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First solo canoe and solo safety

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Howdy Everyone,

I'm new here. I’m looking for advice on getting into solo canoeing. I’d describe myself as an intermediate tandem paddler. My wife and I routinely go out on ponds, lakes, and rivers, and we’ve done multi-day trips. We oftentimes fish along the way and occasionally bring along a dog. No class 3 white water or anything too crazy, but lots of paddling where care, coordination, and some skill are needed.

I occasionally paddle our tandem canoe (Penobscot 16 in RX - before that, an old fiberglass Sawyer) solo, but mostly on ponds. It’s pretty big for one person, gets blown around when there isn’t enough weight, and can be annoying to load, unload, and carry.

I’m looking for two pieces of advice:

  1. Recommendations for a first solo canoe. I’m 5’9, 175 pounds, located in the Southern Tier of NY. Budget matters, but the used market is thin, buy once cry once, etc. Ultralight isn’t a necessity at this point, but I do appreciate the benefits. At least to start, I’ll be doing mostly day paddles on local bodies of water, with some shorter camping trips sprinkled in. I do like to cover some water (my wife prefers to fish, I prefer to paddle), but maneuverability is also important for fishing and winding waterways. We also go up to the Adirondacks when we can, but that will be mostly tandem. I don’t do many long carries right now, but I don’t want something prohibitively heavy, either (I’m used to carrying the Penobscot, about 58 pounds). I currently lack indoor storage but do have covered and raised outdoor storage.
Some of the canoes on my radar are the following (all in the <$2000 range new, which is about my limit):
Esquif Adirondack (too much of a bathtub?)
Esquif Echo
Hornbeck New Trick 13 and 14
Adirondack Canoe Company Boreas
Grumman 129 solo (controversial, I know, but I’m intrigued)

  1. Safety advice. How do you recommend progressing as a solo paddler who does not paddle with a group? I like paddling alone. That’s why I want to get into solo paddling. But I’m also safety conscious and nervous about pushing my capabilities without other people around. For example, when would you feel comfortable doing a multiday solo trip on, say, the Oswegatchie in the Adirondacks (a trip I’ve comfortably done tandem)? Are there any good self-assessment tools for solo paddlers?
Thanks!
Bonpawtuck
 
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Almost all my trips are solo except now my teenagers are also getting involved.
Here are my basic steps and must-haves for trips (solo or not):
1. Detailed plan with maps and planned itinerary to my wife and anyone else who lives close to where I'm going.
2. First-aid kit for wilderness first-aid and suggest taking a class on wilderness first-aid
3. Personal SOS beacon with tracking (Garmin inReach Mini or similar) - allows my family to track my progress plus the SOS feature.
4. Plan trips within your abilities.
5. Food for the trip plus an extra day for every 3 days of planned trip (if going out for 6 days, take 8 days worth of food) with a minimum of an extra day's food & water.
6. When paddling have back-up paddle, PFD and repair kit(s) as required.

I have done solos around Cranberry Lake (plenty of boat traffic) and on the Oswegatchie out of Wanakeena to High Falls, also moderate amount of boat and hiker traffic. No solo trips planned this year yet as have both family and scout trips planned.
 
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Thanks for the reply. The Garmin inReach is really interesting (and, I can imagine, reassuring) - I'll have to look into that.

I love the Cranberry Lake/Oswegatchie River area, by the way. After spending a good bit of time camping and hiking in the Adirondack High Peaks, we've really come to appreciate the more peaceful western Adirondacks (it's also a quicker drive for us). My wife has requested that the Oswegatchie (Wanakena to High Falls) be our first trip this year! We did it the last weekend in May last year and are hoping to repeat.
 
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We have a place on Cranberry Lake so think of the whole area as our home away from home. We were planning an extended family trip for the last weekend of April (Wanakena to High Falls) but have to move it due to a last minute conflict. We're taking our scout crew up Long Lake and around the Raquette River in August for a 5-7 day trek and plan to complete the Tupper Lake Paddling Triad during the trek.
 
