Is a Pack Canoe the Right Canoe for You?
By Tamia Nelson
November 10, 2009
The little pack canoe was present at the very beginning of recreational canoeing. In 1880, when a bantamweight cobbler by the name of George Washington Sears decided to take an Adirondack cruise, he had a tiny canoe made for him by J. Henry Rushton, a Canton, New York, boatbuilder. You probably know Sears better by his pen‑name, Nessmuk, and he more or less put the sport into sport canoeing in North America, writing up his Adirondack travels in a series of articles that subsequently appeared in Forest and Stream magazine. These "Adirondack letters" attracted a wide readership, and quite a few of those readers went on to buy pack canoes modeled after Nessmuk's Wood Drake, Sairy Gamp and Susan Nipper. (You've probably guessed that Nessmuk was a fan of Charles Dickens' novels. He was.) Today's pack canoes are mostly lineal descendants of Nessmuk's little fleet, though they're more likely to be made of ABS or Kevlar than cedar. Still, they're every bit as lively and almost as light as the originals — and a good deal more likely to survive too‑close encounters with midstream rocks. In short, they're ideal for solo forays into isolated backcountry beaver ponds or hidden mountain rills, as easy on the back as they are nimble in the water.
I know. I own one. To be sure, at 30‑plus pounds and 12 feet overall, the Old Town Pack canoe that I christened Grebe is a giant among minnows — the Sairy Gamp was just nine feet long and weighed in at only 10½ pounds! — but she's still a lot lighter than a Tripper. Why "she"? Well, Nessmuk adopted this then‑commonplace usage in writing about his little canoes, and I figured I'd follow suit. In any case, my affection for Grebe is certainly no secret, and it's grounded in far more than abstract notions of sisterly solidarity. Whether I'm going out for a day or a week, she's the first boat I think of. So I was delighted to get a letter from Barney Ward, a longtime In the Same Boat reader who is no stranger to the fine art of paddling his own canoe. He writes Old Fat Man Adventures, a laid‑back chronicle of journeys by paddle, pedal, and shanks' pony throughout the American South and Southwest, from New Mexico's mountains to the hill country of Texas to the saltwater marshes of the Gulf coast. At present, Barney's fleet is limited to one boat, a sturdy sit‑on‑top, but he's been thinking about getting another. And that led him to write to me. Since he raised questions that folks contemplating a new boat often ask, however, I thought it wouldn't hurt to answer them in a column, and to that end Barney graciously consented to my reprinting his letter. So, without further ado, here's what he had to say:
My canoe experience is very limited to three canoes, but first some information.
My first canoe was a downriver one that had been busted up several times and glassed back together. It worked but was not right for reasons I cannot remember from over 40 years ago.
The next was a barge made by Coleman, 17 feet long, tougher than everything and twice as heavy as the world. I unloaded it from my van by rolling it off and letting it bounce. It was with me over 20 years and together we saw a whole lot of water slide under the keel.
The next was a Mad River 15‑foot model they made for about three years then stopped. It was a tandem that worked out fairly well. I capsized it once when out in a slough near Houston. My load that time was me and a water bottle. Later, when talking to some folks from the Houston Canoe Club about how easily it flipped, they decided that the canoe was so lightly loaded that there was no chance of decent stability. This event made me very nervous about canoes. Before capsizing, all I had knowingly done was to reach forward for my water bottle. The next thing I knew I was swimming.
You have read about my iffy knees and the sit‑inside kayaks I have tried. Now I'm on my second SOT, which I callSneaky. Sneaky has a kind of canoe interior with a second floor just above the waterline, with the scuppers through the bottom of the boat for self‑bailing. The trouble here is the weight of 60‑plus pounds and my old shoulders. It is fine on the water and very stable. It wiggles a bit but becomes rock solid when tipped up just a smidgen.
SOTs that are lighter are just too small. My last SOT was 9'3" but still weighed nearly 50 pounds when rigged, and it paddled like a beach ball. That was great up in the sloughs and marshy rivulets, but miserable getting back to the launch point.
So now I am wondering about the Old Town Pack canoe. Twelve feet seems to be a good length for directional stability if my current 12‑foot SOT is a good indication. My concern is with the likelihood of capsizing a Pack when it is lightly loaded. I seldom have more than me and 30 pounds of gear on a heavy day. The Old Town website says their Pack is rated for 575 pounds of load. I'm afraid that would make for a very skittish boat with only 200 pounds (or less, if my dieting keeps on doing well) on board.
