My paddling hiatus is finally coming to an end. It starts in May (or when the thermometer hits 90; whichever happens first) and when school is back in session I pull the tarps off my boats and clean out the spider webs. This year, I have a new boat in my quiver: a Wenonah Sundowner 18’ Canoe and I can’t wait to take it down the Lumber River this fall. Some of my friends though scoffed when I bought a canoe, thinking that kayaks were better in every regard.
Canoes lately have a bad reputation, and if you don’t believe me, watch any SUV or granola bar ad on television. It’s always a kayak strapped on the roof of the car, and they aren’t biting into chewy oats while canoeing. Kayaks have been stealing the limelight as the hot new thing and to a point they are; Lewis and Clark didn’t exactly go up the Missouri in kayaks, and unless you were an Inuit (Eskimo) your great-grandfather probably never paddled one either. Canoes though have been a mainstay since the Native American’s were hollowing them out of tree trunks and have seen every type of material imaginable: wood (beautiful, durable, but heavy and high maintenance), canvas (lighter, less durable), aluminum (indestructible, heavy enough to double as a bomb shelter), Royalex (first synthetic material, more durable than canvas, and far lighter than aluminum), rotomolded plastic (very durable, heavier than Royalex), and finally fiberglass/Kevlar (extraordinarily light and expensive, makes the boat more efficient, but can’t handle heavy impacts; perfect for non-rocky rivers and lakes).
Kayaks started overtaking canoes in the early 80’s for several reasons: they were comparatively cheaper, easier to handle and transport (especially for one person), required less skill to paddle in a straight line, and Magnum P.I. had one. Kayaks still have a lot of these great qualities; if someone who has never been on the water asks what kind of boat to try, I’ll point them to a kayak first. Recreational kayaks are usually 30” wide and between 10’ to 12’ long which is plenty stable for a person looking to paddle around for a few hours. As you get more serious, wanting to do longer trips or even kayak camping, you start getting longer, narrower boats which are more efficient and have storage hatches to stow your gear. Almost 10 year ago, I started off in a 10’ long, 30” wide kayak and now I use a 17’ long, 21” wide torpedo which is perfect for all day paddling or a multi-day trip as long as I pack light.
Kayaks aren’t perfect for everything though, especially once you have 2+ people paddling or are going for longer than 3 days and don’t want to eat rehydrated beans every night. Most kayaks are rotomolded plastic which, like canoes, makes it a heavier boat compared to other material. The average 14’ tandem kayak (which, leaves little to no room for an overnight trip) weighs anywhere from 65-85lbs. You can get very nice Kevlar/Fiberglass tandem kayaks that are longer, lighter, and have more gear storage, but you’ll probably need to take out a small car loan; a 17’ Kevlar tandem starts at $3,000 and is nearly impossible to find used. Even then, the 17’ Kevlar Tandem still weighs 69lbs which isn’t exactly light, and has 170 liters of storage space which is about the size of 2 of the largest backpacks you can find.
Canoes really shine when it comes to carrying an enormous amount of gear and in being comfortable during your entire paddling day. Sitting in a canoe is like sitting in a chair; you have room to stretch your legs and shift around. In a kayak, you have the same range of movement as sitting on the floor which, is to say, very little. While sitting higher does raise your center of gravity, making the canoe less stable, if you’re in rapids or anywhere you feel unstable you can simply kneel in the bottom of the canoe which fixes the issue. Canoes also weigh less because of their open top design; it takes less material to make a canoe than it does a kayak and an Ultralight Kevlar 17’ canoe only weighs 42lbs (compared to a 70lb kayak). Storage wise, I know you can haul 4 full size coolers in a 17’ canoe which gives you enough room to feed a pair of teenagers for about 45 minutes, or 2 adults for seven days. The gear will need to be tied down and in waterproof containers, but I always do that even in kayaks.
Canoes do have a few drawbacks; they require more practice and skill to paddle than a kayak, kayaks are more efficient due to the tradeoff in gear capacity, and, like most tandem boats, they’ve witnessed more divorces than Jerry Springer. Skill with a canoe paddle comes with patience and practice, the efficiency trade-off is worth it if you’re going to be hauling a lot of gear, and the working as a team component can be bypassed by either buying a solo canoe, getting a canoe that allows either solo or tandem paddling, or a really good counselor.
Canoes aren’t dinosaurs, they’re pickup trucks. Kayaks are sports cars that are fast, flashy, easy-to-drive and have enough trunk space for an overnight at a hotel. Canoes might not be as fast, but they can haul 400lbs of gear, carry a couple of people, and not break the bank; that 18’ Wenonah I bought was only $300 used, good used brand name canoes pop up all the time. As of this writing, there’s a Wenonah 16.5’ Kevlar canoe for $500 in NC.
Always remember that the best kind of boat is the one that makes you go out and paddle the most.