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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Flip Side of Kayaks

Why You Might Want to Consider a Canoe Instead

By Tamia Nelson

On today's recreation menu, kayaks are the flavor of the month. They're sleek, they're sexy, and they're selling like soft ice-cream in August.

Not that kayaks are new. If you've read Farwell's "In the Beginning" series, you already know that. In fact, recreational kayaking got started more than 100 years ago. And kayaks have been the darlings of whitewater boaters since the 1960s. But now, suddenly, they're everywhere.

Why is this? Why are kayaks so hot?

Part of the answer is good, old-fashioned marketing. If you're in the business of selling boats, you can only sell so many canoes to each boating household. There comes a time when even the most dedicated enthusiast has too many. What do you do then? Sell him a kayak, of course!

This, too, is an old story. There used to be only one kind of ski. It took you anywhere you wanted to go—through the woods, up the mountains, and down again. Then some clever folks hit on the idea of lift-assisted skiing. Now skis could be designed for just the one-way trip down the slope. The downhill ski was born. Soon, the old-fashioned cable bindings that you unclipped to climb or glide on the level simply disappeared, along with the old-fashioned skis on which they were mounted.

Came the sixties, though, and revolution was in the air. A few malcontents who were tired of waiting in lift lines rediscovered self-powered skiing. Christened "cross-country skiing" to distinguish it from the other kind, this "new" sport took off. But that didn't mean that the old "all-rounder" skis came back. They didn't offer enough control on the slopes, for one thing. And they were too heavy for the packed tracks that the new generation of cross-country enthusiasts preferred.

So what happened? Skiers who wanted to ski both the slopes and the flats needed at least two pairs of skis. Very soon, they needed more: a short pair of bushwhackers for off-trail travel in the thick woods, a skinny pair of cross-country skis with toe-clip bindings for the tracks, slalom and downhill models for the lift-served slopes, mountaineering skis for high alpine terrain away from the lifts, telemark skis for—you guessed it—carving telemark turns ... the list went on and on and on.

America's canoe builders probably watched the ski industry's growth with barely-concealed envy. Sell a guy a canoe and (if it was built of aluminum or fiberglass, at least), he was fixed for life, or near enough as made no difference. Unless he wrapped the thing around a rock, it would most likely survive till one of his kids inherited it.

This made for sluggish sales. Worse yet, fiberglass was easy stuff to work with. As a result, the one new niche market—whitewater kayaking—was being served by a handful of kids working out of their parents' garages or abandoned barns. Not much opportunity there for the established builders. They built too well to get much repeat business from old customers, and they couldn't even exploit economies of scale to compete for a share of the emerging whitewater market.

Then something happened. Two things, actually. Polyethylene molding—a technology that no kid in a garage could copy—made it possible to produce kayaks more cheaply. And Americans discovered kayak touring. It seemed easy. It was easy. The double-bladed paddle did away with the need for much of the canoeist's repertoire of awkward control stokes.

And, of course, the new kayaks looked sexy. They were a marketing executive's dream come true. Before anybody quite realized what was happening, kayaks were appearing regularly in beer and cigarette ads. The boom was on. Suddenly, folks whose previous idea of a fun boat was something with Bass Whacker painted on the side were shopping for kayaks.

That was great news. Touring kayaks are wonderful craft, and the more folks I see out paddling, the happier I'll be. But I want them to be happy, too. That's important. Kayaks aren't the best boats for all folks and all trips. Unfortunately, a lot of new kayak owners will probably wish they'd bought something else.

You say you don't want to be one of these disappointed buyers? I can't blame you. So before you rush off to spend your money, let's take a brief look at the flip side of kayaking.

First of all, let's ask what we're looking for when we go shopping for a kayak. We want a boat that's easier to use than a canoe, and that's lighter and cheaper as well. Is this too much to ask?

Probably. While a kayak that fits well is sure to feel very comfortable for the first few minutes of paddling, it doesn't necessarily stay comfortable for long. In a canoe, you can change position easily. You can sit or kneel or even stand. You can stretch your legs out, or tuck them under.

In a kayak, though—in most kayaks, at any rate—you've got only one position. If you're lucky and the water's not too rough, you can pull your feet back off the foot-braces and raise your knees. And you can squirm—you can wiggle your butt on the seat. That's about all. After the first couple of hours, the kayaker's mandatory La-Z-Boy slump may well be getting a bit old. After a couple more hours, you'll probably be aching everywhere that hasn't gone completely numb.

OK. You can buy fancy padded seats and back rests, and they may help. But you can't get up and stretch without beaching your boat. I've spent eight hours at a time in my big canoe, and been almost as fresh at the end of the day as I was at the beginning. I've cooked meals in my canoe, gone to the bathroom in it, even slept in it. Doing any of these things in a typical touring kayak isn't going to be easy.

So kayaks aren't always the most comfortable craft. So what? At least they're always lighter than canoes, right?

Nope. Not necessarily. Look at any catalog. Many of the polyethylene touring singles tip the scales at 50 pounds or more. That's not exactly light. A kayak has to have a deck. A canoe doesn't. Compare a kayak and a canoe of the same length, both made of the same material. The kayak will almost certainly be the heavier of the two.

No, I haven't forgotten what I wrote in "Hell of a Vision." Farwell and I bought our first kayaks when we got tired of lugging our big, heavy tandem canoe over boggy Adirondack portages. And our kayaks were light—gloriously light. The heavier one (mine, of course!) weighed only 35 pounds or so. But the Old Town Pack canoes we bought a few years later weigh only 33 pounds each, and they're only one-third the price of a Kevlar touring kayak of comparable weight.

Price. Everything comes down to price sooner or later, doesn't it? And kayaks don't fare well here, either. Kayak paddles cost more than canoe paddles—sometimes a lot more. Most kayaks need spray skirts and float bags. Canoes don't. (If you run difficult whitewater in your canoe, of course, float bags are a Very Good Idea. But you don't need them in most canoes in touring country.)

There's more. If you're hoping to do a lot of kayak camping, you may find that your old sleeping bag and tent don't fit through the tiny hatches in your new touring kayak. And then there's the paddling jacket you'll need to keep dry in the spray, and a helmet for whitewater, and maybe even a rudder. By the time you've totaled up the cost of outfitting and equipping your new kayak, you may find you've spent almost as much on gear and equipment as on the boat. And don't forget the most important thing of all: unless you buy a tandem kayak to begin with, or plan to leave your family behind at the put-in, you'll need to buy two (or more) of everything!

What else? Kayaks are wonderfully easy to paddle. There's no need to learn the J-stroke or any of its variants, and no wild veering back and forth. A few minutes of instruction, an hour or two of practice, and you're ready to go. But what happens when you leave the beach far behind? What happens, for example, when you have to portage a beaver dam on a ten-foot-wide stream, or take out in a handkerchief-sized eddy just above a falls, with the only way off the river over a five-foot high slab of granite that goes straight up?

That's when you'll discover that everything isn't easier in a kayak. In a canoe, you'd just stand up, walk forward—carefully, of course!—and climb out. In a kayak you pray for a sky-hook. And I can tell you from long experience that there's never a sky-hook around when you need one.

All right. You get the idea. Kayaks are sleek and sexy and fun. But a kayak may still not be the right boat for you. Ignore the glossy ads. Try all sorts of boats before you buy. And then make up your own mind. You'll be glad you did.

Copyright 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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