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Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

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Boundary Waters

Tippecanoe or Try One, Too? by Roger Hahn

All canoes are not created equal. An important point to remember when borrowing, renting, or buying a canoe for your next trip. The decisions you make today will affect the outcome of your entire vacation. So, come with me and take a little trip inside the canoe world. It won't take long. I promise.

Let's go right to the top of the canoe world. Kevlar. This lightweight cloth, similar to fiberglass cloth, has revolutionized the canoeing world. This is the fabric they make bulletproof vests and combat helmets out of, just to name a few products. Because of this nearly bombproof material, canoes are lighter and stronger than ever before.

That is not to say, however, that all Kevlar canoes are created equal. Not by a long shot. There are beautiful Kevlar canoes that weigh under 40 pounds and some equally beautiful Kevlar canoes that weigh over 60 pounds. Which one would you rather carry?

So, the obvious question, is to ask what the canoe actually weighs; and if you're going to pop a couple of grand for one of these beauties then you'd do well to get yourself a heavy duty fishing scale and weigh it yourself. The different materials used for seats, seat brackets, gunwales (''gunnels''), thwarts, and handles can make a big difference. And each canoe can vary by a pound or two due to how much resin the cloth ''absorbed'' during it's layup process. (Some canoe shops actually have large scales to weigh canoes on.)

Have It Your Way

In my opinion, there are basically two types of hull construction. Long and lean. Shorter and wider. And, of course, some in between.

For many years, and currently, Wenonah made some of the best Kevlar canoes around. Their Wenonah Sundowner is still probably one of the most popular Kevlar canoes used in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It is light (under 40 pounds now), quiet, and darn quick in the water! It is made with very little rocker and, therefore, tracks nicely. Because of a more rounded bottom it is also one of the fastest canoes around for tripping purposes.

(Editor's Notes: Rocker is simply how rounded or straight the bow and stern of the canoe are. The Grumman or Alumacraft you grew up in had a fair amount of rocker, or roundness, to the ends. The more modern canoes, like Wenonahs, have little rocker. The more rocker you have the easier the canoe turns. The less rocker you have the larger radius required to turn your canoe but the better it tracks.

Tracking is a term canoe builders use to define how well a canoe stays on a straight course without a lot of steering. A canoe with little rocker will track better than a canoe with more rocker.)

Of course, over the years, Wenonah gained some competition in the canoe market for the BWCA. Most notably from a local company, Bell Canoes, from a Vermont company, Mad River, and a Canadian company that make Souris River canoes. And they each make them with their own combination of rocker, tumblehome, and hull configuration.

(Editor's Notes: Tumblehome is simply how much the sides of the canoe angle in towards the top. More tumblehome means a narrow canoe, at the top anyway, and less of a reach for the bow paddler in particular. Larger paddlers should be aware that a canoe with a lot of tumblehome can be a little confining; some paddler's thighs may even touch the gunwales.)

Hull configuration is simply whether the bottom of the canoe runs toward the flat side or the more rounded side; or something in between. A flatter bottom will be slower but more stable. A rounded bottom will be faster, and more responsive, but less stable. The only way to really tell what you're comfortable in is to paddle it; preferably with a load similar to what you'd take to the wilderness. An empty canoe will perform much differently than a loaded one. When you get to camp, empty your canoe, and head out fishing you want to make sure it's comfortable for you.)

Now, obviously, it makes sense to try before you buy a canoe costing in excess of $2000! So renting the model you are interested in can be a good idea and save you a lot of headaches in the long run. Many canoe shops offer demo days at area lakes where you can paddle several different models. But try to remember to bring along those full Duluth packs so you can paddle it like you'll do in the BWCA.

And remember that nearly all models of Kevlar canoes are made in different lay-ups. So you often have a choice of a thicker, more durable lay-up, or a thinner, lighter lay-up. So be sure you buy or rent the one you want and get the one you ordered!

