Canoe recommendation for Quetico AND Ozark streams

Hi all,
I’ve been to Quetico several times and always rent an ultralight 17’ Kevlar. Northstar/Northwind, from Anderson’s. As I plan to be back about once a year for a 7 to 14 day trip, I thought I’d break down and buy my own boat. But, I’d also like to be able to use it on Ozark streams and I’m pretty confident I don’t want straight Kevlar or anything with a gel coat exterior. To me putting gel coat on a canoe makes about as much sense as making phones out of glass - as all phones are these days! Is there not anyone making a Kevlar or composite material canoe coated with a VERY thin layer of strong plastic? It seems the options are limited to an ultra light weight material, a heavy plastic, or an UL material coated in glass. Why not UL coated in plastic? But I digress…I’m not trying to start a debate or conversation on the subject - just looking for a recommendation. So, my question is…

Does anyone know of a 17’ river-durable canoe that comes in at 58lbs or less? Something without a gel-coat exterior.


Wenonah uses a composite material called Tuffweave , which truly is tough as nails. The boats still have gel coat hides.

First, gel coat does not break like glass. It does not add structural strength to a canoe, but it does not make it weaker. The gel coat basically adds color and sheen to the canoe, hides the fabric layers beneath (which are sometimes not very attractive), while providing significant protection to the structural fabrics from abrasion. But yes, it does add weight.

Assuming you could get some type of plastic to bond well to the vinylester resins that most canoe makers use these days, I don’t see how it would be in any way preferable to gel coat. In fact, plastic (as in ABS and polyethylene) canoes and kayaks are often more susceptible to abrasion, especially the vinyl and ABS of Royalex, than gel-coated composite boats are. Gel coat does scratch. So would any type of plastic you could coat a composite boat with. And plastic would add weight just like gel coat, probably more.

Most people who buy a skin-coated composite boat without gel coat do so for weight savings so the canoes that are offered stock without gel coat are typically ultra-light models. But if you really don’t want gel coat and you custom order a boat from a maker such as Wenonah or Hemlock Canoe I suspect they will make one to your specifications. Just be aware it might not look very nice. I am sure you have seen skin-coated aramid boats where the golden yellow weave of the aramid is visible. Those don’t look too bad but I am not at all sure what a boat made with Wenonah’s Tuff-weave would look like.

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You’re looking for a tandem right? How much weight will the boat carry? Do you sit or kneel? What do you have in mind when you say river capable?

Offhand I’ll just say get a Northwind Polaris in black/lite. It’s great on lakes and perfectly capable on rivers. It will take all kinds of abuse but it’s not intended for continuous rock bashing in whitewater like a Royalex or plastic boat but it will certainly be superb in anything called a stream. If your load is near 500 pounds and you want to bias lake use then a Swift Keewaydin 17 is a great choice. You might also consider a Souris River Quetico 17 for a tough/light boat with plenty of stability and broad capability.

Gravel bars on Ozark streams are like 20 grit sandpaper. This is one place that thing called the Old Town Next would shine.

Now I have taken my Colden DragonFly down both Quetico type trips and also the Current and Buffalo and it has a beefy gel coat. It is a carbon fiber/glass/kev build with a lot of partials and infused resin

Other layups such as lite anything don’t fare as well. There simply isn’t enough fabric or protection to keep you out of the repair shop. My RapidFire worked but suffered ( it is a lite construction of carbon). I have made it work but it isn’t the happiest.
The Dragonfly is 14’6 and 38 lbs. The RapidFire 15 feet and 23 lbs.

The other factor is maneuvarability. You want a boat that is not a straight line lake tripper for avoiding rootwads on Ozark Streams.
Millbrook uses a paint infused outer fiberglass layer rather than gel. That would stand up admirably to Ozark streams

Yes, a tandem. Max load would be around $650. 2 big guys, 2 60 lb packs, 4 rods, 2 personal packs, seats, etc. We typically sit. The Northstar Northwind 17 we’ve been renting is perfect, for long lake trips, but I am considering a canoe that could also be used on Ozark streams.

Thank you everyone for your replies. It sounds like I will need to look for a lake-only boat and continue to rely on my trusty OT 169 for running over river rocks.

I spoke to both Wenonah and Northstar - neither recommends anything but their plastic offerings for rivers like I float in Southern Missouri and Arkansas. And, quite frankly, I don’t need the weight savings unless I’m bushwhacking in Quetico - which I love to do once a year. For those trips I’ve decided that 58lbs is my absolute maximum weight. Appearance doesn’t mean anything to me - the loons and moose don’t seem to care one way or another. - but I’d prefer to not own a boat loaded up with epoxy and patches.

My limited experience with gel coat is on my fiberglass bass boat - and that stuff is inches thick. Recently I bought a used Wenonah spirit II - older model (1990) in tuf-weave. Upon taking possession my 16 year old noticed a deep scratch in the side. The gel coat looked as though I could scrape it all off with a putty knife starting at that small damaged spot. (See Pic). Could this just be due tot he boat being 30 years old?

Thanks again everyone.


