Canoe or Kayak?
A Guide for First-Time Buyers
by Tamia Nelson
You've rented a canoe, or borrowed a friend's kayak. You've gone on
your first outfitted trip. You've taken a paddling course at the local
community college. You've paddled for a few hours, or a few daysor
maybe for a whole summer. Whatever form your introduction to paddlesport
took, and however long it lasted, it's over now, and you know you're
hooked. You want a boat of your own. What do you do next?
If the mail we've been getting is any indication, this is a
surprisingly common question. It doesn't have to be a big problem.
Between us, Farwell and I have ownedone, two, three
I have enough fingers!nine canoes and kayaks, and we've
probably paddled many times that number. Let's see if we can't take some
of the mystery out of buying a boat.
First, the Big Question: Canoe or kayak? What's the answer? It
depends. (See how easy this is?) Sorry. I'm not playing fair, am I? It
depends on what you want.
Kayakseven the short "squirt boats" used by whitewater
sub-marinersare direct descendents of the skin and wood hunting
craft developed by the aboriginal peoples of the circumpolar Arctic. The
name itself comes from an Inuit (Eskimo) language. Whatever their
external form, modern kayaks are fast, efficient, and incredibly
seaworthy. They are not, however, well-suited to carrying great amounts
of bulky gear.
The canoe, by contrast, has a more complicated lineage. While the
name canoe originated with the log-boats of the Caribbean, the
modern recreational canoe's closest relation is probably the birch-bark
canot used in the North American fur trade, itself an adaptation
of Têtes de Boule and Ojibway designs. With the exception of a few
highly specialized boats, today's canoes are maids of all work, capable
of running whitewater rivers, crossing lakes, and transporting hundreds
of pounds of cargoeverything from wall tents to whole moose
carcasses. (I'm talking about open canoes, of coursewhat the Brits
sometimes call "Canadian canoes." Closed canoes are whitewater racing
Back to the Big Question: Canoe or kayak? The answer depends on how
you want to use your boat. If you just want to get out on the water,
either one will do fine. Canoes and kayaks have a very different feel,
of course, but once you've mastered their individual idiosyncrasies,
both will take you across lakes and down rivers, silently and
smoothlyand that's more than enough for many people.
On the other hand, if you want to explore really big lakes or paddle
along the margins of the world's oceans, you'd be wise to choose a kayak
of the type now universally known as a "sea kayak." Long and (more or
less) lean, these beautiful boats bear the unmistakable stamp of the
original Inuit hunting craft. They're fast. They're at home in waves and
wind. In competent hands, they're quite possibly the most seaworthy of
all small craft. Just the thing you want if you have to tow a harpooned
seal through crashing Arctic seas. Or enjoy a summer circumnavigation of
Lake Superior, for that matter. But be prepared to travel light.
Are you an angler or a hunter, a wildlife photographer or a landscape
painter? Does the idea of formal picnics by the water's edge appeal?
(What's a "formal picnic"? Try goat cheese and sausage crostini, grilled
salmon, and roast potatoes, with sorbet and a fruit tart to follow, all
served up on a folding table draped with a linen tablecloth. Not your
style? OK. How about peanut butter and jelly on a slab of bannock, eaten
out of your hand while you squat on a granite boulder and drink a cup of
hot tea, garnished with drowned blackflies? That's just as good, I
think.) Do you dream of month-long trips into the dark forests of the
near North? Then you want a canoeprobably a big, beamy canoe.
Or does the rumble and crash of whitewater set your pulse racing?
Here you have a choice: a short, slippery kayak, or a short, highly
rockered canoe. With either one you can surf the waves and sound the
holes. But be sure you know what you're doing first, and don't
paddle the big drops alone.
Cost will probably play a part in your decision, too. If you're like
Farwell and me, you can't buy every boat that catches your eye, and even
if you can (lucky you!), where would you put them all? More importantly,
how would you find the time to paddle them? In any case, if you buy new,
it will almost certainly cost you more to buy and outfit a kayak than a
There's an alternative, of course. Visit Paddling.net's classified ads, and shop
for a used boat. Even if you're Bill Gate's brother-in-law, this isn't
necessarily a bad idea. Good new boats start looking used after only one
trip, but they stay good boats for yearsif they're stored
properly and well-cared for. Better yet, a used boat makes even a
complete novice look like a "virtual veteran."
What do I mean? Let's eavesdrop on a riverbank conversation between a
New Paddler (with an Old Boat) and a Grizzled Fisherman with two-days'
growth of beard and a battered fly rod:
NEW PADDLER (In reply to a question about a weathered
gouge in his Old Boat, just visible under several layers of peeling duct
tape) "That little scratch?" (A long pause follows, as if the
New Paddler is looking back on many thousands of miles of rivers
run) Oh, yeah, that one. I got that one running Thunderhouse
Falls. Backwards. At midnight."
GRIZZLED FISHERMAN (Obviously impressed) "Sounds real ugly.
You get hurt?"
NEW PADDLER (Now the very image of modesty) "Hurt? Me? Nah!
Piece of cake. Of course, it's one hell of a drop. I wouldn't recommend
it to beginners."
Shortly afterword, the New Paddler gets back in his Old Boat and
shoves off. He's so intoxicated with his success in passing as a
veteran, however, that he leaves his paddlehis only paddleon
the riverbank. When last seen, he's headed downstream toward Salmon
Leap, the local name for a nice little 15-ft falls. His Old Boat will
soon have a few more scratches. Oh, yes
our Grizzled Fisherman
is actually the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and his battered fly rod
is a four-ounce, three-piece Payne split-cane. Appearances can deceive.
Canoe or kayak? That's an easy question. Buy the boat that does what
you want your boat to do, and don't hesitate to buy a used boat, if this
makes it possible to get the boat you want. Just don't think you can buy
experience. Andwhether you paddle a canoe or a kayak, a new boat
or an old onealways carry a spare paddle.
© Verloren Hoop Productions 1999
Canoeists and kayakers have more reason than most folks to care
about the health of the world's waters. We're also more likely to know
when things are going wrong. Next week, Tamia takes a look at what
paddlers can do to help keep things clean. In the meantime, we'd like to
hear from you. Send your comments and questions to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. (No
attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) We won't promise that
we'll answer each letter, but we can promise that we'll read every
oneand we will. 'Nuff said.