Photos and text by Mike Lynch
What’s the best pack canoe for you? Which nimble craft fits your budget, needs and style of paddling? Before drilling down, perhaps it’s worth backing up to examine why Adirondack explorers developed the pack canoe—a small, lightweight solo craft that can be used with either single- or double-bladed paddles—more than 125 years ago in the first place.
The New England Great North Woods geography is a good start, with a scattergun-like array of remote lakes and rivers stretching from New York to the tip of Maine. A versatile little boat allows anyone to get on the water, anytime, anywhere. The introduction of ultra-light composite materials like Kevlar and carbon fiber has since allowed boat-builders to make pack canoes lighter and faster than ever.
George Washington Sears first helped put Adirondack pack canoes on the map in the late 19th Century when he wrote about his long-distance paddling excursions and his go-light camping philosophy in his books and in Forest and Stream magazine.
The small-statured Sears (aka Nessmuk) didn't believe in overburdened oneself with too much gear or weight on paddling trips. By going lightweight, one could travel efficiently and with independence, instead of relying on guides. It especially helped with the long carries between lakes, ponds, and rivers.
"We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it," wrote Sears in his book, Woodcraft, under the penname Nessmuk.
Nessmuk's canoes were made by legendary boat builder John Henry Rushton, who designed the Sairy Gamp and Wee Lassie. Both those boats fells in the 10-foot and 10-pound range and are emulated today.
Today, those same Rushton designs have helped shape the modern pack canoe market. But the modern boat builder has the luxury of using Kevlar and carbon fiber. Those materials are one reason that boats have remained lightweight but also faster and more efficient on the water as they have extended in length.
Recently, we tested out a number of canoes in the Adirondacks. Some of the canoes we tried would be considered traditional pack canoes, while others stretch the definition but still retain many of the same features, including having low seats and a design that is geared toward being propelled by a double-bladed paddle.
Placid Boatworks's RapidFire
The 15-foot RapidFire has been on the market for more than a decade, but we decided to take a look at it again because it's the inspiration for a new canoe that Placid Boatworks's plans to have available by the spring.
Placid Boatworks owner Joe Moore said the new canoe will be a foot shorter than the Rapid Fire and slightly narrower. That means it will be a little easier to handle, and smaller people will be less likely to get pushed around on windy ponds and lakes. "It will have the performance of the Rapid Fire but for smaller people who don't have the volume to push it down in the water," Moore said. "So it will be a great tripping boat for people under 150 pounds or just a great day boat for anybody."
The RapidFire weighs between 22 and 29 pounds, depending upon the version. It comes with three seat options from two to about five and a half inches. Its construction, using both carbon fiber and Kevlar, makes it more durable than some other canoes. While the RapidFire is mostly found on lakes and ponds, it's not unheard of to see it used for running Class II rapids, which is uncommon for a packboat style canoe.
Moore also used the RapidFire for long-distance canoe racing prior to building a longer boat called the Shadow, and it was often ahead of competitors. So that gives you a sense for how well it does in open water.
"The RapidFire is fast, handles well and is comfortable," said one tester. "It's the ideal boat for taking on a camping trip on your typical Adirondack lake or pond, but it's also sturdier than most lightweight boats so you could use it on mild whitewater."
Bill Swift brought out one of his new boats during the three-day, 90-mile Adirondack Canoe Classic. It handled to his liking, especially in the notoriously windy Brown's Tract Inlet, a stretch that doom canoes that don't handle well, despite being more than 16 feet long.
"I noticed right away how quickly it got up cruising speed," said one tester. "It was reminiscent of sea kayak speed. It tracked effortlessly in open water … Also, the tumblehome allowed me to paddle with a higher angle paddle and gunnel they have added onto that boat also accommodates that paddle stroke as well.
Swift Canoe and Kayaks plans to unveil its full Cruiser line early in 2019. Swift said it will include three boats, one at 12-foot, 8-inches; one at 14-foot, 8-inches; and one at 16-foot, 8-inches (which we tested). The smaller boat will weigh 24 to 16 pounds, while the slightly larger one will weigh in the 28 to 30 pound range. The longest will weight in at the 32 to 34 range.
The larger boat is more suited for lakes and slow-moving rivers, while the smaller Cruisers will be closer to the traditional pack boats that are lightweight and easy to manage out of the water.
"These are going to be Swift's first pack boats designed specifically as packboats," Swift said of the smaller versions. "All of our other boats have been either kayaks or canoes that were modified into pack boats."
The smaller boats are lower volume boats and designed more for day paddling and weekend trips, Swift said.
"They are going to be boats that perform nicely that have a lot of stability in them also," he said. "They aren't going to be for expert paddlers. These are going to be for the average person that just wants to get a nice lightweight packboat right away."
Hornbeck's New Trick
Boat builder Pete Hornbeck is best known for his Lost Pond boat, a pack canoe that was modeled after boats made by famed 19th century boatbuilder John Henry Rushton. "This is the boat that always paid the bills and it's still our best seller," he said about the boat he first started working on in the 1970s.
But Hornbeck Boats, located in the eastern Adirondacks, has never been limited and has experimented with different styles over time. It has a varied line of canoes for paddlers and fisherman alike, ranging from the 10-foot classic Lost Pond boat to a sleeker 20-foot canoe that can be paddled as a solo or tandem.
Somewhere in between those two boats is the 14-foot New Trick. Hornbeck said the New Trick line was developed in response to the canoes Placid Boatworks started putting on the market over a decade ago. He said the New Trick is straighter and narrower than the pack canoes he first developed. They range in size from 10 to 18 feet in length, with the smaller ones falling into the traditional pack canoe category.
The 14-foot New Trick we tried out weighed 23.5 pounds, meaning it’s still light enough to carry between backcountry ponds, but the boat can be used to carry gear on camping trips. The Hornbeck Boats' website lists its capacity at 350 pounds, with the suggested paddler weight falling between 140 and 265 pounds. Aesthetically, it's a pleasing boat with cherry gunnels and a dark green skin that is a matrix blend of Kevlar and carbon fiber.
On the water, this longer New Trick offers speed and surprising responsiveness. Light weight and a nimble width mean short strokes quickly correct angles in windy conditions. “When the wind turned to our backs, this boat took off,” said one tester, who noted a definite preference for a two-bladed paddle in the solo boat. The kayak performance parallels didn’t end there. “Feet locked into the pegs, I was catching wind-swell bumps using the canoe’s edges like I would in a touring sea kayak.” Edging, control, speed, plus an easy-carrying weight with a rugged build capable of bag-totting abuse: hard to find many negatives aside from perhaps the minimal seat. Nothing a short portage can’t fix.
Wenonah Wee Lassie
Wenonah introduced a new kevlar Wee Lassie to its line of pack canoes this past spring. The newer version is only 10-foot, six-inches long, which is two feet shorter than the other version it has available.
It's also only 16 pounds. In other words, if you're looking for a boat that you can toss on your shoulder and hike miles into a small mountain pond, this boat is one you should consider. Weight (or lack of) is definitely going to be a deciding factor if you purchase this boat. It competes directly will some of Hornbeck's ultra lightweight traditional packboats. It's Wenonah's smallest boat ever made.
"I think the 10-6 Wee Lassie is really ideal for someone who wants to get on the water, have one of the lightest boats you can get, and isn't necessarily concerned about travel distance." said Ryan Doyle, manager at Adirondack Lakes and Trails Outfitters. "Longer boats would have a little more glide, a little more efficiency, a 10-foot boat is certainly going to be lightweight, and maneuverable, but it won't have the glide."
By comparison, the larger Kevlar Wee Lassie weights 24 pounds. That doesn't sound like a larger weight difference but it's quite substantial when you're carrying it from one waterbody to another over a rugged Adirondack portage route.
"It was easy to paddle, very maneuverable and comfortable," said one tester of the smaller Wee Lassie. "Paddling along shorelines, around downed trees and in and out of coves was a snap."
MORE FROM C&K
- First Look: Eddyline Kayaks Sitka Series
- Canoe Review: Adirondack Style
- Wenonah Spirit II Review
- The Miracle Material, Royalex
This prior fleet review of pack canoes tested in the Adirondacks, from C&K’s August 2011 edition, features 5 more classic pack canoe designs, worth considering: Placid Boatworks Spitfire, Swift Pack 13.6 Carbon Fusion, Hornbeck Blackjack, Old Town Pack Canoe, and Wenonah Canak.