Three years ago I got together with an old friend over a few beers to catch up on a Saturday night. Not just any Saturday night, however; it was Canoecopia weekend, 2015. This friend of mine – let’s just call him David – wasn’t a paddler, but he’d gone out a couple times either with me or other folks, all of whom were pretty dedicated paddlers. And he’d always loved it, whenever he borrowed somebody’s kayak. It was only a matter of time until the scales tipped and he’d invest in his own setup.
So, as many good plans come about thanks to beer, I gave him my Sunday bracelet for Canoecopia, since I couldn’t make it. Not only did he take it, but he took the initiative all on his ownsome lonesome to buy a boat and gear, taking advantage of the show discount. Attaboy, David!
I’m not sure what kind of research he’d done prior to this, if any, but he bought the Perception Expression 11.5. I’d had the same boat in the 14.5 model, but I don’t think that influenced his decision at all. He was looking for a mid-size kayak that would work well for tooling around Madison’s lakes, wide rivers like the Wisconsin, or even narrow little streams like Badfish Creek.
His maiden trip in what was first dubbed the “greenie weenie” (due to its lime-lemon coloration) was on the Bark River a few months later, in June. It was a perfect day paddle for this kind of boat: narrow and windy, some riffles, long slow straightaways, a couple quick-thinking little rapids or small boulders to dodge. It was a great beginning.
Alas, since that trip, I can reasonably guesstimate that David has used his boat about five other times (in almost three years). Heartbreaking, I know. Fortunately, he has a good friend whose life is typically in some kind of dire strait as to warrant or welcome the use of a loaner boat. That would be me (Timothy). I am both sheepishly embarrassed and joyously boisterous about how many times I’ve used David’s boat. Or, if not I, then my girlfriend. Or a different friend of mine. Indeed, in the last year alone I can reasonably guesstimate that David’s boat has been used by myself or others at least 35 times. It’s been up to Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, downtown Milwaukee, the Mississippi River, even Illinois. I’ve thought about mimicking the garden gnome from the film Amelie and sending David a postcard from all the places I’ve taken his boat – “wish you were here”! But that’s how I’ve come to know this boat so well.
And I love it.
What We Like:
The Expression is probably the most versatile boat I’ve ever paddled. Broad rivers, open lakes, swift narrow creeks – it’s a jack-of-all-trades kind of boat. The 11.5 is the shorter, nimbler version of the 14.5. Like its longer sibling, the 11.5 comes with a retractable skeg for ease of streamlining either on lakes or against headwinds. Unlike the 14.5, the 11.5 has only one bulkhead, in the rear, but that’s plenty of storage for a day trip. Bungee rigging on the front and back provides additional packed-gear options, as does plenty of leg room inside. One can easily commit to a small journey of paddling several days in a row without compromising comfort.
The seat is just a dream come true. Honestly, it is the comfiest kayak seat my butt’s ever sat in. Why other manufacturers don’t do what Perception did for this seat is totally beyond me. Additionally, the foot stirrups are extremely easy to slide up or down to accommodate a paddler’s height. I’ve had guys as tall as 6’2” and gals at 5’5” use this boat equally well.
The Expression handles light whitewater conditions really well. I’ve used it many times on Class II rapids, and it’s always been a champ. It’s a little longer than typical crossover kayaks and has a shorter cockpit height, but it’s been a great creek boat – especially during low-water conditions. The V-shaped hull and less rocker means it floats a hair higher than crossovers, resulting in less scraping/getting stuck.
One last shout-out: this boat accidentally flew off my roof rack while driving down a country highway at 60 mph. (I turned straight into a 30-mph wind gust, and no, I hadn’t tied down the bow or stern (a mistake I’ll never make again). The boat tore off the roof rack while still cradled in its J-hooks. Fortunately, no car was behind me or passing in the opposite lane at the time! It landed in a ditch next to an alfalfa field. While the towers of my roof rack and the J-hook clamps were completely obliterated, the kayak was practically unfazed. But for a small scuff at the bow, it was immaculate – no cracks, no concaving, no dents or bumps or breaks! Now that’s a tough boat!
And sorry, David!
What We Don’t Like:
Some may find the boat to be a little “tippy” on account of its V-shaped hull, but only brand-new paddlers, in my experience.
Like many boats with retractable skegs, be mindful of keeping the backside clear of sand/mud and pebbles/gravel, as they will get lodged in the recess for the skeg and prevent it from being deployed. It’s easily remedied, but something to be aware of. This may go without saying, but skegs are not indestructible. On a trip down the Wisconsin River Dells last autumn, the skeg suffered a nasty crack and a crooked bend. It’s still deployable, but not fully functional (the crooked angle where it’s cracked prevents the skeg from retracting all the way up). I might try to smooth out the crack using a heat gun; otherwise it’s only a matter of time until the crooked crack just breaks off entirely, leaving half a skeg.
I truly don’t know how or why, but somehow the rubber hatch cover got dislodged from its tether, and somehow the bungee that connects the handle at the stern broke – both within the boat’s first year. (I myself prefer kayaks with handles built directly to the deck of the boat, rather than those connected to deck rigging; they just feel firmer and more secure.) It’s an easy fix, but that still doesn’t explain the peculiarity of its happening in the first place.
To be sure, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Furthermore, we all see color differently (you might even say it’s all in your perception). But for me personally, I don’t care much for the color options the Expression comes in, but this, admittedly, is a superficial consideration. I’m altogether disappointed in the color options as well as the color blends most kayaks these days come in (canoes and SUP boards are just so much more aesthetically pleasing and thoughtful).
The Final Word:
A lot of kayaks are designed specifically for a single purpose or style of paddling, more or less. And that’s great if you’re a dedicated whitewater paddler or sea kayaker. But for the rest of us who might want a nibble of this or that without being dedicated to a restricted diet, a recreational/light touring kayak that can take on various environments with ease is just perfect. The Perception Expression 11.5 is that veritable versatile kayak.
In honor of its owner, I’ve decided to rename the boat “L’il Dave,” which seems more appropriate. At some point I’ll have to give David his boat back. It’ll be with great reluctance, but also great thanks.