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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Starting Out in Canoeing

Part 2: A Canoe for All Reasons

by Farwell Forrest

Once, many years ago, the state of New York paid me to canoe the length of the lower Battenkill, all the way from the border with Vermont to the small city of Greenwich. It was pleasant work, to be sure, but it wasn't really a taxpayer-subsidized holiday: I was employed to survey the Battenkill streambed and map concentrations of blackfly larvae, in preparation for a trial of a then-experimental biological larvicide.

I made my map, but the proposed trial was never carried out. Several of the scientists involved in the work pointed out that testing an experimental larvicide in one of the nation's best-known and best-loved trout streams might be unwise. What would happen, the scientists asked, if things went badly wrong, and dead trout started washing up in the hundreds? The lab director didn't get the point at first, though. He began to talk about night operations. Streamflow measurements were made. Release points were chosen. We technicians were told to meet at the lab in the early morning hours, when—presumably wearing dark clothing and stocking caps, our faces blackened with burnt cork—we were to disperse to the release points, hump tanks of the larvicide to the stream's edge, dump the stuff in, and disappear before the sun rose. The scientists, we were told, would take it from there.

Well, to make a long story short, a few of us technicians had other ideas, and one of the more courageous scientists joined us. Together, we put an end to this nonsense. The trial was cancelled. Not without cost, however. Many of us technicians soon found that our services were no longer required, and the lone scientist who'd supported us learned later that his contract wouldn't be renewed.

That was the last time anyone paid me to paddle a canoe. In fact, very few folks earn their living with a paddle in hand nowadays. Not so long ago, though, the canoe was a working craft. Well into this century, it was still the "packhorse of the North." In the era before Twin Otters and choppers, an army of back-country professionals did their jobs from the seat of a canoe. Prospectors and timber cruisers, forest rangers and wardens, trappers and traders, even nurses and accountants—all went about their daily rounds afloat through half the year.

That's all changed now, of course. Today, the overwhelming majority of canoeists paddle for the fun of it. This is no reason to ignore the lessons learned by past generations of working canoeists, though.

Here's what I mean. If you're just starting out in canoeing, and if you follow Tamia's recommendations, you'll postpone buying your first canoe until you're no longer a novice. This time will come sooner than you think, though. Before you know it, you'll be in the market for a boat of your own.

Now comes the Big Question: Which one should you buy? It's not an easy decision. A quick look at Paddling.net's newly-launched Interactive Buyers' Guide will show you that there's a lot to choose from. Dozens of manufacturers. Hundreds of boats. If you're starting cold, you'll have to work pretty hard to narrow down the field

But maybe not. By the time you've rented a few boats, and borrowed a few more from friends, you may already have a good idea what canoe you want. Perhaps you've fallen in love with one particular design, or perhaps you've decided that you want to race. In either case, your decision will be an easy one. If you've fallen in love, you'd be foolish not to listen to the counsels of your heart. If you want to race, you'll have to buy whatever boat you need to keep ahead of the competition. In either case, all the hard work is done. There's nothing left for you to do but write the check and take delivery. Your first canoe! It will be a happy day.

Let's suppose, however, that you haven't fallen in love with one particular boat, and, furthermore, that—while you may enjoy the occasional informal race—you're not interested in serious competition. There are dozens of manufacturers. Hundreds of boats. You've got your work cut out for you.

Don't panic. It's a big job, but it's not an impossible one. Make things as easy on yourself as you can. Limit the field.

How? Simple. Take a lesson from the folks who did their work in a canoe. They usually couldn't pick and choose. One boat had to do everything. A solo paddle across the lake, or a freighting job with a half-ton of gear. Flat water and fast. Running ice at break-up. Spring floods well over the banks and racing through the trees. The stony shallows of high summer. Fishing and laying nets. Stalking and shooting. One boat. All kinds of work. No choice.

What sort of boat was this one, do-everything craft? More often than not, it was a deep, beamy canoe, with a flat or slightly-rounded bottom, moderate rocker, and reasonably sharp ends. How long? Seventeen feet, more or less. Some were sixteen. Some were eighteen. Long enough. How long? Long enough to take two people and gear for a month through some of the wildest, most remote country in North America, but still short enough to be managed by one competent paddler—in all but gale-force winds, that is. And still light enough for one reasonably-fit man or woman to portage on trails that sometimes seemed to go straight up..

What's all this add up to, then? Stripped of romantic hyperbole, it's a 16'-18' canoe with a 34"-37" beam, 13"-15" depth amidships, and moderate rocker. Material is optional. ABS, polyethylene, fiberglass, Kevlar, aluminum, or wood-canvas—all can be made to serve, although a wood-canvas boat will cost two to three times what a plastic boat will. It won't necessarily be less durable, however. Wood-canvas boats require regular maintenance, of course. And they won't hold up as well as thermoplastic boats if you insist on bashing them into rocks regularly, or dragging them fully-loaded up stony beaches every day. When treated with a little care, though, wood-canvas boats are both long-lasting and dependable. If you have the money, don't rule them out.

Need some examples to guide your decision? Canadian filmmaker and author Bill Mason's workhorse was a 16' Chestnut "Prospector." James West Davidson and John Rugge took 17' Grummans to the Moisie River, and concluded that "it's tough to find a better boat." (These "tin tanks" are now made by Marathon Canoes.) A regular reader of this column can't find enough good things to say about his Swift "Algonquin 17." On the other hand, a couple of river-running friends swear that there's no better boat than the Mad River "Explorer" in either Royalex (ABS) or 'glass.

And who knows? They may be right. Not surprisingly, though, Tamia and I have our own nominee: the venerable Old Town "Tripper"—the "canoe they threw off the factory roof." From local beaver ponds to James Bay, our "Tripper" has stuck with us through just about everything that man and nature could throw in our path. We've owned canoes from twelve feet long to twenty, and we've had fun in them all, but only the "Tripper" has really won our hearts.

Now your turn has come. You've served your apprenticeship in other folks' boats, and you're ready to buy your first canoe. Don't panic. Enjoy the process. Start your search by looking at the boats whose design reflects the wisdom of generations of working canoeists. You won't go wrong. Sure, you'll probably buy other, more specialized, canoes sooner or later, but whenever you need a boat that can do everything, you'll find yourself coming back to one of the "packhorses of the North." It's not a bad place to start.

Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

Next time, in an article that nicely supplements our two-part series on "Starting Out," Tamia looks at what may well be the easiest and safest way to get a feel for canoeing moving water. In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and questions to us at sameboat@paddling.net. (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 one—and we will. 'Nuff said.









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