Wednesday 1 December 2010

Can You Teach an Old Paddler New Tips?

When people find out I have a canoe for sale, they often ask, “why are you selling it?” and the answer is rather pathetic. I want the Maserati Gran Turismo of canoes and I have a Volvo V50. That is to say, I want a high end solo canoe, and I have a high end multipurpose canoe.

The Solo Plus
I purchased the Solo Plus, Wenonah’s answer to a “do it all” canoe, because I wanted a canoe that could be paddled tandum or solo. The Solo Plus is good for solo weekends and weeklong trips; ok for tandum day trips; and not a bad compromise between efficiency and practicality. Somewhere between a performance boat and a family friendly recreational hull. I liked that I could sit in it or I could kneel in it. The gunwales were narrow enough to use a double blade. And after using it for two years I realized that I was moving consistently and with greater conviction away from tandem paddling towards the true solo experience.

The SportPal
The turning point came on a trip this summer with Tom. Tom sports a Sportpal. A light aluminium hull with clever innovations from the period of everyman ingenuity following the second world war. It was a time of adaptation of military material to civilian purposes. It brought us wonders like aluminium foil and Tang. I love the Sportpal for it’s robust design, engineered practicality, and amazing multipurpose slyness. It is the Solo Plus with oar locks, a movable seat, and a place to put a mast for sailing.  It has a sort of recalcitrant thriftiness that is evident in a host of perfected ideas. The true jack of all trades watercraft. You can even put a motor on it.

The Summersong, the Sportpal, and the Spitfire
While I paddled and Tom rowed our way along Amor Lake we met Ron, a relocated easterner in possession of a Sawyer Fibreglass Summersong. The Summersong is also a product of it’s age, and while the Sportpal has the look and feel of the sixties, the Summersong has the look and feel of the eighties.  It has the same post-war cleverness (three height fully adjustable seat) with the lines and performance of a high tech race craft.

Summersong by Sawyer

In the months that followed I would learn that the Summersong was a product of a particularly innovative period of solo canoe design that focused on performance hulls for hit and switch single bladers. It was produced in the heyday of the solo canoe, at the cusp of shift in interest among paddlers to kayaks. The Summersong was sleek, fast, and light. Everything I held dear.

Ron said he had an Autumn Mist as well but preferred the Summersong

The shift to kayaks came about for a variety of reasons. New composite materials, extremely enthusiastic kayakers, the low profile on the water and low centre of gravity from sitting low in the boat, the efficiency of the double blade, the solo nature of the kayak (tandems are out there, but few and far between), and the decked design that tends to increase the boat’s seaworthiness. The west coast was a hotbed of kayak design in the 70s, 80’s, and 90’s and kayaks have displaced canoes in retail outlets. One Island shop told me they sold 100 kayaks for every canoe they sold. I think that social pressure  has played an unfortunate role in overshadowing solo canoes with kayaks.

Duncan Watts and Matthew Salganik ( are researches who set up an experiment to test the long held assumption that other people’s choices affect our own choices. They created a website on which their test subjects could download music and see what other subjects downloaded. Everyone could rate songs and ranked them and see what other people’s rankings were. Some tunes became hits, ranked highly and downloaded by many and others did not. The music was a collection of 48 original songs from aspiring but unknown artists. The curious thing was that each group of participants had a different “hits” list from other groups. There were a few songs that hovered near the top of the list in all groups, but everything else varied wildly from group to group. It seems that the songs that are actually good stand out, but the ones that are only mediocre are perceived differently depending on what other people say about them. Often people have bought kayaks when solo canoes would have been a better fit. But they were influenced by what everyone else was paddling.

