This Canoecopia is overflowing

Madison’s lakes are still covered in ice, which might make it seem like an odd time of the year to hold the world’s largest paddlesports consumer show.

But that’s just what Madison’s Rutabaga Paddlesports is doing March 11–13 at the Alliant Energy Center with its annual Canoecopia event.

“People think it’s weird that Canoecopia is held when there’s often still snow on the ground,” Darren Bush, owner of Rutabaga says. “You’d expect a show like this to be in Florida where it’s balmy and the water isn’t locked up.”

Still, Canoecopia gathers more than 20,000 paddlers from all over the country, even when it’s too cold to actually get on the water. “After a slushy and mediocre winter, a lot of us are ready for paddling season. Spring fever is epidemic this year,” says Bush.

More than 200 exhibitors from around the globe will descend on Madison to showcase the latest and greatest in canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and paddling gear, as well as camping gear and outdoor clothing.

However, Bush says Canoecopia is much more than just a sales event. When he took the event over in the mid-1990s, his vision for it was to be more of an educational event that had a sales component to it, “because when you educate people they naturally want to buy things,” he explains

With more than 80 speakers and 180 presentations, education is one of the most important parts of Canoecopia. Attendees can learn the ins and outs of paddling, from backyard streams to wilderness rivers all over North America. “We had 28,000 speaker seats filled last year, which means the average attendee to Canoecopia attends more than one or two presentations,” Bush notes. A complete listing of presentations and other information can be found at

Danny Mongno with Werner Paddles agrees. “Bring a pen and pad or take notes on your mobile device; between the seminar rooms and show floor you will never find a greater collection of paddle sports knowledge. From today’s experts to yesterday’s legends, you’ll get to meet and talk to them all.”

Live music has also been incorporated into Canoecopia. Jerry Vandiver, a Nashville-based singer and songwriter is a featured performer. He’s also an avid paddler, and his performances are centered on songs written for the heart of the paddler. “Every year Canoecopia is my personal springboard to get me excited and ready for the upcoming paddling season,” Vandiver says. “I’m a better paddler and person because of it. The show, the gear, the advice, and the presenters are second to none. But it’s being around like minded ‘paddle heads’ that is the absolute best. I wouldn’t miss it.”

Paddling’s evolution

To a paddlesports novice, it might seem like canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards haven’t changed in generations — certainly not enough to warrant a three-day event packed with educational sessions.

You’d be half right, says Bush.

“The basic shape of canoes hasn’t changed in forever. They’re still pointy at both ends,” he jokes. “I’ve got an old birch-bark canoe in my garage that’s within 5% of the shape of the Kevlar one sitting right next to it.”

While canoes may more or less look the same, they’re not made the same. Bush says the materials are really been what’s driving innovation in paddlesports.

“I’ve got at 18-foot canoe that weighs 34 pounds. That’s not something that was possible before the aerospace industry came along. And really it was a bunch of guys who paddled who were also engineers. They said, ‘Hey, we could do this way better.’”

Bush is also quick to point out that with better materials came more sophisticated design, helped by computer-aided design, or CAD.

“CAD has helped a lot,” Bush notes. “There was one boat that came on the market in the mid-1980s that pulled to the right — they all pulled to the right. You could put a chalk line down the middle and they weren’t symmetrical because they were all hand-shaped. Now every canoe is within 0.003 inches.”



Bush states the seeming rise in stand-up paddleboarding was driven by the same innovation that led to kayaking becoming more mainstream, which is ironic because stand-up paddling is completely separate from canoeing and kayaking in the paddlesports world.

Stand-up paddling originated on the surfing side of watersports, and according to Bush it’s nothing new. Before people started using jet skis to tow them out to larger waves that they could surf, they used paddles. Unfortunately, the boards weren’t designed for the average recreational user.

The same thing beset kayaking earlier, says Bush. At one time there were only two kinds of kayaks — whitewater and sea kayaks. “They were missing that sweet spot right in the middle of the market.”

That desire to hit the weekend warrior segment of the marketplace led to more accessible designs in both kayaks and paddleboards, which helped grow the paddlesports industry. It’s still a relatively small industry, according to Bush, at just $400 to $500 million in annual revenue, but it’s a close-knit community of enthusiasts.

Making waves locally

An event like Canoecopia, even in the final days of winter, carries a sizable local economic impact. Or, as Bush puts it, “It brings in a lot of money. The hotels are full, the restaurants are full — economically it’s pretty significant.”

One thing about paddlers, Bush notes, is they tend to have a lot of discretionary income.

Canoecopia is also great exposure for Madison as a destination for watersports enthusiasts.

“We appreciate events such as Canoecopia,” Diane Morgenthaler, executive vice president of the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau, says. “It draws a national audience of watersports enthusiasts annually and allows them to experience Madison and get a glimpse of our lakes. Our lakes are a great point of distinction for Madison and we are excited to be able to offer visitors so many different activities on, around, and near the water right in the heart of our downtown.”

Rutabaga Paddlesports, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, is also doing its part to showcase all Madison’s lakes have to offer.

Bush says the business just finalized an agreement with the City of Madison to turn a building on the city’s west side at Marshall Park into an offsite rental facility for Rutabaga.

“There’s no one over there renting anything and it’s crazy because it’s a beautiful beach,” notes Bush. Rutabaga is going to provide stand-up paddling and kayak rentals, as well as classes because it’s running out of room at its Monona location. The offsite rental facility will hold a soft opening in mid-May and then open fully over Memorial Day weekend.

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