Imagine being out in the frigid water. The waves are crashing and the wind is blowing. Every stroke of the paddle has the boat thrown into strong swirling whirlpools. This is the life of kayakers in the Pacific Northwest.
The most vital things for a kayaker are their kayak and their paddle, both of which can be supplied by local business owners in Whatcom County.
For nearly five years, NorthPoint Paddles, a business based in Bellingham, has been handcrafting wooden paddles. They are often referred to as Greenland Paddles. NorthPoint Paddles is owned by Randy and Brita Isselin.
Randy Isselin has designed paddles for both leisure kayaking as well as a model specifically used in harsher conditions, something Whatcom County and surrounding areas are known for.
Randy recalls seeing people out on the water using skinny paddles and wondering how they worked. After doing research and finding instructions, he built his first Greenland paddle and has not looked back since then.
“I couldn’t believe how it was performing,” Isselin said. “As you stroke through the water, it goes through easier. Once you reach hull speed, you can maintain it for a longer time without getting fatigued.”
These paddles feature a blade that is skinnier than the standard blades and are lighter and easier to handle.
“The design of the blade is originally done by people in Greenland. They designed it this way for when they would be out in the open ocean fishing and hunting for miles,” Brita Isselin said. “It has the same blade surface as a regular kayak paddle but it cuts through the water easier, like cutting butter with a knife.
The process for crafting these paddles is extensive and tedious. Isselin first carves the wood into the exact shape he wants and sends them off to Bay Engraving for the logo design.
When they return, his mother-in-law Beth Becklund starts the oiling process and all of the finishing work. She coats the paddles multiple times with teak oil completely by hand. Randy’s father Norm Becklund works on the packaging and shipment of the paddles. Randy’s wife Brita takes on the administrative side of the business and all the orders.
“Everybody has their hand in [the business],” Becklund said.
Mac Carter is one of NorthPoint’s customers and has been kayaking for over 25 years. He’s used various paddles, but after purchasing a Greenland paddle he’s stuck with it ever since.
“Randy makes really good paddles. I’ve seen a lot, I’ve tried a lot. Randy’s are beautifully crafted, his angles, the construction, is as good or better than any Greenland paddle I’ve ever seen,” Mac Carter said.
Carter was hesitant at first with the Greenland paddle.
“I didn’t know about them until four or five years ago and they were a little mysterious to me. I couldn’t imagine paddling through the water with a 2-by-4,” Carter said. “The surprise that occurs for people with the Greenland paddle is that it requires a better paddle stroke. It demands that you do it beautifully and that you use your torso.”
Using this kind of paddle forces a kayaker to have a strong form for full advantage. Unlike a Euro blade, which has a spoon-like figure, the Greenland blade requires a specific stroke to get much out of it.
“You get equal amount of power out of a Greenland blade like you do with a Euro blade as far as speed, but you use less energy and it puts less stress on your shoulders,” Carter said.
While the Greenland paddle is becoming more popular, there are still many people who have never heard of it or who know little about it.
“There’s a lot of people with questions. I’m constantly teaching people what the benefits of these paddles are,” Isselin said.
Sterling Donalson, who’s been in the business for 30 years, is the owner of Sterling’s Kayaks and Fiberglass. Donalson previously worked with Isselin and both are heavily involved in building quality products within the kayaking world.
“What I love about the sport is the actual building of the boats and recognizing what creates good performance and what creates bad performance, making adjustments and always creating something new and different,” Donalson said.
Donalson builds hand-crafted kayaks with the use of fiberglass, carbon composites and other quality products to create the best kayaks possible.
At Sterling’s Kayaks and Fiberglass, they want their main focus to be quality, not looks.
“That’s the one thing about kayaks, it goes beyond the skin. They have to work, they have to last,” Donalson said.
Carter uses a kayak built by Donalson called “Illusion,” and loves the quality that comes with using high-end products.
“Sterling is really good at boat design,” Carter said. “I think he builds the best boat in the business. I’ve never found a boat that handles better than his ‘Illusion.’ He knows something that the other people haven’t figured out,” Carter said.
For someone like Carter who has paddled in places all over the coast, he’s seen the different aspects of kayaking and what makes each area unique for different types of paddling.
“I’ve paddled a lot of the west coast of the United States. I think [Whatcom County] is a pretty unique area. There are enough options for any level of paddler to get out there. To be able to paddle around with orca whales is scary and awesome,” Carter said.
Carter encourages kayakers to be involved in local clubs. The Whatcom Association of Kayaking Enthusiasts and Hole in the Wall Paddling Club both offer classes to gain skills for all conditions.
Whether a kayaker has the best equipment and has been a part of the sport for years, or is just getting involved, there is a place for everyone.
“Kayaking is a fantastic sport. It’s great for getting into the outdoors, exercising and just enjoying what God has given us,” Isselin said.