Solo River Canoes Reviewed....

-- Last Updated: May-18-09 9:38 PM EST --

I make no claims of being an expert canoeist but I know a lot about kayaks and have owned a dozen... (pretty ocd about buying and selling and testing boats).

Well now that I have been bitten by the canoe bug I have started with my quest for the perfect solo (for me).

Since I have asked lots of questions here and have gotten great feedback I will return the favor by reporting on what I have found so far.

For the record I am 5'8 and 190 pounds so I am a bit heavier than most I guess and all of my weight is in my upper body. Also have a long torso and short legs...thus a high center of gravity and narrow leg spread.

Currently I own three solos that I have been using on mild moving water, flat water, and on very windy days so I have had them in a variety of conditions.

The three I own now are: Swift Osprey in kevlar, Mad River Freedom Solo and a Bell Wildfire (yellowstone) in royalex.

I have paddled the Osprey the most. I like it but am not going to keep it. I find that it has a good amount of glide, can be handled in big winds despite needing a bit of attention to keep on course, has really, really good secondary stability and moderate primary stability and is a pleasant boat to paddle. It is pretty maneuverable and seems to handle well with a load for an overnight trip. I think it does a really good job on moving water that I have had it in and surfs quite well. I like the sliding seat on it but not so much for trim but rather for the rails....they make nice little thigh hooks to get your knees under when edging the boat.

When edging the boat stationary with a knee under the rail you can lean the boat all the way over until the gunwale is at the water, but I cannot actually get the gunwale into the water to where it will take on water because the secondary is so strong that it strongly opposes.

One thing I like about this boat is that it has a nice light and stiff feel on the water. Feels really nice and glides smoothly. Also is an exceptionally nice looking boat.

Overall though, after paddling the Wildfire I have decided this boat is wider than I would like...both in its fit with my knee spread and at the gunwale. More to follow.

I just got this boat. I find it to be pretty close in its maneuverability to the Osprey. Hard to say which is more maneuverable. It has better primary stabilty and good secondary as well...but not quite as solid as the Osprey in my opinion. It is not quite as fast as the Osprey but not much slower. It has less glide but I can maintain a higher cadence with it because it needs less correction. Yes...for me it tracks better than the Osprey which is a surprise.

I have had it on mild moving water and find it surfs okay but maybe not as well as the Osprey. It seems to ferry maybe a little better though. Again, it's hard to say.

Where I really do like this boat is in its fit! I find the narrower knee spread than the Osprey to be perfect for me. I also find that the greater amount of inward turn at the gunwale allows me a much more vertical stroke without having to edge the canoe.

I also found the boat more comfortable to paddle. I was not sure why at first but I figured it out today paddling it back to back with the Osprey. In order to achieve a truly vertical paddle with the Osprey I found that I was edging the boat a-la Canadian style. That becomes tiring after a while for the hips and back. I don't need to do this with the Wildfire. That is a super big plus for me.

I paddled the Wildfire today with a load in moving water just to see how it would do. I only had about 8 inches of freeboard and found the boat's handling suffered.

I think that for me this is a very pleasant boat to paddle for touring and for Class I rivers and streams. I am not sure it would be great for class II+ playing, especially with a load. I don't know though.

Last I will say about this boat is that it is so light in royalex! A pleasure to carry.

The Freedom Solo has surprised me. It is SOOOOOO much more maneuverable than the Wildfire for me. Absolutely no comparison. It will spin around in circles using a circular stroke and despite my newness as a canoeist I can do all kinds of freestyle type stuff with it with ease.

Stability is also superb. Secondary is sooooo stable, as is primary. Primary is almost more stable than I would prefer.

Downsides are that it needs a lot of correction to go straight. Also is big. Feels like a bit of a bathtub, albeit a super maneuverable one. I guess the flip side of that would be that it should handle white water pretty well.

I also find that it floats pretty high despite my weight. I am going to test it tomorrow with a load.

I was able to get out and surf some waves with it last weekend. They were not big but the boat surfed well enough that I could have eaten a ham sandwich I think.

Another downside is that the boat is wide. It is wide at the knees and at the gunwale. But that is the trade off I guess.

I got mine with the IQ2 gunwale. Neat concept. I like the lashing points that you can feed into it. Not a perfect system but may have some merit.

Another trade-off is in open water performance. I don't think it would do very well in the wind. I took it out on a windy day briefly to surf some waves by the peir. It was a bit of a handful.

