I have come to the end of a two-year search for the ideal canoe.
The ideal canoe is one that is light but strong, nimble but stable, roomy but compact, beautiful but cheap, requires no maintenance, and is equally at home on a pond, in the marsh, or careering down a rock-filled mountain torrent.
It didn't take long to learn that there is no boat that excels in all or even half of the ideal specifications.
Aluminum canoes are light and strong and relatively cheap and maintenance-free. They also are uncomfortable, noisy, ugly and unforgiving.
Fiberglass canoes are beautiful, nimble and fast. Some are even cheap. But most are narrow and tippy and none can live long among rocks.
The wood-and-canvas canoe, which was the successor to birchbark, is incomparably beautiful. If you have one, stow it in the garage and look at it, but -- please -- don't go near the water.
The laminated-wood racing canoe will, like the supersonic Concorde, go from point to point faster than anything else, and is at least as impractical.
Never mind about canvas folding boats, unless you have to have something you can pack on your folding bicycle.
Just a few years ago that would have brought us to the end of the list of available canoes, and the only option would have been to return to Square One and buy a Grumman, new or used didn't make a damn because they all look like recycled tinfoil after a few bumps, yet continue to serve very well. The Grumman and most of its aluminum competitors are outstanding boats that you can paddle for a lifetime and leave to your children. For a generation they were the standard craft for everyone from Cub Scouts to whitewater champions, and many still swear by them.
I swear at them. They offend my eyes, they hurt my knees, they burn (or freeze) my bottom, they beat up my hands and they scream to a stop every time I run onto a rock. The last complaint is the critical one, because I like fast, shallow, rocky rivers and am neither attentive nor skillful enough to avoid all the nonliquid spots. The screeching, groaning, ringing sound an aluminum boat makes when it runs onto a rock is just the sort of downtown sound I go canoeing to get away from.
Now there is a plastic that has all of an aluminum hull's virtues and none of the shortcomings. Uniroyal's ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), mercifully called Royalex, is light, strong, durable and forgiving. A hull made of it even floats when full of water. There probably is no better measure of how fast the stuff is taking over the canoe market than the fact that Grumman has brought out an ABS model.
Having settled on a plastic boat I had to pick a style. While most ABS hulls are very similar, subtle differences in shape have pronounced effects on handling. A sharp-ender holds course better but is harder to pivot; a high bow and stern turn away whitewater but catch more wind. hShort canoes are nimble but can't carry much; long ones carry more but are more, to carry.
Old Town, Blue Hole, Grumman, Coleman and all the others have their points, but I settled on the Shenandoah Classic, made by the Shenandoah Canoe Company of Luray, a subsidiary of Shenandoah River Outfitters.
The Classic is not quite equal in handling to any pure whitewater boat and doesn't paddle quite as easily on flat water as most general-purpose boats. It is not as strong as some or as light as others. But if the Classic has any serious defects I haven't found them, and the fact that the boat is at least $100 cheaper than anything comparable would have been decisive even if the it were not also the prettiest of the ABS models.
Best of all, factory manager George Sult let me pick out my hull and then stand around asking questions while he and Victor Potter built the boat. He was probably sorry afterward, because Sult is a man who sometimes has trouble understanding why other people have trouble understanding things that he has thought through until they are perfectly clear.
When Sult, a retired military officer, took over the operation last year, six men were building two boats a day. Now two men are building six boats a day.
The Classic has oak gunwales cut from trees selected by Sult from the woods surrounding the factory and shaped in the company's own sawmill.
The broad seats are oak laced with rawhide, a departure from the spartan penance benches or bare cruel thwarts favored by some canoe purists. And instead of both being placed near the ends of the boat as in most canoes, one of the seats is set much nearer the middle. Whatever the weight of the bow-paddler, this seat placement trims the boat to a slight bows-up angle, which makes it more maneuverable and weatherly. For solo canoeing one simply switches to the former bow seat and paddles stern-forward.
The endcaps at bow and stern are mahogany marine plywood, and serve as trusses to keep the boat from becoming too flexible. Locked to the curve of the hull with brass screws, the oak assumes a flaring compound curve that delights the eye.
Shapely as it is, the wooden framework of a Shenandoah Classic is neither as strong nor as tough as those with aluminum or perhaps even plastic gunwales. aIn serious white water -- Class III and up -- it is likely to crack or break where others might only dent or bend. But I spend little time in such water, and take comfort in the knowledge that replacement woodwork can be obtained from the nearby factory or at any millyard. I have seen one canoeist go so far as to drill out his riveted aluminum gunwales and replace them with Sult's oak. The hull itself is virtually indestructible unless left too near a campfire; I have seen one that was turned inside out after broaching on a rock pop back into shape when left in the hot sun.
The Classic sells for $475 or can be brought in kit form for about $50 less. There is a 10 percent discount on orders of five or more boats. The Shenandoah Hawksbill model, designed primarily for livery service, is built on "seconds" that come from the factory with cosmetic blemishes. It has a poplar gunwales and oak-lath seats but handles the same and sells for about $400. The next-cheapest ABS boat I could find, built on the same 16-foot hull, lists for more than $600.
Sult's canoes average 69 pounds but because of variations in the hulls as received from Uniroyal the range is 40 to 80 pounds. The material is tough closed-cell foam with two layers of vinyl on each side, and there seems to be little correlation between weight and strength. I had waited some time for an especially light one to come through that was olive drab inside and out, because I use canoes for fishing, birdwatching and water-fowling as well as whitewater paddling. The duller the color the less off-putting to wildlife.
Having hectored Sult for months for a light hull, I proceeded to add nearly 10 pounds to the boat. He went along with the styrofoam blocks, sold by Clark Brothers of Warrenton, which are shaped to fit snugly in the bow and stern and give the boat a lot more buoyancy when it is dumped. I dump canoes with some regularity. He agreed with inserting spacers to lower the seats -- and the center of gravity -- by an inch or so, which doesn't sound like much but amounts to almost 10 percent. He thought the child's rubber shoe heels I fastened to the end caps were a useful additon, since they protect the wood from being scuffed and splintered during portages and while tumbling through rapids. My canoes spend a fair amount of time tumbling through rapids.
But Sult thought it was a little excessive when I screwed aluminum caps to the ends of the seats and thwart before they were bolted to the gunwales. "I've never seen the bolts pull through the ends," he said. I have, and it is a rude shock to suddenly slump from a kneeling to a squatting position in the middle of a rapid.
After trying various varnishes and spaceage acrylics Sult settled on hand-rubbed tung oil as the finish for the woodwork of the Shenandoah canoes. Besides hardening and waterproofing the grain it lends a golden cast and silky feel to the oak that grows richer with age and exposure. Not the least of its virtues is that the finish can be quickly restored after a battering by sanding it lightly and rubbing in another coat.
I found that out the day after I took delivery on the boat, when I ran it through the same rapid three times before coming out right side up.