When I took my Bear Creek Mirage canoe out on the lake the first time I didn’t really expect to find much difference in the way it worked, compared to the aluminum river canoes I was used to renting. In fact, I almost backed out of the intensive shopping approach and bought something else from Bass Bro Shop for a lot less money. But I’d been reading over the years about the old Maine Guide canoe and the three point hull that actually displaced water instead of just skimming over it, and I wanted to know what that was about. The Bear Creek Mirage was the closest thing to it I could afford.
[2/7/2018: Where I went: Just adding this so people will know I’m serious, there’s a lot of good boating and fishing in Arkansas that no one ever uses except the occasional local person like me. To get to Long Creek, first set aside your fear of the people in Deliverance with Burt Reynolds, because that’s where you are going, pretty much. Maybe they filmed that at Denver on Long Creek, I forget. Might want to take a pistol. It’s not really good canoeing because Long Creek is usually small water, so you have to get out and pull the boat from pool to pool, but it was really good fishing there. Power boats can’t go there, and otherwise your only competition is local people who know the good spots. Plus, if you want to walk or portage, Long Creek goes on and on, ten miles farther upstream you’d be in the same endless series of shallow rapids and deep flat-bottomed limestone pools. In storm runoff you get some whitewater but of the sort that will really hurt you. If you get hurt, well, some people do live down that way but it’s not well traveled.
To get to where I tested the Mirage, start at Cricket Creek Public Use Area and paddle up past Hurt Hollow to Enon Cemetary. That will be the left channel, and Long Creek. To the right is Yocum Bridge and Yocum Creek, no good channel there. Don’t go under the bridge. Well, unless you want to fish a bit and listen to the music of the occasional wheels, thump thump, thump thump, thump thump. Yocum Bridge was one of those good old bridges, mostly steel with a wooden roadway, made good music. You enjoyed being there just for the sound. Beats a concrete bridge all to hell.
From there on, just follow Long Creek. With a couple of portages that year I was able to get as far as the first bridge, a cement crossing with just a drain pipe underneath. I suppose you might be able to go farther if you carried the boat across the road but Denver is not really an exciting town. People at the general store would scratch their balls and say, You from aroun’ heah?
So I went past Davis Bluff, really pretty there, and Raven Bluff, and passed White Oak Hollow where there is a long ford but then a nice stretch of deep quiet water, and past Red Bluff and Cave Hollow, thought of going exploring there but never did, probably is a cave there. The sharp little bend between the Denver Road crossing and Blevens Hollow is where I’d have been walking home from, if I’d had anything but the Bear Creek Mirage under me.
A little north of Cricket is Backbone Bluff, but don’t be fooled. It’s not Devil’s Backbone, that’s on Bull Shoals.]
I didn’t know there would be such major differences in the way this boat handles. Instead of spinning on the water in response to paddle stroke, the Mirage tracks. In fact, I had to learn new tricks immediately in order to handle it well, even without sails up. I’m not the classic canoeist who knows all sorts of strokes and uses them for short term maneuvers. I know a few strokes and I plan ahead. It’s a system which works well for me, but I found that I had to expand my view of the water by about a hundred yards to make that work for the Mirage.
I learned this in the usual way, by doing it wrong. I was exploring a familiar part of the lake on the shakedown cruise, intending to run up an arm of the impoundment which led to bayou-style water and eventually a small creek where I hoped for a little white water. The lake was up pretty high since there’d been several good storms previously and rounding a bend I noted a large tree up ahead which I could easily dodge. I decided to skim past it instead of giving it a wide berth, because I was enjoying the way the Mirage moved. Compared to my fishing canoe from wood and canvas, well, there was no comparison. These two boats existed on completely different levels of reality. The Mirage zipped through the water, while the old piroque plowed. The Mirage cut through waves, while the piroque smashed into them and came to a dead stop. The piroque was easy to handle though, because it gave you plenty of time to think.
Coming up on the tree I dug in with the paddle to shift course to port, and dug in again, and one more time, and finally hit the tree square on. It takes a lot more to turn the Mirage than it takes to shift course in a round-bottomed river canoe. You do need a few more strokes and tricks for a boat that’s built to track. If you’d like to learn more advanced ways of avoiding rock
s and trees try Whitewater Paddling: Strokes & Concepts; by Eric Jackson.
But after that first mishap I was having a great time, cruising along at more than twice the speed of the old piroque and finding no stability problems at all. The Mirage feels a little tippy when you’re centered on the keel, but it isn’t. It just quivers a bit in a way that others boats don’t.
In record time for me I passed the old Yokum bridge and headed up Long Creek, the sort of place where you expect to find alligators but actually find alligator gar and cottonmouths. One of my favorite areas for fishing, it had the feel of a natural waterway. With the storm runoff flooding acres of woods and pastureland to either side, portions of it normally too shallow to travel were now open, and I portaged the Mirage over several of the obstacles to access a short section of the upper creek. I found my white water there, or at least about two hundred yards of it.
I did wonder whether I should even try it, because this wasn’t a creek anyone boated on and there were reasons for that. It did look a lot like parts of the river in Deliverance, with boulders you really couldn’t miss and some steep drops. Normally there wouldn’t even be enough water to run it. Today there was. Eh, what the heck, I dragged the Mirage to the upper end and shoved off.
Within a few seconds I was in trouble, coming up on a tricky drop between jagged rock and brushpile with an old treble-hooked bass lure hanging down directly in front of my face and coming on fast. As I ducked the lure the Mirage’s bow caught the opposite shore and spun the stern downstream. The Mirage was just long enough to wedge there.
Canoeists know there are moments when there’s really nothing to be done but accept fate, and this was one of them. I wasn’t concerned for me, but I did expect the Mirage was a goner, since the next thing which would follow in this chain of events was that the upstream gunwale would dip below the water and the creek would snap the boat neatly in half. I watched the water boil up on the upstream side of the boat and felt the Mirage tip, and inwardly I said goodbye to my new boat.
But the Mirage did something I didn’t expect from it. It tipped, and then it stopped. That shallow v-shaped hull really did have three points of stability. I sat on the port stability for a moment, a little stunned, and then climbed out and hauled the boat upstream again. After removing the eyeball catcher from the tree limb I ran the Mirage through its whitewater test again and put some new battle scars on the hull. Then I got out and sat on the bank and looked at the Mirage for awhile, before saying to no one in particular, “I really like this boat.”
After running this boat for many years I wouldn’t recommend it for white water but I wouldn’t be afraid to take the Mirage through it, either. It responds, but it doesn’t respond quite as fast as other designs and that extra stability doesn’t mean so much in conditions that will dump you anyway. But for lake traveling, you can’t beat it, and if the lakes gradually turn into rivers, you’ll do just fine.