Larry Bartlett’s take on the Pro Pioneer
During the spring of 2003, I approached Larry Laba, President of SOAR Inflatables with an idea for a watercraft that would be ideal for adventurers requiring heavy loads to be transported into and out of remote regions under potentially poor river conditions. These conditions could be described as extremely low water, shallow and braided glacial streams, alpine creeks and streams, or even rivers without known data regarding water levels or hazard presence (i.e., pioneering). I would consider such a watercraft to be invaluable and irreplaceable.
With Laba’s focus on quality and craftsmanship, coupled with my experience paddling with heavy, cumbersome loads of equipment and big game, we created a boat that delivers everything I expected, and more!
Shortly after the prototype was delivered to my door, I bundled up the Pro Pioneer and hundreds of pounds of hunting gear and video equipment, intending to field test this inflatable canoe. Once underway, I was certain that this boat was going to be a huge success. I planned a route down more than 300 miles of river corridors, all within the far reaches of Alaska’s backcountry.
To make a long journey seem like a day at the races, after being dropped off via bush aircraft, I started paddled the Pro Pioneer out of an alpine lake. Our party included five people and a small squad of inflatables: one 13-ft raft, one 16-ft cataraft, and my Pro Pioneer. We were faced with a 1.5-mile route from the lake to the main river channel through a willow-choked creek bed, barely wet with current. It wasn’t long before all the heavy gear ended up inside the Pro Pioneer, and we still were forced to drag the two other rafts. I estimate the load planted on the Pro to be over 600 pounds at this point, and it maintained a draft of less than four inches. As you can tell from the photos, the other members of the party were stunned by the Pro Pioneer’s excellent floatation, all the while damning themselves for choosing any boat other than SOAR.
The first 50 miles of the river journey was spent eye bugging each turn, paddling down a remote western Alaska stream, cursed by 120° switchbacks and hairpins littered with felled trees and sweepers. The Pro Pioneer and I shined like a new toy at Christmas. While the other rafters struggled to safety, bend after bend, I merely coached the Pro along with impressive responsiveness. The load during this venture was less than 400 pounds. Even solo, the Pro handled like its name implies—professionally!
Once we harvested our first Alaska caribou, we loaded down the Pro Pioneer with an additional 150 lbs. and its draft was still less than 5 inches. It wasn’t until I had three caribou, all my personal and expedition gear, and all camera equipment inside the Pro Pioneer that I knew a challenge would be offered. Again, the Pro handled every pound of that load, estimated at 800 lbs. Mile after mile, I was able to guide the Pro into and out of narrow channels, stiff rapids, and unforgiving chutes, and this boat handled like a champ.
I had to work hard to maintained my river speed at a slower rate, merely to avoid leaving the rest of the group. The Pro’s slick design allowed very impressive speeds.
After over 100 miles and time after time, the Pro Pioneer impressed us all. My only complaint at the end of this trip was that the other members were too slow! I ended up waiting on the rest of the group at the take-out for 90 minutes, after descending 15 miles of flat-water currents and strong headwinds the last leg of the river journey. It was a brutal final 3 hours, loaded down with roughly 800 lbs. of personal body weight, meat and gear; but I empathize with my friends’ pain of fighting their watercraft seemingly upstream for nearly 6 hours!
My last trip with the Pro Pioneer was to test the boat under similar conditions but with a heavier load. I had a pilot fly my partner and me, as well as our SOARs into a remote river corridor in Alaska’s Interior, then hunted diligently until we bagged a heavy trophy bull moose. As you can see in the photos, that bull fit the bill! After field dressing was complete and the Pro was loaded, it had roughly 1000 lbs. of total weight inside. Once again, the Pro Pioneer never hesitated to deliver a stellar performance. My friend, having never paddled a SOAR, was equally impressed. I floated this load roughly 50 miles down a slack water stream, choked with beaver damns, felled trees and sweepers. The Pro drafted less than 10 inches of water with nearly 1000 lbs. of total weight.
I must say, I was a SOAR owner and lover from the moment I bought and tested my first one—an S16. I still own that boat, but for my needs the Pro Pioneer rides shotgun when I need a boat to perform while being heavily loaded. Understanding that any watercraft will perform to a safe standard of 75% of its maximum recommended capacity, the Pro Pioneer still is expected to deliver safe maneuverability with loads exceeding 1100 lbs. And while my S16 performed excellently with a similar load (1000 lbs.), I prefer the Pro over the standard S16 when heavily loaded, but like the S16 when compared to the Pro when lighter loads are paddled.
I recognize the fact that promoting ones own product has only marginal results, so that’s where I come in. I took a personal vow to sportsmen (and women) to offer uncompromising results of all my field tests. So, whether hunting, fishing, river rafting, backpacking, or just exploring the wilds of Alaska, I must deliver objective and honest appraisals of topics worthy of discussion. In this case, not only is the Pro Pioneer worthy of discussion, but it deserves the highest marks in quality, performance, and delivery. I feel confident knowing my investment is safely placed on a sure winner. Having paddled the Pro Pioneer with extreme diversities—light and heavy, shallow and deep, fast and slow—I’m convinced that this boat has the qualities to replace all other inflatable canoes on the market.
On a side note, I tested the Pro Pioneer against several inflatable canoes: AIRE’s latest creation, the Traveler, as well as a Grabner 14-ft Outside and Incept’s C42T. And while I liked some traits of each boat, I found that the Pro Pioneer gave me everything I demanded with less sacrifice.
The AIRE Traveler has an attractive price and looks great on the showroom floor, but it did not come close to delivering what the salesman promised—ability to transport heavy loads of, say, a moose. I was so leery of this boat that I decided to test it out near town before depending on it while moose hunting. I’m glad I did, since the Traveler offered a deep draft of nearly half the tube diameter with only 500 lbs. aboard. Anything above the tubes that hung over the top edge dipped into the water, and that I found to be problematic and unsafe. I decided that with a load of even half a moose, the Traveler would be an inadequate float hunting watercraft. I chose not to carry this boat afield for hunting trials. However, light loads would allow this watercraft to shine brightly.
The Grabner is a watercraft that I tested alongside the SOAR 16-fter two years ago. I felt no need to revisit the woes encountered with this boat. While I consider this canoe to be an ideal watercraft for big water, its restrictive capacity and poor maneuverability in windy conditions or meandering rivers spotlights its greatest flaws. If hunters are looking for a classy boat that is fit for whitewater and light loads, the Grabner is fully capable.
I found that I like the weight capacity of the Incept but disliked its maneuverability when heavily loaded. It’s a beefy canoe and is worthy of continued observation and use under a variety of hunting scenarios. Overall, I was impressed by the value of this boat and its performance. However, I felt that I sacrificed overall performance with maneuverability and weight carrying capacity when compared to the Pro Pioneer. It became evident that the Incept canoe performed well to within about 75% of its manufacturer recommended weight capacity. Thus, a load of about 700 lbs. is the maximum capacity that I felt controllable and therefore safely maneuverable. While it boasts an 1100 lb. capacity, I’m confident that this boat would not be safe to operate in the places and rivers I hunt in Alaska.