 Kayaks are great for all the reasons I mentioned, but one unfortunate aspect of their meteoric rise to popularity is that boat designers also shifted their attention to the new crafts and it wasn’t until well into the 2000’s that people started to buzz about new solo canoe designs again. A few companies released new designs through the 90s, but many of the best designs out there today are 20 years old or older. And there is nothing wrong with that. The Summersong is a beautiful boat that seems like perfected technology for flat-water cruising.
Summersong on Amor Lake

Trouble is that Sawyer Canoes no longer exist, and the designs have been handed over to Scott Smith at Superior Canoes. Scott would build me a Summersong, but getting it to Vancouver Island poses a bit of a challenge. Before trying to work out a way to get a Summersong, or the equally desirable Rapidfire, or any of the other excellent boats in the same category from American manufacturers I decided that I would look around and see what local dealers could provide, and which Canadian companies would ship to me.

My first list looked like this:

Bluewater Splitrock
Bluewater Mist
Wenonah Prism
Swift Osprey
Clipper Solitude
Clipper Packer
Souris River Tranquility

The Bluewater boats, the Prism, and the Clipper boats were all available from local dealers, and the Osprey and Tranquility were available via shipping directly from the manufactures. I had also looked at the long racing hulls like the Wenonah Advantage and Clipper Freedom, but friends had talked me out of them because of their near zero rocker and significant length.

The logic went like this, “You never paddle very hard Richard, and these boats are for athletes.” After I got over my initial shock at this obvious hyperbolic statement, I had to admit that there was a nugget of truth in it. I was attracted to the idea of a low lean racer, but would I appreciate the strengths of these boats in a healthy chop on a large open lake? I was also put off by the need to lean them in a certain way to get a nice turn out of them. I kept flirting with them, especially the Advantage, both because they are beautiful boats and because Advantage owners can be quite persuasive in their enthusiasm.

Then I hit the forums (Canadian Canoe Routes and It became apparent that everyone and their dog loves the Swift Osprey. I heard only one negative comment about that boat — it doesn’t paddle well with a rear quartering wind or going at an angle to the wind combined with big waves. But few boats do. I learned pretty quickly that the Splitrock was a racer like the Advantage and eventually set it aside. I learned that the Prism was not as well regarded as I had thought, and like the Mist, Packer, and Solitude was designed for sit and switch paddling. The Wenonah Argosy went onto the list for awhile, as did the Vagabond and Rendezvous. I had paddled and loved the Rendezvous, but eventually let go of that dream as it is not readily available in ultralight or graphite.

I had a very helpful talk with Peter Harris of Pacifica Paddle Sports who suggested the H20 boats. I had looked at the H20 boats on the Frontenac Outfitters Site, but didn’t think I would be able to get a hold of one, but Peter seemed to think he might be able to arrange it.The 16.6 and 15 went on my list.

So after much thought and review I came up with a rule of thumb:  

"a differentially rockered boat in the 15 foot range will reward a recreational paddler with fast acceleration and easy cruising with a single straight paddle, and a slightly longer boat, in the 16 to 16.5 range will not respond as well at lower horse power because of skin friction, but will perform better with a double blade on the long open sprints."

Given this, I set aside all the Wenonah boats except the Argosy, Many of the best boats for what I like to do are only available in the States and back east at that.

Here is my current list:
Osprey Mist Packer Argosy H20 16.6 H20 15
Length 15' 14'10" 14' 14'6" 16'6" 15
Weight 30 lbs 35 lbs 34 lbs 30 lbs 34 lbs 32 lbs
Price $3,000.00 plus shipping ($400) Kevlar Fusion, Carbon KV trim 2500.00 plus shipping ($400), Golden Brawn $2000.00 CAD  KV Ultralight $2000.00 US KV Ultra-light $2500.00 + shipping ($400), Super Kevlar $2500.00 + shipping ($400), Super Kevlar
Width at Water 27.5" 28" 27.5" 27 29.5" 26"
Width Max ? 30" 29.5" 30 ? ?
Width at Gunwales 26" 26" 24" 27 25" 27"
Rocker Bow 1.5" 0.5" minimal 2.25" 1" 2.5"
Rocker Stern 1" 0.5" minimal 1" 0.5" 1.5"
Bow Height 18" 17" 16" 18" 18" 17
Centre 12" 13.25" 13" 13.5" 12.5" 12
Stern 15.5" 16" 16" 16" 16" 15
Made in Canada Canada Canada USA Canada Canada

All of these boats do have a narrow water width, are in the magic waterline length range (14 to 16 feet) and are light. The front runners, the Osprey, Argosy, and H20 Boats have differential rocker.