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Glenn MacGrady

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Welcome to site membership, bonpawtuck!

You've already gotten some good safety advice. As one who has paddled solo and alone for much of my life, aside from good planning and safety gear, I have always remembered the principle behind the "50-50-50 Rule," which says that a 50 year old person can swim about 50 yards in 50 degree water before becoming seriously hypothermic.

The derivative principle from this rule that I've tried to follow when paddling alone is: Don't go further from the shore than you can swim to—given your age, your physical condition, the water temperature and the air temperature. Now, sometimes that's a hard rule to follow if you have to make a big crossing on a lake. I am very careful on such crossings, and will not attempt them alone if weather or water conditions present any sort of danger.

I don't think the Oswegatchie presents much danger to a soloist. It's narrow, fairly slow and not very deep on average.
 
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In terms of food, Kathleen and I take no extra meals. In 1993, our first tandem trip, by ourselves, down the Thelon River, we planned 40 days to reach Baker Lake. At that time, we thought it prudent to take two extra meals, for a total of 42 days. We reached Baker Lake with plenty of food left over. Some days we caught fish. Somedays we were too tired, or the weather was too miserable to cook, so we just went to bed. Another meal saved. For breakfast, we mix up a bannock for every breakfast. Some mornings, particularly after being windbound, we were in a hurry to get going. Just a quick granola bar, and off we went. Another breakfast saved. Since then, we have never taken extra food., even on three to four week trips. Always end the trip with food left over.

Kathleen and I are old. We pre-date spots and Garmins. We have never felt a need or desire to be in constant communication. But that’s just us, perhaps foolishly so. A few years ago, we heard about an experienced couple who capsized in a wilderness rapid. The person with the communication device drowned, while the partner made it to an island, where they waited six days for rescue. This suggests that everyone on the trip be equipped with some kind of communication device.

Kathleen and I usually paddle arctic/subarctic rivers and lakes, which are prone to strong winds. Like Glenn, we always worry about being too far from shore. A capsize in water that is usually only a little bit above zero C (32 F) means that the swimmer has about two minutes to reach shore before one’s legs and arms begin to succumb to the cold. I think that most of us, fully dressed, under duress, and somewhat panicked, could not swim 50 yards against a strong wind, and that’s without dragging the canoe. If you make it to shore, now what? No canoe. No gear. No food. Beware of long, open crossings!
 
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Thanks, Glenn! I like the "50-50-50 Rule" and its extension to other scenarios.

I used the Oswegatchie as an example of something that a) I'm totally comfortable with as a tandem trip but b) seems to merit more caution as a solo trip. It's one of my favorites...

On a related topic: What explains (justifies?) the significant price differences between seemingly comparable solo canoes? Hornbeck/Adirondack come in around $2000 on what I'm looking for, but (what strike me as) the comparable products from Swift/Wenonah come in around $3500. If anything, one might expect the opposite given the companies' relative sizes and economies of scale...
 
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Thanks for the reply, Pitt!

"We have never felt a need or desire to be in constant communication. But that’s just us, perhaps foolishly so." I yearn for that kind of contentedness in the absence of communication, but, alas, I've had a cell phone since middle school, and I think that's wired my brain in an incompatible way.

It sounds like you and Kathleen have some great trips. My wife and I would love to work our way up to that level.
 
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Mr. pawtuck,
For solo safety, first and foremost is your PFD, wear it, even when you think you don't need to.
Practice self rescue in warm and calm water.
Use discretion when soloing on big water, a capsize in big waves will take much more effort to reenter your boat...and then there's gear retrieval.
Shoulder seasons I bring a full change of clothing in a dry bag, in all seasons I wear synthetics or wool only.
Food? Bring an extra day's worth in case you get wind bound.
Always carry map and compass, whether or not you have a GPS.

