All photos by Frank Wolf
When plastics conglomerate Poly-One shut down production of Royalex in 2013, canoe manufacturers scrambled to replace the favored hull material of whitewater paddlers and expedition paddlers with composite versions. Only one canoe company took on the gargantuan task of creating a hull material with the parallel properties of weight, durability and performance that Royalex possessed.
In Spring 2016, Esquif Canoes from Frampton, Quebec, began rolling out their line of T-Formex canoes and I was lucky enough to be one of the first to test the new product. Basically, I was their willing guinea pig.
T-Formex looks, feels and acts like Royalex—with a seemingly indistinguishable ABS foam core sandwich construction. To test the material’s durability and functionality, my friend Shawn Campbell and I set out from La Ronge, Saskatchewan in an Esquif Canyon on an 1,800-kilometer, 44-day journey to Baker Lake, Nunavut.
I’ve used Prospectors as my hull design of choice for all of my expeditions since 2007, however Esquif hadn’t made any Prospectors with T-Formex at the time of our departure. So I ended up using the Canyon—a whitewater tripping model that’s a hair shorter (16’5”) and has more rocker (4.5 inches) than their Esquif’s Prospecteur 17.
I was unsure about the new model at first, since a large portion of our journey would be lake and upstream travel. An immediate drawback was that the Canyon definitely required more correction strokes than the Prospecteur, but after a couple of days I got used to it. I ration out food for my canoe expeditions based on a 40-kilometer per day average-,and in the end we were a little better than that number. So the combined upstream, downstream and lake speed with the Canyon was pretty much the same as with the Prospecteur.
Our sole re-supply stop was 15 days into our trip at Lac Brochet, Manitoba, from where we paddled away with 30 days of food to the finish. The 1000-pound capacity craft easily absorbed our payload, leaving lots of freeboard. Though not as good at tracking in still water, the advantage of the Canyon over a prospector design became apparent in the whitewater and windy lakes on the second half of the tour.
The Canyon’s maneuverability was gauged in the tight confines of an unnamed river that flows from Nunim Lake and eventually to Kasba Lake. Characterized by narrow flumes that snaked around boulders and logs, the river required instantaneous manoeuvres in order to avoid getting hung up or worse. Even with a full load, the canoe stayed nimble and turned on a dime whenever we needed it.
We ran the entire thousand-kilometer length of the Kazan River as part of the route, and found that the Canyon rode really dry when running through the haystacks and holes of its high volume rapids. On big, windy lakes, like Kasba and Ennadai, we paddled extended, exposed stretches in meter-high waves and the Canyon danced up and over the breakers with ease. It’s deep bow shedding water more effectively than a Prospector or asymmetric canoe. Overall, I found the Canyon to be a great river tripper that’s versatile enough to excel in any water conditions.
As much as I enjoyed the Canyon, it’s been the material everyone has asked me about. And as for the T-Formex material itself, I was impressed. On our way to the divide at Nunim, we traveled upstream through a shallow creek system for several days, which often involving dragging the canoe fully loaded over rocks. From this experience, I definitely found T-Formex held up better than Royalex. It seems to be stiffer—not gouging as easily when being ground over sharp rocks or dragged through dense bush and rough tundra. Portaging with the canoe on my shoulders was no problem either—the spec weight is the same as Esquif’s previous models, which is great.
In order to truly test the durability of the material, we decided not to install Kevlar skid plates. Despite this, the wear on the bow and stern by the end of the trip was surprisingly minimal with no denting despite the endless hard hits the canoe took. As well, T-Formex slides easily over shallow boulders and ledges in rapids so property-wise, I found it to be as forgiving and predictable as Royalex.
In my opinion, lovers of Royalex should rejoice. It’s back and better than ever in the form of T-Formex. Long-term goals of Esquif include providing T-Formex sheets to all manufacturers who want them, so paddlers might look for it to used by all their favorite canoe brands down the road.
No need to handle your canoes with kid gloves any more—you’ll be beating the heck out of your T-Formex canoe for years to come.
Frank Wolf is a Canadian filmmaker, adventurer, writer and environmentalist. He is known for films documenting wilderness expeditions around the world, with a focus on the Canadian North. The boat reviewed in this article was comp’ed to Frank in exchange for his willingness to take an untested material on a remote 44-day expedition.