My stomach sinks whenever I see a canoe atop the roof of a car. I feel for the vessel, sympathizing with it passing by flowing rivers and crying out to cut the glassy reflection on a lake. I first experienced this feeling when I was just a kid, but in recent years the sentiment grabbed hold of my imagination.
Canoes are tickets to adventure, a tool designed to access the inaccessible. When we place a boat on a roof and drive cross-country, I hope it’s always a means to reach a self-propelled end.
Length: 16 ft
Width: 32 in
Weight: 61 lbs
Optimal Load: 400-700 lbs
This was on my mind when I picked up a new canoe from Ted Bell and Bear Paulsen of Minnesota-based Northstar Canoes. Though the brand is just six years old, it’s steeped in the rich history and excellent reputation of Bell Canoe Works, owned and operated by Bell for 20 years.
I had come to the duo looking for a boat with a few identities. I wanted a hard-traveling solo canoe, yet also a tandem for weeklong trips. Most importantly, I wanted a canoe to paddle at sunset, race on glassy lakes and haul lake trout over its side.
The Northstar B16 seemed the perfect blend of all these desires. When Paulsen offered to bring the B16 to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Expo outside of Grand Marais, Minnesota, I knew I couldn’t just drive the boat home. The Boundary Waters is canoe heaven. I felt the butterflies of a big adventure stir in the pit of my stomach. I decided to paddle the canoe north, across the international border, and give my new vessel the homecoming all canoes deserve—a christening in adventure.
It was fitting to be northbound in a Northstar canoe. Between me and my destination lay the perfect testing ground of windswept lakes, moderate rapids and well-traveled portages, culminating in a chain of trackless swamps and lakes into Canada. Sweating over the first portage, I felt joy at the familiar weight of yoke and canoe, and I couldn’t help but wonder what the B represented in the design’s name. Did it stand for Bell? Or perhaps it represented a more philosophical approach, like the freedom to “B.”
My B16 is built in Northstar’s IXP layup, the toughest of four layups Northstar offers for this model. IXP features 15 layers of Innegra and two inner layers of aramid, plus internal skid plates laid into the hull for extra durability in the bow and stern. Innegra blends have excellent impact absorption, high flex and good abrasion resistance; they’ve been heralded by some as Royalex alternatives.
At 16 feet long and 61 pounds, the IPX construction is on the heavier side for a composite canoe, but the trade-off is it’s capable of handling abuse. In skilled hands, it’s a boat suited for extended river tripping and whitewater expeditions, with far better performance than an ABS hull.
The design of the B16 is as modern as its materials, deviating from a traditional Prospector with an asymmetrical hull and lower lines. My childhood vision of a canoe often resembled Bill Mason’s traditional Prospectors, but the truth is lots of rocker means being slow on flatwater. A proud bow and stern—while adding some wave worthiness—get buffeted in the wind, which is extra tough on a solo paddler.
On my journey north, I experienced high winds almost immediately. For two days I paddled headlong into a howling westerly wind. The going was slow, battling against rolling whitecaps and hard blowing points. The ability to travel in wind is vital when crossing significant distances.
While it was hard at first to appreciate the subtleties of the B16 in such slog conditions, I began to find my rhythm a few days in. In one rapid, when I found myself back ferrying to avoid a ledge, the canoe rode high and perfectly level, as if I was paddling tandem. I jumped out soon after to line the next rapid. It was my first experience using lining holes drilled just above the waterline, and it was a revelation. The ropes pulled the canoe from down low instead of high up on a grab handle, and the difference afforded me maximum control.
Fighting up a swamp, a mother moose and her two calves darted in front of me. I reached a small lake shortly before sundown, just as the lake began to reflect the setting sun, and in time to feel the tug of lake trout on my line. The stars were aligning. From a bustling roadway to unfamiliar lands and trackless swamps, and now a symphony of moose calls and whippoorwills, I was reminded of just how accessible the inaccessible is.
The question of the boat’s name returned near the end of my journey. Traveling hip deep in a bog, carrying through alder tangles, picking leeches from my shoes, I realized the B16 offered the freedom to be whatever type of paddler I wanted to—wilderness wanderer, whitewater thrill-seeker, or portage hound.
Northstar’s B16 is whatever you want it to be.
“If you can dream it, you can do it.” —Walt Disney | Photo: David Jackson