Now, on to the boat.
No reason to spend a fortune on a production boat, you can build 5 solo boats for the cost of just one high quality production boat.
I happen to have a wood stripped Kite ( 14'6", 39 lbs ) that you could try out to see if you like that design. This site also happens to be a mecca for backyard builders, several centuries of combined experience here to virtually guide you. Think about it...
 
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In addition to what you have read above, your warm water practice sessions will include those maneuvers and movements that you make from your paddling positions that indeed do cause you to capsize and get wet. Trying to move from one end of the canoe to the other, say to retrieve an item out of reach, is one such situation. Another is turning in your seat to look behind you. Believe me, that one has taken me more than once. A cardinal rule is to keep your head inside the gunwales. Many times when people say that the canoe tipped over, that is not the case. What happens is if you lose your sense of balance for whatever reason, and you simply fall out. In doing so, you tend to grip and hold on to the gunwale and take it under the waterline with you so that it takes on water. In the later stage as you take it with you it does capsize, dumping whatever is inside out in to deep water. but you have really just fallen out to begin the process.
 
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On a related topic: What explains (justifies?) the significant price differences between seemingly comparable solo canoes? Hornbeck/Adirondack come in around $2000 on what I'm looking for, but (what strike me as) the comparable products from Swift/Wenonah come in around $3500. If anything, one might expect the opposite given the companies' relative sizes and economies of scale...
Materials are usually the biggest difference in price.

Stripper Guy nailed the safety stuff. That 50 50 50 rule has diminshing value as water temperature drops and person is not wearing PFD. If you hit 40 -45 F water and you don't have a PFD and you get your breathing under control you might have 10 minutes of usable time. With PFD you will gain an addtional 30 minutes in which you can make forward distance. Never underestimate cold water.

Speaking of the Kite design. You might find some excellent design insight. http://www.greenval.com/jwinters.html I know reading John's info gave me a fuller appreciation for canoe design. I just wish there wasn't so many fat canoes in this world. I am a fan of Solo canoes longer then 14 feet and significantly narrower then a yard stick.
 
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Some of the canoes you list are pack style. I love my Swift Prospector 14 pack (bought pre-owned), but not for everyone.

I sense a little fear of kevlar, or maybe the cost. Not sure.

By all means visit and test paddle Hornbeck. Worth the experience even if you go another direction.
 
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I agree with Stripperguy, building solo canoes is fairly easy, and considerably cheaper than buying, even second hand. My last solo, an Osprey (the precursor of the kite) can be built for probably around 500 USD all in, less if you can source free wood.
 
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Wow, I didn't realize there were so many canoe builders here! That's super cool, and I'll read up on the John Winters stuff. As of right now, though, my woodshop is in the basement, and I don't have a bulkhead entrance. This makes it basically impossible (because of stairway/doorway angles) to get anything longer than about 10' into/out of the basement.

@billconner pointed out that some of the canoes I list are pack style. I've paddled a Hornbeck pack canoe (12' Classic maybe) and liked it, but I think I'd prefer a more traditional solo with a higher seat that I can also kneel in. I've heard that solo canoes can be difficult to self-rescue because it's harder to re-enter without causing the boat to take on water. I was wondering if this is especially true of pack style canoes (because they're often a few inches shallower than their traditional counterparts), or if there are too many other variables for this to be a rule of thumb?
 
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You've gotten a lot of good information so far on safety issues so I'd like to touch on the canoe aspect of this. Since you're in the Southern Tier, I would encourage you to check out Hemlock Canoe which is on the western side of the Finger Lakes. I live up near Cooperstown and have driven there and back in a day without any hassles so you should be able to get there pretty easily. I'd encourage you to check out their website as Dave Curtis, the owner, does sell used canoes. Before Covid they also held "try it" sessions so you could get into the canoes and try them out before making a purchase. If they're doing that again, it would be a great way to try several boats without having to make much of an investment other than some driving time.

As for stripperguy's suggestion about building a canoe; if you have the skills, I think that would be great. Unfortunately for me, I don't so that's why I look for "local" places where a quality canoe might be available. I'll leave it up to you to decide which works best for your situation.

