Tripping Out: 5 Do-It-All 17-foot Canoes Reviewed

Darren Bush tests and reviews 5 lightweight, 17-foot canoes in the Boundary Waters.

Our fleet of canoes in Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Northern Minnesota.

Review by Darren Bush

Photos by Aaron Black-Schmidt

It's a little embarrassing to admit this, but I own a baker's dozen of canoes. That number fluctuates up and down a little, as I will not own a canoe I don't paddle, and it hurts their feelings to get dusty.

I love them. I feel like a golfer, except I have boats instead of clubs. Doing a long trip? I grab my 18 ½ foot E.M. White. A little run down a local twisty river? How about a fifteen foot Prospector? Solo paddle with Alice, my Great Pyrenees? I’ll grab my Kevlar Nova Craft Pal. Solo paddle on a quiet pond? Maybe my old Blackhawk Covenant. Yep, just hand me my 8-iron, please.

I fully recognize that I have a unique situation (and a very understanding and supportive spouse). I also recognize that most folks have resources and space for one canoe to do everything. For many of us, the 17-foot omnibus canoe is the way to go.

Canoes are and were made in sizes from 10 to well over 20 feet. I'm not sure why 17 was the magic length. Maybe because Grumman built countless 17-footers and that became the standard length, as much by accident it was as on purpose. In any case, that's what we have.

Portage, pack, paddle, unpack, portage – just another day in the BWACW.

Since it's the size of canoe that most trippers would choose, we chose to review five 17-footers, good for a week in wilderness lake country. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was the testing ground, and September the testing time. Because your reviewer is a smart guy when it comes to time and place. Because these boats would be portaged between lakes, we chose lightweight composite construction.

Author’s Note: Building a canoe is more arts than crafts. The men and women who build these boats are artisans. With a lightweight canoe, every single flaw is exposed to the naked eye, and you can't see some of them until you pull the canoe out of the mold. The maker is sometimes flying blind and has to go by feel, born from their experience.

While it takes skill to build a composite kayak, a composite canoe builder is exposed to the world. No hiding a sloppy seam in a boat with no gelcoat or pigmented resins. Considering the artisans have less than a half-hour from start to finish when laying up a canoe you can begin to appreciate the skill it takes.

There will always be imperfections in a canoe; there should be. These are individual boats, made by many hands in a very short period of time. There is a Persian saying about woven rugs, that they are "perfectly imperfect, and precisely imprecise, as only God is perfect." I think the imperfections in ultralight canoes are what make each one unique. In the days of mass-produced, soulless consumer goods, it's a good exercise to think about the artisans who put their skills into making the boat under your seat.

Wenonah Spirit II  |  Nova Craft Cronje Northstar Northwind 17  |  Swift Keewaydin 17 Souris River Quetico 17

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Wenonah Spirit II Nova Craft Cronje Northstar Northwind 17 Swift Keewaydin 17 Souris River Quetico 17
Swift