Paddling Life’s Wintertime Kayak Review!

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7 Kayaks to Drool Over

You expect a lot of things when you decide to review whitewater kayaks during December in Colorado. Staying warm definitely isn’t one of them. We packed up the quiver and drove to the Barrel Springs and Shoshone sections of the Colorado, still running thanks to a malfunction in the turbines of the nearby powerplant. Call us weenies, but it was the first time either of us had kayaked in Colorado in December (it was also the first time we’d ever used pogies on bike handlebars as part of the shuttle).

Naturally, no other boaters were dumb-ass enough to be paddling, so we were on our own. After dropping the bike off at Grizzly Creek and warming up our drysuit gaskets on the truck’s defroster, I followed Joe’s footprints in the snow up to the Barrel Springs put-in, an icefall on the left nearly blocking our trail halfway up. On Barrel, we’d be testing the creekers, switching to the playboats for the Shoshone section downstream. It was a great plan until Joe asked if I minded paddling the top section by myself while he took some pics. With Joe safely on shore, I got maytagged upside-down in the first hole. Not wanting this to be my first swim in December in Colorado, I stuck my roll in the middle of the mayhem and proceeded with my reviewing until Joe paddled down to join me. We’ve included each boat’s lovely photo and a shot of the seat, arguably the kayak’s most important feature. – Eugene Buchanan and Joe Carberry

Jackson All Star
In 2007, Eric Jackson set out to make the winningest freestyle kayak of all time even better. He did this by making it more comfortable by improving the cockpit and foot ergonomics; faster, by slightly increasing the waterline; looser, with slight tweaks to the planning hull and chines; and more aerially retentive (A PL-coined word, thank you), with a slight re-distribution of cockpit volume for even more EJ-sized loops. “After three years of paddling it and working with such team paddlers as Stephen Wright, Clay Wright, and Jay Kincaid, we’ve turned a wish list into a final design that will blow you away,” maintains His EJness, adding that in his mind the ultimate playboat is the one that plays best at every feature, from small to big waves and holes to eddylines. “The Stars will be Team JK’s freestyle machine for 2008 and 2009.”
Okay, so that’s all fine and dandy. But how does it handle for us mere mortals? On Shoshone, the first thing I noticed was its weight—or lack thereof. Unlike me during our holiday-season test-fest, it went on a diet this year, clocking in at only 30 lbs. I felt this when getting vertical (Brrrrr), catching eddies and cutting up wave faces. It was also comfortable as all get-out, with the new backband pad, hip pad shims (whose neoprene socks hold up to three quarter-inch shims), thigh brace design and Happy Feet and Sweet Cheeks Seat making it as comfy as my sofa at home (without the popcorn kernals and candy canes between the cushions).
At first glance, the hull appears rather bulbous, which is key to its loopability (another PL-coined word, thank you). Performance-wise, it seemed to have the perfect mix of speed, carving and spinnability to make it surprisingly user-friendly for a cutting-edge play machine. Another bonus: its rocker was such that the bow never buried on the flats, or pearled without me wanting it to. EJ lists the optimal weight for river running the All Star at 140 lbs., and the optimal weight for playboating it at 175 lbs., so my 165-lb. (pre-Christmas) frame seemed to fit both worlds perfectly.
A pogied-covered thumbs up for a kayak that seemingly does it all. The only drawbacks are : 1) you have to remember how the Happy Feet thingy works (do you blow it up, then purge it, then squish your feet in, then bleed it, or vice versa or what); and 2) This boat will take some time to get used to. Don’t get frustrated when its loopable proportions get in the way of your bow initiation. It takes some time. Get in and get used to it because there is quite possibly no other boat out there that gets as much air out of the water, especially on loops.

Specs: L: 6’2”, W: 25”, 54.5 gals., 30 lbs., $995
Info: (931) 738-2800, jacksonkayak.com

Dagger Agent 6.0
We originally were going to test the 6.4, but traded it at the last second at Hobie’s house (where he can shoot gophers from his backyard) for a Nike-swooshed 6.0. As expected, it was a little more playful than its bigger brother. But it felt like an old friend as soon as I shoe-horned myself in. Maybe it’s because I used to paddle the Crazy 88 (which it resembles), and maybe it’s just because, old -schooler that I am, I’m just more at home in a more slicey boat than many of today’s more bulbous, loop-you-into-orbit offerings. Whatever the reason, it didn’t take any getting used to. I was vertical right off the bat in the first eddyline, even getting the third and fourth ends to come around naturally when cartwheeling (does anyone do those anymore?).
So the first word I’d use to describe it is “swappy.” The bow initiates like Paris Hilton to the paparazzi, which, as we all know, can also be a scary thing. At times, it tended to bury in the flats, and took aggressive back leans to keep it from pearling, but that’s more likely due to the fact that we were paddling it a bit small. That said, it was remarkably comfortable for a boat with only 42 gallons of volume. While it says the ideal paddler weight range is between 80-145 lbs., I fit in at 165 with nary a foot corn. The adjustable backband with flipswitch for micro-adjustments was, as usual, spot-on, the adjustable thigh braces offered just the right snugness, and the contoured hip pads were a thing of waist-hugging beauty. Another nice touch is that the seat track is welded in to the boat, adding rigidity.
Great, you feature-regurgitating hack, but how did it handle overall? We loved it. It surfed well and threw down. The only thing I didn’t call it to task was its aerial fortitude (too cold for me to loop), but given the way it handled everything else I’d say it’s a master at that as well.

