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Canoe Racks


By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, KS

The fishing folks I envy most don't transport their boat to a lake, pond or river every trip the boat is already there. But for me and most others who fish out of boats, we need a way to get it from home to wherever we're fishing, and then back again. Every trip.

A number of people have emailed me asking how I transport my canoe. This being wintertime and my local waters getting iced over, now seems a good time to write something on this subject. At worst, this article will give readers an idea of what they don't want to do. At best, it will give some basic information on rack systems that have worked well for me. Unfortunately, I have no photos of the first three racks I used.

The first rack was a "Quick & Easy" outfit. Four mounts clamped solidly onto the raised rain gutters on my 1972 Plymouth Duster 2-Dr. The crossbars were a pair of common steel pipes, each pipe outfitted with clamp-down gunwale holders that pinned my Grumman Standard 17-ft. tandem canoe in place.

After buying a 1984 Toyota Tercel 4-dr hatchback, I cannibalized the Quick & Easy rack so that I could employ its rain gutter mounts on the Tercel. I dispensed with the steel pipe crossbars in favor of pressure-treated 2x4s and bolted those to the Quick & Easy gutter mounts. After that task was completed I added custom-fitted homemade gunwale stops that held my inverted canoe in place. (But the brackets fit only that specific canoe; no other canoe could ride in this unique "cradle.") Last, I carpeted the 2x4 crossbars to reduce abrasion on the canoe's beautiful wooden gunwales while loading/unloading. This carpeting was accomplished by custom-cutting strips of common indoor/outdoor carpet then gluing the pieces to the top surface of the 2x4 crossbars using Weldwood cement.

With both of these first two racks I had very little confidence in the holding power of the gunwale brackets/braces. This meant tying down the bow and stern of the canoe every trip, using security lines attached to my bumpers. Lots of line, lots of knots; I really enjoyed fussing with the knots.

Personally, I'd have been happy if auto manufacturers had NEVER stopped building vehicles with raised rain gutters. Those gutters were extremely handy as clamp-down points for canoe racks like Thule, Yakima and the Quick & Easy. But styles change; in what seemed like only five years time raised rain gutter disappeared and were succeeded by aircraft door-style rain gutters. This style change by automakers forced canoe rack manufacturers to re-design their rooftop connection hardware.

Around this time, in 1992, I bought a Ford Explorer. My first SUV, it and had a much longer roofline than the compact passenger cars I'd owned previously. I factory ordered my Explorer without the standard luggage rack, a rack I knew was useless -- even dangerous -- for use as a canoe carrying platform.

The Explorer had the new-style aircraft door rain gutters, which forced my customized Quick & Easy canoe rack into retirement. In its place I bought a Yakima crossbar set.

My personal preference in any canoe rack is to have the two crossbars be long enough that I can carry a pair of canoes side-by-side. Also, I want the two crossbars to be located the maximum possible distance apart. (The farther apart the crossbars, the less apt the canoe is to move about on the rack when hit by sudden gusts of wind while your vehicle is underway at highway velocity.)

With rack systems like Thule and Yakima, the only way to connect the mounts to a modern vehicle's rain gutters is by purchasing molded steel plates that fit the unique door shape of the vehicle you own. Okay, but in my case I was not satisfied with this idea because an Explorer's front doors and rear doors are not spaced far enough apart to achieve the tie-down separation distance I prefer for maximum boat carrying security.

Luckily for me, Yakima designers anticipated this. The company sells 'artificial rain gutters' called Bolt Top Loaders. I bought a pair of these plates for my rear crossbar and installed the plates directly onto my roof near the rear hatch. The job required pulling down the interior headliner so I could visually find the safest spot to drill holes in the metal roof. (Not a good idea, drilling blindly and severing your tail light/brake light/turn signal wiring harness.)

There are few things more nerve-racking than glancing over and seeing your wife standing like a trigger-happy prison guard while you drill four permanent holes through the gleaming roof of a $20,000 SUV so new it still has its factory stickers in the rear window. I was scared out of my wits, but determined. See, prior to buying this SUV I'd made it crystal clear that I would not co-sign my name to the purchase order unless she promised that I could custom-install this canoe rack on the vehicle. No Yakima rackee, no Ford truckee.

