COLUMN: Boating — and boats — keep getting bigger and better

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Wow, summer fun in the Flathead! During the last few days, the weather has been perfect for enjoying the hundreds of lakes and streams of Northwest Montana.

Last weekend was an extended weekend at our lake cabin with our entire family, plus some extra young ladies from Missoula. Most of the family didnít arrive until 8 p.m. one evening, but it wasnít long until all the kids were in the lake. Summer, lakes and kids just seem to go together. Our fleet of boats, my fishing boat, kayaks, the canoe, the paddle boat and a dozen water toys were all put to good use for several days.

On Saturday, the kids helped me assemble a new boat ó a one-person pontoon fishing boat. I bought it as a highly portable but stable fishing craft for fishing some of the dozen of small fishing lakes in our area. I thought the grandkids would love this new personal-type boat. Not so. Their hands-down favorite watercraft were the kayaks.

As I was assembling my new boat, I thought about how much recreation boating has changed over my life.

When I grew up in Minnesota and Wisconsin, virtually all recreation boats were wooden fishing boats. The best boats were cedar-strip boats. Some of the newer wood boats were made out of plywood. But all those wood boats had something in common: They leaked. A coffee can or soup can for bailing out the water leakage was a must-have fixture in every boat.

In the late 1940s aluminum boats became popular. I recall a rich family friend had the ultimate fishing machine. It was a 16-foot-long open aluminum fishing boat with a powerful 10 horsepower Mercury motor. Wow, could it fly ó probably all of 15 miles per hour!

Now fiberglass boats are probably as popular as aluminum boats. New wood boats are almost nonexistent. Outboard motors have now evolved with larger boats having 250- to 300-horsepower outboard engines that can push those boats to over 60 miles per hour. One benefit of new fiberglass and aluminum boats is that they donít leak. You no longer have to equip your boat with a bailing can.

Most new boats also now come with electric bilge pumps to pump out any splash water or rainwater. My fishing boat has an automatic bilge pump. If it rains while Iím not at the cabin, the boat will automatically bail itself dry. This is certainly a very helpful modern convenience.

During the last 20 years, pontoon boats have become extremely popular. It was rare to see a pontoon boat 20 years ago. Now, I wouldnít be surprised to hear that new pontoon boat sales exceed fishing-boat sales. A pontoon boat used to be an old manís boat, with a 10- to 20-horsepower motor pushing the boat at 10 mph.

Now you see pontoon boats with 250- and 300-horsepower outboard motors suitable for towing water skiers. Actually, water skiing seems to be a dying sport. