Tag Archives: canoeing

royalex-canoe

Another nail in the canoe

Originally published on my StarTribune.com blog.

First stop

Our Royalex Wenonah Spirit II on the Cannon River

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.

All-purpose perfection

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.

Uncertain future

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.

Snake River start

Paddle parade

Snake River start

Snake River start

Last May, I posted a GoPro video I made doing the Snake River Canoe Race. Now you can read all about it in an article I wrote for Minnesota Trails.

With six inches of snow on the ground right now, it’s hard to believe the 2013 race is coming up in two weeks. I figure shoveling must be good training.

Start Your Paddling Season on the Snake River

As Slim and I approached another mild-looking rapids on the Snake River, we saw that some other racers were capsized at the bottom. They were wading around in the chest-deep water, fishing their gear out and trying to free their canoe, which was submerged and pinned by the rushing water.

This got our attention. We stopped paddling and started scoping out the rapids. It didn’t look like much, another Class I set which appeared like most of the ones we had already run. More water than rocks, a few miniature standing waves, plenty of room to maneuver. Nonetheless, that capsized canoe made me worried. The water was cold.

Continue reading »

On your mark, get set, paddle

A few weeks ago, I participated in my first canoe race, on the Snake River near Mora, MN. I borrowed a friend’s GoPro video camera to play with, and ended up making this short video:

The Snake River Canoe Race is about 14 miles long and has been happening for 32 years. It includes about 175 canoes ranging from hardcore racers who do the trip in less than two hours, to folks out for a good time, like my friend Slim and me.

You can read a bit more about the race and our experience at St. Croix 360. Bottom line is, I thought it was a blast and plan to do it again next May.

Drifting downstream

Two weddings and a river

Cross-posted from my StarTribune.com blog.

The St. Croix in May

In mid-May, I attended my cousin Samantha’s wedding in Mondovi, Wisconsin. The ceremony was in a small Methodist church. The minister stood before the couple and talked to them in a casual yet thoughtful tone, as if we were all gathered around a dinner table. He said that when he was growing up, living on a nearby farm, they had used baling twine for many purposes. He had learned that you could braid three strands of twine together to make strong rope, but you couldn’t braid two strands. He likened those two strands to the couple, and the third strand to God.

A couple weeks later, on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I took to the St. Croix River with my wife Katie and our black lab Lola. Katie and I have been paddling on the St. Croix for years. I don’t remember when we first went, but it’s been several times a year for at least the six years we’ve been married. And I’ve been canoeing the river since I was a junior at Stillwater Area High School, when biology teacher Jeff Ranta took a group of us that spring to see a Great Blue Heron rookery near Copas.

Back channel

Memorial Day weekend, the water was high and the current moving fast. Weaving amongst narrow islands, we drifted and talked about that metaphor the minister had spoken of at the wedding, of the twine braided to rope. It came to me that the St. Croix River is a third strand, braided into our lives. There are surely other strands, too: our families, friends, compassion, words. But the river possesses a mysterious combination of constancy and fluidity. And when there is just the two of us and the dog in the canoe, and the river carrying us forward, I sit silently in awe and wonder at it.

We went back to the river last Saturday. This time there were eight people: four couples, two married, two not, split amongst three canoes. And, of course, the dog. We happened to float the same stretch of the river as Memorial Day weekend. The water was down a couple feet from May, and warm for swimming, but still high enough that beaches and sandbars were few. We let the current carry us, we saw eagles and osprey, a musky was caught and released.

Drifting downstream

On the trip was myself, fretting about logistics, safety, sandwiches; Katie, gracefully duffing in the middle of the canoe, eating cherries most of the way; Wade, making a sombrero look sensible; Audrey, her fingernails painted red, white, and blue; Slim, often reclining, face to the sky; Nel, not only smart enough to bring coffee but generous enough to share it; Gabe, who dedicated the day to his fly rod; and Liz, steering the angler downstream with a saintly smile. And there was the river, the third strand of twine.

At another wedding this summer, in the woods of Afton, my friend Sunday delivered the sermon for Doug and Heidi. Sunday spoke about what Spiritual Humanism has to say about relationships. It came to mind again as I traveled down the St. Croix on Saturday, in the company of three other devoted couples. Sunday spoke of Plato, and said, “In searching for and recognizing the divine within your beloved, one discovers the divine in oneself, and comes to recognize that, in all its forms, divinity is one and the same.”

St. Croix scene

That might call to mind the words of Norman Maclean, at the end of his famous story, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” It also makes me think of another concept in that story (which is arguably about relationships more than fly fishing): that to love is to seek to understand, though we can love fully without fully understanding.

The skies last Saturday were blue and clear. A mile from the take-out, we stopped at a small beach and swam and sat in the water as the sun dropped toward the trees on the western bank. The water was perfect and the silence absolute. I said I thought I might just stay there. But then I figured the mosquitoes would be bad and my own bed sounded better than sand. We got back in the canoe — a wedding gift from our friends — and headed on down the river.

Don't go

Corey Mohan sets off for Lake Superior

A blustery beginning

Corey Mohan sets off for Lake Superior

Corey Mohan sets off for Lake Superior

The temperature was 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Wind was gusting out of the northwest at 15 mph. The current in the still-flooded Minnesota River was clipping along at 31,700 cubic feet/second (some 20 miles upstream at the nearest gauge). With these unchangeable natural conditions, Corey Mohan set off this morning on a canoe trip from St. Paul to Madeline Island on Lake Superior.

As a crowd of 30-40 wind-whipped well-wishers clutched Bloody Marys and Mimosas, Corey thanked his supporters and his wife, and read a bit of poetry:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.

– T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages

Seeing them off

Corey, and his wife Lois, who will join him for this first day, left from Sibley House, a Minnesota Historical Society site where previous explorers of the upper St. Croix — Schoolcraft, Nicollet and others — also departed in centuries past. His Mad River Canoe had been dubbed the “Elizabeth Pelagie,” in recognition of a Wahpeton Dakota woman who was given Pike Island, an important Indian site across the river, by an 1821 treaty.

Corey and Lois would only be on the Minnesota River for a few hundred yards before it joined the Mississippi. If all goes well today, they should get to at least Grey Cloud Island, but with the current and the tailwind, I’d be surprised if they don’t make the St. Croix, some 17 miles downriver. Corey hopes to make it the some 300 miles to Madeline Island by about May 31.

Route map:

In an e-mail, Corey told me:

I’ve been thinking about this particular route for 5 years and then some. The idea came from James Taylor Dunn’s, The St. Croix – Midwest Border River. Early chapters on Native Americans and early Euro-exploration caught my attention and inspired some “what ifs”. In partcular, Schoolcraft, Nicollet Carver among others made the same or close to the same route and I enjoyed Dunn’s re-telling of their story… At the end of Dunn’s book, he writes about his trip down the the river from Upper St. Croix Lake to Taylor’s Falls. I wondered about how much may have changed – or not – from the 1960s to the present. Also, my first canoe trip on a Minnesota river was on a stretch of St. Croix in or near Wild River State Park or St. Croix State Park. I had just moved up here from Illinois, 1982, can’t recall exactly where we were but it was July, buggy and and lovely.

Cory’s Mad River canoe, with a Cooke Custom Sewing spray skirt:

Corey's Mad River canoe with Cooke Custom Sewing spray skirt

Off they go:

I hope to have more about Corey’s trip as he blogs from the river and as I share some more from an e-mail interview I recently conducted with him.