The earliest canoes, dugouts and bark boats, were made of inherently buoyant materials. Nearly all those early canoes were paddled on flat water. Running rapids in canoes made from natural materials risked disaster, not only for the canoe, but also for the occupants who frequently couldn’t swim. A contrast to the largely flat water propensity was the Corps of Discovery Expedition. Ever since Lewis and Clark’s historic descent of the Columbia, historians have wondered how they ran those big rapids, since they lacked whitewater skills. A couple decades ago their voyage was recreated. The reenactors found that dugouts, due to their mass, followed the deep water channel. The Corps of Discovery needed to be expert bailers, not paddlers.

Polyethylene, Royalex, and other thermoplastic canoes float because they have a foam layer to help maintain a semblance of rigidity – to minimize oil canning. In contrast, aluminum and composite canoes need additional flotation. Large chunks of foam are installed in the ends of most aluminum canoes.

Composite canoes don’t require that much flotation since they’re lighter. Foam cores and ribs also contribute to buoyancy, but don’t add enough. The earliest Bells had chunks of black Ethafoam glued into the ends, a functional, though inelegant solution. Later Bell developed its signature curved air tanks. Those tanks appeared the ideal functional and aesthetic solution. However, the design’s weakness took years to manifest itself. Each tank required a rubber plug to accommodate fluctuations in air pressure resulting from temperature or elevation changes. Old Bells brought in for repairs frequently lacked plugs, the buoyancy of the air chambers eliminated by the plug’s absence.

Northstar arrived at our current flotation after research and development. We designed our end tanks to reduce weight, maximize space for paddlers and gear, and safely float a capsized canoe. First, we create a dam using aramid and foam. Then we fill the area behind the dam with a two part, marine grade pour foam. The foam fills all voids, so we don’t need to seal the top of the dam. Our end tanks create plenty of buoyancy for inland, flat water paddling.

Whitewater paddlers and those on salt water usually choose to install float bags for additional flotation. Air bags displace water, which means a capsized canoe floats higher in the water, making rescue easier.  Additional flotation in whitewater also reduces the likelihood of the canoe getting pinned, since it floats higher over rocks. It should be noted that air bags cannot prevent water from entering a canoe, but they do minimize the amount of water that can fill it.

We’re often asked how much additional flotation to install. If you don’t need space for gear, the answer is easy – as much as possible. In fact, whitewater playboaters not only install air bags, but often fill much of the cockpit area with closed cell foam, minimizing the amount of water that can enter the canoe. For touring canoes paddled in whitewater or on the ocean, air bags offer plenty of flotation. If room for equipment is paramount, even a small amount of additional flotation is beneficial – air bags don’t need to be fully inflated to increase safety. It’s best to have flotation in both ends.

And a final piece of advice, when capsized, no one ever wishes they had installed less flotation.