We've got canoes and kayaks stored under the deck, sitting on a rack and hanging from the garage ceiling. Ten of them altogether. But if I could only keep one boat, it would be the first boat I bought back in 1983, my Sawyer DY Special solo canoe.
I paddled tandem canoes for years, mostly as a camp counselor taking kids down Michigan rivers or leading them on forays into the Canadian bush. If I wanted to paddle and no partner was available, I put a cement block in the stern of a tandem canoe and sat in the bow seat facing the cement block. My brother Steve, the family canoe guru, told me this arrangement would put me closer to the middle, which was the place to be for solo paddling. After a few months of this, I was ready to buy a real solo canoe. I drove to Ann Arbor, selected a 17-foot DY Special and bought it without even testing it.
I quickly discovered that paddling a solo canoe was a huge improvement over trying to handle a tandem canoe alone. The mechanics of steering were different, however. The straight ahead conventional canoe paddle stroke was the same, but for turning, forget the rudder or j-stroke. They don't work when you are sitting in the center of a boat. It's a bow rudder that will move you to the right or left. The best results come when you get up some speed then reach forward to sink the blade just below the water surface.
Since most of my paddling was done right at home on Lake Mitchell or in the nearby Manistee River, purchasing a 17-foot canoe proved wise. Solo canoes range from 13 to 17 feet in length. Longer boats, such as the DY Special, are harder to turn, but they track well, meaning that they are easier to paddle in a straight line. However, when I venture up the narrow and twisting Mitchell's outlet creek, a shorter boat would be easier to maneuver.
The first time I sat in my Sawyer solo, the boat shivered in the water as my body sought balance. This tippiness was alarming. I wondered if I had made the right choice. I should have realized that a little initial instability was to be expected as the canoe's width was almost a foot narrower at the center of the gunnels than the tandem canoe. The thinner width was necessary if I was to do paddle strokes without hitting my hand on the side of the canoe. As I began to paddle, things improved. Within the first hour, I felt completely at home in my new boat and didn't worry about flipping.
Something I didn't realize until I began to kayak was how much higher one sits in a canoe. Canoes offer a much better view down into the water, a definite advantage for spotting hazards and prime fish habitat. On calm days I have been known to even stand up, increasing the risk of tipping but to get a better angle from which to scan the shallows for spawning fish.
That first summer with my solo canoe, I headed to Quetico Provincial Park. I added my boat to the fleet of three tandem boats in our group. On the water, not having to coordinate with a canoe partner meant I was free to do whatever came to mind. While my fellow paddlers pointed their boats to the next destination, I was able to zip over to the shoreline to make a few casts or linger over a drop-off to see if I could entice a bass.
A solo paddler, I discovered, is beholden to no one. These side excursions, weren't a problem since longer solos like the Sawyer are quick boats and I could easily catch back up to the other canoes. My trip companions were jealous of all the fun I was having and by the second day I was giving others in the group opportunities to try out the solo canoe.
Though the wider tandem canoes could haul more gear, I still was able to transport two packs. I imagine there is room enough in my canoe to take all that I need for a week of solo camping.
For portaging, you need to purchase a clamp-on yoke with pads or foam cups. Before each carry, the sliding seat is shoved back and the yoke is secured to the gunnels at a point where the boat balances. The craft itself is a bit lighter than a tandem canoe of comparable length, making the portages easier.
What makes me most partial to solo canoes (and I have three of them) is the freedom that comes from being alone. Paddling out on the lake, I pick my route and go at whatever speed suits me. I might stop and glide while looking to see if that is indeed an eagle perched atop the white pine or sprint to try and catch a ride on another boat's wake - all spontaneous moves made with no need to get consent from a paddling partner.
Granted, I enjoy the same independence when I am in my kayak. But it's not the same. It comes down to the paddle; the stroke itself. There's a satisfying feeling that comes from reaching out, sinking the blade, then thrusting outward, almost a punching motion as the top arm drives the blade through the water and the canoe surges forward. Rather than the repetitive rhythmic strokes of a pair of kayak blades, in my solo canoe, I mix it up, switching sides, angling the blade, or applying subtle sweep strokes to keep the canoe on course.
I feel like a water artist as my paddle cuts lines in the lake. As the canoe slips through the water, I am happy and content. Buying a solo canoe 30 years ago might have been one of the best decisions of my life.
Dave Foley teaches canoeing at several Michigan camps in the summer when he's not using fishing Lake Mitchell or paddling down rivers in his solo canoe.