Identifying the need for a canoe and then almost immediately realising that the storage and transportation of such a large lump of plastic was going to cause a few issues, I was pleasantly surprised when I came across an advertisement for the Stearns Backcountry Inflatable Canoe. It sounded good in the ad, but I had concerns regarding strength and durability, so I drove across town to the retailer to inspect them.
There was a bit of competition for the Stearns, with a couple of other manufacturer’s products very similar. I spoke to the salesman for a while and had a good look at all the models on display. Eventually I decided on the Stearns. Although I was impressed with its apparent build quality, products from other manufacturers also seemed equally well made. It was looks that got me in the end. The Stearns looks like the classic canoe.
We’ve had the Stearns for a few years now and it is still performing very well indeed, despite some pretty rough treatment from my son and me. It has also experienced some hostile terrain, as far as canoes go anyway, and has pulled through with flying colours.
The Stearns is an inflatable canoe made from treated canvas over reinforced air bladders. It is just over three metres long, just under a metre wide and has a weight capacity of 165kgs. It is rated as a two person canoe, but can comfortably accommodate two small children and one adult. However, it performs at its optimum with one or two people aboard.
It has two removable, inflatable seats which are made from reinforced canvas and contain air bladders. The floor is inflatable also. There is a small plastic pocket attached via a clip to the back of the canoe. I assume this is for keys or other small items of personal property. I don’t know if it’s meant to be waterproof or not, but it isn’t. I have since unclipped and removed this altogether, although it did serve well as a makeshift bait holder at one time.
The sides of the canoe inflate separately. This is best done with a good quality hand pump or a battery operated pump. I have a small, inexpensive pump that plugs into the cigarette lighter in the old 4wd. This works very well and enables the entire canoe to be inflated in less than 5 minutes.
I have found it’s best to inflate the floor first then the sides. This allows the floor to sit properly against the sides. I like to inflate the canoe until it is quite firm to the touch. It depends on the weather too. If it is hot and the canoe is sitting in the sun for any length of time, the air expands and the canoe feels firmer. As soon as the weather cools, the canoe deflates slightly.
I was vividly reminded of this on a recent trip.
It has been hot during the day and, thankfully, it cooled considerably during the night. Upon waking in the morning, I decided to paddle out and check the yabby pots we had left overnight. I jumped straight into the canoe and paddled out, only to find it sagging in the middle. It was difficult to paddle and was certainly harder work than it had to be. The air had cooled and constricted a little, and the canoe was a bit soft as a result.
The manufacturer’s booklet that is provided with the canoe has a lot to say about correct inflation pressure and temperature. I have found though, that it is not absolutely critical. Now, I just give it a poke once I’ve pumped it up and if it feels about right I’m happy.
There were no paddles provided with the canoe when I purchased it. I tired the single bladed paddles first and these are OK if you and the other person are in sync with one another. Otherwise they can make paddling the canoe very hard work. My son and I work OK together for a short time, then he tires, so his stroke lacks strength. Then when I dig the paddle in we end up changing direction unintentionally, which can be very frustrating. Using the single paddle on your own is an answer, but the inflatable canoe is not as responsive as a rigid hull so you quickly tire.
I have now done away with the single paddle altogether and now use a double ended paddle. My son has been banished from paddling altogether, which he is quite happy about. Now I can easily paddle the canoe and steering is much easier also. The stronger paddler should sit at the back as this makes steering the canoe so much simpler.
The sides of the Stearns Backcountry are quite high. This is a little restrictive whilst paddling and it is not the most efficient canoe in this regard. However, it tracks quite well, with the assistance of the two small plastic keels.
Construction of the canoe is the aspect which has impressed me most. As I mentioned above, we have used this canoe in some quite rough terrain. The backwaters of the River Murray here is South Australia are very shallow as a rule. They are also the home of some big carp and delicious yabbies. The bottom of these waterways are strewn with dead trees and stumps. Countless times, I have felt the canoe run into and over branches and rocks. At times, the impact has been so severe that I was certain we must have punctured the canoe. In over three years of use, we have not suffered one puncture. This is incredible really when you consider we often use it to transport our yabby nets and fishing gear from one bank of the river to the other. We also use it to set the yabby nets away from the shore.
Stability is very good. It is possible for both occupants to stand up in the canoe with care, although I wouldn’t recommend it. Leaning over the side slightly or shifting your weight around a bit will cause no issues.
The ride isn’t bad, but as with all inflatables, it does tend to sag in the middle a bit, particularly if you are paddling it solo and are on your knees.
Keeping dry is not easy though. However, this could be more to do with my paddling technique than anything else. The water drips off the paddle and I find it impossible to avoid; except if I adjust my stroke slightly and make sure it drips on the other occupant.
The canoe comes in a bag, all zipped up and ready to go. It’s heavy though, but this is the sacrifice you make for toughness. Unfortunately this is the only time you will see the bag zipped up. I have never managed to deflate the canoe and fold it up so that it fits into the bag again. I manage to get most of it in there, but not enough to zip up. The only suggestion I have is get as much of the air out of it as you can before you fold it up. Folding it is simple enough and the way in which you do this will become obvious when you unfold it.
Make sure the canoe is completely dry before folding it. It is canvas and if stored wet, it will rot eventually. I usually unfold it again when I get home, hose it off a bit and then let it dry completely.
The Stearns Backcountry Canoe is a well-made inflatable that is certainly tough enough for the job. Don’t expect to break any speed records though, and it will never match a hard body canoe in the performance stakes, but as an inflatable is does the job admirably.