Deeply rooted in British Columbia, Blackfish Paddles, a SUP paddle building brand, stands not only for designing and manufacturing progressive, refined, handcrafted SUP paddles but advocating for conservation of local marine ecosystems. TotalSUP caught up with Blackfish Paddles Team Rider, Norm Hann, SUP athlete, wildlife advocate and founder of a guiding company Norm Hann Expeditions, to talk about the release of their latest joint project, the Howe Sound film.
Hi Norm, congratulations on the release of the Howe Sound, a visually stunning new film from Blackfish Paddles. Could you share with us some insights into the making of the film?
I was originally approached by David Smart, owner of Blackfish Paddles and a sponsor of mine to do another short film on touring and exploration on Howe Sound. We really wanted to showcase our home waters here in Squamish and the home of Blackfish Paddles. Up to this point, Blackfish Paddles had done two other short films, one with Paddle Canada Instructor and west coast surfer Emre Bosut on paddle surfing in Tofino, B.C called Wildcoast. The second one, Push, was a film focused on racing and training with Jason Bennett in Deep Cove in North Vancouver.
With this third film, Howe Sound, we wanted to showcase SUP touring on the Howe Sound fiord, with it’s dramatic and dynamic landscape and it’s a stunning marine ecosystem. We also wanted to bring some awareness to the return of life to Howe Sound after years of industrial impact. Filmer Kelsey Thompson of Lee Visuals spent five days in Squamish and on Howe Sound getting all the footage we needed for the short film. It all came together pretty quickly. Once you get a chance to see the film you’ll see for yourself how spectacular Howe Sound is. Kelsey did a great job on the film and in the short time he had. I was happy to be a part of this project and to showcase the paddling my backyard.
Could you tell us about yourself?
I’m originally from Sudbury in Northern Ontario where I grew up playing a lot of sports. I played university basketball and then went to teacher college and taught high school and coached basketball for about three years. I grew up enjoying the outdoors of Northern Ontario and with that love I quit my full time teaching job and moved to Vancouver to take an adventure tourism diploma with my goal of working in the outdoor industry. After getting my guiding certifications I immediately found myself working up on the Northern Coast of British Columbia in the Great Bear Rainforest as an outdoor guide.
I started paddleboarding about 10 years ago and set up my business, Norm Hann Expeditions, that offers multiday paddleboarding trips throughout British Columbia and Belize, Paddle Canada Instructor training courses and tours and trips on Howe Sound. In winter I am part of a program called Take a Stand for Conservation (Take A Stand: Youth for Conservation educational program) We present at elementary schools and high schools and talk about our coastline and standing up for the protection of these places while trying to inspire students to look after their own backyard. In the presentations I share a lot of stories on the prolific wildlife of the coast, the First Nations and the conservation expeditions I have done. Currently I live in Squamish, British Columbia with my partner Jen Segger and our 6 year old son Kiel.
Blackfish Paddles is one of the contemporary brands attuned to their values, taking pride in the amazing ecosystem they call home and integrating sustainability, craftsmanship and storytelling. Could you tell us more about your connection to the Blackfish Paddles brand?
What really connected me to the Blackfish Paddles brand are all of these things you mentioned in your question. When I want to work with a brand or a company in the paddle industry there are four areas that I look at and value. 1. Do they have a good product? 2. Do they have good people as part of the company? 3. Do they provide good support? 4. Do they care about the environment? Are they doing anything to lessen their impact and are they contributing to the community as a whole?
Blackfish Paddles answers all four of these questions. They make some of the best paddles on the water and I love using their blades. They have great people behind the product and I really enjoy working with the owner David Smart and sales rep Peter Allen. David has been super supportive, he’s a community builder and he cares about people.
Blackfish Paddles have been leaders in lessening their environmental impact through their manufacturing process and they have contributed finances, time and energy to supporting local environmental initiatives and non profit organization that help protect the environment.
Our film, Howe Sound, reflects all of these values and all of those things I enjoy about Blackfish. I believe this short film is going to go a long way supporting our coastal conservation work here and to bring awareness not only to Howe Sound but to how spectacular and unique our coastline is. A big thanks goes to David and Blackfish Paddles for their support and commitment.
When did you discover the sport of stand-up paddleboarding?
I started stand up paddleboarding back in the 2008. I was inspired when I saw Laird Hamilton paddle surfing overhead waves in Hawaii. I grew up in Northern Ontario and did a lot of canoeing and had a paddle in my hand from a very young age. I have always had a deep love for surfing so when I saw Laird Hamilton surfing those waves with a stand up paddleboard I knew I had to get a board as it combined my passions of paddling, surfing and being on the water. I quickly realized that it was going to be a sport that a lot of people were going to enjoy. I started my business to introduce the sport to people in Canada using my teaching and guiding background and expanded to take people on multi day paddling trips to remote and beautiful locations in Canada.
Why stand-up paddleboarding? What sets it apart from other watersports and outdoor activities?
I came into the sport through my love of surfing but quickly realized that a paddleboard was going to be an incredible tool for exploring our coastline especially once board designs improved to reflect touring vs surfing. I really like the feel of standing on the board and having a much better visual perspective.
I love the multidisciplinary aspects of the sport. The hook was set by surfing but I also got into racing which appealed to my competitive athletic background. Racing on the ocean is an aspect of the sport I love and remember fondly my first Molokai2Oahu Race. I also enjoy river paddling and big coastal expeditions.
