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FOREST CITY -- To make the perfect canoe paddle takes much more than a carpenter's understanding of how to marry various woods for strength and beauty.
It takes a paddler's understanding of the water.
Chuck Schoolmeesters of Forest City brings both of those attributes together in a backyard shop where he retreats on many a winter day to fire up the wood stove, put the tensions of the work-a-day world behind, and create handcrafted paddles.
His Crow River Paddles are works of beauty, constructed of laminates cut from woods that strike his fancy. His personal favorites are woods like red cedar and mahogany, but he loves to experiment.
"I hate to see good wood go to waste,'' said Schoolmeesters, explaining how he is always on the watch for woods to use, whether they are found in the lumberyard or still standing in someone's grove. Butternut and birch, black walnut and basswood, cherry and even an Osage orange from Missouri are among the woods waiting to be shaped for durable blades made whole with sturdy shafts of ash.
The final products are so attractive that much to his chagrin, some of his earliest models ended up on walls.
Now, he won't take an order without a customer's promise that the paddle will see water.
"That's what they are made for,'' he said.
To solve the dilemma for those just looking for beauty alone, he's started making a decorative paddle on special order.
But his real passion is creating paddles that make possible adventures on prairie rivers and north country lakes.
Or, exactly the waters he spends so much of his own time.
Schoolmeesters loves to canoe the North Branch of the Crow River which runs gentle and quiet alongside the family's farm land near Forest City. He has never tired of the stretch of river that leads to Forest City, or for that matter, the downstream run that leads him to Kingston.
Last summer, he paddled his favorite stretch of the river more than two dozen times, and was rewarded every time. He spotted his first otter on the river last year.
He knows the quiet pleasure of surprising eagles and waterfowl along the river. And when so inclined, he loves tossing his fishing pole and tackle in the canoe and just maybe bringing home the essentials for a fish fry.
Not surprisingly, these kinds of pleasures are infectious and there is no one in the Schoolmeesters household immune from them. His wife, Linda, daughters Nikki and Kelly and son, Adam, have all become his paddling and camping partners. Every year he leads them on a summer adventure to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota.
The lessons learned on the water are carried into the shop, where they shape the paddles he crafts. Schoolmeesters crafts paddles with straight, bent and double-bent shafts holding either an elongated, beaver tail-shaped blade or a wider but shorter sugar island-style blade.
His paddles are light but strong, but most important, perfectly balanced. Schoolmeesters said having the right balance or pivot point on a paddle is essential to avoid wear and fatigue on the shoulder.
Similar thought goes into the paddle blades. The elongated beaver tail is ideal for the flatwater canoeist who enjoys a steady, deep stroke. The sugar island blade provides the same surface area and thrust, but its wider blade enhances control for running moving water.
He's also developed a short, spatula-shaped paddle that is ideally suited for running shallow waters like those he finds in the Crow River as the summer progresses.
The river's rocky bottom also led him to develop his own formula for an epoxy trim he adds to the paddle blades to protect them from rocks.
Schoolmeesters credits his early love for paddling to having grown up on the family farm alongside the Crow River. He can attribute his skills as a carpenter to genetics as much as a farm upbringing. He has no fewer than seven uncles who are carpenters.
But he said his passion for crafting paddles was inspired by no more than seeing a buddy build his own paddle while they were attending high school in 1978 and thinking: "I can do that.''
He's been proving it to himself ever since 1984. His paddles have gotten lighter in weight and more varied in style, but one thing has been constant. He loves creating the paddles as much as he enjoys putting them to use.