After almost 30 years of outfitting, it appears that the first remembered aspect of any wilderness canoe trip is generally the portages. Portages on a new canoe route remain the unknown challlenge. You can see it the little red, dotted line on the map and you know it’s gonna be a long one. Stare at the map as hard as you want, you still have no idea of the terrain until you start lugging your stuff over the portage.
When you hit the trail, you can encounter everything from black stinky muck that threatens to suck your shoe right off your foot, to hard, round, coconut-like rocks that test your ankles to see if you truly are a desk jockey, to slippery sloping tree roots, or a combination of all three. The most memorable moments (for myself) come from watching those who are improperly packed and carrying too much stuff in silly containers such as 5 gallon pails or 60 quart coolers with dry ice (gotta get all that fresh meat and milk in because a whole 5 days with less than perfect food and booze is just not right), garbage bags or even in little loose pieces. From what I can see, it appears that about 80% of all visitors to the BWCA pack and plan pretty much like I’ve described. My personal favorite is when they decide to cross a 210 rod portage (2/3’s of a mile) with three or more fishing rods (tips facing forward) with big long Rapalas hanging off the end of the rods and the treble hooks dancing wildly until they become a tangled hazardous mess. Top all of this off with a 70+ lb. canoe with a duct taped, old lifejacket for yoke pads and I can see where this excercise in poor planning can really make a lasting impression.
But while getting a lighter canoe is not going to solve all the packing/lugging inefficiencies, it does burn less calories so the improperly packed can declare at least one modicum of improvement in overall effiency and not feel completely spent at the end of each land-based maneuver. In other words, you’re not as tired because a really good kevlar canoe gets you there faster for the same amount of effort and is a lot easier to portage.
Interestingly enough, I remember Brand X kevlar canoes running ads on the radio in Ely, MN back in the early 80’s when I was guiding a lot. All the ads could sputter over and over was how easy the Brand X canoe was to carry on the portage. “They are so light on the portages. You gotta have one because the portaging is SO much easier.” Never once did I hear how the canoe actually handled on the water or how the canoe would survive after you hit an obstacle like a rock located 1.5″ under the surface in the middle of the lake.
People who could afford these expensive, super-duper, kevlar, Brand X canoes ran out in droves to buy them with “making their portages easier” first and foremost in their thoughts. Little or no thought was given to how they would handle on the water, or if they’d be tippy, or really suck when it came to turning in a crosswind. Light carrying weight was all that was considered, and everything else was ignored. I refused to follow the crowd and buy a Brand X kevlar way back before I was even selling canoes because I’d heard that those new kevlars absolutely did not hold up at all on the rocks plus they were difficult to control on the water. I was guiding newbies in canoes. Why would I want to make my guiding life more difficult and hazardous on the water just to be able to cross portages more easily?
Still, today, for the majority of our canoe customers, weight is still the number one reason for getting a kevlar canoe. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that for a whole bunch of good reasons, however, many people conclude that all kevlar canoes are the same in all aspects and will handle the same in all conditions. This assumption is ridiculously off base and people sometimes find out that they bought a light kevlar canoe that doesn’t act at all like a “normal” canoe (say a Grumman) should act and are quite disappointed not to mention $2400 poorer.
MY POINT: Weight can still be one of your top motivations for buying a kevlar canoe so long as you absolutely consider how that particular canoe handles based on your paddling ablility, your intended payload, and the conditions in which you’ll be paddling. If you are used to paddling a Grumman or other aluminum and end up with a Brand X racing hull, you may not like that kevlar canoe one bit especially during high winds. Don’t assume even for a second that all canoes handle even remotely the same. Before you plunk down the cash, really talk to the dealer. Ask a lot of questions about what can be expected of this canoe and how it should handle regarding stability, turnability, and remaining freeboard when loaded.
If the dealer tells you that low freeboard is good in a crosswind to keep the canoe from blowing you off course by allowing the wind to pass over, you must ask yourself where do the big waves go? When your canoe is barely sticking out of the water and the waves are 14″ higher than the center of your loaded canoe and hitting you broadside, where might they end up and how might that affect you? Ask how the canoe tracks (goes straight) and how hard it is to turn into the wind. Ask about the freeboard when loaded and the initial stability. If he keeps turning the conversation back to hull stiffness, paddling efficiency and top end performance, chances are good that he doesn’t understand what you are looking for and probably doesn’t really give a rip because he’s not listening to what you need. He’s telling you what he wants to sell to you.
Top-end performance sounds exciting but it’s like buying a Porshe to drive on winding country roads. With it’s tight suspension, high horsepower and highway tires, it might be a bit hard to handle on gravel and you’ll end up putting it in the woods. In my opinion, your first consideration regarding a lightweight canoes should be safety-based. It has to accomodate both on your own paddling ability and on the fact that you are on the water with your canoe much more than on land. Nobody ever drowns on a portage or by putting a canoe on top of the car.
Getting a lightweight canoe is definitely the way to go. I’ve become totally spoiled by the kevlar canoes. However, if you’re not a racer, getting a lightweight kevlar canoe with racing characteristics may not be the best choice for you. Buy the steak, not the sizzle.