Specs:
6.0, 42 gal., 28.5 lbs., $900
6.2, 50 gal., 30.5 lbs., $900
6.4, 59 gals, 32 lbs., $900
Info: (800) 59-KAYAK, dagger.com

Redesigned Eskimo Salto

The first thing you notice about the newly redesigned Salto from Eskimo are its lines. They’re sleek and fast looking, unlike the more rounded profile and corkiness of other creek boats. In fact, it looks like a shrunken slalom boat, which is exactly how it felt in the Class IV+ of Barrel Springs. It charged in and out of eddies, and with 73 gallons of volume retained enough girth to punch holes. Of course, none of this helped me in Hole #1, which I didn’t see coming. With ice-lined banks on both sides of me, I went over in a cold water-decreasing heartbeat. Bad time to swim, I thought, real bad. But it rolled up perfectly, almost eager for more action.
I aimed it over a few rocks to assess its boofability, and the Salto assaulted the task in fine style, flying high with a minimal stomach crunch and stroke. In the one hole I got caught in, it seemed to actually like side-surfing more than I did. Of course, I was staring at ice-lined banks while it was breathing fresh air for the first time since being unwrapped the day before. Bottom line: a fast creeker that’s stable and quick edge to edge, light enough (at 43 lbs.) to make you feel comfortable making dicey moves, and forgiving and stable for when you wind up in the wrong places. Another nice touch are the three grab loops in the rear for safety (we’re thankful we didn’t have to test them).
The only drawbacks we found came in its outfitting. In this day and age when other manufacturers are making huge strides in this regard, Eskimo hasn’t really made it a priority. The outfitting in the Salto is Spartan at best, taking me back at least 10 years when I assembled it in my garage. You screw on the thigh-hooks yourself and cut glue-backed foam yourself for the seat and hip pads. But that’s a small price to pay for paddling performance.

Specs: 8’,73 gals., 43 lbs., $995
Info: (866) 405-4293, eskimouse.de

Dagger Green Boat

Dagger made four boats for the November’s 12th annual Green River Race, and lo and behold they took the top four spots (with the top three beating the former course record). Of course, they were all piloted by Green River studmo’s, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the boat is fast and friendly in pushy Class V. “We’ve created the ultimate kayak,” says Dagger’s Ken Hoeve. “It doesn’t feel huge at all. It feels like a longer Nomad.”
Indeed, at 11’9” and 100 hole-punching gallons, the Green, which Dagger plans to put into production this spring after one final tweak, will absolutely dwarf any playboat atop your car. Its sea kayak-like size, however, is what gives it its speed, and makes it perfect as everything from a self-support expedition boat to a get-to-the-bow-rescue-quickly safety kayak. On Barrel Springs and Shoshone, it flew downstream like a horse returning to a barn, stopping only when forced into crisp eddy turns. It punched holes like they weren’t even there, and though surfing wasn’t exactly its forte, on the only wave big enough to accommodate it, it actually carved back and forth.
Dagger’s idea behind it was to make the world’s fastest creek boat, but one that also has to be stable and turn. It seems like it succeeded on all counts. Indeed, Brad Ludden got in one on the Colorado and instantly thought it perfect as a safety/instruction boat. It’s also the ultimate expedition boat, with a ton of storage behind the seat,” says Hoeve.
But lets not get too hasty. A fantastic idea, one we applaud, but maneuverability will be an issue when you first get into this thing. You’re going to have to harken the days of the Dancer, Pirouette S and other, original long-boat models. That said, it will make a great overnight boat – not necessarily on tight creeks for us mere mortals – but river tripping. Say Idaho’s Middle Fork Salmon or even the South Fork Salmon, Colorado’s Yampa Canyon, Oregon’s Illinois or Rouge – big water runs where storage and speed are your friend. The best part about the Green Boat: It will be a lot of fun for a lot of different paddling skill levels.