I think that for a lot of people that moment where you stand up and start paddling forward is an “aha moment” it’s got a lot of magic in it and it captures a lot of people’s passion whichever direction they want to pursue. All aspects of the sport are built off a solid flat water skill set and it is really important for paddlers to get good flat water training and safety knowledge early on.
I do enjoy other outdoor sports but stand up paddleboarding has captured a lot of the time and I love being on the water. I think the water component for a lot of people provides that energy and inspiration.
What are your Blackfish paddles of choice?
I have to say my favourite Blackfish paddle right now is the Andaman, 520. I love that blade, it’s the one I use for touring and racing. I really like the new shafts that Blackfish Paddles have been using lately, they have a really nice flex characteristic in it and I think it’s just a perfect fit for me and for what I do.
For my multi day expeditions when I am travelling with my inflatable I use the 3 piece Andaman paddle. I think the 3 piece is one of the best paddles that they make. Most of the time you have to compromise using an adjustable paddle or a 3 piece paddle but I find very little compromise with the Andaman. I really recommend it for anyone travelling with an inflatable board but it can also be used as a stand alone paddle for any aspect of the sport.
Another paddle that I use is the Salish, 460. I use that for downwinding and it almost feels like you don’t even have a paddle in your hand, it’s just effortless and doesn’t put any stress on the body. I find it really effective for downwinding when you have that higher stroke cadence.
For my business I use the Nootka, 520 and I find them to be some of the best all round adjustable paddles. We use them for all our tours, lessons, river and surf courses. The Nootka’s blade is virtually indestructible and the paddle has a well designed adjustment mechanism on top of it.
I have not tried the new Viento yet but I have heard great things and I am looking forward to getting it into my hands.
What drives you as a SUP athlete, explorer and adventurer?
What drives me most is my passion for the sport of stand up paddleboarding and my passion for our coastline. I absolutely love the coast and a paddleboard is the best tool for me to explore it and experience it whether it be through touring, racing or surfing. I love the challenge of paddling on the ocean and what I learn from each experience and coastal adventure I take. I also have a passion for leading and teaching others and sharing these wild coastlines with clients so they can build their own connections and experiences.
The film conveys a powerful message of our deep connection to nature but also the negative human impact on wildlife where entire ecosystems are at risk. Howe Sound is a striking example of a natural habitat being almost entirely destroyed and then restored. What is the way forward? In your opinion as a wildlife activist, how can individuals and brands contribute to protecting their local habitats?
One of the things that I have always believed in is people need to experience a place and be moved by it emotionally before they can fully understand it and protect it.
I have often gotten the question “What can I do to help?” I usually turn the question back around and ask “What are your areas of expertise or passion that could contribute to protecting places?” Personally I like to get the message across through paddling and school presentations, others may be great at organizing events, or creating art or speaking to politicians or writing. Maybe it’s just supporting financially or volunteering time. Whatever it is all of these people come together to help as a whole. Don’t ever think that you cannot stand up and make a difference yourself. People are attracted to people with passion and it is amazing what we can do as an individual but even more powerful what a group of motivated people can do together.
The Howe Sound fiord is a really good example of a marine ecosystem that had been degraded through negative industrial impact over the years. Now due to a number of factors Howe Sound is experiencing a miraculous comeback. I think moving forward this area requires a balance and we must respect mother nature while accommodating for the growth Squamish is experiencing. The wildlife and our healthy waters are starting to come back and to me that’s really inspiring and really hopeful. I think Howe Sound can provide that model for a number of places of how to combine conservation and economy. I don’t think we can look at healthy economy without looking at healthy ecosystems anymore. Our health depends on our planets health and Howe Sound can be that shining example of how to move forward and to look after a place while in the midst of tremendous growth.
Paddleboarding with killer whales…What is it like to paddle with this magnificent species?
It was definitely the highlight of the film and a highlight experience for me. I have been out on Howe Sound before with the killer whales but it was years ago. On our return back to Squamish after a day of filming we came across a pod of transient killer whales out in front of Britannia Beach which at one time was the most polluted shoreline in North America. According to the First Nations the Killer Whale or Blackfish, is “often centered around luck, compassion and family. Orcas are known as the guardians of the sea and to some people, orcas represent the strength of love and the bonds of family because of their strong group behaviour.”
We followed the pod for two hours into Squamish and it was incredible to be on the water with them. Sharing the water with the most powerful being in the ocean is humbling and commands respect and gratitude. We were really fortunate that day to capture the footage and I’m really excited people will get a chance to see it in the film. It was like a perfect finish to our film, Howe Sound. I can only think that it was luck and timing for us to be able to capture this on film.
What’s the next Blackfish Paddles project / SUP challenge / expedition on the horizon?
I just came off a trip this past spring that I had wanted to do for a long time and was inspired by an elder in the Gitga’at community of Hartley Bay. Bruce Kirkby and I retraced an ancient trade route, one of many on the coast called the North Coast Grease trail. We followed a portion of the ancient grease trail network, starting in Douglas Channel and Gitga’at Territory near Hartley Bay. We paddled up the Quall River, portaging our inflatables over a height of land and hiking the thousand year old trading route, descended the magnificent Ecstall drainage into the Skeena River, and then toured out into open ocean and north, stopping in Metlakatla before finally finishing in Prince Rupert. It was a trip that connected us to the traditional people of our coast and left us inspired to explore more.
This year Bruce and I are looking at another project up on the North Coast in Haida Gwaii. We have had our eye on this project for three years now but you need the weather to line up to make it happen. The more I explore this coast the more it inspires me to want to keep doing trips. These wild coastlines have the power to transform you and when you have finished a trip it’s not long before you planning the next one.