Tanks for the Memories: Readers Sound Off About Aluminum Canoes

Tanks for the Memories

Readers Sound Off About Aluminum Canoes

If form indeed follows function, then there’s beauty in some of the industrial age’s most improbable offspring. Like the Grumman aluminum canoe and all the other “tin tanks” that followed in its wake, for instance. Tamia wrote about these venerable (and venerated) craft earlier in the year, and the mail she got around the column was so interesting she figured the tin tank deserved a curtain call.

by Tamia Nelson | June 23, 2015

A Tamia Nelson Article on Backinthesameboat.com

Plastic is forever, at least when measured against the scale of human life. Scraps of lawn chairs, shreds of shopping bags, and fragments of soft drink bottles will be circulating around the world’s seas — and poisoning marine life — long after our cities go the way of the fabled Ozymandias’ “sneer of cold command.” But while plastic itself is almost eternal, the things that we make from it — including lawn chairs, shopping bags, and soft drink bottles — have a much shorter life expectancy. They are, in fact, almost ephemeral. This is true of plastic canoes, as well. Farwell’s and my veteran Old Town Tripper is a case in point. It grew progressively more brittle as the decades passed, succumbing at last to the combined assaults of sunlight and subzero temperatures. We then had no choice but to pension it off.

The result? There’s an opening for a tandem canoe in our fleet. And when we’ve put enough cash aside to go shopping, we’ll probably fill the vacancy with a “tin tank.” It will be like going home again. I was thinking about this — and about the place of the aluminum canoe in history, as well as its prospects in the years ahead — when I wrote “Requiem or Renaissance?” That column was part eulogy and part paean, the sort of tribute that might have been paid to an elder statesman, suddenly recalled from retirement to meet a looming existential threat: Churchill, for instance, brought out of the political wilderness at the age of 65 to lead his country into war. And like Churchill, the tin tank elicits strong emotions. Some paddlers loathe aluminum boats. Others love them. Curiously, though, almost all the e-mail around the column came from tin tank lovers. The loathers apparently contented themselves with one-line put-downs on Facebook. A sociologist could make something out of this, I suppose. I can’t.

But I don’t need to. The letters that found their way to my virtual mailbag were uniformly interesting, and since the writers have been good enough to allow me to reprint their e-mails, I thought I’d pass along a representative sample of their observations and insights. And I’ll begin with …

An Astral Connection

The tin tank was conceived in the waning months of the Second World War, as the Grumman Corporation planned for a time when carrier-based aircraft would no longer be in constant demand. But it would take more than aluminum canoes to fill the corporate order books, and Grumman also looked to the stars to find its future, as Mike Lee reminded me:

Did you know that a “tin tank” went to the moon? The Lunar Lander that took the U.S. there in 1969 was made by Grumman. Wikipedia’s article on the Apollo Lunar Module said Grumman made 12 Apollo Lunar Landers — construction was begun on three more, but these were never finished — though only six made the full trip. I seem to remember that the ones that did make the trip were left at take-out (in this case after re-docking with the command module after ferrying folks down to the surface). A very good series was made for HBO circa 2000 (and now available on DVD) called From the Earth to the Moon.

Tin tanks on the moon! I’d never have guessed. Of course, our nearest celestial neighbor probably won’t figure as a paddling destination anytime soon. But I’m sure we can all agree that any corporate family tree that boasts both canoes and spacecraft has a certain intrinsic fascination.

Back on earth, however, the tin tank is still a favorite of Scout troops and liveries. After all, …

It’s Hard to Argue With Success

Tom Judge explains:

Thanks for the article on aluminum canoes. Like you, I paddled my first strokes in a Grumman aluminum canoe, a great way to get out on the water. The craft is very forgiving for tyros, but it offers more maneuverability than many other aluminum craft, especially when fitted with the shoe keel.