The best choice at this point seems to be the Osprey, but it is the most expensive and I would have to trust the shipper and make any repairs myself.

The Argosy suffers from being regarded as not particularly fast or good in windy conditions — more of a down river hull. The Argosy is the least expensive.

The H20 Boats are relatively unknown. All are narrow at the gunwale which will allow for paddling with a double blade. The new and enticing H20 16.6, despite Charlie Wilson’s reservations, still looks good. It has a white bottom, great colors, and could potentially be faster than the Osprey.

The Mist and Packer have lost their lustre due to a less than optimal length and minimal rocker.

Here are some helpful tips I picked up along the way:
  1. I appreciated John Winters excellent little article How to Buy a Canoe  Mr. Winters has a great little list of questions to help clarify the process.
  2. The choices I have listed above do not include a good number of excellent boats that are available but outside my narrow set of preferences. Unless you are very wealth there is no point pinning over a glorious hull from a company who doesn’t have a dealer in our area or doesn’t ship direct. If you don’t mind driving across the boarder to meet up with a delivery driver, or travel to the eastern United States yourself, then many more options open up.
  3. Designing solo canoe hulls is done with thought towards the stance the padder takes (sitting, kneeling, with a bent shaft single, double, etc.) and the intended use (ponds, calm flatwater, big waves on lakes, mild rivers, whitewater, oceans), and also the level of skill the paddler has. Few of the boats on my list would be immediately comfortable to a beginner.
  4. The weight of the paddler also matters and some boats have seats that are much more flexible than others (to allow for trim differences with different weighted paddlers).
  5. The most recognized names in solo canoe design are John Winters and David Yost. From what I can tell, all their designs are well appreciated. There are many other hulls of merit, but if it has the DY or JW name, it probably is a safe bet.
  6. There is a difference between efficiency and speed. Generally longer boats are faster, but may take more power to get them up to speed. The Square root of the length, in feet, multiplied by 1.55 roughly equals mph up to development of the two wave wash but the fastest speeds require significant power, definitely more than something like the Indian stroke will produce -- so boats greater than 15 feet are probably not worth the extra skin friction if paddling with a single blade is going to be the norm. Shorter boats have less wetted surface and so are much easier to get up to speed, if the top speed is more limited. Width and hull shape address efficiency at any given length.
  7. A high cadence is the most important factor for achieving speed.

Saturday 20 November 2010

The Secret Lake the Faller Showed Me

Logged Area Surrounding Black Lake
I have known a few fallers.  As a boy, a timber faller, his dented orange hard hat and red checked jacket, talked to my father at the truck window about the way the earth thumps when the big trunks land. They were big trunks in those days. I watched the man step off the road, over logs, up the bank. His friendly wave before picking up his saw.  The tattered ends of his jeans lifting and dropping on his high shafted boots as he stepped over debris and slash. Dad started the truck, and we headed on to the fishing hole.  I turned in my seat to watch one of the trees at the edge of the cut fall down hill. The springiness of it as it landed.

A faller, his nostrils full of wood dust and the smell of chain oil, feels the power of internal combustion attached to a flying chain of blades, the challenge and exhilaration of dropping large pillars of carbon, tons of wood - the neck stretching openness in the canopy for the blue sky  to step around in fractals between the remaining treetops.

Plug for the gender mold. The archetypal-larger-than-life-macho-logger.  Steel toed boots, the heavy fabric of faller chaps stained with oil, the saw jamming fabric shirt brown with sweat and dirt, the constant current of danger like an eel in a river, the constant numbness in the arms from vibration, the finger tips buzzing.

