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  • Radford Bean

The Best of Both Worlds

I know there are those out there who enjoy kayaking and others who prefer canoeing and they wouldn't consider trying the other form of paddling. Perhaps you fall into one of these camps.

My response to you is that you don't know what you're missing.

I grew up in New England and was in a canoe before I could even walk. One of my distant relatives, Evan Gerrish, was one of the earliest builders of wood and canvas canoes. Canoeing purists know about the Gerrish canoes. Gerrish Canoes would eventually merge with Old Town. Not surprising, then, that I have a love for canoes. Until the eighties, if you wanted to paddle, the canoe was the boat of choice, and still is in many parts of the country.

Any of you who have paddled off the coast of New England know how much different and gentler the waters there are compared to the Pacific Coast, which is why my aunt and I used to paddle her Old Town Penobscot off the coast of Bailey Island, Maine, in the seventies. Kayaks weren't making a splash at the time.

Fast forward 10 years and a relocation out to the West Coast and canoes were still the most popular boat for paddling. That would begin to change out West starting in the late 1980s as manufacturers like Necky, Current Design, and Eddyline started building sea kayaks, which were better suited for tackling the pounding surf and big waves of the Pacific Coast. Such conditions made canoeing off the coast unrealistic. There were still the lakes and rivers to paddle in a canoe, but what if you wanted to paddle rougher water on the coast and many of the bays? For that, the kayak found a perfect niche.

Kayaking in the Pacific Northwest would eventually catch fire and surpass canoeing in popularity. Because of a difference in paddling technique, most people settled into either the canoe camp or kayak camp. There were probably other factors as well that played a role in determining which camp paddlers chose to plant their paddle: single vs. family, cost, sportsman vs. recreational.

I gravitated toward canoeing, partly because of family tradition, but also because the sportsman and explorer in me felt the canoe better suited my needs—it’s much easier portaging a canoe in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota or the Bowron Lakes region of British Columbia than a kayak, even with a cart. Also, being a dog owner, where was I going to put a restless dog? Certainly not in a slender kayak.

Any serious sea kayaker will tell you that even with today's better freeze-dried foods that take up little space, you're still very limited to what you can carry on a multi-day trip. You have to pack light—a backpacker's stove, small cook set, water purifier, and a one- or two-person tent, no thank you. I find tents that small to be too claustrophobic. Forget about bringing a cooler, not to mention much in the way of clothes. Better get used to wearing the same skivvies for several days. With a canoe, you can practically bring your whole dresser full of clothes, though you might not want to have to portage such a load, but you catch my drift.

Using a canoe, you can bring along a cooler packed with fresh meat, not some dehydrated cardboard some company tried to pass off as meat. Now in all fairness, you can bring fresh meat on a kayak expedition as long as you eat it your first night out. After that, you’re left with smoked and dried meats like jerky or foiled pouches of chicken, tuna, and salmon, which I do bring along with me on my kayak expeditions. Still, who doesn’t crave a hamburger or shish kabobs when camping? Okay, my vegetarian friends don’t. Of course, you can resort to catching fish—I like to catch fish when I’m out on an expedition in my canoe—but you’ve got to store the fishing gear somewhere, and space is at a premium in a kayak.

And you can pack a cabin tent into a canoe, though I settle for my four-person Kelty. I’m going to let you in on a little secret, I am able to pack my four-person tent into my Necky Elias, but I have to separate the tent poles from the tent and fly.

Still, the desire to paddle with whales and sea otters kept tugging at me. After several years of renting or borrowing kayaks, I decided the time had come for me to shell out the money for a good sea kayak. A whole new experience lay before me when I took my boat out in Monterey, California. I got to paddle with sea otters, and this summer a close friend and I will hopefully get to paddle with orcas. I have to admit that I've felt some guilt over not having used my canoe much in the past couple of years.

What I've come to realize over the last few years is that I love both forms of paddling. They each have their uniqueness and their similarities. They both take me to places powerboats can't, and they allow me to get close to wildlife, closer than you can with a motorized vessel.

With my sea kayak, I can paddle with the orcas off the coast of the San Juan Islands and observe raccoons down by the water's edge feeding on mussels while paddling in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I can explore the intertidal life of the coast. And with two paddle blades as opposed to only one with a canoe paddle, I can keep up with my kayaking friends. I also don't get tired as quickly paddling my kayak compared to paddling my canoe.

With my canoe, I can take a multi-day trip down the Willamette River and bring along a comfy chair, cooler full of fresh meats and vegetables, and gallons of water for drinking, no having to sip water through a purifier straw or use tablets. And I can fish and have some place to store my catch instead of between my legs in my kayak's cockpit. I also feel I get a better workout in my canoe. When using my kayak for a multi-day trip, I have to pack light. I don't have the space to carry a lot of gear our food, nor can my sea kayak carry the weight my canoe can--1,100 lbs. as opposed to 350 lbs.

I guess you could say that I have the best of both worlds, glad to have my canoe, but equally glad to have my sea kayak.

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