I have no photos of the Yakima rack that I put on the Explorer. But to give you an idea of its stability, the two crossbars were 9 feet apart. That spread resulted in a super-secure carry for my boats and my friends boats for ten wonderful canoe trip-filled years.

With such a long tiedown spread, I quickly relaxed to the reality that it was no longer necessary under normal circumstances to run a bow and stern dropline from the canoe ends down to my front and rear bumpers. Only in the most severe high winds would I now connect droplines.

Also, around the time I bought and outfitted this Ford Explorer I made the transition from homemade boat tiedown ropes to Northwest River Supply (NRS) 12-ft. tiedown straps. NRS straps have a cam lock buckle that is secure under all circumstances provided the cam spring is in good working order. (I do have one 15-year old NRS strap whose buckle spring weakened).

So much for my first three racks.

My fourth canoe rack was one I bought after June Newman, one of my canoeing friends, installed one on her Ford Ranger pickup. I was so impressed that it motivated me to replace my aging Ford Explorer with a Ford Ranger then install the same rack system June had. I've never regretted either purchase.

Pictured below (and not pictured that well, sorry) is this Oak Orchard rack system as it appears on the Ranger. (The Ranger now belongs to my son, Eric, who mountain bikes more often than he canoes, but he wanted racks for times when he does canoe.)

Oak Orchard system

This particular rack system is the Pickup Truck Rear Rack, Deluxe #1 Style made by Oak Orchard, a company located in Rochester, New York. (You can find them on the Web.) The design of the rear rack mount is minimalist but incredibly strong. At first glance the slender square-tube upright supports appears flimsy. In truth, once you put a canoe on this rack it rides like it's set in concrete. Grab your canoe and shake it: the truck moves, the canoe does not. One reason being that the tiedown spread (the distance from cab roof crossbar to tailgate crossbar) is some 9 feet, which combined with the crossbar-mounted gunwale brackets and NRS straps does not allow any rattling or lateral movement by the canoe whatsoever.

In the photo below you can see one of the custom-fit rain gutter door clips that Yakima makes for grabbing hold of today's aircraft style rain gutters (in this case a 2002 Ford Ranger). It is necessary to buy the gutter plates specifically designed for your vehicle's doors. Substitutes won't do.

Oak Orchard system

The next photo (below) shows one of the vertical square-tube steel support posts. The base of this post comes with drill holes already made. The rear crossbar support posts are bolted to the inside surface of your truck's tailgate area, at a point just inside the tailgate itself.

This particular model of the Oak Orchard rack is designed for use with an open truck bed, which is what many canoeists and kayakers go with. I love the simplicity and strength of this design, although on long canoe trips I always had concerns about the theft of gear during rest stops at restaurants and such. Still, the convenience of having an open pickup bed cannot be dismissed for those who like their canoe trips to involve rapid loading/unloading of gear from both sides of the truck bed.

Oak Orchard system

Now for the canoe rack setup I have now:

In 2004 I bought a Toyota Tacoma 2x4 pickup. Initially what I did was remove the Ford Ranger's Oak Orchard rack and transfer it to my Tacoma. This task involved drilling new mounting holes on my Tacoma's tailgate area in order to install the "nutserts" that hold the rear crossbar support uprights in place. Also there was a modest purchase of two door clips to fit the Tacoma's cab door rain gutters.

But when my son, Eric, expressed a desire for canoe racks for his pickup so that he could go with me on trips (or shuttle other boaters), I moved the entire Oak Orchard rack setup from the Tacoma back onto his Ranger.

Once I had the Tacoma, and soon after getting divorced, I decided to buy a "cab high" fiberglass shell for my pickup bed. This shell would multi-task, providing hard shelter for my music, canoeing and fishing gear. Also, the interior of the shell offered a large enough space that I outfitted and stocked the shell in such a way as to convert it into a high-tech "micro-apartment." I lived in this shell, quite snugly and inexpensively, for 14 months until just recently, and will not hesitate to move back into it if the need arises.