That's all for now. Take care and welcome to the forum. Until next time...be well.

snapper

PS - The Susquehanna is a wonderful place to practice your solo skills close to home so I'd encourage you to make use of that river when you can.
 
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The past few years I've taken a number of group "solo" trips to the BWCA. Usually consists of 3 or 4 folks all paddling solo canoes but camping together. We all pack like we're on a solo trip, do whatever we want during the days but camp together in the evenings. I've found this a great way to hone my solo skills but not always alone and would have someone looking for me if didn't show up at night.
 
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I will say my first solo experience was renting a solo, dropping my gear in it, and shoving off for 5 days. The first 15 seconds were a little uncomfortable as I got use to it, but was a great trip with no problems. Beaverhouse-Cirrus-Kasakokwog-Quetico-Beaverhouse. Rented a SR Tranquility, and later bought a used one. Great lake canoe IMHO.

To the Swift Canoe pack seat is quite pleasant between bench and bottom, but probably does not allow kneeling (which my knees dont allow either).
 
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Lots of good advice above.

(Reprised from a previous discussion about solo tripping)

On the solo safety aspect I would add one thing. When on land, whether portaging, splitting firewood, cooking or even just setting up camp, go slowly, deliberately and thoughtfully. Take your time and think.

Without a companion or group you have no one to caution you to take it easy on that slippery rock, watch where you set that pot of boiling water or check for a widowmaker above your tent; that’s all on you, and you alone.

I expect that most tripping accidents or mishaps occur on land, can remember times a companion has stopped me from making a careless mistake, or vice versa, and recognize that I often need to deliberately slow myself down for the first day or two, before I become acclimated to a more measured solo steady state. Which, at least for me, means adopting slower pace. That was especially the case when I was a rat-race working man, the transition took deliberation.

If that means making camp earlier in the day, with more time to cogitate setting up tent and tarp (twice the work without a companion), so be it. If that means making two (three) trips instead of one when carry gear because there is no one to help tote the load, make time; don’t hurry or overburden.

Find the best available place for your tent, which may require wandering a site with a ground eye for drainage and puddling, and a sky eye for widowmakers or suspect branches; solo you aren’t being greedy taking the best possible spot at every site. Egregious behavior on a group trip, best practice when solo.

Erect the tarp with the same deliberation, with one eye on rain drainage and the other on weather and wind direction. Once again, as much time spent thinking/planning as doing. Transitioning between various camp set up tasks I’m not averse to having a seat and thinking about the wheres, whys and hows of my next move.

More time spent; if it is windy take a wider wander and find a natural windbreak near camp. On cool/cold and windy trips that spot can become a refuge; constant wind exposure wears me out, even with an extended head rest “wind chair” turned against the breeze.

PA070123 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

There’s no reason to sit wind buffeted in the middle of camp if there is a sheltered spot nearby; worth taking the time to find one. Bonus points if it’s a sunny spot; prepare to shed clothing layers.

With those set-up tasks well executed take the time – make the time - to stop non-rushing about and sit quietly, simply looking, listening and observing. Study the clouds (lots of weather info there), ponder the wind sweeping through the boughs overhead and the behavior of the little grey birds flitting in the bush. Make and take the time to really look and listen in quietude.

Much of the enjoyment of solo tripping, much of my reason for being out there, are the sights and sounds that surround me. There is a lot of interesting sensory minutia going on all around, stuff that goes unnoticed when a companion is bustling around unpacking gear or asking if I’ve seen his titanium spork.

That quiet observation takes time, and an uncluttered mind. I’ll sit, look and listen, but also bring a small day hammock, specifically so that I can hang quietly, largely hidden away in the hammock folds, allowing the place to come to me.

Time to read a bit

P2200079 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

Time to write

P2041635 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

Take to take in the view and watch the wave action.

