News and Events


Jul 26, 2012

The turn of the century (19th to 20th, not the recent millennium) has often been referred to as the Golden Age of Canoeing. The ACA (American Canoe Association) was getting its' legs under it and its' annual gatherings were major social events especially the annual conclaves at Sugar Island. The first phase of the Industrial Revolution was creating leisure time and means in unprecedented amounts for increasing numbers of people and the interest and demand in finding something to do recreationally was increasing accordingly.

The automobile was still very much an oddity and curiosity and well beyond the average person's reach. It was the canoe that became one of the recreational vehicles of choice. The canoe was affordable and being mass produced in wood and canvas fashion for the first time. It was very much a “poor” man's yacht, often outfitted with sail, oars, parasols, reclining seats, etc. I own a 1923 Old Town Otca 18 whose original “MSRP” was $65.00. Granted these were different times and the value of a dollar meant a lot more but still………

It is interesting that in this first Golden Age the canoe was very much a social vehicle, not an escape mechanism. Paddlers tended to congregate together, there wasn't much thought to heading off to the wilderness for a couple days or weeks of solitude. “Evening paddles on the pond” were a frequent option for a night out. The canoe was for a time the pre-eminent courting vehicle amongst swooning couples, a role it would eventually surrender to the automobile but if you think about it, there are a lot of commonalities. A personal sized vehicle, ideal for two, the ability to go where you will in search of a little space or solitude, etc. Classic prints and pictures often show the bow passenger turned about facing the stern paddler, often with a parasol over her shoulder, protecting that dainty Victorian complexion from the elements.

 This original Golden Age faded as America became enamored with the automobile and then the onset of World War I changed everyone's priorities. Mechanical recreation rose to the fore after the war through the Roaring (appropriate adjective, that) 20's; then came the Great Depression and recreational pursuits by necessity took a very low spot on the average person's totem pole of priorities.

World War II brought cataclysmic change to the world at large and it wasn't until a number of years after the war that recreational activities again started getting a lot of attention. Veterans came home intent upon making up for lost years of their lives by getting married, buying homes, etc. Once that milestone was achieved, it became time again to find something to do with one's free time. America's industrial capacity had been expanded multi-fold during the war and producing recreational products became one of the transitional uses for this capacity. It was at this time that we saw the aluminum canoe make its' appearance and the impact on canoeing was pretty dramatic but didn't quite reach “golden age” status. The appeal of the aluminum canoe was primarily that it didn't require much maintenance if any and you could beat the heck out of it and it would still paddle (more or less). Aluminum canoes mirrored the designs of the wood and canvas canoes, not so much as homage to good design but simply because that is what people expected to see in a canoe, they were built by industrial firms looking for alternative markets and not innovation, and finally, the material lent itself to easily taking that form.

It wasn't until the late 1960s and early 1970s that the Second Golden Age of Canoeing began to dawn. It was a fortuitous combination of forward looking designers, the advent of new materials, and the coming of age of a new generation with time and attitude on their hands that combined to fuel the new revolution in canoeing.

Summer camps were a popular pastime for kids growing up in the 50s, 60s, and early 70s. Kids would spend as little as a week or as long as the entire summer packed off to camps in the mountains, or on the lakes, learning and participating in everything from “campcraft” to archery to canoeing, sailing, horseback riding, etc., learning about games like Capture the Flag and Counselor Hunts. This became a generation that was used to the “woods” being their playground and source of entertainment and recreation. Many camps offered multi-day canoe trips away from camp to their more experienced campers and these trips often became a sought after opportunity (anything to get away from camp for a couple of days!). It wouldn't be stretching it too far to describe these camp sessions as empowering this generation and to then fanning the flames of the mid 70's boom in wilderness sports from backpacking and climbing to paddling. There's no denying that the release of “Deliverance” in 1972 captured this movement and this desire and further fomented the obsession with the wilderness. The impact of the movie was more felt in the “non-traditional” canoe areas such as the southeast and mid-country such as Arkansas, Missouri, etc., then in the Northeast and North-Central parts of the country where a canoe centric lifestyle had been long established and active.

In those areas, conveniently described as “M to M” or Maine to Minnesota, the reliance on and appreciation of the canoe was well engrained in the Native American cultures and adopted by the European colonists. In those days, the canoe was a working vessel, facilitating hunting and gathering and trade. During the original Golden Age of Canoeing, the canoe and its' derivative, the Guide Boat, became both a recreational and economic resource in bringing the visiting “Sport” to the regions to hunt and fish, under care of the local guide. This became an essential part of the local economies and also opened up the appeal of the areas to folks from “down state” or “not from heah”. It also opened minds to the fact that the canoe was a near-perfect vehicle for hunting and fishing pursuits, as well as the joy and virtue of simply travel through the wilderness.

So we have all these developing desires, experiences, comfort levels, waiting out their eagerly looking for outlets.  What made the 2nd Golden Age of Canoeing bloom was the fortuitous combination of this demand along with the emergence of a number of visionary designers and innovative product manufacturers with the interest and desire to respond to this latent demand.

It's always risky to look back 40 some years and try to list the leading lights who enflamed the resurgence of canoeing without omitting someone but it was undeniably a fertile time in canoe design and vision with people like Eugene Jensen, Pat Moore, George Walsh, Jim Henry, John Berry, Mike Galt, Dave Curtis, Ralph Sawyer, Mike Chichanowski, Harry Roberts, Bob Brown, Joe Seda, and others, literally breaking the molds that had typified canoeing for generations and being bold enough to bring new designs and potentials to market. No longer slaved to upswept reverse curved stems or flat bottoms with keels, the canoes produced from their pens showed bottoms that ranged from shallow arch to shallow vees with rocker that varied from non-existent to severe, to boats with flared ends tapering to tumble-homed paddling stations, on and on. This isn't saying that all concepts were good concepts. An inverted tunnel keel design deservedly died a merciful and unlamented death.

Equally critical to this time and age were the new materials available to these designers and marketers with which to execute their hopes and dreams. Wood and canvas wouldn't do, too expensive and time consuming and too fragile for the places people were wanting to take canoes (anyone remember the fate of Drew's wood and canvas canoe in the movie?) Aluminum wasn't an answer, you couldn't make that material take the complex curves and subtle transitions these designs required. Coming of age at this time was the fiberglass industry and the timing was exquisite. Fiberglass wasn't exactly new, it had been in use in the consumer market since World War II but its' capabilities were just now being exploited and expanded. The first fiberglass canoes were aluminum clones and just as heavy if not more so, being built of polyester resin and chopped matt. Nor were they any more durable than their counterparts. It was actually kind of hard to find a reason to opt for this generation of fiberglass canoe, about it's only advantage over aluminum was it was a good bit quieter and slippery over rocks; but you better not hit that rock dead on……….

Thankfully, the 60/70s saw the evolution of new fabrics and resin systems that were more able to execute the dreams of the new generation of canoe designers. Epoxy and vinylester resins provided more strength and elongation than polyester at a lighter weight. Woven glass fabrics yielded much greater strength and stiffness than the chopped matt “fabric.” The combination of new fabrics and new resin systems produced canoes that were markedly lighter than their aluminum forbearers yet equally durable but more important, canoes that paddled better than ever before, much, much better. These were canoes you didn't mind taking to the north woods for a couple of weeks of wilderness travel; light and swift made for a winning combination.

While on the subject of new composite materials, there was this exotic, straw-gold colored material that we were hearing rumors about, stronger than steel, light as a feather, gonna be costly though. Yes, we're talking about Dupont's Kevlar aramid fabric, stuff that pretty much lived up to the hype. It is arguable that Kevlar first found wide acceptance in the canoe market before just about any other use. The visionaries like Henry and Chichanowski, and Sawyer immediately grasped what Kevlar offered the modern canoe and rapidly brought Kevlar canoes to market. However, Kevlar didn't launch the new canoe movement. It did help it blossom and blow up bigger than ever but it wasn't there when the train started rolling.

Nor was Royalex. Royalex made its debut in the early mid ‘70s and its' impact on the canoe world has been inestimable, both on the whitewater and tripping ends of the spectrum. Now open boat paddlers had a hull material that rivaled or exceeded the capacity of their double stick counterparts in terms of durability, opening up rivers and creeks long thought impossible. For trippers, Royalex offered a durable, forgiving material worthy of their trust well away from easy rescue and recovery.

The impact of these two materials and the time that they appeared simply gave the new Golden Age of Canoeing all the more impetus and momentum. These new materials gave the talented visionaries such as Henry and Jensen all the more materials to work with and the opportunity to design hulls that took maximum advantage of the attributes of these revolutionary materials. John Berry's ME gave birth to a whole new genre of canoe, the whitewater playboat, that reached its' most popular expression when Steve Scarborough, Frankie Hubbard, and Bob Foote penned what seemed like an unending successions of solo boats under the Dagger name from the late ‘80s well into the ‘90s. Eugene Jensen's ultralight radical flatwater Kevlar hulls dominated and still dominate USCA marathon racing and in detuned versions offer enthusiasts stimulating cruising hulls. Jim Henry's friendly expedition hulls translated well to everyday use, allowing paddlers to have a boat they could use on local waters when the opportunity presented but also take north for an annual expedition or extended tour of the BWCA or Quetico.

Jim Henry, of all the “elders” of the tribe, probably best represents the synthesis of design and materials that created the 2nd Golden Age. Jim's early designs like the Malecite and the Explorer broke new ground in the world of canoe design, providing fast stimulating boats that also provided unrivalled stability and were built durable. Mad River Canoe was one of the first companies to build canoes in both Kevlar and Royalex. Competitors seemed to focus on one type of material and not the other. Maine's Old Town Canoe embraced Royalex (anyone remember “Oltonar”?) and in the mid 1980's moved canoeing yet another step forward with the introduction of 3 layer rotationally molded polyethylene canoes. Wenonah found Kevlar to be wonderfully well suited for their primary market, the North Woods on either side of the US / Canada border and concentrated on using Kevlar in multiple models. It wasn't until the 1990's that Wenonah began to produce Royalex Canoes. At Mad River, both materials found a home. Jim was at the forefront in tweaking his hull designs to get the best out of each material. Evidence is readily available if you compare the composite Explorer and the Royalex Explorer.

The composite Explorer is about 5” longer overall than its' Royalex counterpart and has a much finer stem and entry throughout the first and last 3' of hull. This was intentional. On one hand, each design was tailored to take full advantage of the materials ability to follow design curves; composite materials could mimic much more subtle designs than could thermoformed Royalex hulls. Jim was also very skilled at designing hulls not only to fit their materials but also to favor certain kind of uses. Royalex Explorers quickly became favored as moving water boats and there the fuller bow and blunter entry were actually attributes rather than detractions, yielding boats that paddled drier and didn't punch into the water and pearl so readily.

Jim Henry and Mad River Canoe became famed for offering the right canoe in the right material for the right use AND for the simple fact that except for some very extreme designs, for offering canoes that were actually quite versatile and could accommodate different kind of uses. While thousands of paddlers have taken Royalex Explorers up to the Canadian outback for summer long expeditions, it is also this same hull that lays claim as the first open canoe to descend the Grand Canyon of the Colorado in 1972.

It is a universal axiom that such momentum as seen in the 1970s and 1980s can't be sustained forever and recent times have seen the canoe take a seat somewhat on the sidelines as recreational kayaks and sit-on-tops have come to dominate the paddling market. Whether we paddle double or single bladed, we're still the beneficiaries of the genius of the designers and manufacturers who combined to bring the canoe to heights never before attainable and to waters never thought possible.

Who knows what the future may bring but it's hard to again conceive of such a timely synergy that coalesced back in the ‘70s and ‘80s to revolutionize canoes and paddling. Eugene Jensen may have said it best when he said his ultimate goal was to design canoes that move by themselves. That may seem like a silly pipe dream but we're a lot closer to that goal now than we were half a century ago. Get out and enjoy the legacy of these modern giants of the canoe world and remember, be grateful for the gifts you have received.