The Astro shell I bought for my Tacoma pickup did, however, rule out using an Oak Orchard rear rack system. I could still employ a Yakima rack system, though. What I did was use the same type of Bolt Top Loader plates that I'd installed years earlier on the roof of my old Ford Explorer. Except now instead of drilling through a sheet metal roof I drilled through the roof of a fiberglass shell. The installation proved trickier than I'd anticipated due to subtle curvature of the shell's roof making it hard to find flat attachment points in the area I wanted the top loader plates to sit.

Below are a couple of photos that show one of my rear crossbar mounts sitting on a Bolt Top Loader plate. The crossbar mount locks onto the plate in the same fashion it would clamp onto an old-style external rain gutter.

Oak Orchard system

Oak Orchard system

Next, a closeup photo of one of the Yakima door clips. These clips are shaped specific to fit the Toyota Tacoma's aircraft style rain gutters. The door clips secure the front crossbar mount to the roof of my truck cab. Close the cab door and the clip can't come off (the secret to the system's strength).

Oak Orchard system

Now for the matter of securing the boat on the rack:

You don't want your canoe bouncing up and down on the rack crossbars. Nor do you want the canoe yawing left and right. You don't want that canoe to move, not the slightest bit. Yakima (and other rack makers) devise gunwale brackets that must be purchased separately then attached to the crossbars. They come in sets of four, and once installed on the bars the brackets can be moved independently into almost any position along the length of the bar.

The adaptability of the gunwale brackets lets you put the canoe on the rack (inverted), line up the boat the way you prefer, then move the four brackets underneath the gunwales and tighten them down. This results in a "cradle" into which you lay your canoe prior to strapping it down. And Mama, this cradle don't rock. You put your canoe into it, strap it down tightly, and your pickup could be turned upside down and shaken and that canoe won't come off. Just make sure all related mount, crossbar, gunwale bracket, and strap fittings are tight and secure.

Below are some closeup photos of my canoe on the rack, strapped and ready for travel.

Oak Orchard system

Oak Orchard system

The observant reader will notice that on the forward side of the cab crossbar the NRS strap has a full twist, while on the aft side of that same crossbar the strap is flat. This is a trick I use to keep the straps from humming loudly at highway speed. If you don't give the forward half of the strap this full twist, the wind blows across it and makes it vibrate like the reed in a duck call. But giving the forward half of the strap a full twist before cam-locking it, this creates a "spoiler" that disrupts the airflow over the trailing half of the strap. The result? No highway hum gets generated by the tightened down straps.

Next, here's a photo of my Wenonah Rendezvous solo canoe strapped onto my Tacoma's Yakima rack system. Canoe and pickup are ready for the road.

An inverted canoe thus held causes very little wind resistance, which is important because such minuscule wind resistance does not reduce your vehicle's fuel efficiency. On the highway your canoe cuts through the air like a knife.

Oak Orchard system

Last, here's a front angle photo of my Tacoma with the Wenonah solo on one half of the rack, and an empty spot next to it. A second set of gunwale brackets has been attached to the crossbars, preparations for a second canoe. I am a firm believer in people buying canoe rack crossbars that are at least 66 inches long. This allows a second boat to be carried, which is most important when doing canoe shuttles on river trips.

Oak Orchard system

Hope this story and these photos give you some ideas on how you can rack and transport your canoe or kayak if you are thinking about taking up the sport of fly fishing using a self-propelled watercraft as your mobile operating platform.

About Joe:

From Douglas County, Kansas, Joe is a former municipal and federal police officer. In addition to fishing, he hunts upland birds and waterfowl, and for the last 15 years has pursued the sport of solo canoeing. On the nearby Kansas River he has now logged nearly 5,000 river miles while doing some 400 wilderness style canoe camping trips. A musician/singer/songwriter as well, Joe's 'day job' is with the U.S. General Services Adminstration.

Joe at one time was a freelance photojournalist who wrote the Sunday Outdoors column for his city newspaper. Outdoor sports, writing and music have never earned him any money, but remain priceless activities essential to surviving the 'day job.'

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