That red canoe looks as if it took a significant side impact at the location of that damaged gel coat, enough to fracture the polyester gel coat without significantly damaging the underlying structural fabric, at least so far as I can make out from the photo. You can see the stress lines resulting from that impact radiating out from the area of missing gel coat. That type of damage would not be expected to occur just as a result of abrasion, and certainly not just from age. If an actual fracture of the gel coat layer occurs and is not addressed, water can get under the remaining gel coat and result in gradual delamination of the gel coat at the margins of the fracture.

The gel coat layer of canoes is usually a relatively thin layer although it is often thicker at the stems. That gel coat damage could be relatively easily repaired. You would first need to chip away and gel coat that is no longer securely bonded to the underlying fabric, then bevel the edges of the intact gel coat around the edges of the void. Gel coat repair putties or kits are available at marine stores or on-line, and can often be ordered direct from the canoe manufacturer and are not difficult to use. You can add pigments to the gel coat to try to match the color, although an exact color match is usually not possible and you are sometimes better off just using an off-white putty and then painting the repair with some type of paint that most closely matches the color of the boat. Even without a color match the cosmetic appearance would be much better than what you have now and would prevent further delamination of the gel coat.

I have paddled a fair number of Ozark streams in southern MO and northern AR and not infrequently in composite canoes. I would not hesitate to paddle a Spirit II on most of them. I would not recommend ultralight designs with foam cores, however.

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That Spirit II looks like a great boat for you. As pblanc said the gelcoat damage will be easy to repair with any gelcoat repair kit. It looks like the fabric is undamaged.

I would agree Tom, except that this particular Spirit II is a 1990 model and weighs 70 pounds - unlike the current model in this same layup that weighs 58. They really should have called the newer design a Spirit III, IMO!

A 70 lb, Tuff-weave, 1990 Wenonah Spirit II will be either their cross-rib or center-rib construction. Either way that is one tough boat and in decent hands will have sufficient maneuverability and strength to handle just about any Ozark stream, apart from full-on whitewater streams and creeks, and with proper outfitting I would take it down some of those. You already have some gel coat trauma. A few scratches on the bottom won’t hurt its looks or performance too much.

Another option for a gel coat hull that is subjected to bottom abrasion is to simply prop the boat upright and level on a large, flat surface and mark off a 3 or 4 inch water line, or use a laser level to do the same. Then paint the bottom with a polyurethane paint such as Pettit Easypoxy. The paint will get scratched of course. But once you have done this it is extremely easy to give the bottom a light sanding and cleaning, mask it off, and paint it again.

If I were you, I would just shop around for a nice, light, flat water boat for northwoods canoe camping.

One comment. Your load of 600+ pounds is a healthy load even for many 17 footers. I expect that if you love the Northstar Northwind 17 you may well find the Northwind 18 to be your dream boat. The 17’s efficient load range is 350-650 while the 18’s is 400-700 so you definitely qualify for the 18. In my experience the 18 is noticeably more efficient than the 17 and still spins and turns on a dime. In my experience the 18 also (oddly) feels happier with a light load than the 17. The 17 is like the ultimate family boat while the 18 is a super canoe. The black/lite lay-up has a thin coating of resin over the carbon fiber so pretty close to the thin plastic exterior you envision. You might get a black/lite with aluminum gunwales to get the top lay-up at reasonable cost. If you can find a used Bell Northwoods I think it’s the exact same boat although some may have a clear gelcoat which would handle a lot of abrasion on your local streams at the cost of a few more pounds over the NW18.

I had similar damage on the stern of my Wildfire (rocks not age), and even with my rudimentary repair skills I was able to get a patch on it that isn’t pretty but is still holding.

I have a similar vintage (1988) Spirit II in Turfweave - its a great boat, but it does feel like a bit of a barge with gear for a long trip (I need to pack lighter).


I’m not complaining, but it would be nice to have an 18-foot boat for those trips - if storage space and money were unlimited that is. :wink:

What is the composite material ?

Per Wenona’s web site, 50% polyester, 50% fiberglass.

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I’m also in the camp that doesn’t feel like adding gel coat is an inherently bad idea, though you can definitely save weight without it… it’s essentially just dyed resin so while it’ll scratch, it is adding a bit of protection for the fabrics underneath, but mostly abrasion protection rather than impact protection (as patreddy’s photo shows). I work for Merrimack Canoes, and we’ve got a Kevlar/Carbon fiber 17’ option (the Traveler) that’s right around 58lbs even with the gel coat layer, and we’ve got a shop boat that’s taken some pretty heavy scratches that still didn’t get into the fabric layers, so definitely river worthy, but not a whitewater boat. FYI, for anybody looking at any gelcoat canoe, it almost always scratches white, so a white canoe will hide scratches really well.

We’re working on some non-gel coat versions of our boats too, but as mentioned above hiding the fabric edges is pretty tough since you normally can’t get a roll of kevlar or carbon fiber that’s wide enough to lay up a whole canoe in one sheet. It works, but it’s really fussy to make it look halfway decent.