The Pack, if I got one, would act as a waterborne day‑hiking device. In fact my daypack is usually all that is carried when on the water. If I added my fishing gear, that would add another 10 pounds or less. What I do not want is a boat that has to be driven every moment (i.e., those 22‑inch wide, 18‑foot 'yaks that roll like a log if you do not pay attention all the time) and does not allow relaxed lazy paddling and sightseeing.
It looks like I do not have a specific question, but would like to have comments or questions to ask myself so that I can make a decision. Can you help?
I'll do my best, Barney. I've been there myself. We're all…ahem… in the same boat at some time or other in our paddling careers. Let's start by exploring…
What Makes a Good Pack Canoe Good
If you're like me, deciding any question usually begins by listing your needs and wants. And since that approach is implicit in Barney's letter, I'll take the next step and make it explicit, jotting down his requirements more or less in the order he introduced them:
- Light weight and easy "portagability"
- Stability ("tippiness" is not a virtue)
- Directional stability (i.e., a boat that tracks well)
- Nimbleness (essential in the restricted confines of marshes and rivulets)
- Seaworthiness (not on Barney's list, but important nonetheless)
- Modest cost (ditto)
How does the Old Town Pack canoe fare when measured against this standard? Pretty well, in my opinion. She meets all Barney's stated requirements and more besides, though she falls a little short in one very important area — affordability. At USD800, give or take a little, the Pack isn't exactly inexpensive. Of course, there is something to the notion that you get what you pay for. But I anticipate. And before I get into the nitty gritty, I ought to lay out the other side of the argument. After all, nothing's perfect. So here are two of my Pack canoe's shortcomings:
- She's tender
- She's heavy
What's that? Do I contradict myself? I do. And how can a boat be both stable and tender, let alone simultaneously light and heavy? Easy. The Pack canoe feels tippy when you step into her. In other words, she's tender. In the jargon often favored by boat designers (and catalog copywriters), she has "low primary stability." Even when you're settled in the seat, she feels a bit restless. But if you then try to tip her over — and I did try, first time out — you'll find it surprisingly hard to do. Unless, that is, you stand up or throw yourself over the gunwale. Now let's turn to the question of heft. My Grebe weighs in at around 35 pounds. (Old Town's website gives the weight as 33 pounds. I won't argue.) That's mighty light compared to a Tripper, but it's nearly twice as heavy as, say, one of Hornbeck Boat's carbon‑fiber and Kevlar confections. Then again, Hornbeck's gossamer craft don't come cheap. Fortunately, I find 35 pounds to be plenty light enough for me, and I'm betting Barney will, too.
That's pretty much the story down the line. Every boat involves tradeoffs. Light weight — very light weight, that is — almost always comes at a (very) high cost, especially if you don't want to sacrifice overall strength. Tracking ability and nimbleness are also at odds. Improvements in either quality come at the expense of the other. A canoe which paddles like it's running on rails will often prove no more maneuverable than a locomotive. For the record, Old Town got the balance just about right when they laid down the lines for the Pack. She tracks very well, but she also turns easily. That's all I ask of any boat.
Stability is another place where tradeoffs abound. A wide, flat‑bottomed craft will feel as stable as a diving raft — and be nearly as easy to flip over if tipped up on edge — whereas many seemingly tender boats firm up as they're leaned hard. The Pack does this. She's certainly not uncapsizable, but she has very good manners for so small a boat. This gets right to the heart of Barney's Number One Requirement. Does the Pack permit "relaxed lazy paddling and sightseeing"? She does. And more besides. Sooner or later, most of us are caught out. A glorious day that dawned calm and still, promising an easy jaunt over a glassy bay, ends in a freshening gale and a threatening swell. Happily, the Pack canoe can rise to the challenge, at least in practiced hands. It isn't necessary to load her to the gunwales to settle her down, either. In fact, a heavily loaded boat is more likely to swamp in rough seas and high waves than a lightly laden craft. There's simply less distance between her gunwales and the water. Moreover, unless her heavy load is also well secured, it will make the boat easier to capsize, rather than harder. This is a lose‑lose scenario. Just ask anyone who's had to bring a half‑swamped canoe down through a rapids. A heavy, hyperactive cargo is no friend in big waves. Even though you're still floating pretty high, the water sloshing around in the bilge threatens to roll your boat over with every lurch and sway. (This is referred to as the "free surface effect," and it's contributed to many maritime tragedies.)
Luckily, I've found my Old Town Pack to be well behaved with just about any load I could reasonably expect her to carry, from a minimalist day‑trip inventory of spare paddle and getaway pack — to which I often add my ammo‑can camera box — to a big, heavy dry bag holding enough food and gear for a week‑long outing.
