Small Really Is Beautiful
The People's Choice?
Fans of the Pack Canoe Speak Out
By Tamia Nelson
June 26, 2012
I don't have much use for planned obsolescence. Whether it's a boat, a car, or a bicycle, I buy something I like and then I keep it until it's worn out, or until I no longer have any use for it. Thanks to rural road crews' overgenerous applications of salt, my cars have each lasted only a decade or so, but my boats and bicycles go on forever, or near enough as makes no difference. That said, Farwell and I have managed to acquire a baker's dozen of boats over the years, ranging from an elfin inflatable and a folding kayak (both purchased in the service of amphibious adventures) to a 20‑foot freighter. These extremes aside, though, most of the boats in our fleet have been all‑rounders, reflecting our shared preference for craft that — while they may not do any one thing superbly — can do many things well.
And I'm delighted to say I've never been unhappy with any boat I've owned. All have given good service. Yet one stands out as the first among equals, at least in my eyes: my little Old Town Pack canoe. Here's how I described her in an earlier column:
On first acquaintance, a pack canoe may not inspire confidence. But appearances can deceive. Though Grebe wouldn't be my first choice for every trip, she's a perfect boat for much of Canoe Country. She's nimble in twisty channels, capable in lively riffles, and seaworthy on choppy ponds and lakes. And when it's time to haul her out of her natural element, Grebe rides easily on my shoulders, whether I'm carrying her up a steep portage trail or bushwhacking into a remove beaver pond. Pack canoes live up to their name: they pack a lot of utility on their short keels. Good things, it seems, really do come in small packages.
If you're new to canoeing, you may be wondering what sets a pack canoe apart from other pointy‑ended paddlecraft. The name gives the game away. Pack canoes are short and light, linear descendants of aboriginal hunting canoes. Almost all of them are solo boats — though many will grudgingly accommodate two in a hard chance — and they're as easy to carry as they are to paddle. At 30‑odd pounds, my Pack is no featherweight, but she rests a lot lighter on the shoulders than a 105‑pound freighter, making three‑mile portages little more onerous than a walk in the park. In short, she's the perfect boat for unscripted, spontaneous voyages of discovery. And that, more or less, is the reason I paddle.
OK. I like pack canoes, and I have a special fondness for my Pack canoe. So what? Well, until I publicly confessed my infatuation, I'd figured I was one of a lonely few. On the rare occasions when I saw other pack canoes they were usually ornaments for waterfront camps — something for the grandkids to play in when they came up for the summer. I certainly didn't see many on the mountain streams and beaver ponds I frequent. The response to my confessional article soon put me straight, however. It turns out that there's quite a cadre of pack canoe fans, all of whom share my enthusiasm for these little craft. And their letters make interesting reading, particularly if you're wondering if a pack canoe could be just what you are looking for. Which is why, with the writers' generous permission, I've reprinted some of those letters here.
Of course, nothing is perfect. And pack canoes have their shortcomings. On the theory that it's good to get the bad news over quickly, let's begin with a letter about a small problem that can loom large for some pack canoe owners:
Where Do I Put My Feet?
My Pack came with a dropped cane seat. It made a stable sitting platform, but when I knelt — and I like to kneel from time to time, even on flatwater — I found it all too easy to wedge my foot under the seat frame. And since my feet aren't terribly large, I began to wonder if the seat wouldn't pose a danger to any paddler with bigger feet (or bulky footwear), who might find himself trapped in his boat just when he was in a hurry to leave — after a capsize, say. As luck would have it, Farwell put the question to an impromptu test not long afterward. He was disembarking at a lunch stop on The River when his foot caught against his seat frame, sending him sprawling forward onto his pack. It was a soft landing, and a dry one (there was less than a foot of water under his keel at the time), but a good minute passed before he was able to extract his trapped foot, a process which required an awkward succession of inchworm‑like wriggles. Happy ending? Yes. But it could easily have been worse.
Our solution was to raise the seats in our Pack canoes (as shown in the photo), trading seated stability for safety. But reader Richard Woodward found another way:
My seat was in the lowered position at first, and I don't think my size 13 shoes would fit under the seat. I replaced the seat with a curved thwart and a folding seat placed on the floor. My secondary stability increased dramatically (I am 240 pounds)! The Old Town Pack proved to be very seaworthy and easily handled the waves in the bay. I love my Pack canoe.
Richard's approach to the problem is both ingenious and elegant, harking back to the days of the go‑light brotherhood, when Nessmuk plied the waters of the Adirondacks, seated on a browse‑filled cushion that rested on the keel of his little Sairy Gamp. And while we're speaking of Nessmuk, it's also worth remembering that he often sang …
The Virtues of the Double‑Blade
And so do a lot of other pack canoe enthusiasts, including Richard, who closed his letter with the following words:
I use an 84‑inch double‑bladed paddle, a SeaSense, which I purchased at K‑Mart for USD30. It is an excellent paddle for open water and wider spots in creeks. I carry a second one broken down into two pieces for a spare. I use a 54‑inch Bending Branches Loon single‑blade for the narrow places where my Pack likes to go.
