Six days on the road…and a new canoe to show for it

(UPDATE:  There is now a photo below of me in my new canoe)

Ok, I really don’t have it yet, so can’t show you a photo. I’ll take possession in June.

It all started with the notion of getting a very light, solo canoe, one I could pick up with one hand and carry around. (But I’ll use two hands when I put it on top of the car.)

The problem is that as one gets older everything just weighs so much more!

When I canoed only once or twice a month, using a trailer to transport my 74-lb, 17-foot Grumman aluminum canoe and the 40-lb jug of water I have to use as ballast in the front of it when I solo, was fine. But now that I am paddling once or twice a week it has become tedious, along with the need to make sure I’ll have parking for the trailer and also a smooth path to the water so I can use the canoe cart if I can’t get the vehicle near the water.

And then there are the steep river banks. It’s simple to get a heavy canoe down to the water, just give it a push. Harder, though, to get it back up to the road. I am usually with other paddlers, so there is always help, but even with two or three people, lugging it back up through the woods is not the sort of thing I want to do at the end of a nice paddle.

So I decided to cash in all those chits I have from not getting myself a birthday present for the last 30 or so years and get something really light (loose translation: really expensive). I will keep the Grumman. We’ve have been together for thousands of miles since 1974. There’s no parting ways now. It’ll be relegated to trash trips and when I am carrying a passenger. And for sailing trips, of course.

I started my internet research into light solo canoes months ago, when I was in Florida. It didn’t take me long to realize South Florida is not the best place to shop for one. Nobody makes them there. Nobody sells them there.

The Northeast, however, is a different story. Here in Connecticut there’s at least one major retailer selling lightweight solos, and a few hours away in upstate New York there are people who have been making them for decades. Canton is the home of famed, turn of the century designer J. Henry Rushton. The Adirondack Pack Canoe and its derivatives were born and raised there, special craft made light enough to carry around with ease on portages.

In six days of traveling, shopping and test-paddling in New York I visited Hemlock Boat Works in Hemlock, Hornbeck Boats in Olmstedville, and Placid Boat Works in Lake Placid. In addition to those three brands, I went to Oak Orchard Canoe and Kayak in Waterport, the 2015 Saratoga Springs Paddlefest and Collinsville Canoe and Kayak in Collinsville, CT, to take a look at Swift, Wenonah, Slipstream, Mad River and Northstar (where designer Ted Bell has ended up).

A small section of the inventory at Oak Orchard in Waterport, NY

A small section of the inventory at Oak Orchard in Waterport, NY

The search involved lots of thinking and rethinking about what I thought I wanted and gave me a fascinating glimpse into a small industry where practically everyone knows everyone else and everyone’s been around for a long time. At the end of the week I ended up back where I had started, at Hornbeck Boats in Olmstedville, NY, where I ordered a 15-foot New Trick model. It weighs 24 pounds. It’s made for double-bladed paddlers and the seating is similar to a kayak, on the bottom of the boat.

Mine will look identical to the one on the top of this rack in the Hornbeck store.

Mine will look identical to the one on the top of this rack in the Hornbeck store.

Before I start talking about what I was looking for in a new canoe, let me state that what I know about the materials being used in these boats could fit into a thimble and there would still be room for everything that I know about hull configuations and dynamics. I have after all, owned one canoe for 41 years, and I bought that untested and sight unseen. That said, I DID go into this wanting a boat that was comfortable and plain, paddled straight and on the fast side, wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg and was LIGHT!

I learned a lot along the way. Much of what I thought I wanted changed as the week went on and I tested boats and talked to people.

Seating.   I thought I wanted a standard canoe-style seat, like I am used to. I wasn’t against sitting in a low, kayak–style seat on the bottom of the boat (I do so when using the sail rig on my canoe), but figured it would be a harder position for me to get in and out of than sitting on a seat, so I sort of ruled it out at the beginning. A third position choice, kneeling, I had dismissed long ago as just really uncomfortable.

Paddling style comes into play here too. Some in the industry have accepted the use of double-bladed paddles in canoes, which makes the concept of sitting down in a canoe and paddling workable. Some just still philosophically oppose them, and design boats for use with the traditional single-bladed paddle. I have happily used a double-bladed paddle for a couple of years. (If you want to take a look at some hard-core single bladed paddlers, google Free-Style Canoing sometime.)

