By Kevin Callan
It's time to admit it: I'm soon to be 48 years old! At that age paddlers either stop paddling and rent an RV - or they head in the opposite direction and jump into different styles of paddling they haven't quite mastered. I chose the second option and made the decision this past season to try out a few techniques of paddling I knew nothing about.
The first was poling up rapids - I took a course while in Newfoundland. I'll save that story for another article, but it was amazing. The second was kayaking. Yes, kayaking. I'll save that for another article as well. The third was trying out a canoe spray deck. But not a spray deck for running whitewater. It was used for paddling big inland lakes; those lakes where the wind magically picks up and in seconds the swells become a meter high. It was a great season of trial and error and I doubt I perfected the poling up rapids, kayaking or the art of using a deck to paddle big open water - but after experiencing something different, I definitely don't have any urge to rent an RV and call it quits on paddling the rest of my life.
The trip which conformed me to using a spray deck when paddling lakes rather than rivers, was our family trip across Lake Temiskaming in eastern Ontario. We didn't bring a spray deck for the trip. I had planned on it, but the other group members said it wasn't worth it. I should have brought the deck! It was a very stressful time having to deal with the notable rough waters of Lake Temiskaming; something we had to content with almost every day of our trip. The majority of the time we were being tossed about in similar conditions that drowned 12 boys and one leader from St. John's Anglican prep school in 1978.
Lake Temiskaming deserves the same respect given to places such as Lake Superior or Lake Nipigon. It's definitely not something to be flippant with, especially the lower half. This section seems less menacing on the map because it's a narrower stretch. But don't be fooled, high rock walls funnel winds from any direction and the waves build and build over elongated stretches of open water. This was the case when we paddled it. Huge troughs had formed from a strong northwest wind and the brown silt-laden water of Temiskaming, reminding me of the turbid waters of the St. Lawrence, bounced our heavy-laden boats back and forth. Of course, I kept reminding everyone that if we had spray decks we'd be stress free and not praying for our lives.
A week after the trip I picked up a spray deck from North Water and tested it out on other lakes known for their rough, deep water. What an amazing difference. The main advantage was that no water was splashing in over the gunwales. This was the major problem we had out on Lake Temiskaming. The lake is a miniature version of Lake Superior and has a tendency to sculpture waves closer together and with steeper sides. If you didn't keep the canoe in a straight line between troughs, then you collected a good amount of water over the sides, front and back. The more water we collected the less effective our paddle strokes became.
The spray deck dramatically reduces the amount of water in your canoe and therefore allows you more control in big open water. But it also is very effective at cutting out wind resistance as well. When I had the deck covering the boat it was far easier to push into the wind, or even sail with it. And as an added bonus the gear kept dry in the rain, I gained another place to store gear overnight, and I was able to paddle in conditions that would have had me sitting on shore, bored to tears, while waiting for the weather to change. Also, North Water's large hatch design made unloading and loading a breeze.
To simplify, I'm basically addicted to spray decks and won't be heading out on big water again without one. I'll be all decked out and stress free.
Kevin Callan is the author of 11 books including "Wilderness Pleasures" and "The Happy Camper." A regular keynote speaker at major North American canoeing and camping expos for over 20 years, he has received three National Magazine Awards and four film awards, including top award at the prestigious Waterwalker Film Festival. Callan lives in Peterborough, Ontario, birthplace of the modern-day canoe.