Like Nessmuk before him, Richard was quick to appreciate that the pack canoe's narrow beam made it equally suited to double‑ and single‑blades. A double‑bladed paddle in a tandem all‑rounder is an awkward beast. But in a compact pack canoe it's the next best thing to a magic wand, spiriting you from place to place with little apparent effort. (In narrow channels or rock gardens, however, the single‑blade comes into its own.) And as Richard notes, you don't need to spend a fortune to get a serviceable double. Check the Paddling.net Buyers' Guide and Product Reviews to winnow the possibilities. Just be sure that the paddle you end up with is adequately long, so you're not banging the gunwale with every stroke. Contrary to the dictates of common sense, short paddlers may find they need slightly longer doubles — that is, longer‑shafted doubles — than their taller companions. If you're in any doubt, a few minutes on the water will tell you what length works best for you.
Boaters who frequent windy lakes and ocean bays are among the double's greatest fans. Nothing can make fighting a stiff headwind on a broad expanse of open water fun, but a well‑handled double‑blade will at least keep you from being blown back to your starting place. And a lot of open‑water boaters are also anglers, who find …
The Lure of the Pack Canoe …
All but irresistible. Stream fisherman also find these little boats useful. I grew up within easy cycling distance of the 'Kill, a world‑renowned trout stream. My Grandad was a part‑time fishing guide, too. So it won't come as any surprise that I had a fly rod in my hands at a very early age. And when I got my first canoe, I was quick to appreciate its value to any angler who enjoyed fishing "fine and far off." But fishermen and boaters often saw each other as members of warring camps on the 'Kill, a situation that wasn't helped by the lack of consideration shown by some members of both parties to anyone not on their team, so to speak. The result was as ugly as it was predictable. As an angler, I fumed when straggling flotillas of feckless paddlers treated me as if I were one‑half of a slalom gate. But as a canoeist, I raged whenever an ill‑tempered angler sent an Elk Hair Caddis flying all the way across a pool to whistle past my eyes. In the end I said goodbye to the 'Kill and went in search of quieter waters.
I didn't own a pack canoe back then, however. I wish I had. Not only do pack canoes have a smaller footprint than their less nimble cousins, but they're a lot easier to carry into backcountry ponds. And as I've already mentioned, they're equally at home on many lakes and bays. So it's easy to see why a number of firms are now marketing pack canoes specially tailored to the needs of paddling anglers, though as this note from Rich Gross makes clear, the idea might benefit from further refinement:
As a very new purchaser of an Old Town Pack canoe, I believe that you've described the craft fairly accurately. Your description of "tender" as opposed to "stable" was excellent. That paragraph should be helpful to all who consider this small, comfortable, and fun [canoe].
One difference between my boat and yours is that I own the Angler version. It was a good idea to customize the product for those inclined more towards fishing than cruising, though the price tag is higher.
The best idea that Old Town had on the fishing version was to dramatically lower the new built‑in molded seat. This added more stability and should have added additional comfort. Unfortunately, whoever designed the seat did so for someone with a tiny butt. The width of the Pack's seat is 17 inches, which compares well to a comfortable bass boat fishing seat. However, the depth is only 12½ inches, compared to nearly 17 inches in the bass boat seat. When one considers that many paddlers will wisely wear a life jacket when paddling, then 12½ inches becomes 11 or even as little as 10 inches of usable room. The boat is designed to carry a lot of weight (nominal 550 pounds capacity), but most of it had better not be on the paddler's body.
There are a number of other changes or improvements that could be made to the Pack Angler, and I have written Old Town about those. I hope the company pays attention, since the Pack could be serous competition for the SOTs that cover our very large coastal waterways down here. We have more miles of saltwater flats than anyone even knows.
For now, I'll second your high assessment of the boat. A bit pricey, but exactly what I needed and wanted for the Texas flats fishing that I do.
For the benefit of anyone who didn't read my original article, and who might therefore be puzzled by Rich's references to it, I suppose I'd better repeat my earlier words on the Pack canoe's stability:
Of course, she's no freighter. The first time I stepped into Grebe she seemed tender, even "tippy." But once I made myself at home in her and spent a few minutes putting her through her paces, working an English gate near shore, she was feeling more like an extension of my body. Tippy? No, though if you plan to put a pack canoe at the mercy of wind and wave, you'd better be sure of your braces. Lively, then? Yes. "Lively" is about right. Not to mention "nimble." And seaworthy, too. Grebe rides over rollers and powerboat wakes with aplomb, pivots like a top to take breaking waves on her bow quarter, and tracks as well as some boats I've paddled that were half again as long.