The boats I tested ran the gamut. Some were just for traditional-style sitting, some for kneeling only and some for just kayak-style. In some cases, the style reflected the brand owner’s proclivities. One told me he just didn’t believe in sitting down in a canoe as one does in a kayak and his boats reflected that. The larger outfits make something for everyone. Wenonah even has a seat that adjusts easily from a ‘sitting’ seat (four or five inches off the bottom of the boat) to a ‘kneeling’ seat (sits higher and is canted forward so the paddler can put his feet under it and rest his butt against/on the front edge).

I soon found that sitting wasn’t the best choice for me in this type of boat (shorter, narrower, and with lower sides than my Grumman) because my center of gravity was uncomfortably high, increasing the sense, though not necessarily the reality, of ‘tippiness.’ And the ‘sitting’ seats weren’t nearly as high as on my Grumman, so I couldn’t curl my legs under me.

Wow, that caused a sea change in my thinking. Maybe the sit down in style would be the best for me? Turned out that it was. What I had pretty much dismissed at the beginning of the week was looking better and better as the days went by.

At Peter Hornbeck’s place I practiced his methods of getting into and out of the boat and gained some comfort level. The boat I bought is narrow enough (two feet maximum) that I can easily straddle it to get in and out, just gliding it between my legs. My getting out, laughed one of Peter’s employees, looked like ‘giving birth to a canoe.’ Whatever works!

Length. After trying out some very small boats I quickly discarded the notion that I would be happy in one of them. I am not a lightweight person and I am used to seeing 17 feet of boat. I tried out various lengths and realized my best fit, physically and psychologically, was around 15 feet. I found the longer boats tracked in a straight line better than the shorter ones too, an important factor for me. And long and lean usually means better speed than short and wide.

Weight. This is why, after all, I was shopping for a new canoe. To. Get. A. Light. One. Hefting a few soon brought me to the realization that I didn’t want to get one even close to 30 pounds, much less over that. That started limiting my choices considerably.

Price. I had no ‘budget,’ but knew from my research I could end up spending from less than two thousand dollars up to well north of three.

In the end, once I got over my hesitation about committing to kayak-style seating, and taking in the weight and price factors, the clear choice for me was the 15-foot Hornbeck New Tricks.   And it didn’t hurt that owner Peter Hornbeck’s laid-back, welcoming style fit in nicely with what I look for in people when I am on a road trip.

I earlier told you that this trip offered me a fascinating glimpse into a small industry where practically everyone knows everyone else and everyone’s been around for a long time. I won’t pretend to undertake a history of it, and choose instead to just look at some of the people still in it, several of whom I met along the way.

Charlie Wilson has come from being a free-style canoe promoter in the early 1980’s to a consultant for a relatively new outfit, Colden Canoe. Along the way, he worked for Bell Canoe (founder and designer Ted Bell closed that up long ago and he came back to the business seven years later with Northstar) and went on to co-found Placid Boatworks. Co-owner Joe Moore bought him out in 2009 and is still there (he was busy working on the interior of his new building when I dropped by. A massive fire destroyed the old one and its contents a few years ago). Stan Zdunek of Slipstream Watercraft began as a racer in the 1970’s and ‘80’s and went on to building boats (I met him at the Saratoga Springs Paddlefest). Bill Swift Jr. of Swift, in Canada, has been building canoes for 20 some years. His father started Algonquin Outfitters in Ontario in 1960 and when the company got into making canoes, its first product was Sawyer Canoes, under a license with the popular US brand.   Peter Hornbeck’s a former white water kayaker who started building kayaks and then pack canoes. He founded Hornbeck Boats in 1971. A huge force in the industry is designer David Yost, known as DY, who works for Swift (I met him at the Swift display in Collinsville, CT) and also Colden. Colden also sells a boat model designed in the 1980’s by the Curtis Canoe Co. Owners Dave Curtis and David Yost (yes, that’s DY again) sold Curtis Canoe Co. in the late 1980’s. Curtis later started up Hemlock Canoe (where I visited him on my shopping trip). Yost, by the way, is called the most prolific designer of human powered watercraft of all time, with nearly 80 designs having been produced by a multitude of companies over the years, starting with racing canoes in 1973. It’s pretty hard to turn around in the canoe world without bumping into one of his designs. And David Yost lives just down the road from Dave Curtis’ Hemlock Boats, in Hemlock, NY.

Got all that straight?


I have updated this post with this photo of me in my new canoe. (Photo by Lance Collins)


Store and office at Hornbeck Boats.

Store and office at Hornbeck Boats.

