“Criminy,” one tester said, looking over the fleet on the banks of Montana’s Gallatin River. “Who would have thought this herd of boats would spend a day on the river together?”

Packable, crossover, tripping, inflatable, whitewater, touring, single-blade and double … the spectrum is considerable, but the concept is elegant: Pair up canoes from a certain category, and then put them through a wringer of Western waterways. The result is a fleet that turns heads for its whacky variety, from packable canoe options and crossover canoes paddled with double blades, to a pair of high-performing tandems, one for wilderness tripping twosomes and the other for whitewater partners in crime.

We tested the fleet across a spectrum of conditions to match their paddling niches, from desert streams in Utah to expeditions in subarctic Canada, and from Class IV rapids on the Salmon to mild currents on the Missouri. It was a little like going into a car dealer and test-driving everything from coupe to Caravan. Hop out of the Esquif Blast, fresh from a Class III ledge drop, and settle into the Placid SpitFire, a throwback to the Rushton-era Adirondack pack canoes that makes you yearn for the wicker picnic basket. So the testing was a tad surreal, but more fun for the dramatic shifts in style and the skill sets required to strike up the dance.
Alan Kesselheim

Photos by Thomas Lee