The day ended, as the sun set over the hill surrounding the lake. I sat alone on a flat slab of granite next to the water, and a canoe half in and half out of the water waited for the sun to finish setting, so it could be paddled back to camp. As the sun finished setting, the wood gunwales and green gel coat glistened. As I finished watching the sunset I thought, not too many canoes look better than a Bell. Then I got into the canoe and paddled back to camp. While paddling I thought, not too many canoes paddle better than a Bell.
For seven years, I worked for a sporting good chain that carried Bell. I remember the first few that we brought them into the store. The wood work, the lay-ups, the unique color of the Kevlar, and their signature shouldered tumblehome all beckoned to the paddlers in the store to take me to the nearest lake and paddle me. Of course, it was winter when the first canoes arrived, and I didn’t have a chance to paddle them until the ice melted, and it was a treat. I bought a Wildfire solo canoe.
As more friends paddled my canoe, they ended up buying a Bell also. By the end of the summer, one friend had a Merlin 2, one had a Magic, and one had a Northwind. We definitely had the Bell bug. And last year, I bought a Magic, too. These last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to paddle almost all of the Bell canoes, but I absolutely love their solos. In my opinion, there isn’t a solo out there that paddles better than a Bell. And that opinion is echoed by the majority of Bell canoe owners, which in turns sends their friends out looking for a Bell solo canoe. But most people still have one main question, which Bell solo is for me?
Bell makes several solo canoes: the Magic, the Merlin II, the Wildfire, the Yellowstone Solo, the Flashfire, the Rob Roy, and the Bucktail. (I’m leaving out the whitewater kayaks.) The Rob Roy is a decked canoe paddled with a kayak paddle, and it will not be covered in this article. The Bucktail is a small Adirondack pack boat, which is also paddled with a kayak paddle, and it will not be covered here. The Magic is a fast 16-foot touring solo that doubles as a recreational racer. The Wildfire is an all-around touring solo that works well on lakes and rivers. It also happens to be Cliff Jacobson’s favorite solo canoe, and mine also. The Merlin II fits inbetween the Wildfire and the Magic, it makes a good all-around canoe, but sacrifices slight river handling for added speed and efficancy for lake touring. The Yellowstone Solo is a plastic slightly modified version of the Wildfire, and the Flashfire is the Wildfire’s little sister.
Those above descriptions are usually what you can gleam from the catalogue and reviews on the web, but really it still doesn’t answer, which Bell solo is for me? In order to find your fit, we need to answer several questions. This is one of those fun quizzes that you’ll add up the results after your finished.
1. Where will I use the canoe?
a. River only b. Some River and Lake c. Lakes onlySUBSCRIBE TO PADDLINGLIGHTReceive PaddlingLight updates straight to your inbox every time I publish a new article. Your email address will never be shared
2. How often will I use the canoe to flat-water tour out of it?
a. Never b. Once or twice a year c. That’s all I do.
3. Will I use the canoe for mild whitewater?
a.Yes, often b. Only now and then c. Moving water? No way.
4. Do I want to use the canoe for Canadian style or freestyle paddling?
a. Yes, in competition b. I like to now and then c. Huh? What’s that.
5. Will I race with the canoe?
a. Never. b. Once a year. c. Yes, and often.
6. Does this statement describe you? I just want a canoe to explore the small local lake.
a. Yes, exactly b. Now and then. c. No, big lakes only.
7. Do you like to go straight or like a canoe that turns?
a. A canoe must turn! b. I like to turn easily, but go straight also. c. I like to go straight and fast.
8. Do I kneel when paddling?
a. Yes, all the time b. When the water gets rough c. No.
9. Does this statement describe you? I like to have the fastest canoe when I’m out with my friends.
a. Not at all b. I like to be able to keep up c. I love to be first and fastest
10. How many Bell Canoes would you like to own?
a. Two b. Just one c. At least three
Now the fun starts. You get a chance to score yourself. For each question add up the points that corresponds to your answer. (1)a.1 b.2 c.3 (2) a.1 b.2 c.3 (3) a.1 b.2 c.3 (4) a.1 b.2 c.3 (5) a.0 b.1 c.3 (6) a.0 b.1 c.2 (7) a.0 b.1 c.3 (8) a.0 b.1 c.3 (9) a.0 b.1 c.3 (10) a.1 b.2 c.3
How’d you score?
