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Tips for Buying that First Canoe

For most people, a "first" canoe is like a "first" car - functional and reliable, but often stodgy and in need of repair. Size, shape, material, resale value and least of all, "performance and purpose" usually take a back seat to affordability. Besides, there's the motive that if you become disenchanted with the sport, you can bail out inexpensively.

Then, there's the matter of strength. Beginners are certain they'll hit every rock in the river and destroy their canoe. So a "strong boat becomes a good boat," even if it weighs a ton and wags its tail as it wallows downriver.

Learning to paddle well, so as to avoid obstacles, is seldom considered. This is surprising, because in other sports, mastery of skills is an important part of the game. Most people who buy cross-country skis and touring bikes probably believe that they (and their equipment) will grow with the sport. Canoeing newbie's, on the other hand, often think that their first canoe will be their last canoe - an axiom that applies only to those who never learn to love canoeing.

Low price is often a top concern, even for those who can afford the best. I've seen Cadillac's and BMW's with cheap, poorly designed canoes strapped on top and I've observed beautiful canoes on beater cars. Skis and bikes are easy to transport and store, so they quickly command a loyal following, But "love of canoeing" develops slowly, even when the paddler's heart is mated to the right craft. Love may grow to ambivalence or even hatred if the craft is unresponsive and boring to paddle. Witness the number of canoes which never leave the garages in which they are stored!

~Get the BWCAW Tee~

With over 1,090,000 acres of wilderness area, the BWCAW is a paddler's paradise.

It follows that if you want to learn canoeing, and develop a love for canoeing, you'll keep uppermost in mind what it was that attracted you to these craft in the first place. If you said fun, you're in the ball game, smiling and confidently standing on home base with ball in hand. Fun, my friends, is what canoeing is all about!

Canoes are like cars. A sedan will get you around in fine style but it won't carry lumber or win races. Lake canoes are fast and light, but they are awkward or dangerous in rapids; whitewater canoes excel on moving water but are difficult to control on lakes; wilderness tripping boats carry a big load but they're not much fun to paddle. And so it goes. Life is choices! If you're serious about canoeing, one canoe won't be enough.

MONEY MATTERS Today's best canoes cost two to three thousand dollars. Five hundred dollar boats are the Geo Metro's of the paddling world. Solid citizens, all, but usually unexciting to drive. They follow the flow of the water, not the path of the paddle. Before you write a check, be aware that good canoes appreciate over time; bad ones do the opposite! An expensive canoe now is usually a good investment later.


  • Outdoor shops start gearing for winter about the first of October. Unsold canoes must be stored for the winter. A 2000 dollar canoe consumes as much space as several dozen expensive winter parkas. Better to sell these boats for less money now than store them.
  • Canoe prices go down in October, way down in November! Once stored for the winter, prices hold till spring, then climb again. Fall savings may amount to several hundred dollars on top line canoes. It follows that spring is the best time to sell a used canoe. You'll find the best deals on state-of-the-art Kevlar™ and wood-trimmed canoes which can't be stored outside.
  • "Blems" (blemished) are always a good deal. First trip down river you'll scratch and gouge your canoe. The $100+ you save on a blem will buy a paddle or PFD. I would never buy a factory "first" if I could save money on a "second".
  • Wood-strip (fiberglass/cedar) canoes from professional builders often retail for up to $3,000--a fair price considering the intensive labor involved in building them. However, new home-built canoes from private builders that are equally nice can often be purchased for one-fourth this price, especially in Minnesota and Wisconsin where wood-strippers are popular.

    Note: Wood-strip canoes are actually "wood-cored, fiberglass canoes". They are much stronger than most people believe, and if damaged they are incredibly easy to repair. I can't emphasize enough the real value of a good cedar-strip canoe.

    Example: consider two similarly styled, 50 pound canoes--one state-of-the-art Kevlar™, the other cedar/epoxy-fiberglass. The Kevlar canoe costs $2,500. The used stripper costs $750. Both canoes paddle equally well. Neither craft can be abused nor stored outdoors. If there's wood trim, there's maintenance. If there's not, there's ugliness. You be the judge as to which boat is the real bargain.

Your passion and pocketbook determine the nature of your choice. Shrewd buyers will realize that a bargain canoe now may be a bad investment later.

Warnings: Stay away from canoe auctions unless you absolutely, positively know the value of what you're buying. Auctioned canoes often go for much more than they are worth!

Finally, don't dote on "strength". Canoes usually die from abrasion not from being wrapped around mid-stream boulders. Resistance to punctures is important only if you paddle rock-bashing rapids - even then, its value is over-rated if your skills are good. As a beginner, you will start at the beginning: easy currents, gentle waves and warm sunshine. Select a craft that brings you joy every time you climb aboard. Leave the "river-beaters" to whitewater crazies and those who will never learn to paddle.

Some years ago, I watched a young couple artfully pilot a new Old Town wood-ribbed canoe through a shallow rapid. There simply wasn't enough water to encourage a clean run. When the pair put ashore, there were dozens of scratches on the green canvas hull.

I shook my head and with a concerned smile asked why they didn't just portage the rapid?  "Paddling this canoe brings us joy, " replied the woman. "Here's hoping we live long enough to wear it out!"

The message is clear: Your first canoe should make you smile. And so should your last!

Cliff Jacobson is a professional canoe guide and outfitter for the Science Museum of Minnesota, a wilderness canoeing consultant, and the author of more than a dozen top-selling books on camping and canoeing. www.cliffcanoe.com

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