View from the driveway entrance at Hornbeck Boats

View from the driveway entrance at Hornbeck Boats


About Ron Haines

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12 Responses to Six days on the road…and a new canoe to show for it

  1. Another great story, Ron! Very informative and interesting. Keep ’em coming… it almost feels like we’re there with you! 🙂


  2. Denise Hurt says:

    Exciting news, but sounds like I’ll never get to see it in the flesh! That’s ok, though. The thought of you effortlessly tooling down some River is a pretty sight to imagine! Congratulations for stepping up your game an investing in your paddling future.


  3. Michiel says:

    From this end of the planet (Southern hemisphere!) it’s sort of encouraging to learn that in the US, the home of mass-production, there is still space for the small specialist. And trust you, Ron, to search it out. An inspiring post.


  4. Chas Hunt says:

    Ron, congratulations on your new family member. They’re so cute when they’re young. I hope to meet her upon your return to Florida. Don’t worry, all young ones will get scratches. It’s part of growing up.


  5. Roger Haines says:

    How a journalism major can be as anal as his engineer brother is just beyond me! You’re awesome.
    Congratulations on a fine hunt, and on successfully bagging the prey. The process is most of the fun, eh?


  6. kathy corey says:

    My Hornbeck is the 11 ft NT 15 lbs. Formerly I had paddled the Wenonah Sandpiper solo at 42 lbs and realized for retirement I could not carry this boat much longer. I did the same research you did and attended Old Forge paddle to try Swift. Slipstream came a year later and I had tried a Placid boat back in ?2005. Being a former ww kayaker and instructor I had no problem with the sit down and double blade and still wanted a canoe.
    Out to Hornbecks pond,tried the 10 and then his “new” NT 11,fell in love,had my canoe ,handled like a kayak, put it on my Jeep.
    There is a fb group for Hornbeck lovers!


    • Ron Haines says:

      Good to hear from you. I tried the shorter NT’s but coming from a 17-footer my mind needed more length to feel comfortable. I’m aware of the facebook page, thanks.


  7. Russ Walker says:

    Hi Ron,
    In researching lightweight solo canoes, I came upon this segment of your blog. Nice job. I have some questions about some of the canoes you paddled in your research. In particular Hornbeck and Slipstream. Namely why you chose one over the other. And what you thought of some of the other models. If you would like we can continue this by email. It might be a more appropriate way to communicate. I am going to demo paddle some Slipstreams on Thursday.
    Thanks for your help.



    • Ron Haines says:

      Hi Russ,
      I’ll answer here, as it may be helpful to others. Once I decided I wanted a long boat, in the 15-foot range, the choice between Hornbeck and Slipstream was easy, because Stan didn’t make anything longer than 13 feet. In addition, the Hornbeck New Tricks line ran narrower than Slipstreams, which meant they were easier for me to get in and out of, as I could just straddle them. Choosing between the Hornbeck and other brands’ 15-footers became a matter of weight mostly. Hornbecks were the lightest. I’m not the strongest guy in the world and the difference between holding 24 pounds over my head and walking around and doing the same with 30 pounds was noticeable. And it helped also that Hornbecks were less expensive than most of the others. Hope that helps, let me know what you end up with.


  8. Been researching a new lighter weight canoe for myself and ran across your blog. I have also owned a 17′ Grumman that I bought new in 1982. Just recently gave it to my daughter and her family since it’s now a bit too heavy for me. I was very interested in Hornbook’s Classic 17, but you really got me thinking about the New Tricks 15. A 24 lb canoe sounds way better than a 33 lb canoe. I love camping trips along the Suwannee River here in Florida. It sounds like either might work well for that, but when I do the portage around Big Shoals, the 24 lbs would make it so much easier. You look like a fairly big guy and I was wondering if you still like your decision of the New Tricks 15? Or do you miss the extra room a 17 footer would provide? I am 6’5″ and weigh 230 lbs.


    • Ron Haines says:

      Glad you found the blog. I’m about your size, an inch shorter than you, and ten lbs lighter. I didn’t look longer than 15 feet because I was happy with the feel of the 15 feet and didn’t want any more weight. At 24 lbs I am close to my limit. At the time there were three profiles, I got the deepest. Went with the NT vs Classic because it’s narrower, and thus a bit more speed and more importantly I can straddle it to get in and out. I don’t need any more room than I have because I don’t camp anymore. Got that out of my system with nearly four months on the Mississippi River. Guess you’d have to figure out what you want to bring, weight and volume, and see what fits. I am very happy with my boat and use it a couple times a week. Let me know what you end up with.

      Liked by 1 person

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