Canoeists generally tend toward the traditional. We enjoy constants like the simple beauty of the cedar strip, the delicate functionality of ash brightwork, the reliability of a Royalex hull. But this year has brought change to the canoe business. Old Town offers its first composite canoe in a decade, Wenonah enters the polyethylene field, and Placid Boatworks pushes the technology envelope with laminated wood brightwork and vacuum-infused hull coatings. Bell, Mohawk, and Mad River relocated their production facilities. North of the border, Canadian manufacturers Esquif and Nova Craft capture Yankee attention with new models and heritage craftsmanship.
Faced with the challenge of test-paddling eight new boats, though, our traditionalist test crew happily accepted the chance to paddle new designs, ranging from 12-foot sit-on-top canoes to 20-foot expedition trippers. Along the way we met a few surprises, like a freak April hailstorm on Florida's Blackwater River that left us wearing every stitch of clothing we'd packed for nine days. Two months, hundreds of miles, and more than a few sunburned cheeks later, on waters big and small from Pennsylvania's scenic Susquehanna River to trap ponds in Delaware, here's how the boats performed.
Bell NorthShore, $2,795
Length: 20 ft., 6 in.
Beam: 36 in.
Depth (bow, center, stern): 21 in., 14 in., 19 in.
Rocker: 2.5 in., 1.5 in.
Weight: 54 lbs.
Capacity: 1400 lbs.
Bell stretched its respected "North" series of lake touring canoes into a new 20-footer. Long, lean, light, and fast, the NorthShore always led the way with unbeatable straightaway speed. When one tester piped up, "I'd like to try this with four paddlers," we did and soon exclaimed, "We need try this in a race!"
The hull finish on our test boat was impeccable, with two nearly invisible belly-line seams. Outfitting touches were less refined and the curious mix of truss-hung center seats with riveted frame bow and stern seats is visually unappealing. Differential rocker blends tracking and maneuverability with the NorthShore's exhilarating length-to-width speed ratio. KevLight—a vacuum fusion of Kevlar and vinylester resin that eliminates the need for gel coat—produces a tripper that rests easy on the shoulder at less than 60 pounds. The NorthShore is available with up to five seats and our four-seat test boat provided ample room to swing a stick at any paddling position. The optional center seats offered our Mutt-and-Jeff-sized tandem team the ability to balance the boat by moving fore or aft into the center seats, trimming the hull for unequal paddler weights and wind direction.
Kudos: Ample, versatile seating arrangements.
Gripe: The raised finish washers on the center seat hardware could be tough on errant knuckles.
Esquif Miramichi, $1,400
Length: 20 ft.
Beam: 40 in.
Depth (bow, center, stern): 23 in., 16 in., 23 in.
Rocker: 3.5 in., 3.5 in.
Weight: 105 lbs.
Capacity: 1300 Lbs
Esquif introduces the voluminous Miramichi to their big river line, with enough rocker to turn even when heavily burdened by immense piles of gear. The Miramichi evoked a consistent sentiment among our test paddlers: We need a big trip on a big river.
Long, deep, and beamy the Miramichi was still surprisingly fast. The webbed seat and ash brightwork are solid and simple, providing the expedition tripper cult with a clean canvas to customize. Visions of spray covers, knee pads, D-rings, and even sail rigs to help on the flats danced in our heads—this boat wants to take you places. The Miramichi's 105 pounds is a beast to portage and the 20-foot length doesn't make it any easier. Fortunately the rockered hull is responsive enough to keep dry when deciding to "just run it." The arched bottom continues throughout the keel line, providing an unusually stiff hull for a lengthy Royalex canoe. A trim check proved the Miramichi tolerates unequally weighted partners, though with 27 inches between the bow seat and front thwart, our outfitting gurus were left wanting a sliding bow seat.
Kudos: Solidly built and roomy for long hauls.
Gripes: The stern seat was awkwardly canted and pinched far to the back.
Mad River Synergy, $750
Length: 12 ft.
Beam: 30.75 in.
Depth (bow, center, stern): 14.5 in., 10 in., 12.25 in.
Rocker: 2 in., .5 in.
Weight: 60 lbs.
Capacity: 350 lbs.
Proving you can have your S.O.T. and single blade it too, Mad River blends sit-on-top form with canoe function to create the radically comfortable and efficient Synergy. "I really like this boat" was the phrase heard most often from our test paddlers—uttered with a touch of surprise by traditional canoeists and a tone of confirmation by those with a broader paddling palate. Still, the Synergy was a hit with everyone. Combine the best aspects of a canoe and sit-on-top and the result is a higher sided, deeper-seated hull that is dry, stable, and efficiently paddled with either a single or double blade.
The standard outfitting was impressively thoughtful: mesh covers for the bow and stern gear wells, paddle park and cockpit bungies, side pockets for small gear, molded rod holders, and tip guides for anglers. The padded seat pan, combined with an adjustable backrest and foot brace, continues a quest for comfort evident in Mad River's recent designs. Options include angler packages, spray shields, and a front cover extension that reaches back to mid-hull. The 14-foot model is available with a factory-installed rudder.
Kudos: A great, and affordable, first canoe for the newbie.
Gripe: The paddle park bungies interfere with a lazy, low-angle stroke.