Make no mistake, this is a silly boat. Just as it has been a silly, unusual, and in some respects unpleasant summer. The heat rolled in at the very beginning of June, and baked me thoroughly during an exploratory trip on the upper reaches of Tenderfoot Creek. With the exception of a cool and rainy two days at a lookout in the Yaak, we made it through June and July with hardly any days much below 90, something that dropped rivers fast and brought on heat fatigue six weeks before I expect it. These days I have little interest in backpacking in temps above 80, and really, only modest interest in doing so in temps above 60. Combine high temps with kids who are too big to carry but not big enough to walk all day, and with the new oar rig my parents bought this spring, and we had little reason to not do a river trip most days all summer. So that is what we did. Since melt I’ve logged 10 separate trips to various stretches of the Blackfoot, and enjoyed circumstances nudging firmly my already developing interest in paddling as an art and end to itself, rather than a convenient and enjoyable means of wilderness transportation.
This being true, it was logical that in early July I bought a new boat, a solo whitewater canoe, one of the more esoteric genres out there. The Mad River Fantasy is of a different era. My boat might have been made 30 years ago, or as recently as 24. It is 13 feet long, has 5 inches of rocker, is deep by the standards of a conventional canoe, but is on the shallow side for a whitewater boat. The perhaps 7 feet of flat surface along the length progresses up in a somewhat less than shallow arch, with a distinct transition to almost, but not quite, straight sides that climb to the gunnels. The stern cuts up earlier than the bow, the sum of these parts being a craft which on first entry was quite terrifying. Held flat the bottom spins at the slightly thought, and I struggled mightily to get it to go straight. I knew for the first that I would want to take out the original outfitting, as I cannot get on with kneeling on a pedestal for any length of time. While I was at it, I thought I might try to alter the handling and make it more traditional, which I did by shortening the front and rear thwarts by 2 inches each.
This dropped the rocker, which improved tracking and hull speed, but doing so and then measuring and building the seat and center thwart turned the subtle flare through the midsection to tumblehome (ie the widest bit was below the gunnels), which made the Fantasy horrendously tippy. A few folks, myself included, got suddenly dumped into the local pond due to my hackery. So I tried again, figuring out after some experimentation that I could maintain the original width in the middle, and still pull the ends in. This tamped down the rocker while keeping the flare, which is what allows the boat to have any real stability at all.
And the Fantasy does have stability. That hull arch wiggles freely over 8-10 inches, something one can only tame via embracing it. After his first ride, Little Cloud has refused to get in the “tippy nu” again. With the flare restored that wiggle ends when the sides are dipped into the water, meaning that the Fantasy is (rather like skis) most stable in an arc. And bulleting a 13 foot piece of wood and plastic into an eddy is very fun. As shown above, I settled on a mix of a traditional bench seat and kneeling thwart. I can sit normally and paddle relaxed, often cross legged with knees braced into the side. After my first extended trip in the boat I had bruised from this, so glued in some 5mm foam. I left the foam knee cups from the original outfitting, and have the seat high enough I can kneel with my legs crossed or feet under the seat when I want more emphatic control.
A canoe like this is an anti-packraft, in that packrafts can benefit from but never demand active piloting. The Fantasy is, still, exhausting to paddle. It does not yet, and may never, feel efficient on something like mixed flatwater and class II, but it provides me an entirely different experience, and that learning enriches my current appreciation for moving water perfectly.
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