So much for the executive summary. Now it's time to take…
A Closer Look
Here's a front‑on view of Grebe's sister ship, Farwell's Raven:
He's setting up to pivot to his right here. Check out the sharp entry lines and generous freeboard. (He had only himself, a spare paddle, and a light pack in his boat when the picture was taken.) Raven and Grebe are easy to paddle with traditional beavertail blades, though unless your arms are longer than mine, you'll probably want to kneel near your paddling side, and you'll also need a well‑honed C‑stroke to cope with gusty crosswinds and unruly rollers. If kneeling isn't your thing, however, don't despair. A double‑bladed paddle will make these little boats fly, and the seat is far and away the best place to work a double. Sometimes you can eat your cake and have it, too. Which will be very welcome news to Barney, I'm guessing.
Now here's another view of Raven:
In this shot, Farwell's heeling the boat over while sculling. And the more he leans, the harder he has to work to hold the boat down. That's evidence of what the trade press calls "high secondary stability," and unless you'd rather swim than paddle, it's a very good thing. You can also see the Pack canoe's polyethylene decks in the picture. These are excellent hand‑holds for muscling an unloaded boat into and out of the water, while the lone ash thwart makes a handy place for lashing a pack. It's also useful when rigging a paddle yoke to get your boat over a portage:
Back on the water now, the Pack performs superbly. Once you've grown accustomed to her slightly tremulous response to any sudden movements — I've labeled her "tender" and she is, though perhaps "lively" would be the better word — you'll find that she makes a fine platform for wildlife watching, photography (use a fast shutter speed, though!), sketching, or painting. And don't worry. She won't toss you overboard without considerable provocation. I can even stand in her if I'm careful. I've used Grebe for fly‑fishing in sheltered waters, and while I've never done battle with a pike or musky in her, I think she's better than a float‑tube for stalking beaver‑pond brookies.
Which isn't to say that you can't take her out onto fast‑moving water. While her vinyl‑ABS laminate isn't as robust as that of the Tripper, she'll bounce back quickly from most midstream encounters with inconveniently placed rocks. I'm entirely comfortable in her on Class I‑II water. Even Class III isn't outside her scope, though she certainly wouldn't be my first choice there. Or my second. The Pack's not really a whitewater boat. (Warning! Float bags are always a good idea in moving water. They're not a bad idea on open‑water crossings, either. Just be sure they're securely lashed.)
Before we leave the subject of fast water, I'd be remiss if I didn't add another cautionary note. Grebe and Raven both came fitted with cane seats. These looked good, and they lasted a long time, although both Farwell and I have had to replace the cane inserts recently. But these seats had one significant failing — instead of being mounted at gunwale level, they were dropped a couple of inches. I suppose this was done to make the boats feel less tender under way. It did, but that rather small advantage came at a mighty high price: If you knelt in the boat rather than sat on the seat, it was all too easy to wedge your feet under the seat thwarts in such a way as to make it difficult or even impossible to extract them. To his considerable chagrin, Farwell did this on his first time out, though he was only a few feet from shore when it happened, and he managed to work his feet free without incident. Obviously, neither of us much fancied a repeat performance, so we lost no time in removing the spacers and raising our seats to gunwale height. That gave both of us adequate footroom, but you may not be so lucky. Try before you buy — or promise yourself that you'll never kneel, and mean it. Then you can drop the seat as low as you like.
Here's a shot of Grebe's seat after I removed the spacers but before I replaced the cane insert:
And no, the gunge in the bilge was not original equipment.
OK. I've done my best to answer Barney's implied questions. All except for the most important one of all:
Is the Pack Canoe Right for Me?
And the answer? The Old Town Pack is a fine canoe. But is it the right canoe for Barney? I can't make that call. Only he can. But I can say this: I think the odds are good. Very good.
Pack canoes have been around for quite a while now. Nessmuk, the self‑described "limber‑go‑shiftless" woodsman who put the sport into sport canoeing — at least in North America — had the first one built for him way back in 1880. The rest, as they say, is history. I, too, have a pack canoe, and while my Old Town Pack isn't as light as Nessmuk's little Sairy Gamp, Grebe has served me well. Is a pack canoe what you've been looking for? It could be, especially if you like exploring tucked‑away pocket waters, far from the madding crowd. Don't take my word for it, though. Rent or borrow one and take her out for a paddle. That's the only way to know for sure if you're ready to follow in Nessmuk's wake.
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