GearWater Sports

A New School Ode to an Old School Adventure Craftsman

"Working at the Cheat Suite." Photo: Janis LeMieux

Roughly a month ago, on the evening of October 25, master woodworker and paddlemaker Keith Backlund took his last breath in the Stalker, Pennsylvania, home where he grew up. Since then, a stream of remembrances and condolences have rippled across the Web.

A few important things can be learned about Backlund from the on-point obituary written by Charlie Walbridge for American Whitewater. He was born in the Pocono mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania. He began making wood paddles after taking up whitewater kayaking. He founded the mainstream paddle companies Woodlight and Viking. He made sure to share whatever he learned with a number of apprentices. He was one of a kind. "He knew wood and woodworking better than anyone we know and his paddles were probably the finest ever produced," wrote Walbridge.

"Artist at Work." Photo: Janis LeMieux

The Walbridge obit linked to Marci Lynn McGuinness' 2002 oral history of Backlund, where even more can be learned about the paddlemaker's evolution. At seven years old, he started carving axe handles, which he sold for $15 to $20 a pop. At 13, Backlund made his first canoe out of a $60 kit he ordered from Boy’s Life magazine, after saving all his pennies from selling Grit newspapers and trapping muskrats. Soon after, he took his boat out on the Delaware River, where he backendered. While swimming to shore with the canoe, he was helped by a guy in a kayak. “I go, ‘Wow!  Where’d you get that? I need one of those!’" Backlund said. "New York City was about two hours away. My art teacher was kind enough to drive me to the city, and I bought a kayak. I was probably the only nut in about a hundred-mile radius that had a kayak. It cost $260.”

Soon after, Backlund started crafting paddles. In 1966, he sold his first one. By the early '70s, he was working in a shop from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. At first, he made one every 60 days. But over the course of the next 30 years, between 1972 and 2002, his pace increased and he made roughly 8,000 paddles. He used a quiver of 25 knives to shape each stick while sitting on one wooden stool that he had carved into the shape of a tractor seat.

"This tree is probably still going down rivers." Photo: Janis LeMieux

The obit and the oral history offer a look at the shape of the man, but it's a Facebook page with remembrances that provides a sense of his finish. There, Janis LeMieux posted old photos with captions that come off the screen like banter. Other friends shared stories. Joe J. Pulliam said Backlund made him a 68" flatwater canoe paddle (“an early SUP paddle....Keith was always ahead of his time!") in exchange for cleaning up his shop. Daiva Chesonia said Backlund made her a beautifully carved wooden spoon that she still uses to eat yogurt 22 years later. Students offered up stories from his teaching sessions. Eliza M. Gilligan commented that when he saw her sanding a gnarly piece of veneer, he said it was “so crooked not even a black snake could follow it,” and handed her a new piece to attack. John Mason said when he came in to the shop, Backlund made sure to preach his three tenets of the Backlund School of Home Business. "Never let business interfere with your personal affairs. Never argue with experts. If not for the last minute, most things wouldn't get done."

The different remembrances offered a variety of looks at Backlund, but one brief comment from Daniel McMullen best sums up his legacy: “Those Backlund sticks were one of a kind pieces of art, just like you. Farewell Keith, you will live on in the hands of many...”

A finished Backlund paddle. Photo: Bill Kirby

—Joe Spring

Our mission to inspire readers to get outside has never been more critical. In recent years, Outside Online has reported on groundbreaking research linking time in nature to improved mental and physical health, and we’ve kept you informed about the unprecedented threats to America’s public lands. Our rigorous coverage helps spark important debates about wellness and travel and adventure, and it provides readers an accessible gateway to new outdoor passions. Time outside is essential—and we can help you make the most of it. Making a financial contribution to Outside Online only takes a few minutes and will ensure we can continue supplying the trailblazing, informative journalism that readers like you depend on. We hope you’ll support us. Thank you.
Contribute to Outside
Filed To: Paddling
More Gear