Johnson Outdoors Inc. is a recreational conglomerate that oversees such well-known water sports brands as Old Town, Ocean Kayak, Carlisle, Escape, Extrasport and Necky. Over the course of the past four months, I’ve had the chance to test three Johnson Outdoors boat models at locations as far flung as the Mississippi River in central Minnesota and the Pacific Ocean just south of California’s Big Sur.
The most impressive of the three boats was Necky’s Crux ($1,099, www.necky.com), a stubby, high-volume kayak made for the slightly-askew sport of technical creeking, which involves fierce rapids, tight, fast-flowing streams and the occasional 20-foot drop off a waterfall. At 7 feet 7 inches in length, the kayak has a volume capacity of 72 gallons to keep it extra buoyant in powerful whitewater that may suck and hold other boats partially underwater.
Another unique feature is the Crux’s spring-loaded foot platform, which protects the paddler’s feet and ankles should the boat crash hard into river rocks or the streambed during a stunt. The Crux paddles easy and fast for its stubby build, and though designed for creeking, it will work for general river running and play-boating in the rapids.
Old Town’s Penobscot 16 is a classic canoe design suited for flat water as well as fast-moving river current. At 58 pounds and 16 feet 2 inches long, the Penobscot 16 ($1,199, www.oldtowncanoe.com) is noticeably smaller than the average canoe, and it can be used as either a solo or tandem boat. Its hull is made of Oltonar/Royalex, a high-impact and abrasion-resistant material that includes ABS plastic, foam and vinyl in its multi-laminate makeup.
The canoe has a straight keel line for tracking but is quick responding and maneuverable on a rocky river. Old Town includes niceties on the Penobscot 16 like anodized aluminum gunwales, nylon web seats and an ash-wood thwart and yoke.
Ocean Kayak’s SideKick ($629, www.oceankayak.com) was the most unique boat I tested from Johnson Outdoors. The sit-on-top kayak is designed for an adult and a small child or pet, with a primary paddling position in the middle of the boat and a passenger seat up front. The seats have adjustable nylon backs and can be arranged in multiple configurations, including with the passenger facing toward or away from the paddler.
Features include a molded-in storage bucket, drain holes on the deck with optional drain plugs, cup holders, bungee straps for gear stowage and multi-position foot wells that provide comfort and control while paddling.
The SideKick is an extremely stable boat. Indeed, I was able to stand up on the deck and paddle down a river like the Venetian gondolier. It weighs 52 pounds and is 12 feet 4 inches long, but despite its bulk the boat was surprisingly speedy and efficient on the open water.