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Kayaks overtake canoe sales in CanadaPublished on Thursday August 30, 2012
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Perhaps you noticed, while inching across the border this summer, or stuck in cottage-country traffic, all the kayaks lashed to the roofs of cars.
It’s because the humble, hardworking canoe, a longstanding symbol of Canadian culture and character, has been overtaken in popularity by the kayak.
Retailers say kayaks now outsell canoes by a factor of ten in some locations, and far more people are signing up for kayak lessons than for courses on how to master the subtleties of the J-Stroke.
“I haven’t taught a canoe lesson in years. We don’t even offer them anymore,” said Kelly McDowell, owner of The Complete Paddler, which has a 10,000 square-foot, year-round showroom in Toronto.
Kayaks make up 70 per cent of his sales, canoes 30 per cent.
“I don’t remember what year it took off. It’s just been gradual over the past decade.”
Retailers say kayaks are outselling canoes because they are faster, cheaper, lighter, smaller, and require little training to use recreationally. They cut well through still water, rapids and swells. Because they sit low in the water, they aren’t as affected by wind and waves as canoes are.
Graham Ketcheson, executive director of Paddle Canada, says canoe sales have been stagnating across the country for years.
“We have eight regional associations. They’ve all seen the change too.”
In the U.S., where sales are tracked by the National Marine Manufacturer’s Association, 77,800 canoes were sold in 2011 and 234,800 kayaks. Ketcheson said there is no association in Canada that tracks canoe and kayak sales.
“Even kids are getting into it. You can throw a small child into a kayak and it’s amazing how quickly they can get moving,” says Ketcheson.
Dave Corrigan, owner of Harbourfront Canoe and Kayak Centre at Queen’s Quay and Rees St., runs evening paddles in Lake Ontario three nights a week. About 40-60 kayakers show up most nights and occasionally, a canoeist or two.
“Kayaks surpassed canoeing five-six years ago, mainly because of our location and kayaks are more affordable,” said Corrigan.
Although canoes are more economical for families because they can carry more people and gear, kayaks are cheaper to buy for the solo paddler. An introductory kayak goes for about $500 and there are plenty of good choices under $1,000 says Jay Mothersill, owner of the Muskoka Paddle Shack.
He says a decent fiberglass canoe starts at about $1,000.
He sells ten kayaks for every canoe.
“A lot of us want instant gratification,” says Mothersill. “To become a good canoeist takes time. It can be a frustrating sport if you don’t want to put the time in. If you put the time in, it’s a magical sport.”
Kayakers call the canoe a divorce machine because they typically hold two paddlers, he says.
“There’s a lot of teamwork involved and communication. When you throw two people in a canoe with paddles, right away, they’re blaming each other and bickering with each other.”
The canoe has been used since before recorded time in Canada. First Nations used them. They were adopted by European explorers and fur-running coureurs de bois. The design has been little changed for hundreds of years.
Canadian artists, poets and songwriters have celebrated the canoe, including landscape painter Tom Thomson, who drowned mysteriously in Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park.
Former Canadian prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau was an enthusiast. Author Pierre Berton once famously said that a true Canadian is one who can make love in a canoe without tipping it. The late Bill Mason became a folk hero for his solo canoe exploits and films.
Times have changed. William Straw, a professor and director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, says canoes are meant for a slower, more contemplative journey.
“We’re in a much more fast-paced society now.”
Connoisseurs dismiss cheap plastic kayaks as beach toys, something to splash around in off a deck or to whip around the lake in for exercise.
And retailers agree canoes will always be in demand. For exploring the back-country in places like Algonquin Park, they can’t be beaten.
Canoes were made for portaging, making it possible to explore a network of lakes and rivers separated by land over a day or several days.
“We carry kayaks to placate the cottage customer,” says Brent Statten, general manager of Langford Canoe in Dwight, Ont.
Langford Canoe makes cedar canoes by hand that sell for $7,000.
“A cedar canoe is a work of art. The only thing you could compare them to is a violin or a piano,” says Statten.
Kayak sales peaked at Langford Canoe about five years ago, and canoes are coming back, says Statten.
He says some people are intimidated by canoeing, but it’s easy.
“I think using a canoe is made to be this mystical thing because it’s such an iconic image, a symbol of Canada. But it’s still pretty easy to learn a J-Stroke, which is where 90 per cent of canoeing comes from.”
Two years ago Swift Canoe and Kayak was selling almost as many kayaks as canoes, but the market has recently swung back towards canoes, says owner Bill Swift.
His firm now manufactures three canoes for every kayak, but he believes he’s an anomaly.
“There’s no question about it. There’s more people kayaking than canoeing. You can see it every day up and down the highway.”