After the saw is snuffed into silence, after the foam removed from ears, after the sky begins sucking away as much heat as the sun brings in, now low to the horizon - then he stops and ponders the beauty of the place, the funny way the cut opens the forest like an ancient story opens a deepness in the soul. The sweet smell of cut logs mixed with the minty crackle of gum. Good to end a day alive, and then go for a beer with the others in the warm loud span of laughter and forgetting.

A Fire Warden I met on a dusty logging road this summer on the hottest day of the year showed me a lake I could paddle on. His lake. One of his secret spots. He found it years ago when he was a faller. We sat in our vehicles, window to window talking about the changes in the forests - small contractors, more fatalities, a changing way of life. Companies from China securing fibre rights, converting mills to specialty products. And then, he said, he was married to a woman who was Chinese.

The walk to the lake was worth it, he told me, because he had saved a swath of old growth trees. The hillsides around the lake were covered in uniform carpet of new growth as I looked around after easing the canoe into the water from my shoulder.

The same familiar shortness of young trees. But along the edge of the water on one half of the lake a fringe of large trees. The faller's gift. He had asked the timber boss if they could be saved. The saws were already wining their way down the hill overlooking the lake, the trucks hauling away the big cellulose tubes. The boss said no, then a few days later, called back, "OK," he said, "The rest won't be cut." Sort of a miracle.

I paddled and admired the stand of old growth. At the south end of the lake, I tied the boat and walked in the shallow water.

The air was hazy with smoke from distant forest fires. The wind had been blowing earlier but had dropped. The shade of the massive trees seemed to provide an oasis from the heat and smoke.  The pattern of wave splash along the rocks.

They are rugged. They curse and spit and compete and joke. The rough company of men.  The guys who gave me a ride when I locked my keys in my Tracker a few years ago looked at me reluctantly from their Silverado LT 4X4. Working hard not to call me an idiot to my face. In the woods, regardless of how stupid someone is, you help him out.

Almost all the lakes I wish were protected, I accessed from the edge of a logging road. The patchwork quilt of cuts visible from space, and me disappearing like the speckles on a trout's back after you let it go.

on the hillside
a logger steps from log to log
hot saw swinging

Thursday 18 November 2010

It's Hedgehog Season!

Hydnum umbilicatum
I have been struggling with some pain from a chronic health condition, but walking seems to help, so I have taken a few long lunch breaks over the last few days to walk through the forest near my home. 

Being under the trees, the rain water dripping all around me, the warm glow of hedgehog mushrooms dotting the deep moss -- it reminds me of being a child looking for Easter eggs. Hedgehogs are the colour of the inside of orange peel. A soft warm peach colour.

"All of our senses and capabilities, even our spiritual capacities, are based on ongoing contact with the natural world," said Stephen Kellert, professor of social ecology at Yale University. "Contact with nature is essential to our heath and physical well-being."

Today was cool, just above freezing when I headed out, and I was surprised to find that several of the mushrooms I left in the field to fatten up a few days ago, were already large enough to pick. I always try to take half of the mushrooms in a patch. I leave the rest to cast their spores and in case there are other pickers coming along after me. 

This has been a good year for Hedgehogs and I have seen very few Boletes although last year seemed to produce Boletes in large numbers. The mysterious factors behind mushroom proliferation...
The leaves are now off most of the trees. The alders are looking ratty, though still holding their old green leaves, the invasive hawthorns are fringed with tan and orange, still green near their crowns, the apple trees in the neighborhoods show wet apples as the leaves thin and turn to gold. The Oaks, maples, and deciduous shrubs have all given up their brown and red and gold to the relentless rains. 

Soon only the winter oyster mushrooms will draw me off the trails. Then the long sleep of winter. And THEN paddling time!

Friday 5 November 2010

Sold! -- One Close Friend, memories not included (I'm keeping those)

November 5, 2010
January 30, 2011 -- Sold

2008 Wenonah Solo Plus canoe for sale, Kevlar® Ultra-light layup with black anodized aluminum gunwales, burgundy gel coat, and Super Seat. 45 lbs. 
Price: $1650.00 Canadian

Current price on the Wenonah Website (USA prices):

Feature Price
Kevlar® Ultra-light layup
Burgundy Gel Coat
All-black aluminum trim
Super Seat

Here she is:

She is sitting on Anutz Lake and earlier in the morning I snapped this shot from her gunwales:

She is currently set up for solo paddling from the centre seat:

This was the view I had from that seat on that particular paddle:

You can see I have taken out the front seat. 

