Eight years ago, Dave Birren retired as a management consultant for Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources. Today, he consults paddlers on Wisconsin’s liquid resources. Birren, 66, is an ACA-certified canoeing instructor (Level 3 Moving Water). As a paddling instructor, he owns a fleet of boats, which made it problematic selecting his favorite ride. When pushed, however, he chose his Blackhawk Ariel. Thinking back to their first meeting, Birren said, “It was love at first sight.”

C&K: Love at first sight? Really?
Dave Birren: The Ariel had me at ‘Hello.’

So, you hopped in and paddled off into the sunset?
Not quite. When I first looked at it, I already had a nice fleet, and I was enjoying my Mad River Independence. But I was curious and just had to find out. The five minute test-paddle blew me away. I was impressed at its tracking and turning abilities, but what really sold me was leveling it out in the middle of a turn and seeing it go back to a nearly straight path. I was hooked.

Of course, it's easy to mistake infatuation for true love.
It's true love. I've had many moments when I didn't realize I was doing correction strokes. I'd be calmly paddling a serene, shady river, absent-mindedly doing a little automatic ‘J’ at the end of each stroke. In those moments, it feels much more like we’re walking hand-in-hand down a country lane. Then, when a turn approaches, I simply shift my weight to one knee and guide her through. I feel very much a part of the boat in such moments.

Two become one, huh?
The boat has amazing handling characteristics. Paddled flat, it tracks fairly well, needing only slight correction strokes. Leaning it 10-20 degrees changes everything. It becomes very responsive and maneuverable. The stern section is designed to skid sideways in turns when it's leaned and that enables it to make tight turns on request. The most amazing thing is that, unlike other solo boats, all it takes to come out of a leaned turn is to level it again. Every rockered canoe I've paddled will continue turning in an increasingly small spiral. Ariel just stretches out. It's like riding a well-trained horse; you hardly need to use the reins.

Where do you and your Blackhawk like to go?
The Yahara River is very close to home, but the Sugar River near Attica, Wisconsin, is my favorite local stream. The Sugar River is twisty and has occasional obstacles to avoid, which makes it interesting. It has long stretches of overhanging trees, making it not only beautiful, but also cool on hot days. The Mecan River in central Wisconsin is my favorite river of all—narrow and twisty—and the Ariel dances down it like a pro. I've paddled the Kickapoo River in southwestern Wisconsin with my dog, one of the more scenic parts of the state (not my dog, the river). I've also used it to teach canoeing in the pond behind Rutabaga.

I'm curious about the rest of your fleet.
In order of sheer enjoyability, I'd put them in this order:

– Hemlock Peregrine (15'8"): Super fast solo tripper that is correctly advertised as being able to keep up with tandems; handles reasonably well; almost flies when unloaded.

– Bell WildFire (BlackGold, 14'): The classic freestyle boat; I used to favor it on small rivers, but the Ariel handles more easily. In the past few years, I've used it for classes because it's so easy to demonstrate control strokes.

– Bell NorthStar (16'6"): Handles well tandem on both lakes and small rivers; good as a tandem tripper with a moderate load; very good for solo tripping on rough water; it dances when paddled solo unloaded.

– Bell WildFire (Royalex, 14' – renamed Yellowstone Solo): Set up for Class II+ whitewater.

– Sundowner 18: A good utility boat, used for tripping; takes a big load, fairly fast, but not a dry ride in foot-high waves.

Thank you! One last question: Where's your bliss?
I love helping people improve their paddling. My favorite times have been those ‘Aha!’ moments when a student puts it all together and does something well. The looks on their faces are indescribably precious. But maybe the best thing is being at a remote campsite in the Boundary Waters with just the wind, rain and loons for company. That even beats eddying out after a 4-foot Class II drop on the Flambeau River.

— All photos courtesy Dave Birren.

NOTE: Blackhawk Ariels were made by Phil Siggelkow in Janesville, Wisconsin, until the late 1990s. The forms have been purchased and they're now being made again. Visit the Facebook page for more info.


–Have a canoe or kayak you love? Be in RIDES or recommend a friend! Contact Katie McKy at katemcky@hotmail.com with "RIDES profile" in the subject line. Photos are provided by the paddlers.