The last time I paddled an aluminum canoe was four days ago on the Skokie Lagoons with Friends of the Chicago River. The group has two trailers holding 16 of these boats, which are great for taking people out on our urban river and giving them a new perspective, literally from water level. I started volunteering with the group about 15 years ago and all the canoes that were in the fleet originally are still there. In past years, I paddled with the Chicago Council of the American Youth Hostels. AYH is now Hostelling International USA. We also used aluminum canoes, which saw some hard service on rivers and streams around the Midwest. We purchased our last AYH canoe around 1980. As the organization changed direction, the canoe fleet was sold off. A year or two ago, I happened on a group of six of these former AYH boats, still in great shape and quite serviceable.

I know all about the aluminum canoe’s faults, including grabbing rocks and making noise. But in my opinion, its good qualities far outweigh its bad ones. If you’re running a group canoe program, you can’t beat the aluminum canoe for serviceability, consistent strength, and ease of use.

If any readers harbor doubts that the tin tank came by its name honestly, Tom’s letter should put their concerns to rest. And I’m in his debt for drawing my attention to the Friends of the Chicago River, too. It’s an exemplary organization, proof positive that a river need not be remote or exotic to reward modern-day explorers — or to be worthy of protection. Many New York rivers would benefit from such dedicated stewardship.

Now, as Tom noted, canoe liveries still prize tin tanks. And it’s worth remembering that …

Liveries Have Much to Offer Peripatetic Paddlers

This is true even if you have a canoe of your own. J B Downs owns a Kevlar Wenonah canoe, but he decided to rent a tin tank for a trip up North, and his letter explains why:

My wife and I have been to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area several times, always around the Lady Boot Bay area, and we have always used Zup’s as our outfitter. We have a Kevlar Wenonah Minnesota II which we dearly love, and I wanted to take it with us the next time we went to the BWCA. I talked to Mark Zup, and he said it needed to be registered before I could use it there. Well, we live in Kentucky, and canoes don’t need registration here. I went to the county clerk’s office, and they were very confused about my need for it to be registered until I told them of my plans.

They said I needed a Certificate of Origin (i.e., a title) so it could be registered. I went to Quest, the outdoor store where we bought the canoe, and they said they always threw the titles away since no one in Kentucky needed them. They eventually got me one after they sold another similar canoe. The salesman at Quest advised me … I would be paying yearly registration fees [to Kentucky] and taxes based on [the assessed value of the canoe] from then on.

So I started to rethink taking the Wenonah. I would have to pay the registration, pay the outfitter to haul it, and it would greatly affect my gas mileage with it on top of my van. Then there was the concern of rocks and reefs. We decided not to take it, but have used one of Zup’s largest aluminum canoes ever since and have not regretted it one bit. We rarely portage and never run whitewater. We carry lots of gear. (It is my way of making it as pleasant for me and my wife as possible.) And we drag the canoe out of the water at the campsite or wherever with never a care. When we fish, we sometimes let the wind push us against a rocky reef where the canoe can rub and bang somewhat but, again, without a care. At the campsite, it is thought it might help us scare off a bear if we slap the metal with a paddle or, if desperate, pick the canoe up and throw it in the bear’s direction, where the resulting noise explosion would surely scare the bear away. (We have never had to test either theory.) For our style of camping and fishing, the aluminum canoe seems the way to go. Of course, if we were in the Kevlar boat, we would surely be more careful with the handling of the canoe!

What can I say? While I wouldn’t rely on a thrown canoe to discourage an inquisitive bear — for one thing, throwing an 80-pound Grumman any distance would be akin to tossing the caber — J B makes a very good case for renting a tin tank rather than hauling your own boat many hundreds of miles to a put-in. It’s certainly an alternative worth considering.