P8021178 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

Excluding smoke-ables that little nylon day hammock may be the most enjoyment-per-ounce piece of gear I carry. So much so that for wind or anticipated rain I sometimes tarp off with the hammock in mind; 10 seconds to take it down, might as well have it available. The green side tarp is an auxiliary wind block.

P1070518 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

As usual, that was a very long way to say that a little nylon day hammock can be a contemplative joy on a solo trip.
 
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Lots of good advice above.

(Reprised from a previous discussion about solo tripping)

On the solo safety aspect I would add one thing. When on land, whether portaging, splitting firewood, cooking or even just setting up camp, go slowly, deliberately and thoughtfully. Take your time and think.

Without a companion or group you have no one to caution you to take it easy on that slippery rock, watch where you set that pot of boiling water or check for a widowmaker above your tent; that’s all on you, and you alone.

I expect that most tripping accidents or mishaps occur on land, can remember times a companion has stopped me from making a careless mistake, or vice versa, and recognize that I often need to deliberately slow myself down for the first day or two, before I become acclimated to a more measured solo steady state. Which, at least for me, means adopting slower pace. That was especially the case when I was a rat-race working man, the transition took deliberation.

If that means making camp earlier in the day, with more time to cogitate setting up tent and tarp (twice the work without a companion), so be it. If that means making two (three) trips instead of one when carry gear because there is no one to help tote the load, make time; don’t hurry or overburden.

Find the best available place for your tent, which may require wandering a site with a ground eye for drainage and puddling, and a sky eye for widowmakers or suspect branches; solo you aren’t being greedy taking the best possible spot at every site. Egregious behavior on a group trip, best practice when solo.

Erect the tarp with the same deliberation, with one eye on rain drainage and the other on weather and wind direction. Once again, as much time spent thinking/planning as doing. Transitioning between various camp set up tasks I’m not averse to having a seat and thinking about the wheres, whys and hows of my next move.

More time spent; if it is windy take a wider wander and find a natural windbreak near camp. On cool/cold and windy trips that spot can become a refuge; constant wind exposure wears me out, even with an extended head rest “wind chair” turned against the breeze.

PA070123 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

There’s no reason to sit wind buffeted in the middle of camp if there is a sheltered spot nearby; worth taking the time to find one. Bonus points if it’s a sunny spot; prepare to shed clothing layers.

With those set-up tasks well executed take the time – make the time - to stop non-rushing about and sit quietly, simply looking, listening and observing. Study the clouds (lots of weather info there), ponder the wind sweeping through the boughs overhead and the behavior of the little grey birds flitting in the bush. Make and take the time to really look and listen in quietude.

Much of the enjoyment of solo tripping, much of my reason for being out there, are the sights and sounds that surround me. There is a lot of interesting sensory minutia going on all around, stuff that goes unnoticed when a companion is bustling around unpacking gear or asking if I’ve seen his titanium spork.

That quiet observation takes time, and an uncluttered mind. I’ll sit, look and listen, but also bring a small day hammock, specifically so that I can hang quietly, largely hidden away in the hammock folds, allowing the place to come to me.

Time to read a bit

P2200079 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

Time to write

P2041635 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

Take to take in the view and watch the wave action.

P8021178 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

Excluding smoke-ables that little nylon day hammock may be the most enjoyment-per-ounce piece of gear I carry. So much so that for wind or anticipated rain I sometimes tarp off with the hammock in mind; 10 seconds to take it down, might as well have it available. The green side tarp is an auxiliary wind block.

P1070518 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

As usual, that was a very long way to say that a little nylon day hammock can be a contemplative joy on a solo trip.
That was an enjoyable post, Mike!
 
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I just came across a Wenonah Rendesvouz on Craigslist nearby. Asking $600, with whitewater rigging (floatbags, kneeling pads, d-rings). A quick search reveals that this is a pretty polarizing boat. It's definitely geared more towards whitewater/river touring than what I was originally thinking, but I think I'll take a look (and hopefully do a test paddle) nonetheless.
 
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