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 call Sneaky. 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:
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: