Kayak season is once again over; the leaves are down, the temperatures are down with them, and we’ve already had a dusting of snow. Pretty soon the lakes will freeze over and I’ll be walking across them where only a few months before I was paddling.
My ‘yaks are stored in the garage for the winter, awaiting that day in April when the water is (mostly) ice-free and I simply cannot wait any longer. So since I can’t be out paddling, I thought I’d provide an update on the kayak situation.
When I started this adventure almost two years ago, it was with a Wilderness Systems Ride 115 kayak, which is a sit-on-top model that is popular with fishermen. It is an exceptionally stable boat, to the extent that it’s designed such that you can stand up in it (although I did not like doing so). It served me well during my first year on the water with the camera, when I the thought of having my gear out on the water still filled me with unease. It had been a few years since I had kayaked and the Ride was a great boat to help me ease back into the sport, with the new twist of photography added in.
At the same time, however, the Ride was a whale. To be fair, it was designed to me, and I knew this going in. But it was driven home during this past spring, after I had purchased my second kayak (more on that in a minute) and realized just how slow and lumbering it was. Then I bought my Jeep and almost gave myself a hernia getting the Ride up on the roof rack. I sold it shortly thereafter and rolled the funds into a new kayak.
The Ride replacement is another Wilderness Systems (Wildy for short) boat, the Tarpon 120. It looks very much like the ride and I’d consider it a sister-model, except that it’s 6 inches longer, several inches narrower, and about 10 lbs lighter. Where the Ride chose stability over performance, the Tarpon made the opposite choice.The Tarpon is still plenty stable – you can’t stand up in it, but you probably won’t tip it unless you’re trying to. And it is faster and easier to get on and off the Jeep. Personally, I love the sit-on-top design and the incredible amount of storage space it offers. When I start out each time, my camera gear is in a waterproof Pelican case strapped into the Tarpon’s rear cargo area. Then, once I’m on the water and situated, I take out the camera, which either hangs around my neck or, more often, goes into the interior of the kayak when not in use.
See, the sit on tops are essentially hollow inside and the Tarpon has two hatches that access this space; a large bow hatch and a smaller middle hatch. The middle hatch is right between my knees, and is very easy to access on the water. My dry bag goes in there, and when I’m not using the camera it sits down there with the hatch closed above it, which offers excellent protection for pretty much any situation. Seriously, the only way it’s going to get wet inside the hull is if I smash it open under the waterline.
The Tarpon is my main photo boat. Its fast, stable, easy to paddle, and very comfortable. It’d be any easy boat to take camping, as there is plenty of room for gear.I mentioned before that I bought a second boat in the spring; it’s a little red Perception Impulse 9.5. The Impulse is a traditional sit-inside boat, in contrast to the Tarpon, although it has the same style rear cargo area as the Tarpon. It is very light, at only about 30 lbs, and is both quick and maneuverable on the water. I am able to bring it up to top speed without too much trouble, although it is obvious when you reach that speed that you will go no faster, as the design of the hull simply won’t allow it, and the bow can become a little squirrely at that point.
While it isn’t as stable as the Tarpon, it is still plenty stable that I am able to use it for photography, although with some adaptations. Since there is no dry, interior space to keep the camera in, I hang it from my neck instead and keep the Pelican case between my knees inside the cockpit. If I’m going to be travelling between sites, or the wind kicks up, or rain, or whathaveyou, I put the camera back in the Pelican case for protection.
The point of the Impulse wasn’t photography; it was my play-around boat, for times when I was more interested in traveling with a kayak, or just paddling for pleasure, and it is therefore lightweight, simple, and easy to toss around. It was also significantly cheaper than the Tarpon at about $300, which is a price where, if it gets scratched or gouged going down the river, I don’t cringe the way I would with the Tarpon. It’s a cheap, safe, durable, fun little boat for when I want to play. Plus it gives me a second kayak for times when I want to take someone, such as my fiancee, out on the water with me.
The Impulse has two unfortunate shortcomings. First, the seat is miserable uncomfortable compared to the padded throne in the Wildy boats. It caused a lot of lower-back pain on my first few trips, until I finally bought a padded foam cushion from a sporting goods store; I find that sitting on that alleviates the back pain and, at $6 it was a heck of a lot cheaper than trying to buy and retrofit the boat with a fancier seat. The second shortcoming is more specific; one of the reasons I wanted a cheap, play-around boat was for Riverfest, when I take it down the Lackawanna River and through some Class I and II rapids. I only do this once or twice a year and simply hate the idea of abusing the Tarpon this way, as it’s not really designed for that kind of kayaking. If the Impulse gets beat up on the river, I don’t much care.
Unfortunately, it’s wide-cockpit design, which makes it comfortable and good for photography, also makes it a giant bucket when I hit rapids, and it quickly fills with water. I had to stop and empty it at least a half-dozen times during last year’s Riverfest, and the one time I am convinced that if it wasn’t for the foam blocks build into the interior, it would have completely sunk under me.
Granted this is much more of a kayaking-for-run issue than a photography issue, but I still wanted to mention it. I may look at selling the Impulse and replacing it with a similarly cheap and simple sit-on-top model next year, or I may not – I haven’t decided yet. (The sit-on-top models generally have scuppers – basically drains – built into their hulls, and as such it is almost impossible to sink them without breaching the hull, either by opening a hatch or impaling the ‘yak on something in the river.)
Turning back to the photography aspects, however, I have found that the kayak is a solid, stable shooting platform and, as such, I have abandoned my earlier ideas about somehow mounting a tripod to one, or using the Wildy’s slidetrak system to build some kind of support. I simply don’t feel it is necessary. And I am still amazed at the access the kayak gives me, both to new vistas and new wildlife that would be impossible to reach from land. I cannot emphasize enough how much fun I have had with my ‘yaks these past two years, nor how much they have done for my photography, and my wildlife photography in general!
In my opinion, Wilderness Systems makes the best kayaks. Their quality is excellent and there is no doubt that a Wildy kayak, cared for and not abused, should last for many years. They have a lot of features, not the least of which are comfortable seats – and I cannot overstate how important that is when you’re paddling for hours at a time. They are expensive boats, but the price is worth it if you want to invest in a quality craft.
My little Impulse is a Perception-brand boat, although it shares certain characteristics with the Tarpon design, which made sense when I discovered that both Wilderness Systems and Perception are owned by the same parent company, Confluence Watersports (which owns several other brands as well). To me, Perception seems to be more of a mid-level line, as opposed to Widly, which is top-tier.
For casual use, a Perception boat will almost certainly be fine, and especially for folks who don’t want to invest around $1000 in a kayak.
What you definitely want to avoid are the sporting goods chain store boats. I initially checked out a few of these, and they aren’t worth buying. The ones I looked at had a thin, inferior plastic construction, and several were built from separate top and bottom pieces, glued and riveted together – as opposed to the single-piece rotomolded hulls of the name-brand boats. For a few days a summer at the lake, the sporting goods store boats might be okay – but if you’re going to sink almost $200 into one of them, you’d still be better off spending $300 on a low-end Perception and getting a much more solid craft out of the deal.