I would say this should be a superior boat for downriver tripping with a load where you may experience some rapids. That is what I have been told by others and think it is probably a good summary given its stability, width, and freeboard.

I also demoed a couple of others. I paddled an Argosy and really liked it. Seemed nicely maneuverable and surpringly fast. However to me it lacked stability. Not very good primary and did not seem to have a wall of secondary to speak of. Could balance on edge, but did not feel that feedback of stiffening up when on edge.

Also paddled a Wenonah Advantage. Again, not super stable. Tracked really strait and was effortless to paddle. Totally different category of boat.

Last...paddled a CJ solo a bit. Did not care for it. Hard to turn but was really good at tracking in the wind. Seemed to stay on whatever course you wanted without having to fight it...gettting on that course though took some strokes.

So....I am going to keep the Wildfire for now and the Mad River. Mad River for white water and Wildfire for all else...but really want to sell the Wildfire and get a boat like the Magic or Merlin for touring. I imagine they will fit like the Wildfire but be a lot faster and better tracking. I would be happy to find something that fits like the Wildfire but is faster, good in wind and waves, and still has sufficient maneuverability and stability. We'll see.....


At your weight, the Guide will be light
on the water. I’m 30 pounds heavier, and the stems still don’t bite hard. This is an asset on whitewater, but can result in blowing around if you don’t have some gear along.

Wait until you do some ferrying across strong current jets. The Guide’s bottom allows it to fly like a wing, and I can get it to ferry at close to 90 degrees to the current, something my MR Synergy, a full whitewater design, can’t do.

On the issue of your knees and the width of the boat, if you don’t want your knees spread to the sides, just set some knee cups where it feels right.

the Mad River feels like it floats high in the water. I think this is why it will spin around so easily. I think this will be an asset for carrying a load and for white water. I would tend to think this would be a terrible boat in the wind though…not only because of the fact it floats high on the water but also because of the high sides.

But then again, I don’t think this boat is designed to be quite as versatile as a boat as the Wildfire. Just my guess. It seems to be a versatile river tripper I would think but really not optimized for flat / open water.

That’s okay for me though because I did not buy it for flat water.


Thanks for writing that up
Your experience really demonstrates the importance of boat fit. If only canoeists were as plentiful as kayakers, we’d likely have more choices readily available.

One question I have is what kind of knee pad setup you’re using in your Rx Yellowstone that fits you so well. If you have 1" minicell pads installed that wrap up the chines, then you definitely have a narrow stance. If you’re not using that kind of setup, then you may be able to use it with your larger boats to improve the fit and comfort.

perfect solo canoe
Of course, just as there is no such thing as the perfect man or woman, there is no such thing as the perfect solo canoe since canoe design is all about compromise. A group of five paddlers can be out in 5 different excellent boats and which boat is “best” might change with a shift in the wind, or an increase in its strength or a shoal that kicks up some waves in the river. So you dance with the one you brought and learn to apprecitate it’s merits.

A boat like Dave Kruger’s Advantage has a downriver racing heritage. It is all about covering distance at a fast cruising pace which it does exceptionally well. Maneuverability is secondary.

All of the canoes you mention are very fine boats and you can argue endlessly about which is best at what. For me, most times it comes down to what feels best, and often what looks best and, of course, what fits best.

If you are going to hang on to a Wildfire, I would think a Magic would make more sense than a Merlin, or perhaps a Hemlock Peregrine or Placid Rapidfire. And the Wildfire has a reputation for being a fine river canoe capable of handling “mild whitewater”. If you have an ambition to tackle something stouter than what a Wildfire can handle, I would consider a full-on whitewater hull.

Selling the Osprey?
And keeping the Rx Wildfire?

Hard to imagine!

I keep hearing “Everything you can do, I can do better.” over and over in my mind.

The beam really makes that much difference to you?

(Rhetorical question you are pretty clear that it does.)

Oh well different strokes for different folks.


Thanks for all that
I’ve really enjoyed your questions and discussions about all sorts of different canoes, but certainly not as much fun as you had trying them out.

(I was hoping to trade him a whitewater boat for his Osprey)

I very much agree that there is no “perfect” boat. I know that from my search with kayaks. It is all about compromises but is about finding the combination of attributes and trade-offs that best suits your application and taste.

