Roanoke, VA: Pushing the Limits of Hybrid Acceptability
“Do we need to scout this one?” I asked as we quickly approached the meaty part of a comfortable class II on a section of Roanoke’s James River. “Where I come from, we scout these things.”
We didn’t scout it.
From the bow, I flew in blind and limited in my ability to steer while my sternman, Wingman Outfitter co-founder Drew Arney, laughed. “Don’t worry” he comforted me – a confident paddler unused to running rapids blind and thus coming off as an uncomfortable noob – as he effortlessly shot us down the hay barrels with a couple wet, halfway committed, halfway not-so-much
hero sidekick-ish draw strokes.
Shooting comfortably out of the rapid, I sat there impressed at the stability and handling of their design.
But I wasn’t surprised.
Killin’ it on IG
I wasn’t surprised because I’ve seen it before from these guys. In a paddlesports industry trending with hybrid boats, I first noticed the guys at Wingman Outfitter pushing the limits of hybrid acceptability on social media; their canoe-raft hybrid in a canoe-kayak hybrid world designs are hard to miss. Whether it is photos paddling a hunted eight-point buck down high-water rapids, backflipping from a stabilized whitewater canoe, or landing fish from the bow with an anxious puppy on board, the river-tripping canoe-lifers at Wingman have been shaking up the monotony of typical hybrid boat and outrigger design a lot lately.
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But in an era where Instagram followers can be bought and promotional photography can be more filtered and forced perspective than reality, I had to test it out for myself. This led to my three-hour detour to Roanoke, my rushed tandem-run down the rapid with Drew, and, now, my intrigue in their designs.
Just hours before my run down the rapid, I rolled in into Botetourt County to the tune of Drew’s partner and Wingman jack-of-all-trades, Austin Bousman’s driving directions to Wingman HQ: “Your Google Maps may not be able to get you here. Just take the gravel road to the top of the mountain and turn right at the top. That’s the driveway. If you start heading down the other side, you’ve gone too far.” After a couple too many loops around the mountain thanks to a series of wrong turns and an uncooperative Siri, I found a gravel road that led me to Austin’s canoe storage barn, set the road trip cat up to chill with the Wingman farm goats, and we hit the river.
There was no time to waste with a storm moving in and daylight creeping away from us, as I had plans to travel further north that evening.
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The storm came, the unscouted rapid experience went down in the pouring rain, and I extended my stay at Austin’s mountain top, five-star goat lodge for another day. Hungry for more, I knew that if this thing performed as well on a full-day solo canoe trip as it did on the quick, rain-soaked two-mile tandem paddle, it would be well worth the delayed travel plans.
After four days of granola dinners and one cup of trout chili, I was ready for a real meal. I wasn’t disappointed. Austin’s Aoudad Sheep burgers paired well with some local mountain beer, paddling talk, and a plan for the following morning’s float.
Extended Reservations – A More Thorough Experience
Their product is simple, intuitive, and born from pure necessity. Austin, Drew, and their big sky country counterpart, Bernie Lipke, have combined a little Montana ingenuity and a lot of Virginia will to successfully prototype and bring to production their patented cooler outrigger system that adds stability, storage, and operable deck space to any canoe – giving it the stability of a raft, the fishability of a modern sit-on-top kayak, and the single-blade handling of a canoe. What started years ago as a means to convert their cheap canoes into stable hunting and tripping platforms in Montana’s winter season is now a finished product. Their problem was simple: their trip aspirations and trophy hunts were bigger than their canoe and their bank accounts could handle.
A raft was unaffordable, a trip for smaller trophies was undesirable, and a day on the river without their dogs was unquestionably absurd. So Bernie and the boys got to work prototyping the Wingman, with no thought of volume production – now available for pre-order on their website and on the shelves of local retail shops only a couple years later.
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The alarms sounded, we cleaned the empties from the back deck, and hooked one of the prototypes to my Old Town Next. I paddled, fished, and climbed all over my 13 foot, 59-pound solo recreational canoe like it was a jungle gym. I paddled down rapids sideways, steering more like a raft guide than a solo canoeist. I false casted from the standing platform just inches away from the bow of my typically-not-a-stand-and-cast boat. We caught some small fish from some acrobatic positions, took in the majestic scenery magnified by the first-break-of-summer weather, and hosted an intense six-hour Marco Polo competition with Austin’s river pup – in and out of both canoes.
Fighting Internal Elitism
I was sold. But, as a paddler, it is offensive when someone tells you to try paddling with outriggers. My reaction, the same. I don’t want training wheels – I kicked those off a long time ago; I want added performance.
This is the uphill battle Austin faces as the primary marketer of the product.
“I hate the word outriggers. Who am I to tell you that you need outriggers? It comes off wrong. We didn’t create this because we couldn’t paddle a boat; we created it because we wanted to be able to do more while worrying less about paddling our boats. I want my dog out there. I want to stand and fish and hunt – big fish and big bucks. I want the neighborhood kids not to worry about falling out and I want to comfortably carry all of my camp gear” Austin explained.
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That’s when I realized it. It’s not the paddling assistance that is the main point of the Wingman canoe outrigger, the paddling support is just a means of getting there. The real purpose is to allow you to focus less on paddling and focus more on whatever else you’re doing on the water: fishing, hunting, taking photos, playing with your dog, manhandling big waves, or just listening to music and catching some sun.
I don’t need outriggers. I want a wingman.
Note – Since I left Virginia, the first round of production has been completed for direct-to-customer sales. While the prototypes pictured here present a general idea of the concept, the production models are much more finished, with matching colors, super cool branding, and polished lines.
Thanks to everyone who made my first of three stops in Virginia a blast. Little did I know that the dinks we caught on the James were going to be the last fish on my boat for a couple weeks. More on that soon.
- Austin Bousman – I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: canoeing is dated, not dead. And I like yours too: kayaking is a fad, canoeing is rad. Thanks for the hospitality, the amazing food, and the open ears to unconventional paddling and marketing theories. A big water VA trip is on the short list for me. You’ll be the first person I call to make it happen.
- Drew Arney – Dude, you scared me on that first run! It was right then that I knew the thing worked. Thanks for tossing me in head first and not letting me baby it.
- Porter – You’re the man. Cammi says hey.
- Residents of Porter Mountain – Sorry for the multiple seven-point turns in your driveways and front yards. What Austin excels at in product development, outdoor prowess, and general hospitality, he lacks in direction-giving skills.