REVIEW: NORTHSTAR PHOENIX CANOE
Updated: Jun 14
Cliff (L), Larry Rice (R). Both Phoenix canoes. Yellowstone River. CCS spray covers.
Bear Paulson, Phoenix canoe
Cliff, Phoenix canoe. Upper Missouri River, Montana
The Phoenix is a slightly larger version of the no longer manufactured Bell Wildfire/Yellowstone solo canoes. Its extra volume (I judge about 15 percent) is carried more forward and aft than in these smaller, earlier boats. Performance in waves is impressive: unlike the aforementioned smaller canoes which tend to run wet through big waves, the Phoenix bucks quickly over them. Even with nearly 300 pounds in the belly, this boat runs dry in two foot high waves. The Gunnel beam is a narrow 26 inches, same as the Wildfire/YS, so those who come from these narrow-waisted boats will quickly feel right at home. I weigh 132 pounds and when I first paddled the Phoenix, I thought was too large for me. But in big rapids--or with a good load--it's just right for my size. Empty, it responds instantly to commands. Empty or loaded, this boat remains sporty, controllable and always fun-to-paddle.
I recently paddled the Phoenix 150 miles on the upper Missouri River. We encountered high winds, quick currents and some unexpected big waves. My total load, including my weight, was about 265 pounds* (no portages; we carried ice and went heavy). The boat barely drew three inches of water and it never lost its lively feel. I think it will easily accommodate 300 pounds without complaining. Like its predecessors, the Wildfire/YS, the Phoenix will pivot on a penny without the need for extensive leans. I rate the boat competent in high Class II where big waves and quick turns are the rule, even with 265 pounds aboard. Add a full spray cover and I'd trust her in low Class III.
Some have suggested that the Phoenix isn't fast. Well...I find it fast enough. In practical touring it keeps up just fine with similar but smaller solo cruising canoes like the Wildfire/YS, We-no-nah Argosy, Mad River Slipper and its ilk and typical tandem canoes. Speed wise, it's not a Northstar Magic or We-no-nah Prism and it doesn't pretend to be. It's spade card is versatility--FreeStyle play on a quiet pond, Boundary Waters touring or long haul expedition whitewater. The Phoenix does it all, with grace, predictability and fun.
Layups and Trim: I wanted this boat for whitewater tripping so I chose the new IXP layup. At 42 pounds (on my scale) it weighs more than the other layups but it's much more substantial. Northstar claims it's as tough as Royalex. We'll see. Note: I selected wood trim knowing that it is heavier than aluminum. No matter: I gotta have "pretty"! Admittedly, one would be hard-pressed to find nicer metal trim than that used on Northstar canoes. Northstar's satin-brushed aluminum rails accurately mimic the shape and beauty of polished wood but they are lighter and maintenance-free. "All aluminum trim" (gunnels and thwarts) is the lightest option. A slightly heavier hybrid version (aluminum rails and wood thwarts) is also available. Either way, you can't go wrong.
Seat: The early Northstar canoes had caned seats. Newer seats are webbed and the wooden seat frame is slightly dished. At first, I was disappointed with the change. But it took just one session afloat to change my mind. The old seat grew tiring over time, the new one never did.
Wind: One look at the comparably high-sided Phoenix and you may think it will be a handful in wind. I found it wasn't. Paddled empty (but well), there is minimal concern. Add a light camping outfit and the boat cruises easily. There is no serious tendency to spin into the wind. I really couldn't tell much difference between it and my old Bell Yellowstone solo canoe.
Big waves: The relatively small size of the Phoenix belies its ability to run unusually large waves. We encountered scores of monster (three feet plus!) waves on the Yellowstone River and our canoes rode them beautifully. And yes, the Cooke Custom Sewing full spray covers were a definite plus. Covered, and paddled well, the Phoenix is a solid choice for white water wilderness adventures.
If you want a do-it-all solo cruiser that's at home in the BWCA and well beyond, the Phoenix is a great choice. It does everything well except go "real fast". But good paddlers shouldn't have any trouble keeping up with their friends in typical tandem canoes. Oh, did I mention that this canoe is absolutely gorgeous?
Important: Be sure to order the Phoenix with the HIGH seat drops. Sitting low, with your armpits in the gunnels--or kneeling beneath a dangerously low seat (foot entrapment!) discourages control and defies smiles. In moving water, you'll want to be on your knees in this boat. You simply can't ring out top performance sitting on a low-mounted seat.
*Northstar rates displacement at the 3-inch waterline at 260 pounds; 360 pounds at the 4-inch waterline. Recommended optimal load is 170 to 350 pounds. This canoe will carry a lot! Gracefully!
A final thought: The Phoenix is a "canoeist's canoe", much like Porsche's and BMW's are "driver's cars". You must paddle well to effectively wring out the capabilities of this canoe. The better you paddle the more you'll love this boat.
Width: 26" gunnel / 30" max / 26" water line.
Sheer: 19" bow /13" midship / 17" stern
Rocker: 2.5" bow / 2.5" stern
Weight (lbs): 27-StarLite / 29-BlackLite / 37-WhiteGold / 41 IXP
6" freeboard: 700 lbs
Optimal Load: 170-350 lbs
My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th edition has a full chapter devoted to solo cruising canoes.
*My teen book, "Justin Cody's Race to Survival" mixes a fictional wilderness survival tale with practical outdoor tips--a first for books of this type.