Mark Vlaskamp | Canoe Vibes | BEnding Branches Canoe Paddles

Osceola, WI: A Thirteen Hour Detour for a New Paddle

She was always there for me.

She had patience during our humble beginnings learning a J-Stroke with Dad in the brown Houston bayous. Those weren’t quick lessons; I was a stubborn learner. She had toughness getting recklessly slammed into the gunnel of a loaded down Penobscot 17.4 for eight-days and just short of one hundred miles. I never heard a peep sitting for hours catching fish off the coast of Carolina as I jammed her off of the unforgiving oyster beds to push myself closer to the action – only to leave her alone on the porch all night after.

I’m a terrible person. She would never make me sleep on the porch.

Don’t ask her; she would never admit it, but I know she was scared in the big, blue hay barrels of Canada’s Madawaska River. Those rocks were big. They looked unforgiving. That was a long night – a long way from home – for the both of us.

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Along the east coast, she supported me through even the worst of work days somewhere between Florida and Maine. Seldom in front of the camera, she never complained as she powered me toward the other girls – the models for us to stare at, ogle over, and photograph like art while she sat there stuck in the mud, doing her duty as an anchor. Even further, she didn’t ask questions when I forced her through redeye drives along the coast, cramped car-camping living conditions, and that one time when I forgot her on the riverbank in Maryland while I went to the bar.


No matter how much I put her through the day before, she was always ready for wherever life took us when that treacherous alarm sounded the following morning. Scheduling life’s variability on the road is rough; she never complains, but she has started to slow down. Her sharp laminated basswood looks have faded. Her durable, beefy, 126-square-inch blade is now cracked and splitting further by the day. Her charming scratches and character building splinters have overwhelmed her.

It’s no secret. It’s time for a new paddle.

A Small Detour

That is why I drove thirteen-hours across the country to take her home, say goodbye, and find a replacement with Bending Branches self-proclaimed King of Marketing, Andrew Stern.

Any meaningful conversation of premium kayak, canoe, and paddleboard paddles should include the town of Osceola, WI – home to roughly 2,500 people living about 850-miles northwest from my last stop on the Allegheny. Since 1982 – when Dale Kicker and Ron Hultman added a composite tip to their personal wood canoe paddles, the little paddle company in Osceola has been bending, laminating, and adding composite to premium wood branches – setting a standard for quality and craftsmanship.

After four tanks of gas, two thirty-ounce iced coffees, and a couple of energy shots, I pulled off of 95, lost my GPS signal, and ended up just west of the St. Croix River in William O’Brien State Park – covered in mosquitoes and sweating excess caffeine in the 70% relative humidity. If you look closely, my sleeping bag still has sweat stains – little topographic tattoos of sleepless discomfort – from my night outside of Osceola. Don’t let the latitude fool you, summer nights in the Badger State pack a Reggie-White-sized punch.

The sun woke me before my alarm, the mosquitoes disappeared back into the brush, and I prepped for my meeting with Andrew like any other young professional looking to conquer the corporate world – with a passenger seat baby wipe shower and a Cliff Bar.

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Picking the Adventurous Branches

How does that even happen” a Bending Branches employee questioned the six-inch splinters coming from the shaft. It’s not that they hadn’t seen gunnel-tears on a paddle before; it’s that they had never seen gunnel-tears that resembled a St. Croix beaver bite, a six-car pileup downtown on Cascade Street, or an even more disastrous Brett Favre one-year Viking’s contract.

The damage was done; it was beyond repair.

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The walls were cluttered with bulk wood materials, not the plastic crap you see at the big-box sporting goods stores these days. Stacked, organized, and labeled, the wood planks – red alder, basswood, and roasted basswood, together forming the new Java design scheme – patiently waited their turn to be chosen off the shelf and glued together – their first sign of action in an otherwise boring life.

Tonight’s finish line for the juvenile planks: The Apple River – but these poor pieces of wood, comfortably resting on the air conditioned shelves, have no idea what’s coming for the rest of their life. I sure hope they’re not some of those ‘content sitting in the garage until vacation time’ branches off of the tree.

With the help of John Anderson (pictured) – a production specialist in the wood paddles department of Bending Branches – we cut long wood to size for blades, grips, and shafts. Organized piles became disorganized, sawdust took flight, foot traffic in the warehouse hit rush hour, and my out-of-place nature peeked through. The balance of personal craftsmanship and high volume production sent me away to the marketing offices while the experts glued, baked, trimmed, sanded, varnished, and applied the patented Rockguard protection to my new road trip amigo.

Cheese Curds – The Real MVP

The clock struck three. I exchanged glances with Andrew, who handed me my new beautiful, new paddle, and we knew it was time; Therapy Thursday arrived and the workstations on the production floor cleared.

After finishing up watching paddling videos, designing new marketing materials, and struggling through some logistical organization of shuttle cars, Andrew grabbed his six-pack of New Glarus from the work fridge and we went out on our quest to see why Spotted Cow and Leinies’ Wisconsin Red taste better on the river than in the office. In doing our best to catch up with the rest of the crew that wouldn’t wait for the stragglers, it was hard to miss the scenery – rolling corn fields, majestically beaten down hillside farms, and cows – lots of cows.

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Therapy Thursday is the Bending Branches crew’s weekly adult recess – heavy emphasis on the word adult. No need to bring the bottle opener; Mac will help you out using the blade of his camo-laminated Bending Branches Angler Pro – a universal feature overlooked on the product’s website listing. Thursday evenings in Osceola are for paddling, drinking, sharing out-of-office stories, and, ultimately, ending with a plateful of Wisconsin cheese curds – white cheese, the orange cheese is just extra food coloring.

The new paddle did great. As I packed the car from our five-mile, now-buzzed, recreational slide through some Badger State rapids and carp-filled flatwater, I tossed her in the car just like the old one, proudly sporting her new scratches – skipping the welcome tour and orientation as my cheese curds were getting cold.

I’ll never forget the old one. She set the standard for many paddles to come in my life. The road she has paved will make it easy for her successors to go on bigger adventures with better paddling, eventually leaving her accomplishments at the bottom of the totem pole. Nobody climbs Everest in their first pair of hiking boots. Still – with a path to greatness cleared for the paddles of my future – I hope they turn out to be half the adventurer and friend that she proved to be over the last couple of years.


canoeing, editorial, gear review, road trip, trip reports

Mark Vlaskamp

After four years as Marketing Director for Yak Gear, Mark now partners with creative outdoor brands and pursues the gray area between freelancing and (f)unemployment. Currently, he is floating between Austin and Houston, TX - still searching for new water, cool people, and cheap beer.

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