Canoeing has boomed and gone bust before. At the turn of the 19th-century there was no better way for young people to seek romance beyond the prying eyes of their elders. Canoe companies like Peterborough and Old Town built their fortunes on the ensuing craze.
Then along came the backseat in automobiles and the canoe business shrunk to a baseline of summer camps and sportsmen. It looked as if canoes may never recover, until a nature-hungry generation flocked to theaters to watch Burt Reynolds paddle the Cahula-wassee in a sleeveless wetsuit.
The film Deliverance sparked the canoeing boom that we remember. In 1960, only two percent of Americans participated in canoeing and kayaking; by 1980, eight percent did. Since then, paddlesports as a whole continued to grow while canoeing lost ground. Sea kayaks, recreational kayaks, fishing kayaks and SUP took bites out of the canoe market like a scho ol of sharks feasting on one of their own.
In the recent Canoeroots cover story titled, The New Future of Canoeing (Early Summer 2017, www.rapidmedia.com/0733), Sydney Jones and Conor Mihell reported kayaking participation in the United States grew 59 percent between 1998 and 2002, while canoeing shrunk 20 percent during the same period. More recently, Internet searches for SUP grew 61 percent between 2004 and 2016, while searches for the word canoe decreased 80 percent, Jones and Mihell reported.
Canoeing has often been cast as the old man of the paddlesports world, a discipline just waiting to die off with the last of its adherents. Four years ago, when PolyOne stopped making Royalex, anyone who prognosticated a canoeing boom risked being called crazy, or worse.
Well, there’s a lot of crazy talk in the industry now.
Retailers across North America are reporting robust canoe sales, enrollment at canoe camps is up, and outfitters have noted a surge in interest. It seems a canoe boom might just be upon us.
“We see our canoe sales doing very well across the board. We’re seeing growth in dollars but we’re also selling more hulls as well,” says Darren Bush, owner of Rutabaga Paddlesports in Madison, Wisconsin. Jason Yarrington, founder of the Trailhead Paddle Shack in Ottawa, agrees. He’s seen canoe sales rise 20 percent in the last three years.
Manufacturers have noted brisk sales as well. “This year seems to be a boom canoe year,” says Bill Kueper, vice president at Wenonah Canoe. “There seems to be resurgence especially for high-end boats.”
The demand is not just coming from old canoeists treating themselves to newer, lighter boats. Plenty of growth is coming from young people, especially families.
“People complain that canoeists are getting old, but all the 35 year-olds who grew up paddling with their grandparents now have an eight-year-old and a 10-year-old,” Bush says. and they are buying canoes.
Perhaps that’s to be expected in the canoe country of Canada and the Upper Midwest, but the sport is gaining ground elsewhere as well.
“Canoes are up for us in the Pacific Northwest,” says Paul Kuthe, program director at Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe in Portland, Oregon. “Sales are slowly coming around, but classes and trips using canoes are way up.”
During the 2016 canoe season, Ely Outfitting Company owner Jason Zabokrtsky collected user data from 1,000 clients at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Not only was his business up from previous years, but also the average age of his customers was just 29.
“We’re not positioning ourselves to target young people but they’re coming as couples and groups of friends,” says Zabokrtsky, who in 2016 outfitted about twice as many under-30 Millennials as 50-plus Baby Boomers.
It looks as if there may be an all-new new boomer generation. Canoe boomers.