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How to Pick a Bell Solo Canoe

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.

Bell Magic Kevlar canoe on Bald Eagle Lake in the BWCA.
Bell Magic Kevlar canoe on Bald Eagle Lake in the BWCA.

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?

The Canoes

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 only

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?

Points Scored
Canoe Model
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.
Canoeing down Clear Creek in Iowa.
Canoeing down Clear Creek in Iowa.

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.

Dan eating an apple in a Bell Yellowstone Solo. In Iowa.
Dan eating an apple in a Bell Yellowstone Solo. In Iowa.

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.

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  • Hi Bryan –

    Nice article – very helpful. I’m looking at a Yellowstone Solo for what I’m doing. I realize that any discussion of paddles could take up another article by itself, but most of the people I’ve seen in 12′-14′ solo canoes use double-bladed kayak paddles. Sounds like a ZRE single is working for you. Is your solo canoe paddle longer (shaftwise) than a paddle you’d use for a non-solo canoe?
    I’ll have to get you some Fat Tire buddy.

    • Hey Mike,

      I’m glad the article was useful. I love my Yellowstone Solo. For paddles, I use the same size paddles for both solo and tandem and leave double bladed paddles where they belong: in kayaks.

  • Great article, and the quiz was *so* helpful. I haven’t canoed in a few years, but I now live on a sluggish, deep stream and I just want to go play on it. This is the best useful thing I’ve read in days of surfing the Web.

  • Thanks, Mary. Hope you find a perfect canoe for you!

  • consider a Bell Yellowstone tamden (15.6) set up with a center seat just back of the carrying yoke position (having removed it) for a good all around river boat for taking on up to class III whitewater with plenty of stability and easy to paddle with a double blade. Heavy boat in Royalex but close to being man’s best friend

  • I’ve owned a Bell Wildfire and a Bell Merlin II for years on both Montana Rivers and in the Boundary Waters’ lakes and rivers. My Merlin II and I just completed a 400 mile, 28 day exploration of Quetico Provincial Park. But, because I kneel in those solos as per recommendation to get the center of gravity down and stability up, my aging knees nearly gave out. Anyone paddle these boats sitting or modified them so you can paddle sitting? What are your recommendations?

  • @Jim: I paddle my Wildfire sitting most of the time and only drop to my knees for rough water or bad conditions.

    Bell sells 4 inch Walnut Seat Drops which lower the center of gravity for both boats. I’ve tried both with the 4 inch drops installed and they are very stable.

    If you already have the 4 inch drops in the boat, make new drops closer to 6 inches.

  • Bryan,

    Thanks for the advice. Several weeks ago, I ran into a couple guys on Crooked Lake in the BWCA – one with a Merlin and one with a Magic. They had done similar modifications, dropping the seat by 1.5 – 2 inches; but, I needed to know from the larger Bell community (with more experience than I using the sitting position in the these boats) whether these modifications and a slightly higher center of gravity made the boats unstable. I’ll give your (and their suggestions a try. I thank you, and, I am sure, my knees will thank you.

  • Thanks, Bryan. When I checked the Wildfire which is stored in my garage here in Montana, I found that it does have shallow drops (about 2″) so I ordered the 4″ drops drops from Bell as well as their foot braces. If it stops snowing and gets a little warmer here, I have to try them out.

  • I have a Magic and Yellowstone Solo. I never kneel, and I’m a bigger guy. I lowered the drop from 4″ to 6″ (added a spacer) on my Yellowstone and found it was much more stable & the height was still comfortable.

  • Jeff,

    It doesn’t sound as if you have any difficulty paddling from a lower position either. I am 180 pds. at 6′ 2″ – not a real big guy, but it doesn’t sound as if my armpits will be brushing the gunnels when I lower the seats. Now if it just would stop snowing and get warmer, I can try out the lower seat drops.

    Do you use foot braces and, if so, what kind?

  • I don’t use foot braces in my solo canoes, but I set my forward thwart so I can use it as a brace when I feel like I want one.

    I tend to wedge my knees under the inwales and sit cross legged most of the time when I’m in a canoe.

    I think you’ll like the 4″ seat drops. When I compared a Merlin and Yellowstone Solo with the different height drops, they felt like much different boats. The lower drops made both much much more stable. I used the same length paddle for both heights and didn’t really notice much of a difference.

  • Well, the weather cleared, snow melted, and I was able to take the Wildfire with the lowered drops to the local pond last week. It paddled just fine as you all predicted. Stable, and it didn’t feel as if I was sitting too low in the boat. Thanks,all.

