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Canoe Camping Safety

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Canoe float trips are one of the neater things that scouts do. Normally there is not a great deal of risk attached and it is less demanding than backpacking, so younger scouts and less fit or older adults can easily participate. In April of 1999 I had an interesting experience that is worth sharing.


We made a 25 mile trip on the Colorado River, going in below Hoover Dam. From Hoover Dam to the Gulf of California the Colorado is now a series of lakes. There is no whitewater in April, but there can be high winds. Three out of the four days we were paddling into headwinds of up to thiry knots. This was hard work with a lot of wave action with some swells as high as three feet from peak to trough.


When we got to our take out point we encountered another scout unit that had put in at another point further downstream from our start at about the same time and had originally planned to go much further. They were calling it quits after about 12 miles. They told us that all of their canoes had swamped at one time or another, they had lost equipment, and really had a tough, even dangerous time. All their boys were older, stronger and more experienced than our guys. They were also heavier. While we had worked hard, we never come close to swamping a single canoe. The difference was in the canoes themselves.


There are publications on canoe camping. The general recommendation is that a loaded canoe should have at least 8 inches of freeboard. Freeboard is the distance from the surface of the water to the lowest point on the gunwhale of the canoe in the middle of the canoe. The canoes provided by our outfitter were OldTown touring canoes which were themselves lighter than water. While our canoes were made of synthetic material, they would float without separate flotation tanks in the bow and stern to provide bouyancy when swamped. Our canoes had a rated carrying capacity of 1060 lbs. That is two people and a lot of stuff with freeboard to spare.


The troop that was calling it quits was using heavy fiberglass canoes made by Coleman. These canoes were themselves more dense than water and had flotation tanks. Their carrying capacity was only 600 lbs. I think this unit owned their own canoes. With two good size humans, and gear and food for several days per canoe, they did not have the amount of freeboard necessary for safe canoeing in those conditions and they ran into trouble. Fortunately nobody was hurt.


It sure opened my eyes up. Although I am an experienced canoeist, I would not have thought that the manufacture of the canoe itself could make so much difference. The lesson is: if you are buying or renting canoes, make sure that you understand the carrying capacity of the canoes in question and that they are satisfactory for your purpose.


As for me, Coleman should stick to stoves and lanterns that they do very well, and get out of the canoe business. Often the extra dollars do make a difference in the quality and suitability of the equipment.

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