By Harrison Metzger
I started canoeing whitewater when there was one whitewater canoe, the Blue Hole OCA, a 15-foot, 9-inch behemoth that doubled as a tandem or solo, with a big block of Styrofoam for floatation. Over more than four decades, I've owned at least a dozen whitewater canoes, from the 14-foot Blue Hole Sunburst II to the 8 foot, 8 inch Blackfly Option. Even these widely different designs have one thing common to almost all canoes: a pointy bow and stern. Today, however, whitewater canoes are evolving into strange and highly functional new shapes, thanks to Blackfly Canoes founder and solo-entrepreneur Jeremy Laucks. Laucks, the 2009 OC-1 Freestyle World Champion, looked at canoe design with a younger set of eyes and a willingness to toss out convention for the sake of performance.
I began noticing this trend a few years ago at Ain't Louiefest, an annual gathering of the canoe tribes in the mountains of East Tennessee. I started seeing strange looking canoes: blunt, rectangular tubs with rounded bows and squared sterns. Some were outfitted with double saddles; others were outfitted solo. These were the first Blackfly Octanes - polyethylene boats that defied all the mores of traditional canoe design. With their wide, blunt ends, these boxy boats did not look like any other canoe. The payoff is extreme stability, predictability and dryness. The surfboard bottom and toboggan-shaped bow makes it virtually impossible to bury the nose in all but the most gargantuan holes. It wants to ride up and over just about anything. The first time you land a hard boof and see the wave splash forward in front of your boat instead of over the front into the boat, you may wonder why someone did not think of this unorthodox shape sooner.
The Octane 91 (8 feet, 10.5 inches long and 31 inches wide) is designed for bigger paddlers and those looking for a dry, stable ride. The Octane 85 (8 feet, 4 inches long and 27.5 inches wide) is a smaller, lighter version of the big boy. I have paddled both and I love the 85's shortness and flat-spinning agility for play. However I am toward the upper end of its weight range (110 to 190 pounds) while I am near the lower end of the weight range (170 to 350 pounds) for the 91. I started considering the big Octane as a replacement for my L'Edge.
Last winter, Laucks announced he was "restyling" the 91. "I pulled the ends of the gunwales in more to try to get rid of some of the much lampooned 'bathtub' look the boat had before," he said. "I also added a ridge on the side like on the Octane 85. Basically, it looks like a bigger Octane 85." Like all the newer Blackfly canoes it is now made in an aluminum mold, giving it a cleaner, more refined look. Still, some folks can't get past that duckbilled snout. When I told a friend who loves traditional sleek canoes that I was considering one, his response was: "Yeah, but Harrison, they're so ugly!"
I didn't care. After test paddling and rolling Rich Moore's 91 at West Fork of the Tuckaseegee takeout last summer, I decided I had to have one, for several reasons. First, I wanted another boat made from the tough plastic Blackfly uses, legendary for its ability to stand up to abuse. Second, I wanted a solid replacement for my battered Outrage, which has been my go-to boat for harder runs. Finally, I wanted to support the one company that's pushing whitewater canoe design forward in 2015.
Here she is before her first run:
Fortunately, my purchase of the 91 at the end of Gauleyfest weekend coincided with the return of big rains to the Southeast. I have now paddled it a dozen times, starting with a couple of runs on the Upper Nantahala. My first, at the lower flow of 250 cfs, I basically steered the boat downstream without paddling hard. It felt like a high performance sports car driven through a town with a 35 mph speed limit and lots of cops. It was hard to tell what it would do, but I knew I was nowhere near its capabilities.
The next day, I ran the Upper Nanty again with paddling legend Dennis Huntley and his crew, this time at over 400 cfs. Several rapids at the top of the run are class III+ at this level. The fat boy ate them up. I began to feel just how dry, quick and stable the 91 is.
Later that same day, my friend Ryan Jourdan offered to let us (my 12-year-old daughter and I) take his brand new Octane 92 down the Nanty at 1,100 cfs. It is hard to describe just how awesome this boat is for tandem. I've never had more fun in an OC2.
Here's a clip Ryan shot of our run at Nantahala Falls:
The next weekend, with everything flooded, I ran the East Fork of the Pigeon above Cruso. The creek, normally Class III and II, flashed from a healthy 900 cfs when we put on to over 1,900 cfs. Big Blue proved to be a dry, nimble ride through pushier water, and a stable platform for rescuing boats and swimmers!
Since then I have had my Octane out for a couple of laps on Wilson Creek, the Upper Davidson, multiple runs of the North Fork of the French Broad at low to medium flows and one lap on the West Fork of the French Broad. On the bigger drops, such the West Fork Slides #2 and #3 (Velocity and Terminal Velocity) the boat feels as stable as my 12-foot Outrage, but even drier. At the bottom of the third slide, which is 18 feet tall, I did not have enough water to pump or dump. I just kept paddling downstream.
I joke that paddling the big Octane is like "canoeing for dummies" because it is so dry, stable and forgiving.
Here's an example: Running Boxcar at a lower level (+2.5 inches on the bridge gauge) I pivoted and landed sideways on the boil line.
Watch the run here:
I never came close to flipping and just had to back paddle to get out of a sticky situation. Awhile back I made that same mistake in my L'Edge. My boat spent the night partially in the cave behind the left side drop, Blind Date! That was not the boat's fault. It was pure operator error. I'm just finding that the older I get, the more I like a bigger margin.
Here is a sequence of photos shot on a higher water day by Jennifer Smoak:
To me, the Octanes feel like the successors to the L’Edge because of their extremely flat planning hulls, which feel more L’Edge-like than the Option. I also love the new Option. As Jeremy has tweaked and refined it, the Option has become the boat of choice for most boaters running harder water. The Octanes, meanwhile, have revolutionized canoe design in ways that will shorten the learning curve for canoeists like modern creek boats have done for kayakers. Those wide, blunt ends make it easy to concentrate on having fun no matter what you paddle. To me, that's what it's all about.
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