  • I’m glad it worked for you!

  • I found the ‘canoe selector’ quiz to be a good guide. Paddled a Magic and liked it, but unfortunately couldn’t get access to a Merlin. Am looking for a used Magic in excellent condition. Are there used canoe forums out there (beyond CraigsList, Ebay, and that I should be checking for used Magics?

    • @chip – I’m glad the quiz worked for you. As far as websites, you listed the big three. If you’re in the Midwest, start looking for used Magics from BWCA outfitters. At the end of the year, Paragis usually has a few Magics for sale.

  • Bryan, Great article. I’ve only paddled the Magic, which is the one I own. I am about to purchase my second only because I live on a lake an have a camp on another 280 miles to the North, which I access by floatplane. Anyway…

    Seat position.

    I don’t like sitting in the center of any boat. A canoe does not feel right under me if I am in the center. After padling my Magic for a few days, I got out the drill and moved the seat aft.

    After removing the seat, I took the Magic out and paddled it kneeling until I liked the balance. I marked that and then put the seat in that position. Now the canoe paddles and handles like a canoe, and is perfectly balanced if I put a 50lb load up front or one of my two small boys. Even with my wife (135) up front it paddles fine, if a bit low in the bow.

    I also ordered a portage yoke from Bell (in walnut) and installed that so that the canoe balances perfectly. This measurement had to be done by trail and error, clamping the yoke in place with rubber grip wood clamps.

    That may sound like a lot of work to go to after having paid top dollar for what I consider the BEST canoe I’ve ever paddled or owned, but it was not much trouble and made the canoe perfect for me.

    Anyone who owns a Magic will quickly wish (if you portage much) for a portage yoke. It is really impossible to install one unless the seat is moved back (knees won’t clear it otherwise). I don’t like to carry clamp on yokes. One more thing to carry, hassle to put on in the right spot every time, just my preferences.

    One of my favorite passtimes is to explore slow, flat streams, going upstream until they peter out. That means lots of tight turns. I’ve found the Magic to be maneuverable and clean in streams only a few feet wide. If the bend is not tighter than the length of the canoe, I’ve had no trouble making the turn.

    On open water, I can keep the Magic going with most Kayakers as this canoe is so sleek and fast it calls to mind the Voyager’s Birch canoe owned by Bill Bonhome in Mosher’s Disaparences; it sometimes appears to have a motive power drawn out of the water itself. A desire to travel so strong it can do so on its own.

    Well, thanks again for the writup. If you’ve not moved the seat in your Magic, try it. You will have to cut the seat width a bit so will have to purchase a replacement if you don’t like it, but I’ll bet you won’t need to do that once you’ve tried it.

    Enjoy the water,


    • Nice perspective, Ben. Although, I prefer having my seat centered in solo canoes, I know a few people who want the seat mounted more traditionally. It’s nice to know that a Magic handles the change without a problem.

      Your’s is a good lesson for others, too. Paddlers shouldn’t expect the “perfect” boat without doing some modification. I always modify my canoe thwarts to make them work double duty, and it takes me months and months of trial and error to get a kayak’s cockpit to the point where it’s perfect for me.

  • Thanks for such a greatly detailed article! A new magic would suit me well. NO dealers around here though.(within 4 hours drive) We have a awesome canoe shop near by that stocks several hundred canoes and kayaks at all times and is right on a nice fast corner of a river! A polite request will allow you a test paddle of anything in stock, unfortunately no Bell canoes, but everything else nearly. I still find Bells attractive, however its not worth the uncertainty and hassle to try to see one, let alone paddle one! Very informative page though, I feel very educated now about the models of bell canoes. Too bad I dont live anywhere near anyone who sells them! Thanks again and happy paddling!

  • Thanks for the comment, Dave. Hopefully, you’ll be able to try one sometime.

  • Bryan:

    Have you noticed any difference in quality or finish since Ted sold out and isn’t making boats anymore?


  • I purchased a Northwind royalex, wood gunnels, after Ted left the business. It performs O.K. (not wonderfully) and the royalex takes a beating quite well; but I rue not having bought one in another material. Furthermore, it is a hassle loosening the wood to prevent cold-cracking when it goes into storage during the winter I wanted a less expensive version. I guess I got it.

  • I have had Wildfire RX, Magic KL, Merlin II Black Gold, Northwind RX, Northstar KL, Northwood Ul & Prodigy X. And still have three of them. :) So far Merlin II is my favourite in any water in any conditions. I took the test & got 16 points = Merlin II. This spring it may be Prospector RX for tough paddling.

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