I will better clarify my tentative choice….ultimately I think I will keep the Mad River for whitewater and seek a true touring boat for flat/open/mild river use (most of my paddling). I think that a Magic, Merlin or Peregrine would be ideal but want to buy used to save money.

I am going to keep the Wildfire only temporarily until I find such a boat and then sell it too. I am so pleased with the fit of the wildfire…both at the knees while using 1 inch foam pads) and at the gunwales. It is comfortable for me to paddle, efficient as I feel I am able to use my whole body better and achieve a nice vertical paddle shaft without edging the boat, and tracks so well with minimal correction.

The Osprey probably can do most things better than the Wilfire but fit is important to me. I found that with kayaks as well. No matter how good the hull is, the fit which is the interface between body and boat, is really important in my opinion.

I imagine that the Magic and Merlin will provide a similar fit at the knees (one in narrower actually) and equal or better “fit” at the gunwales (Magic is a good deal narrower) thus allowing a similarly vertical shaft.

For me with the Wilfire my shaft is not very far away from my knee which I like. The Osprey is just a little wider and thus my stroke is farther from my body, not as vertical and I find myself edging just a bit to compensate which gets tiring to me.

So…if you know of a used Merlin or Magic…or someone looking for a used Osprey or Wildfire then please let me know!


Wildfire/Yellowstone or full on WW boat

– Last Updated: May-19-09 10:30 AM EST –

I'd like to throw another log on the fire regarding the choice between a WF/YS or a full on white water canoe. I've heard it suggested here before that if a WF/YS isn't enough boat then you should really go full monty.

For my paddling environment and circumstances, I can't really see that. I think there is a definite niche for the Guide/Freedom solo, Supernova, Odyssey lineup.

When the water is warm, it's fun pushing a WF/YS to the limits and taking on a bunch of water and maybe swimming out of it, depending on what you run into. It's fun ratcheting up the challenge on class II.

But a lot of time (most of the time in my case) I like the extra safety/dryness margin afforded by a bigger, dryer boat. Especially since in Pennsylvania the WW only reliably runs early spring when the water is cold.

I've got a buddy with a YS and he passes on a lot of spring solid class II adventures because he lacks confidence in the boat. He's gotten the crap beat out of him in in solid class II in cold water. He's in the market for a Guide/FS. Is he an expert? Nope, just a guy with decent skills who likes to paddle.

It is a handful in the wind
with no load… Similar to the Raven without a load.

With a load though its more like a semi…plan ahead.

The boats you mention have differential rocker…WildFire has symmetrical rocker and will backferry more easily…

I am kind of baffled why you like Freedom and not WildFire but goes to show you how much our minds influence our likes rather than spec science!

Royalex Wildfire has differential rocker
He’s paddling a royalex Wildfire / Yellowstone Solo, not a composite Wildfire with symmetrical rocker.

gotcha …NM

I most definitely agree with that
I agree - I seem to remember that two or three folks have used that “all or none” whitewater reasoning a few times during Bowler’s boat discussions. I agree with you that there is a WHOLE LOT of room in the paddling spectrum between boats like the Wildfire/Yellowstone Solo and a dedicated whitewater boat. On one of the whitewater rivers I’ve paddled, and especially a couple that I plan to paddle, there are short drops here and there that are just a bit too much for a Wildfire/Yellowstone Solo, but which a Guide/Freedom Solo or Supernova can negotiate quite comfortably. In the mean time, when paddling all the REST of the stuff on those rivers, a full-on whitewater boat would make as much sense as taking a sea kayak on a mill pond. It’s the same reason that the company I work for provides me with a little Ford Ranger pickup instead of a car. I usually need to carry more stuff than I can fit in a car, so it’s clearly a better choice than a car, but it would be illogical to take it one step further and say “if your gonna get a truck, you might as well get something that can carry at least two tons - otherwise why even bother.”

Definitely depends on the trip
We did a trip last week which had flatwater, a lot of quickwater, and some class I/II rapids. I took my Yellowstone because we needed to cover miles. I kept up with the rest of the crew, and still had a good time running and playing in the rapids. It was the right boat for that trip.

I’ve been on that same river when we would spend a half a day on a short section of river with more continuous rapids. The objective isn’t to run the river - you’d be done in about 10 minutes – but to have fun playing in the rapids. I could do that in my Yellowstone, but it’s a lot more fun in my whitewater boat.