The canoe has been a loyal companion to water-wayfaring humans throughout time. In fact, archeologists have identified the dugout canoe as the oldest-known boat, dating back about 8,000 years. In Assen, the Netherlands, the world’s oldest surviving canoe is housed at the Drents Museum; carbon dating indicates it was constructed between 8040 B.C. and 7510 B.C.
However, this month marks the end of an era for the canoe. The industry standard for making lightweight, tough canoes—a revolutionary material known as Royalex—will no longer be available by the end of 2014.
PolyOne, which produces Royalex, recently announced that it will close six manufacturing plants. The company reportedly will also stop production of Royalex in April 2014, according to an Outdoor Industry Association announcement. The loss of a single-source supplier for a critical canoe hull construction material has raised concerns across the paddlesports industry.
Royalex is an acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic core sandwiched between two layers of vinyl to protect the ABS from the effects of ultraviolet light. Royalex sheets are used by most canoe manufacturers today. The material is heated and molded around each company’s particular design.
According to Richard Guin, vice president of Chattanooga-based Mohawk Canoes, there are no other reasonable alternatives to Royalex at this time.
"It’s the end of an era, the end of a legacy," he said.
North American Indians are credited with the most well-known version of the canoe: a wood frame covered with bark from birch, elm or cedar trees. Eventually, bark was replaced by canvas, which was stretched over a frame of wooden ribs and planks.
Wood/canvas canoes were popular until the end of World War II, when the Grumman Aircraft Company began building aluminum canoes. The aluminum canoe marked the beginning of a revolution in the construction of canoes that was followed by fiberglass, plastic and Kevlar. The first Royalex canoe was built by Maine’s Thompson Boat Company in 1964.
Royalex canoes represent a substantial portion of business for Mohawk Canoes, which has been in the canoe business for 40 years.
"Mohawk Canoes is about to completely change from what its roots were," Guin said.
Mohawk originated in Longwood, Fla., in the late 1960s, and in later years was based in Fort Smith, Ark. In 2007, Greg McCort purchased the company and moved the company’s manufacturing operations to Chattanooga. In 2008, Guin joined the company as co-owner, moving from Colorado to Chattanooga in order to be close to family, friends and waterways perfect for the canoe.
"Boating and rock climbing are the reasons why I am here in Chattanooga," Guin said.
Today, Mohawk Canoes manufactures 16 different models of open boats at their headquarters on Dodds Avenue in downtown Chattanooga. Mohawk expects to be able to fulfill Royalex canoe orders for a year given current materials, and they are looking at a number of options for the future.
Despite PolyOne’s announcement, Guin is hopeful about the company’s future.
"Canoes were discovered 2,000 years before the wheel, and nothing much has changed since then," he said. "Everybody is acting like this Royalex issue is terrible, but the world has changed, and so what if a canoe company has to change, too?"
Guin also said that his company expected this and has been looking at available options. They've been working on a blow-mold whitewater canoe for two years and hope to have the first open boat available this fall.
On the flatwater canoe front, Guin said they haven't made a decision yet but are looking in numerous directions.
"Sometimes, necessity is the mother of invention," he said.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge, whose writing interests include conservation, outdoor adventures and history in the Southeast. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.
Updated @ 8:34 a.m. on 8/27/13 to correct a factual error: The original article said that the PolyOne plant in Avon Lake, Ohio, was closing, when actually six of its manufacturing facilities are closing.