Gary Garth, Special to USA TODAY
Published 4:08 p.m. ET Feb. 12, 2019 | Updated 7:28 p.m. ET Feb. 12, 2019
MURRAY, Ky. – Wedged between a produce stand hawking tomatoes and squash and another showcasing an enormous pile of sweet corn going fast at $4 a dozen, Alonzo “Lonnie” Carver is showing a man a thin-handled, double-bladed paddle. The lightly veined blond wood practically shimmers in the morning sunshine.
“This one is made of ash,” Carver tells his potential customer. “But I can make one out of anything you want as long as I can get the wood.”
The paddle is about 7 feet long with blades the width of your fist. Sleek. It’s designed for fast paddling and quick handling and is one of about four dozen paddles Carver has on display. There is something here for nearly every paddling style, from sculling a jon boat across a farm pond to shooting the rapids on the Upper Ocoee.
Carver’s customer reaches for the paddle and makes a few strokes through the humid air. Cash exchanges hands.
That’s how it is at the Saturday morning farmers market, not only in this college town but across the country, where locally grown produce and handcrafted tools are making a comeback.
Carver’s stand caught my eye. I own two canoes and several kayaks and enjoy traveling and fishing by paddle power. Paddles, which vary in style, size and shape almost as much as the men and women who use them, are unique to the boat and the paddler – or they should be, says Carver, who is comfortably into middle age, ramrod straight, flat-bellied and soft-spoken.
“Yeah, you want the right paddle. One that fits you,” says Carver, who lives in Buchanan, Tennessee, where he arrived a few years ago by way of Bay Head, New Jersey, where his father was a boat builder and his great-grandfather had been a sea captain.
He plucked a canoe paddle from the display rack.
“You want a paddle to be the right length,” he says. “That’s really important. You want it to hit the water without you having to bend your back too much. If you’re reaching when you paddle, then your paddle is too short. It’s not going to be very comfortable and you’re probably not going to have much fun.”
Determining proper paddle length is hardly an exact science but there are guidelines. For a single-bladed canoe paddle, Carver advises the paddler to stand and measure from the ground to the nose.
“You want the handle to be between your chin and nose,” he said. “For me, that’s about 62 or 63 inches. It’ll be a little more for you because you’re a little taller than I am.
“It’s different for a kayak,” he continues. “You want to sit down in the kayak and measure from the ground to your forehead. You want the blade to start at about your forehead. And you want the paddle (blade) to extend about as far as you can reach. I’m 5-11 so I want about a 7-foot kayak paddle.”
Blade styles largely depend on use and personal preference. But generally, the wider the blade, the more water it will move but the less efficient it will perform. A longer, narrower blade is generally preferred for more maneuverability. “You can keep a narrow blade in the water longer,” Carver explains.
His preferred wood: sassafras.
“A lot of people might not think of sassafras,” he says. “I like it because sassafras is strong and light and flexible, so you can make the blade thinner. It won’t rot. And it darkens over time. Walnut is good, too. But it’s a little heavy.”
I later learn that two 6-foot pieces of timber in the bed of Carver’s truck, each about the diameter of a soccer ball, will be turned into oars.
Carver has been making paddles for about a decade. It started as a hobby and has expanded to be a little more than that. Of the four dozen or so paddles he was showing several had been adorned with outlines of crappie, bass or trout. One blade was shaped to resemble an arrowhead.
Those, he confessed, were mainly for his wall hanging customers.
“I can make whatever someone wants,” he says. “I like for people to use my paddles, but you’d be surprised at the number of people who want something they can just hang on the wall. And that’s okay. I just want people to enjoy them.”