Paddling Across History

December 7, 2012 (Updated December 7, 2012)

Oregon’s fastest-growing water-based recreation, flatwater kayaking, enjoys popularity because it is simple to get involved: all you need is a paddle, a PFD (Personal Flotation Device) and a 16-foot kayak to explore the great Oregon outdoors on the water.

But what we call recreation is actually based upon tried-and-true tradition and skills learned through generations over thousands of years. Oregon is blessed with so many different places to enjoy an afternoon paddle adventure; perhaps a favorite pond, lake, estuary or a quiet stretch of slow moving river.


Don Beale and his partner, Joanne Barta, agreed that a paddle is perfect cure for what ails anyone during winter’s short days – especially on a rare, sunny December morning.

“Normally at this time of year, it’s 70% chance of rain,” said Beale as he slid into the comfy confines of his home-built kayak. “But today, it’s 70% chance of sunshine! I love it.”

Beale is a longtime kayaker who builds his own kayaks, historic boats that are built upon traditional lines and from favored woods like fir, spruce or cedar. He said that the designs are centuries old. “I took it up because it was inexpensive, but more than anything I see more critters. I am closer to the water and closer to the wildlife so what’s not to like – no limits that way,” he said.

But his real passion is that which moves him – the paddle.

“The paddle is your connection to the water,” said Beale. “Every stroke you take, you feel the water. There’s a unique connection to the place you’re visiting through the paddle and I think that is special and I like that.”

Beale can turn a cedar 2-by-4 into something truly special in just a couple hours. In Beale’s Forest Grove workshop, his cuts are square and even, but it isn’t long before you see the secret in Beale’s Paddles: the shape is long and skinny. He said that his “skinny” paddles mean less “bite” in the water when you stroke them, and that means less pressure on the paddler’s wrists, arms and shoulders.

“I have always been into woodworking and I became interested in paddles when I realized I could make one better than I could buy it. That’s what really set me on this path.”

While the idea may seem new and innovative, Beale noted that Native Americans knew this fact hundreds of years ago, and it’s reflected in their designs and that was the source for his own ideas about kayaking paddles.

Flatwater kayaking is fun! It’s easy to see why it is Oregon’s fastest-growing water-based recreation. Not only affordable, but flatwater kayaking is relatively easy to master. With proper safety equipment, a kayak can take you into places that larger boats can’t get into.

Harvey Golden is betting more people will have fun paddling across history at his new Lincoln Street Kayak and Canoe Museum in SE Portland. It’s a good place to drop in and get grounded in the past.

“There are hundreds of boats in museums,” said Golden. “But only about 15 percent of them are on exhibit. It’s really hard to visit a museum and see kayaks, so I wanted to provide that opportunity to the public.”

Golden spent years traveling the world, visiting museums and researching the oldest original kayak designs on record. Then he built them; 70 of them to date. 40 of those are on display in his new museum.

So is his book, “Kayaks of Greenland,” an amazing text that provides photos and drawings of historic kayak designs and describes the history of kayaking — a history that reaches back 500 years. Golden even ‘paddles the talk’ too. Once summer, he paddled 800 miles of the Columbia River in one of his hand-built historic kayaks.

Beale and Golden agreed that flatwater kayaking opens the door to new adventure that’s right at home on Oregon’s diverse waterways.

“There’s something special about being the captain for your own boat,” said Golden. “The paddler can go wherever on Oregon’s rivers or bays and lakes and explore. That feeling is incredible!”

It is easy to find incredible places to explore through the Oregon State Marine Board’s remarkable Oregon Boating Access Map. The interactive map provides detailed facts and directions and critical boating information to hundreds of ramps, launches and marinas. It is a tool that every boater – no matter the level of marine experience – will find useful.

About The

Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.