently added several more axes to my growing collection. As August draws to a close, and my mind starts to sense the not-too-distant cooling of autumn and the changing colours of the leaves, my intuition tells me that I should go into the woods to chop firewood. The ring of the axe, the sweat on my brow, the straining of muscles: precursors to the cold snows of winter and the chill of night fended off with a crackling flame in the fireplace.
Gransfors Bruks axes are supplied with handsome covers made of quality leather, but most hardware store axes come with no cover, or worse (because of the wasted material) a poor quality cover that provides no real protection (to axe or user) or which wears out after a season. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point-of-view), axes come in a myriad of shapes and sizes and it is nearly impossible to find a mass-produced axe cover that will work with your axe.
Needing to upgrade several of my axe covers, I recently manufactured my own. In the process I discovered Tandy Leather Factory. There are a lot of ways to work, shape, assemble, and use leather and this shop supports a lot of weird sub-cultures: bikers, cowboys, hippies, crafty moms, and self-styled lumberjacks.
In the coarse of several days, as many trips to the shop, and hours spent researching leathercraft on-line, I got hooked. My first axe cover turned out better than expected. But the desire to improve at the craft required learning new skills, and acquiring more specialized tools. Cutting, dyeing, and riveting, led to stamping, tooling, edging, and stitching.
In a short time I’ve time acquired the skills and tools necessary to make just about anything I could desire (anything made from leather anyway). A second axe cover led to a wonderfully simple and effective tobacco pouch and pipe case. (Remember the pipe? And yes, that is a cat smoking a pipe stamped on the pipe case.) After the pipe case I made a nifty case for attaching a pen and pencil to my Moleskine notebook (another brand imbued with utility, simplicity, and purpose). I’ve got a long list of leather projects to undertake. Some I’ll save for those cold winter nights, cooped up by the fire.