Specs: 11’9”, 100 gals., Price to be determined.
Info: (800) 59-KAYAK, dagger.com

Fluid Nemesis

South Africa’s Fluid – a relatively new company to the whitewater market – has created a niche’ for itself in the last several years thanks to solid boat designs like the Solo creek boat and the Flirt playboat. This season, Fluid has introduced the Nemesis, another hardcore playboat that can stand proudly next to any model in the industry.
The Nemesis definitely won’t be your nemesis on the water. It’s a straight-up ally with tight lines, ideal for both wave and hole moves. The balance was fantastic, allowing for easy-to-initiate bow and stern stalls, as well as quick releases on nostrel-plugging flatwater loops thanks to even volume distribution in the nose (recirculating holes were scarce during our December test). Our less than statuesque bodies had no trouble throwing the Nemesis’ 32 lbs. around either.
The Nemesis also surfed well with solid speed and bluntability (this we discovered thanks to the All Day Wave). The medium had plenty of foot room and my 6’1”, 188 lbs. frame seemed a perfect proportion for all 51 gallons. Nemesis Owner and designer Celliers Kruger has used his Zambezi testing grounds to make sure the Nemesis handles most downriver situations as well (see balance). This is one mobile boat. We had no trouble catching any on-the-fly playspot and didn’t get flatbacked when things got bigger (This may have been because we were actually practicing good technique instead of our usual hack style).
Unfortunately – or fortunately – we used California team Fluid paddler Greg Speicher’s boat, which was complete with custom outfitting so we didn’t get to examine the factory outfitting. But Celliers assured us his company has worked hard so you can make the Nemesis a comfortable fit. We did, however, enjoy the placement of the seat tightening ratchets below the legs instead of above the hips, which sometimes get in the way and wear down as users get in and out of the boat. Plus this baby is available in three sizes (S, M, L).

Specs:
S – 5’11”, 44 gal, 28 lb, prices to be updated when available
M- 6’1”,51 gal, 32 lb
L- 6’5”, 58 gal, 33 lb
Info: fluidkayaks.com

Wave Sport Fuse

Ok, Ok, we know that river running designs have been yawners in recent years with offerings that are too big to play and too small to run the shit in. But this season, Wave Sport has replaced its EZG with a fresh “Fuse” – a new offering for the river running playboat genre. With a twist: This all-arounder throws down a little bit harder with more volume in the nose. Meaning it can loop bigger than its predecessor.
Designer Robert Pearson has perfected the waterline on this boat, making for exceptional down river prowess. Examples? Members of Team Wave Sport tested the Fuse on Kentucky’s Russell Fork and West Virginia’s Lower Meadow. It handled like a Ferrari on the autobahn.
Again, we’re hack-paddling journalists. Professional kayakers we’re not. Still, we were able to initiate the Fuse with ease, splat every rock on the river and catch eddies like we were paddling a creek boat. We were paddling the prototype so things were still in rough form but look for Wave Sport to iron out the kinks and get the Fuse in prime working order.
If you’re looking for a full-on playboat, best look elsewhere. But if you were to keep only one boat in the quiver – or travel with one that could fit in a long board bag –the Fuse would come as close as possible to being a complete boat. Plus, we love the Wave Sport outfitting, which allows for one of the most snug and secure fits in the industry. The Fuse will come in four sizes with the smallest, the 35, being designed for kids.

Specs
FUSE 35 – 5’10”, 35 gal.
48, 56, 64 – prices and specs to be updated as they become available.
Info: wavesport.com

Pyranha Everest

We’ve been waiting to climb this mountain. And it was well worth the wait. Paddling Life has always been a fan of Pyranha creek boats and the Everest didn’t disappoint. The holes of Barrel Springs on the Colorado were little more than speed bumps for this SUV of the kayak world.
This year, Pyranha designer Graham Mackereth set out to make a real expedition boat. One with volume, storage space and maneuverability. Booya! The Everest fits the bill. When we first laid eyes on this beast, we were certain it would be tough to turn. Not the case. The Everest turned on a dime, made the moves we needed it to and the volume is distributed in the right places. This is a Burn on steroids.
We feel this kayak works for every boater – the hardcore creeker, the mild-mannered, Class III-paddling dad out for a good time or even beginners. The Everest’s edges are the softest ever designed by the English company and we can’t help but celebrate them. Crossing eddylines was a cinch, nothing grabby when making hard ferries and the outfitting is easy to form fit.
Worried about its weight? So were we at 46 well-proportioned pounds, though, the Everest is light enough to pack up to California’s Upper Cherry Creek and able to pack the stove, steaks and water filters as well.
The cockpit is big, at 37 ½” in diameter. Be prepared to use the largest skirt possible. This is one of the only drawbacks we could find in this boat. If you consider a big a cockpit a drawback then perhaps you need to rethink your safety philosophy? With a weight range of 165-301 lbs., the Everest fits bigger paddlers best.

Specs: 8’6”, 82.4 gals., $1,159
Info: pyranha.com

Silly Sidebar
How’s this for using your head? Or maybe we just always have kayaking on the brain? The day before the review, we were skate skiing on Rabbit Ear’s Pass near Steamboat Springs when our friend, Paul, hurt his knee. Unable to ski out, he stayed moaning a mile from the parking lot while we skied out in search of a sled. That’s when the light bulb struck: Joe had the Fluid Nemesis on top of his car. Next thing you know we rigged a bandolier-style harness across our chests with cam straps and skated the kayak in to rescue him, the boat’s planning hull making the perfect ski patrol toboggan.