The Right Stuff

There are, of course, other choices besides Kevlar for making canoes. Let's take a look:


Aluminum canoes have been around since WWII ... and Grumman was the only name in the game for a long, long time. With the advent of lightweight sheets of aluminum came the possibility of making what were considered lightweight canoes.

These early models were heavy by today's standards but were hot stuff back then. An aluminum canoe has some distinct advantages and a couple of disadvantages.

Aluminum canoes are relatively inexpensive. You can buy a new one for $500 to $1000 and a good used one for $200 to $300. They require no maintenance, no special storage, and can take a pretty good beating. They have some decent rocker, generally, and a pretty stable bottom design.

On the other hand the aluminum canoes are a bit heavier; in the 60-75 pound range. They are also colder in cold weather, or cold water, and are noisier than the synthetic models. They can also develop leaks, with abuse; but the rivets can be tightened and the hull welded if necessary.


Royalex, or Oltonar, or whatever the manufacturer chooses to call it, is essentially a heavy duty plastic-like material. The advantages are its extreme durability, a moderate weight, and its warmth and quietness.

Most canoe companies make these synthetic canoes and they are worth a serious look. If you don't mind the weight (58 - 90 pounds) they are relatively inexpensive ($600-$1200), last forever, and require little care.

These canoes were originally designed for white water use so they will have little or no keel on the bottom and won't track quite as well as a keeled canoe. However, for shallow water and bumping off the Canadian Shield granite boulders they can't be beat.


Fiberglass, alone, is rarely used in canoe building anymore. It's just too heavy. Some manufacturers do use a little bit of fiberglass cloth to reinforce wear points in their Kevlar canoes or to stiffen up the hull. In a word, fiberglass is HEAVY and that's not what you want in a tripping canoe!

Other Materials

Manufacturers are trying new materials all the time and several use more than one kind of material in a single hull. Graphite is seen on the bottom of Kevlar canoes these days and one never knows what some chemist or engineer will dream up next.

Take Your Pick

Now for the hard part. Picking the canoe that best suits your needs. Let me say, upfront, that there is no single answer to the canoe question. It's like buying a vehicle. Some days you want a pickup truck to haul a load and the next day you want something sporty to see the country side.

First of all, you should take a look at your canoeing habits. If your trips are only to the BWCA then weight and gear hauling are your main concerns. If you duck hunt, run local streams, fly fish, and take an occasional BWCA trip then you may opt for a nice synthetic canoe that will take the beating of a shallow stream yet be tolerable for an annual canoe trip. If you are a serious photographer, or fisher-person, then you need quietness and stability. If your trips are all about bagging lakes and counting portage rods then Kevlar is the choice for you.

Beg, borrow, or buy?

Use caution and good sense when borrowing that canoe in your neighbors garage. Make sure the weight is tolerable, that it's in good repair, and that it has a comfortable set of yoke pads on it before you leave home! And remember that it's going to get banged and scratched, or worse, and you have to face your neighbor after your trip. As an outfitter for the past 20 years I can't tell you how many trips I've seen that went bad because of a borrowed canoe that wasn't up to the rigors of the BWCA.

Renting is a good option and local outfitters will have only models that are appropriate for BWCA tripping. Get there early and they'll probably let you paddle a few models to see what you like. And these canoes will be licensed, and yoked, and ready to go. And outfitters expect dings and scratches on their rentals.

If you're intent on buying a canoe then try to paddle it before you do so. Rent it for the day if you have to. Or catch a stores demo day. Then weigh it, and lift it, to be sure if fits you properly. And make sure it's adequate for a wilderness canoe trip; with you, your packs, your partner, and your Golden Retriever in the bow. In the wind. In the waves.

As I said, there is no ''right canoe''. However, the middle of Basswood Lake is no place to discover you got the wrong canoe.

Sources for canoes

Sources for canoe accessories


--article courtesy of

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