But the boat can be paddled tandem as in this shot:
That's one of the beauties of the Solo Plus. But I have to tell you, she shines best as a solo, and that is how I have mostly gone out in her.

Her is a shot that shows the excellent centre seat and how easily you can reach the water with her ample tumblehome:

So if you like a single blade style of paddling, she is well suited. But if you like to use a double blade, that is fine too:

One of the things I like most about her is the feeling of secondary stability and sea-worthiness. Here I am paddling her on Cedar Lake in a bit of a wind. Note the low profile which means she does not catch too much wind:

This boat has great lines, consequently I have taken just a few shots of her over the 2+ years I have had her. Here are a few of my favorites:
On McNair Lake
On Lower Campbell Lake
On Dickson Lake at Sunset (Thanks James, for washing her out while I took pictures. What a friend!)
River Near Claude Elliot Lake
Now that last shot was taken after we did some down-river paddling, and over the years she has, well, you know, grazed and tapped against a few rocks here and there. On this trip a tiny piece of Gel Coat came out and I patched it as some as I got home:

And in the interest of full disclosure, there are a few scratches on her. Here is a video to give you some idea:

Here are a few more shots of what her hull looks like the day I made this post:


You can see a tiny hole in the gel coat there which I just discovered when I took these photos. Pretty minor, and a good polishing would bring her back to showroom shine in in no time. Most of the scratches are on the bottom, but there are a few above water line, and of course on the gunwales:

But all in all she is still in very fine shape. 

One aspect of the Solo Plus I really like is the adjustable seat. Here is a video close up of that feature:

The inside of the boat has been treated annually (sometimes more often) with 303 and is in good shape:

She has been stored on these horses the whole time I have owned her and in August I refinished the thwarts by sanding them down to wood and applying 4 coats of spar varnish.

Additional Info:

If you are interested in coming by to have a look, please e-mail me at: inboxonmars at

I don't have the capacity to arrange shipping. You will need to pick the boat up in person.
Payment must be certified cheque or bank draft.

I am not flexible on the price, as I believe it is reasonable, and I follow the old Quaker idea that a price should be the price, no games or dickering. 

I'm not in any hurry and will amend this post to say "sold" when someone buys her. If it doesn't say that on this post, she is still for sale. This Canoe is now sold.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Second Nanaimo Lake

Trip Date: October 17, 2010

Off road vehicles, 2 of them customized 4Runners, with chopped beds, external cages, and large tires, in a line as a local explains to them that the gate has just been closed. Disappointment and anger on the young men's faces. I wonder, "where will they go now?"

We are not headed for points further up the valley -- we are just going to the boat ramp, though the image does give me a twinge of chagrin. All this land owned by a forest company and the public barred from using it much or most of the time. An old deal which has rubbed people wrong year after year. A give away to big business in exchange for a railway that is only lightly used these days.

The boat ramp has a number of vehicles parked around it. Guys out on the water fishing. We put in with the sound of retreating 4x4s and paddle out and away, heading down to look at the outflow.

The autumn colors warm the landscape but we can see our breath in the shade.

As we approach the bridge we see the smooth surface tilting into rapids so we turn around.

We head back towards the main lake.

The sun is warm and provides a sense of comfort. Two ultralight planes fly low overhead, heading up the broad valley slowly. The day has the feel of a Sunday, lazy and relaxed.

In the distance we see another canoe. People are out enjoying the air, water, and sunshine.

The bushes along the shore are various shades of burgundy and amethyst. The Ninebark is yellow and orange.

We paddle slowly and take it all in. Further up the lake we coast beside a large wall of stone with large and small trees growing out of cracks. It is too dark in the shade of the hillside to take pictures. I have to just soak it in. I keep looking and looking and can't get enough. At one point a bright yellow clump of Ninebark protrudes out from between a vertical  fissure in the rock face. Paul and I both comment repeatedly on the beauty. We talk about people we know that have a hard time seeing it or valuing it. I think about learning to appreciate abstract art in my first year at University. Removing preconceptions and expectations and just looking at what is before you. Letting the art evoke a feeling.

We round the corner and eat our lunch on a log strewn shore with the sound of water or wind, we never can decide which, coming from the dense forest behind us. Two fly fishermen go by in a skiff. We chat with them and they tell us that the Elk were not on the gravel bar today.

In order to make sure we are out before the gate is closed, we cut our trip short and head back. On another day we will explore the sand bar and maybe see those Elk. Two blue herons fly over us low and close enough to see the feathers moving in their wings.

We stop on the way home and wander into the woods looking for Mushrooms.

There are Chanterelles -- slightly waterlogged and perhaps indicating the peak of the season, and a small patch of Hedgehogs, firm and smelling sweet. These are Hydnum umbilicatum. I have not gathered them before.

The teeth or spines are clearly visible under the magnifying glass when I get home.

There is also a Western Amethyst Laccaria, which I am not as sure about both in the field and when I get home. But when I look in the books I gain confidence. I will do a spore print tonight.  Edibility of this mushroom seem in question but it has a lovely fresh smell.

I also saw but did not gather what I think was a either a Zellers or Admirable Bolete. Being not on wood, but on the side of the road, I lean towards the Zellers.

I have a satisfied sense of gratitude as I put my mushrooms in the fridge at the end of the night. It has been a good day.

Monday 11 October 2010

Stella and Lower Stella Lakes

Trip Date: October 3rd, 2010

James and I had visited the area of Stella, Lower Stella, Pye and McCreight Lakes last year but the day had been windy and the lakes were uninviting. This day the Weather Network predicted low winds so we decided to try again. A sign at the entrance to Rock Bay Road informed us that the road would be closed the next day for logging in the Stella Lake area. We congratulated ourselves on visiting the lakes just in time.

We stopped briefly at McCreight, but the long narrow valley seems always to channel wind down the lake. Today was no exception. We drove on, enjoying the country between McCreight and Stella, a lowland of meandering streams and deep water marshes.

Lower Stella looked calm and inviting, but we checked our watches and decided we could probably get a paddle in on both Stella and Lower Stella; so headed on to Stella. At the put in a lone angler was navigating his aluminum skiff with an electric motor towards the beach where he was camped. The wind was running out of the South East and the sheltered bay was inviting enough. We set off along the North Eastern shore protected from the main wind by the protruding headland at the transition to the main lake.

Once we passed the headland we headed Southwest towards the island that stands off from the point between the two large bays on the Northern end of the lake. Rocky on the southern shore and lush and dense with foliage on the Northern side, the island does not appear to receive many visitors. No obvious campsite was evident but there was a fire ring on the high rocks on the western side. I got out and crashed through the bushes for awhile trying to find a route to high ground before giving up and returning to my canoe.

We headed back to the put-in, enjoying the Northern shore and outflow before taking out and heading to Lower Stella.

Lower Stella is the haunt of generations of anglers. A grandfather on our last visit was introducing his grandchildren to the special place. A fisherman's poem is carefully nailed to a tree near the put-in and because there is no easy way to launch a boat of any significant size, I suspect only canoes, light skiffs, and pontoon boats make it onto the lake.

The light was fading but we headed out, circumnavigating the lake counter clockwise. The inflow is picturesque, but the most endearing aspect of the lake is the long southern shore with it's grassy fringe and striking contrast of light alder trunks against the dark forest behind.

With the chill of evening penetrating our shirts we finished out paddle and headed to have a look at the Pye Lake Rec Site, which we found and wandered through in the last light before dark. Pye was also calm and we wished we had a little more day left to explore it. We decided to return again on another day.

Fore more photos of Lower Stella visit the photo gallery here.