Originally published on my StarTribune.com blog.
First it was kayaks. Now it’s stand-up paddleboards. Canoeing just can’t seem to compete. Therecent news that a popular material for canoes will no longer be manufactured is perhaps a sign of how far the once-dominant watercraft has fallen. If not a symptom, it could very well push the canoe further to the margins of paddling.
Tough, lightweight, and inexpensive, Royalex has been used in many a fine canoe during the past 30 years – including my Wenonah Spirit II. The Minnesota company uses the material in 50 percent of the canoes it makes on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Our Spirit II has taken us deep into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and down many miles of Minnesota rivers. Sure, I have envied my companions’ super-light Kevlar boats when carrying it across BWCAW portages, but love the durability on the rivers during low water, when scraping gravel is unavoidable. It’s the ideal all-purpose boat.
Royalex is best known for its use in whitewater boats. I don’t paddle rapids much, but I love the stories of canoes wrapped around rocks by hydraulic forces, only to snap back to their original shape when pulled out of the river, often with a winch.
Apparently this position as the preferred material for the hardcore fringe of an increasingly marginal pastime doesn’t make manufacturing the stuff economical any longer.
Rise and fall
Canoes were once made out of birch bark and then wood and canvas. After World War II, airplane manufacturers converted their plants to making the ubiquitous aluminum canoes (and many war pilots turned to flying those craft into remote lakes with vacationing paddlers).
The vortex of baby-boomers and post-war industry and a national passion for the outdoors defined canoeing’s peak.
Then along came Royalex and eventually the premium Kevlar. And then came the meteoric rise of kayaks in the late 1990s and 2000s. People – including myself – love the indepence, the ease, the intimacy of a kayak. Stand-up paddleboards are the latest and greatest thing – it looks fun, and boasts the simplicity and closeness to the water to which all paddlecraft aspire.
But you can’t beat the connection between boat and water and people as you can achieve while paddling a tandem canoe. To make it swing and pivot in the current as you descend a river, or to pull it against a headwind stroke by stroke, brings you close to each other, and to the canoe’s history as an efficient means of transportation – loved by indigenous people, voyageurs and explorers.
The big question with Royalex is what will happen next? Will someone buy it up and keep the stuff available? Will some other material replace it? Either way, I suspect it will be a more expensive future, recognizing the smaller niche market it supplies.
Hardcore canoeists will probably point to cedar strip, wood-canvas, fiberglass, or Kevlar as indication of thriving canoe communities, but those aren’t materials for the mass market. People will always canoe, but it’s likely it will either be in heavy, noisy aluminum, or one of the expensive and precious materials.
Royalex is dead. Long live canoeing.