Notwithstanding tin tanks’ many virtues, however, they do have shortcomings. For one thing, they won’t wobble over barely submerged rocks, as plastic boats (mostly) do. Moreover, an unpainted aluminum canoe makes a pretty fair substitute for a reflector oven on hot, sunny days. Good for working on your tan, perhaps, but not so good for keeping your cool. And there’s also …

The Boomalum Factor

James Stone, a professional wildland firefighter whose letters I’ve often quoted, has a lot of experience with small craft, but only a little of that experience has been in canoes. Which may explain why his first time out in a tin tank didn’t go quite as he had hoped:

I am a victim of my initial disastrous experience of using a rental aluminum canoe at a lake. I was by myself with no gear except some fishing tackle. [At that time,] I only had experience in a rowboat with oarlocks. I was on an open lake, fishing along the shoreline, when a thunderstorm moved in, and the downdraft winds picked up. I tried sitting on the bow seat facing astern, but as you know, that just digs the boat into the water and puts the end in the air to play weathervane. So I got in the stern of the boat and tried J-stroke paddling like in the books, but that puts the bow in the air for the weathervane routine. I finally got back to shore and have seldom been in a canoe since, except with another duck hunter.

In addition to those skill deficiencies, I couldn’t stand the NOISE, and I would therefore agree with the boomalum nickname… Except that it doesn’t have to be that way. [Emphasis added] I once owned a 16-foot, 56-inch wide GO-DEVIL flat-bottomed aluminum duck boat that wasn’t boomy at all. Canoe people ought to take a lesson from that kind of construction and acoustics.

James’ unhappy experience is a common one. A lot of canoeists, not all of them novices, have found solo paddling a tandem canoe to be rather hard going, especially when the wind kicks up. The placement of the seats and thwarts in many tandem boats makes it nearly impossible for the lone paddler to settle himself comfortably in the best position, just aft of midships. And as James found out, the usual compromise — sitting on the bow seat facing aft — isn’t always satisfactory. (An earlier article of mine looked at this problem of boat trim in some detail.)

On the other hand, the irritating “acoustic signature” of the tin tank can be stilled somewhat, as James rightly suggests. For example, an aluminum canoe is noticeably quieter when it’s loaded with two weeks’ worth of food and camping gear than when it’s outfitted for a whitewater day trip. The extra impedimenta damp the bell-like vibration of the hull. (James, you may remember, had very little gear in his rental boat.)

Bearing James’ observations in mind, then, it’s worth exploring ways to …

Take the “Boom” Out of Boomalum

And in a brief e-mail headed “Noise Reduction, Inexpensive,” Jay describes one way to go about doing just that:

I used interlocking anti-fatigue foam mats from Harbor Freight for a 240-mile trip in an Osagian 17-foot classic “tin” canoe. Worked well. A little cleaning and the mats are ready for the next trip. Cheap.

A solution to the problem that’s simple and good (and cheap) — there’s no better recommendation, is there?

Simple and good are the words I’d use to describe the tin tank, as well. Until recently, though, I’d assumed that aluminum canoes, despite their many virtues, were all but unknown outside American waters, even during their mid-20th-century heyday. (That’s “American” in the largest sense, by the way. The tin tank is certainly no stranger on Canadian rivers and lakes, and it also has many fans among Americans living south of Texas.)

Then I got an e-mail from Thomas Vikander, a Canadian reader with close ties to Sweden, who pointed out that …

Tin Tanks Are World Travelers

Canoe is kanot in Swedish. They are known there by their nickname, Kanadensare, meaning Canadian. [Open canoes are occasionally referred to as “Canadians” in the UK, too, though this usage seems to be declining. – Tamia] Go to Linder, scroll down the page, and click on the word “Kanoter” (canoes). I have no personal experience with them, but I see aluminum canoes for use in Sweden sometimes when I’m there.

I should have realized that the tin tank would conquer the world. It’s mighty hard to stop a good idea from traveling. And who knows? The day may come when the aluminum canoe will once again be a common sight on waters everywhere. That really will be like going home again!


If form indeed follows function, then there’s beauty in some the industrial age’s most improbable offspring. Take the Citroën 2CV, for instance. Or — you’ve guessed it — the Grumman aluminum canoe and the many other “tin tanks” that followed in its wake. I wrote about these venerable (and venerated) craft earlier in the year, and the mail I got around the column was so interesting I figured I owed the tin tank a second outing. And here it is. To all the readers whose letters I quoted: Tanks for the memories!

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