Different Strokes: Expedition Canoeing (Part 1)

Talking canoes, spraydecks and paddles for northern trips

By: Conor Mihell and Frank Wolf

Over the years, I've followed adventurer, photojournalist and filmmaker Frank Wolf's expeditions with awe. He cut his teeth with a single-season, 5,000-mile canoe trip across Canada in 1995; completed a sea kayak circumnavigation around British Columbia's Haida Gwaii islands; and trekked the route of a proposed pipeline across the northern Rockies. Lately, Wolf has put up a series of seriously ambitious, exploratory canoe trips across northern Canada, from the Northwest Territories to Labrador. His trips are remarkable for covering a vast geography in amazingly short periods of time.

This past summer, I was thrilled when Wolf took my suggestion and ventured into my favorite part of Canada, the remote wilds of northern Quebec. This is a hard country of stunted trees, powerful rivers, relentless biting insects and endless rain. I wondered how Wolf's trip would stack up in comparison to mine. As I expected, Wolf whipped off more distance than any of my trips (which have ranged from 30 to 42 days in length). He and partner Peirson Ross canoed 800 miles in less than a month's time, traversing all of northern Quebec.

I was also thrilled to have the opportunity to correspond with Wolf, comparing and contrasting our canoe-tripping styles. Whereas Wolf chooses modern gear and freeze-dried food, I am of the traditional wood, canvas and slow foods persuasion. Each approach comes with its own strengths, weaknesses and aesthetics, which we exchanged a series of emails to discuss. — Conor Mihell

Frank Wolf: I always use a T-Formex (and in the past Royalex) canoe with a prospector hull design because of the versatility and durability of it.  Since 2009 I’ve tripped primary with an Esquif Prospector 17.  You can pull these babies fully loaded over rocks, run burly whitewater (in combination with a spraydeck) , and drag them up on shore without having to worry about damaging them.  If I’m on a month or two-month long trip, the last thing I want is to be delayed or hindered by a canoe that has to handled with kid-gloves.

Conor Mihell: Too often, space age plastics become prostheses for good judgment, patience and skill. I love the aesthetics and handling of a traditional wood-canvas canoe. My favourite is the 17-foot Headwaters Prospector. That’s right: I paddle a cedar-framed, canvas-covered canoe in Class III whitewater and slug it over long, unmarked portages (we can talk later about the wonder of the tumpline). Headwaters’ build is based on the exact specifications of the canoe originally commissioned by the Geological Survey of Canada for its northern reconnaissance missions, well before the advent of floatplanes. It’s a super deep, highly rockered, round-bottom hull with exceptional volume and buoyancy. Modern “prospector” canoes are replicas in name only once you’ve paddled an original. Besides the seriously undersized dimensions, you can’t match the subtleties of a wood-canvas canoe in plastic. As for durability, all that heritage of wilderness exploration means something. My canoe keeps me honest. I may need to travel slower (and portage more) in rocks and shallows, but in my experience these delays are offset by this canoe’s amazing seaworthiness and efficiency on big water.

Frank: Judgement, patience and skill? Ouch! What are you trying to say Conor? I do appreciate the aesthetic of cedar and canvas—they are beautiful boats. I think nostalgia can get in the way of function though. The canoe is merely a tool—and I like to use the best tool for the job. Why use an axe when you have a hydraulic wood-splitter? I’m pretty sure the old geology guys would have chosen a T-Formex canoe over cedar and canvas if they had them available at the time. Their mission was to map and explore as much as they could and a T-Formex canoe would have opened up the land to them in a far more efficient manner. I’d rather carry less food and cover more ground in a broader range of water conditions than a cedar and canvas canoe allows.

Conor: Hey, my comments weren't meant as a personal attack. From your films I know you're the real deal. Though it pains me to say it, I'll sometime paddle a plastic canoe as well—especially on the steep, technical rivers that flow into Lake Superior where rocks come up fast. But it pains me more to see the little curls of red plastic I leave along the way. And I think the coolest thing about wood-canvas is that they can be restored and rebuilt and thus have an indefinite lifespan. These days, there's something inherently wonderful about a craft that's designed to never end up in a landfill. For me that's part of the mystique.

I want to hear more about your spraydeck. I've never used one, even on extended trips on the Great Lakes and the coastline of Hudson Bay. To me, they've always seemed more trouble than they're worth in areas with lots of portages.

Frank: Oh yes: the spraydeck. It keeps your boat dry in whitewater and stormy lakes, allowing you to move in conditions an open boat would not. On a 30-day trip through Quebec this past summer it rained 25 days. Snuggling under our North Water deck in the pouring rain was the cozy way to go and still get in miles without having to constantly bail. Decks also create less drag in wind, they secure the chart case in front of you, and keep spare paddles accessible.

Speaking of paddles—are you ready for this? I carry five in the canoe for my partner and I. We bring three Grey Owl bent-shaft Touring paddles (one as a spare), and a pair of Grey Owl Hammerheads. Ninety five percent of the time we’ll use the bent-shaft paddles, as 95 per cent of the time you’re paddling forward and a bent-shaft is vastly more efficient (and easier on your body) than a traditional straight shaft paddle. I challenge anyone to paddle for a minute with a straight-shaft blade, then switch over to a bent-shaft. You’ll immediately feel how much easier it is as you don’t pull up a pail of water up at the end of each stroke. It’s why they’re the standard for marathon canoe racing and SUP. When I link up waterways in the wilderness, I end up doing as much upstream paddling as downstream, so the high cadence and push provided by a bent-shaft blade are key to working against the current. The compact blade design also allows you to get in a full paddle stroke while pumping your way up shallow eddies. The burly whitewater blades are a worry-free and powerful way to maneuver your canoe through technical rapids, as well as continuously bash rocks down shallow rapids.

Conor: We've got more common ground on the subject of paddles. I too like the big Hammerhead (aka pizza flipper) blade for whitewater. I have a custom-made paddle by Echo Paddles that's even nicer, but I can't seem to wear out the Grey Owl. I've used bent-shafts in the bow but for paddling stern I prefer my ash ottertail. It's a decades-old paddle that was gifted to me by a neighbor when I was a teenager. I haven't found another paddle that's so lively—the blade has tremendous flex. It may not pull as much water as a bent-shaft, but I like to think the whippy blade acts like a modern golf club or hockey stick, giving my stroke a "kick." This venerable old paddle has taken me to Hudson Bay more than a half-dozen times.

I think that about covers paddling gear. Let's chat next time about the differences and similarities of our camping and traveling routines.