your paddlesports destination

Canoe or Kayak?

by Tamia Nelson

You've rented a canoe, or borrowed a friend's kayak. You've gone on your first outfitted trip. You've taken a paddling course at the local community college. You've paddled for a few hours, or a few days—or maybe for a whole summer. Whatever form your introduction to paddlesport took, and however long it lasted, it's over now, and you know you're hooked. You want a boat of your own. What do you do next?

If the mail we've been getting is any indication, this is a surprisingly common question. It doesn't have to be a big problem. Between us, Farwell and I have owned—one, two, three … I hope I have enough fingers!—nine canoes and kayaks, and we've probably paddled many times that number. Let's see if we can't take some of the mystery out of buying a boat.

First, the Big Question: Canoe or kayak? What's the answer? It depends. (See how easy this is?) Sorry. I'm not playing fair, am I? It depends on what you want.

Kayaks—even the short "squirt boats" used by whitewater sub-mariners—are direct descendents of the skin and wood hunting craft developed by the aboriginal peoples of the circumpolar Arctic. The name itself comes from an Inuit (Eskimo) language. Whatever their external form, modern kayaks are fast, efficient, and incredibly seaworthy. They are not, however, well-suited to carrying great amounts of bulky gear.

The canoe, by contrast, has a more complicated lineage. While the name canoe originated with the log-boats of the Caribbean, the modern recreational canoe's closest relation is probably the birch-bark canot used in the North American fur trade, itself an adaptation of Têtes de Boule and Ojibway designs. With the exception of a few highly specialized boats, today's canoes are maids of all work, capable of running whitewater rivers, crossing lakes, and transporting hundreds of pounds of cargo—everything from wall tents to whole moose carcasses. (I'm talking about open canoes, of course—what the Brits sometimes call "Canadian canoes." Closed canoes are whitewater racing machines.)

Back to the Big Question: Canoe or kayak? The answer depends on how you want to use your boat. If you just want to get out on the water, either one will do fine. Canoes and kayaks have a very different feel, of course, but once you've mastered their individual idiosyncrasies, both will take you across lakes and down rivers, silently and smoothly—and that's more than enough for many people.

On the other hand, if you want to explore really big lakes or paddle along the margins of the world's oceans, you'd be wise to choose a kayak of the type now universally known as a "sea kayak." Long and (more or less) lean, these beautiful boats bear the unmistakable stamp of the original Inuit hunting craft. They're fast. They're at home in waves and wind. In competent hands, they're quite possibly the most seaworthy of all small craft. Just the thing you want if you have to tow a harpooned seal through crashing Arctic seas. Or enjoy a summer circumnavigation of Lake Superior, for that matter. But be prepared to travel light.

Are you an angler or a hunter, a wildlife photographer or a landscape painter? Does the idea of formal picnics by the water's edge appeal? (What's a "formal picnic"? Try goat cheese and sausage crostini, grilled salmon, and roast potatoes, with sorbet and a fruit tart to follow, all served up on a folding table draped with a linen tablecloth. Not your style? OK. How about peanut butter and jelly on a slab of bannock, eaten out of your hand while you squat on a granite boulder and drink a cup of hot tea, garnished with drowned blackflies? That's just as good, I think.) Do you dream of month-long trips into the dark forests of the near North? Then you want a canoe—probably a big, beamy canoe.

Or does the rumble and crash of whitewater set your pulse racing? Here you have a choice: a short, slippery kayak, or a short, highly rockered canoe. With either one you can surf the waves and sound the holes. But be sure you know what you're doing first, and don't paddle the big drops alone.

Cost will probably play a part in your decision, too. If you're like Farwell and me, you can't buy every boat that catches your eye, and even if you can (lucky you!), where would you put them all? More importantly, how would you find the time to paddle them? In any case, if you buy new, it will almost certainly cost you more to buy and outfit a kayak than a canoe.

There's an alternative, of course. Visit's classified ads, and shop for a used boat. Even if you're Bill Gate's brother-in-law, this isn't necessarily a bad idea. Good new boats start looking used after only one trip, but they stay good boats for years—if they're stored properly and well-cared for. Better yet, a used boat makes even a complete novice look like a "virtual veteran."

What do I mean? Let's eavesdrop on a riverbank conversation between a New Paddler (with an Old Boat) and a Grizzled Fisherman with two-days' growth of beard and a battered fly rod:

NEW PADDLER (In reply to a question about a weathered gouge in his Old Boat, just visible under several layers of peeling duct tape) "That little scratch?" (A long pause follows, as if the New Paddler is looking back on many thousands of miles of rivers run) Oh, yeah, that one. I got that one running Thunderhouse Falls. Backwards. At midnight." GRIZZLED FISHERMAN (Obviously impressed) "Sounds real ugly. You get hurt?" NEW PADDLER (Now the very image of modesty) "Hurt? Me? Nah! Piece of cake. Of course, it's one hell of a drop. I wouldn't recommend it to beginners."

Shortly afterword, the New Paddler gets back in his Old Boat and shoves off. He's so intoxicated with his success in passing as a veteran, however, that he leaves his paddle—his only paddle—on the riverbank. When last seen, he's headed downstream toward Salmon Leap, the local name for a nice little 15-ft falls. His Old Boat will soon have a few more scratches. Oh, yes … our Grizzled Fisherman is actually the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and his battered fly rod is a four-ounce, three-piece Payne split-cane. Appearances can deceive.

Canoe or kayak? That's an easy question. Buy the boat that does what you want your boat to do, and don't hesitate to buy a used boat, if this makes it possible to get the boat you want. Just don't think you can buy experience. And—whether you paddle a canoe or a kayak, a new boat or an old one—always carry a spare paddle.

© Verloren Hoop Productions 1999