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I bought mine used. Took out the seat. Put in two thwarts, 36" apart. Made a closed-cell foam pedestal the same length. Put in knee pads. Float bags. It rocks.
Whitewater is challenging. The long pedestal allows you to weight and unweight. The relatively short length allows you to practice self-rescue. And the boat is tough. I've destroyed a Sandpiper (but have a life long love affair with 'Rhonda'), and Mad River ... is junk (Sorry, they are fine for lakes etc. but don't stand up when you really punish them).
The Wildfire does it all ... or rather did it all. Whoever buys it at the garage sale tomorrow, they either love it or they will want something with "more" rake or "more" flare or "more" rocker. This one is for the minimalist.
I bought my friend's BlackGold Wildfire and it has replaced the Royalex model as my favorite solo boat. My wife liked it so much she put her Wenonah Sandpiper away and I was stuck using the Royalex boat. Eventually she bought a used one for herself, in the KevLight layup. She's an advanced beginner and absolutely loves the boat. So we have three Wildfires, and I won't be surprised if my wife gets a Royalex version! It's true - "Nothing moves you like a Bell."
I have had canoes from the shorter, rockered, whitewater canoes to the long, slender, straight keel line, performance-oriented hull canoes and find the Wildfire to be a very versatile canoe. The canoe’s secondary stability is probably most notable, it heels well and firms up nicely on edge. I kneel when paddling and the Wildfire seems to be designed for that.
Since I purchased the BG Wildfire I have purchased a Royalex version of the Wildfire, now called the Yellowstone Solo, and have also purchased a Yellowstone tandem. The two Royalex boats are now my river boats and the BG is just a pleasure to paddle and have used it in an attempt to learn Freestyle paddling.
So what you say? Just this. It can handle class II with ease, maneuver in small streams, and handle lakes (just not with great efficiency I suspect). It is relatively tough Royalex and doesn’t oil can or flex much, although obviously it is less efficient, and less expensive, than composite. The hull is torn up from rock collisions, but no breaches into the foam, so who cares? It weighs in at 46 lbs, so carries are easy enough.
So if you can only have one solo boat, and you want it to do everything but hardcore whitewater, this is the boat.
Bell Canoes have this wonderful "soft" feel, they just seem to slice effortlessly through the water, even in adverse conditions. I had mine on the Connecticut River in flood (44kcfs) with 25 mph south winds trying to blow me up the river and kicking up some nasty rollers- the boat was effortless. On flatwater, you can push the boat with pretty good success with a bentshaft, or do some freestyle, it's that versatile. Probably my last solo canoe.
I was so impressed with this boat that I just bought a BlackGold NorthStar for my wife and I to paddle.
The Bell’s Royalex hulls seem tough enough to stand up to a fair amount of abuse. The reinforced vinyl gunwales are tough and durable, quiet and smooth. Unfortunately the vinyl decks that terminate these otherwise attractive and performance oriented canoes are thin and flimsy looking and do not have an integrated grab bar. Two of our four decks were fixed in place crocked by several degrees. Bell has two seat combinations available: ash frame with caning and metal drops (standard) or ash frame with webbing and wood drops. We bought one of each. As delivered the seats were uncomfortable and hard to get our feet under. They were built as essentially non-adjustable. We had to make adjustments and basically ended up replacing all the seating components. As to optional Bell equipment we have found “T” kneeling pads very comfortable and the nylon spray covers to be well made, easy to use and very functional.
As advertised the WildFire accelerates and responds to the paddle quickly, the differential rocker allows the canoe to swing its bow about quickly as needed, yet the decreased rocker in the stern allows for reasonable tracking. They won’t track straight on their own however so you’ll need some technique. They heel over well and firm up nicely on edge. They can be made to spin on a dime and side-slips are swift. A feature I’ve really come to appreciate in this model is its excellent response to back ferries; it seems to me that the less rockered stern catches currents very well. A curious characteristic of this hull design is that it “hits a wall” and becomes almost uncontrollable if paddled aggressively for straight ahead speed. At first I thought this was just my technique, but my wife has experienced the same thing and I have heard others say similar things about this canoe and the Bell FlashFire as well. Faced with this design imposed “speed limit” I would not characterize the WildFire as fast, but it really doesn’t feel sluggish unless it’s overloaded or you’re in the company of faster canoes. Sometimes in pools we cruise along with 10 degree bent shafts but more typically we enjoy moseying along with straight shaft paddles. This hull has a lively, playful feel to it when running empty and with a load up to about 200-220 lbs, at 250 lbs it isn’t quite as much fun and at 350 lbs it’s deep in the water, lethargic and well over its pleasurable weight limit.
I have paddled some other Royalex solos in this size range and am pleased with our decision to purchase the WildFires; performance-wise they fit our needs very nicely. In my humble opinion this would be an even nicer canoe if the seats were more comfortable and adjustable and if the decks were more useful and attractive.
Even with these relatively small reservations we are still very well pleased with the performance of the David Yost designed Bell WildFires for the conditions we paddle them in. They are in the end very maneuverable, enjoyable and playful little canoes for quick-water creeks and small rivers. In a word they are fun.
The 1st day I paddled 4 miles into a headwind generating 3' whitecaps: no problem. The boat is extremely seaworthy and stayed dry. I next experienced a 20 mile lake crossing with a tailwind generating 4' rollers. Although care needed to be taken in these conditions, the boat handled beautifully. I was loaded with gear for a week out and yet had plenty of room. The Wildfire handled class II rapids with grace and spunk.
Although is does not carve turns like a WW playboat, the Wildfire ferries well and is quite responsive. My old tandem boat is losing its appeal--I am very pleased with this canoe.
The hull is paddled best when kneeling which is where I have to state my only complaint. The seat position is too low and my feet (only size 10) feel trapped under the seat. The seat is also too high for sitting and the boat feels tippy in anything but flatwater. Unfortunately the seat hangers are made and mounted in such a way that raising the seat is a major project. The seat is hung on metal brackets whose horizontal mounting point bends to the outside of the hull. This makes it impossible to install shims to raise the seat. About the only way to adjust seat height is to drill out the rivets and either trim the brackets to shorten them, or reverse them and trim the seat rails to fit. Although the seat can ultimately be raised I feel it is an oversight by Bell to use this mounting design, which I believe is only used in the Royalex boats. Mine has vinyl trim, but the Royalex hull is also available w/ wood trim which might give a different seat mount.
Other than the seat issue it is a great boat and nice to look at. For twisty streams and up to Class II it is hard to beat. If you have lightweight gear you could do multi-week trips in it too.
Overall, if you try it and like it you can't go wrong with it. (but my Osprey does everything better in my opinion, and I know a few other Wildfire owners that have fallen for the Osprey). If you don't need the full river capability of this boat and you want something that cruises (much) better, try a Bell Merlin II....better for everything but whitewater in my opinion. I tried a prototype of the new Royalex version. My opinion was that it lost significant cruising speed versus the other lay-ups.
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