The Pack's surprisingly good seakeeping qualities are enhanced if the paddler keeps his weight low. That's the purpose of the Angler's dropped seat. But trim is also vitally important. Even an 18‑foot tandem starts acting squirrelly if a lone boater attempts to paddle while seated in the stern. In a 12‑foot boat, any deviation from level trim has an immediate, and usually adverse, effect on handling and general seaworthiness. In other words, when you paddle a pack canoe, you have to keep her on …
An Even Keel
"Mr. Pink" had something to say about the importance of trim in an earlier article. Here he is sitting in the stern seat of a 17‑foot Old Town Tripper:
Even though Mr. Pink is a featherweight, the bow of the Tripper has been lifted out of the water, converting his 17‑foot craft into something much smaller. Moreover, his foreshortened boat is now flying a big spinnaker, ideally placed to catch any errant breeze. In other words, the badly trimmed Tripper combines the nervous oscillations of a weathervane with the directional stability of a coracle. The upshot? Unless the wind is always dead astern, Mr. Pink is in for a strenuous day.
But his plight would be even more dire if he settled himself in the stern of a pack canoe:
Now he's piloting a 6‑foot boat. In anything more than the lightest of light airs, even a coracle would be easier to control. As reader David Kolar discovered:
Just read [your] article on the virtues of a pack canoe, and I agree with you on everything, especially the "tippy when entering" part. I had written you a year or so ago complaining of the weight of my beloved 15‑foot aluminum canoe, and Farwell responded with several recommendations, including the Old Town Pack canoe. I did some reading, and then, since I do my boating "on the cheap," I put out ads for a used Pack. Got a hit from an outfitter who had one that nobody wanted to rent anymore. (Kayaks rule, and all that. Humbug!) Worn, serviceable, and less than half the price of new. It is my kind of boat. I've had it out several times and love it. I did flip it three times the first time out — two of them on purpose in shallow water to test its tolerance.
But there is something curious about the boat, which may have to do with its undetermined age. The seat pictured in your article, and the seat in every other Pack model I've seen, is about a third of the way along the boat. In my boat, the seat is up at the gunwale, molded plastic, and within 8 inches of the stern [emphasis added – Editor]. The one time I tried to sit on it was the one accidental flip! The seat is absolutely unusable, except that it does make a good brace for a float bag. So since the canoe has Old Town stamped right into it, is this some early model of the Pack that they wisely changed, and if so, how old is this? It looks like factory installed fittings, so I don't think some former owner modified it. Your perspective and historical insight would be appreciated.
The former owner suggested putting an inch or two of something right on the bilge in the middle of the boat. I've done this successfully, using a foam packing slab from a TV box, and I put a molded plastic chair (without arms or legs) on that, set with its back against the existing off‑center thwart. It keeps my 6‑foot, 200‑pound weight low and centered, and since I prefer a double paddle anyway, she moves right along.
I'm sorry to say we never got to the bottom of the mystery concerning the … er … unusual position of the stern seat in David's Pack. (Though it isn't a mystery why nobody wanted to rent the boat!) So if you have any information on this score, please let us know. At least David found a solution to the stability problem, and that's what matters most. And a very good solution it was, too. He's now back on an even keel.
That said, the Pack is still a tender craft, at least when compared with beamy tandem boats like the Tripper. And it's certainly not a canoe for really big water, let alone extended trips. Or is it? If I've learned anything in the years I've been writing In the Same Boat, it's that almost any blanket statement I make will be proved wrong by someone, somewhere. This is no exception. It seems that, in competent hands, at any rate, …
The Little Pack Can Cope With Mighty Big Water, Indeed
Take Tyler Higgins' epic tale of an autumn "drift" down the historic Missouri River. (No spindly mountain rill, that!) Summarized in a brief note to "Our Readers Write," it's described at greater length in "Missouri River Odyssey."
And the boat he chose for this remarkable voyage? An Old Town Pack canoe.
Tyler's journey was noteworthy for more than his choice of craft, however. He drove himself and his boat hard, making nearly 70 miles on the first day alone. Keep that in mind when somebody tells you that pack canoes can't go the distance. And his route will be of interest to cyclists, as well, even if they're not inclined to amphibious exploration. The popular Katy Trail parallels the Missouri for more than a 100 miles, and Tyler even shared a campsite with a cyclist at one point, though I'm sorry to say his new acquaintance proved somewhat uncommunicative, not to say surly. Perhaps the cyclist was just envious. I would have been!
The bottom line? Pack canoes are proof positive that good things often come in small packages. They're ideally suited to day trips and overnighters, and they're the answer to many a backcountry angler's prayer. But as Tyler's Missouri River drift shows us, that's just the beginning.
If you asked the stereotypical "man in the street" to describe a canoe, chances are that his first thoughts wouldn't be of a diminutive craft, scarcely 12 feet long and weighing less than a case of wine (750 ml bottles of Yellow Tail Cab Sav, for the record). But little pack canoes have been around for quite a while, and they're great boats. So whether you're exploring beaver ponds, stalking trout, or even challenging the mighty Missouri, you could do a lot worse than pick a pack canoe. Small really is beautiful.
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