Stepping inside my friend Craig Zimmerman's garage feels like entering a paddlesports museum. Whitewater and sea kayaks fill the two-car space, providing a reasonably complete chronology of the development of recreational paddling over the past three decades. At last count, Zimmerman's collection stands at 20, though he's always scouring online buy and sell pages to find more.
It all began in 1988, when Zimmerman relocated from southern Ontario to work as an interpreter at Pukaskwa National Park, on Lake Superior's rugged north shore. He quickly realized that kayaks were a better than open canoes for such big water. However, it could be argued that he may have selected a more appropriate model for touring: Zimmerman's kayak obsession began with an 11-foot Dagger Crossfire, which he used for meandering trips down the wilderness coastline and surf sessions at freshwater breaks. In one of my favorite tales, Zimmerman set off on a multiday coastal trip in the Crossfire, loaded down with a garbage bag drybag of food and gear and a wool blanket jammed in the bow, "because that's all that would fit." Even in the early days of sea kayaking in the Great Lakes, Zimmerman drew quizzical stares.
Zimmerman's second boat was a brand-new Perception Sea Lion, purchased in Toronto just before he set off on a manic, 10,000-mile, three-week road trip across the continental US. The Sea Lion was one of the first rotomolded plastic sea kayaks, and Zimmerman put it through its paces, starting with a lengthy paddle up the Colorado River from Lake Mead. He racked up countless miles on his venerable Sea Lion, exploring the north shore of Lake Superior and writing a guidebook for paddling the Pukaskwa coastline. During this time period he also purchased a couple used Necky whitewater kayaks for playing around in the surf. Then he upgraded to a new sea kayak in 1998. "The Sea Lion had served its purpose," he says. To this date, it is the only kayak he has ever sold.
Zimmerman replaced it with the kayak of his dreams—a Nigel Dennis Greenlander, a torpedo of a hard-chined, British-built boat, ordered sight unseen. He loved it so much that, a few years later, he jumped on the opportunity to buy a second Greenlander as a spare. Since then, just about all of Zimmerman's sea kayaks have been British-built: A playful, 1990-vintage Valley Pintail for day trips and surf; a Nigel Dennis Explorer for tripping; a P&H Delphin 150; and a gargantuan Valley Aleut Sea 2 tandem, purchased for an expedition with a friend on the North Atlantic coast of Labrador. On a lark, he ordered a Chesapeake Light Craft kit and built his own stitch-and-glue sea kayak.
When he got into paddling whitewater rivers his collection doubled with the addition of various playboats, creekers and river runners. Friends offloaded obsolete designs like a Dragorossi Fish, to enjoy retirement living in Zimmerman's garage. He ordered a Mega surf kayak from Britain and later won a sleek carbon-Kevlar Valley Rush in an eBay auction. Kayaks overflowed from the garage into the living room his double-wide trailer, located just north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Needless to say, Zimmerman is a bachelor.
Of course, kayaks are meaningless if you don't paddle them. Zimmerman's trip resume includes trips to British Columbia, Labrador, multiple outings in the Everglades and surfing and touring on North Carolina's Outer Banks. He has paddled extensively on the Great Lakes as well as Lake Winnipeg and Lake Nipigon, the biggest inland seas on the continent.
There's no hesitation when Zimmerman's asked to rank his favorite kayak: The battle-worn Greenlander, which he's repaired with numerous patches and a protective fiberglass keel strip over the years, hands down. "I love it for the memories," he says. But lately, Zimmerman has become increasingly smitten by his yellow Nigel Dennis Explorer, which has more room in the cockpit and handles better in wind and waves. For his next acquisition he's eyeing a Valley Nordkapp, another classic British sea kayak design.
You can bet that as long as he's able to paddle, Zimmerman's kayak collection will continue to grow. Kayaks are key to his happiness. "I don't like selling kayaks because each one has its own memories," he says. "When I look at each boat, I relive those memories and dream of my next trip."