|4-10||Wildfire||You paddle moving water and want a canoe that is going to respond to your every stroke. You may tour, but find that you’d rather have a responsive canoe than one that goes straight, and you’re willing to sacrifice a little speed because of this. If you’re going to own two Bells, this will be one of them.|
|11-14||Wildfire or Merlin II||You could go either way. If you find yourself on rivers, more pick a Wildfire, or if you find yourself on lakes, more then pick a Merlin II.|
|15-19||Merlin II||You do a little of everything, but don’t see yourself on whitewater. You want an efficient canoe, which will keep pace with your friends. You want one that will turn, but also go straight easily, and you like to tour on flat water. If you’re only going to own one Bell canoe, this is a great compromise canoe.|
|20-23||Merlin II or Magic||You could go either way. If you want to be able to turn easily then pick a Merlin II, or if you want to go straight and fast pick a Magic.|
|24-31||Magic||You paddle almost exclusively on lakes and you like to cover a lot of ground while you’re out there. You want a fast canoe that holds it’s heading even if it makes it harder to turn. If you’re going to own two Bell canoes, this will be one of them.|
So, How Do I Know This Works?
Well, you don’t know for sure, but chances are that if you race or tour only on big lakes and want to go fast, then the Magic is going to be for you. If you like to paddle rivers or want a canoe that can do it all and are will to sacrifice tracking, then the Wildfire is for you. If you want an all-around canoe then the Merlin will be the canoe for you. The above questions are geared to get you to think about how you will actually use the canoe, and now that you’ve answered them, I bet you have a better idea of which boat you want.
Hold On a Second?
What about the Flashfire or the Yellowstone Solo? This is a great question. You may want to consider these canoes for two reasons. For a Flashfire, you qualified for a Wildfire in the quiz above, but you don’t weigh a lot or you may never want to use the boat for touring. This boat is built for a smaller person or freestyle play. Consider the Yellowstone Solo if you plan on beating your boat up on long trips down rocky rivers or if you are on a budget. It is built from Royalex, which is one tough material. Out of all the people I’ve canoed with, I’ve only known one person to put a hole through it, and it was me. Royalex is also less expensive than other materials, so it makes the boat less expensive. If you qualified for a Merlin II, but can’t afford it, the Yellowstone Solo is your next best bet.
But Shouldn’t I Paddle Them All
Yes, but paddle them with a grain of salt. If you’ve never been in, or haven’t spent much time in a solo canoe, be ready to be surprised. Most people are used to canoes that are 34 to 38 inches wide, but solo canoes drop down to 30 inches wide, which means that the boat will feel tippier. This isn’t unusual to feel in a solo canoe. The feeling will actually disappear after spending a couple of days in the boat. When I first started paddling Bell solos, I thought the Magic was the most stable, the Wildfire next and then the Merlin II was the least stable. But now that I’ve paddled them all, they all feel stable to me. If you’re just starting out, you may want to make sure that you’re solo has the longest seat drops installed in them. A longer seat drop will lower your center of gravity, which will make the boat feel more stable. Overtime, you may want to raise the drops. I have the shortest drops in my Wildfire and love it, but most people would find that high of a seat a little tippy.
Other than feeling tippy, most people find solos hard to control. This is because you sit on the pivot point of the canoe. By sitting on this pivot, your strokes tend to have more turning force on the canoe, so it seems that solo canoes turn a lot and don'” t go straight. If you learn, the C-Stroke going straight is easy. (Read this article for more info.) Still, if you don’t want to learn the C-Stroke, the Magic is like paddling a solo on cruise control. It goes straight as an arrow.
The third thing to concern yourself with when trying these boats is the conditions that you’re paddling in. Most places that allow demos only allow those demos on flat water under sunny skies. So, if you mostly paddle rivers, you may not experience the conditions you are likely to paddle in. Out of all the canoe and kayak manufacture’s reps that I’ve worked with in the Upper Midwest, they say there are really only two moving water demos that they go to. The first is in Fargo, ND of all places, and the second is an event put on only for employees of one chain of stores. So, if you paddle rivers, don’t expect to demo a canoe on one.
Really, spending a half hour in a canoe isn’t going to tell you much, especially if you aren’t used to solo canoes or in the typical conditions, you will be paddling that boat in.
That’s All Folks
That sums it up for picking a Bell solo canoe. This quiz is still no substitute for paddling all three and picking which one you like best, but it should narrow you down to only two of the three models. With this knowledge head to your local store and find a sales person, who actually asks you a ton of questions about where you will be using the canoe and your canoeing style. Get their recommendations, and then spring the results of this quiz on him or her. My guess is that they will be the same. Then buy your new Bell solo, ZRE carbon fiber paddle and head off into the sunset. Or if you’re like me, just buy two, a Wildfire or Yellowstone Solo and a Magic, then you’ll know for sure that you’ll have a Bell solo canoe for your every need.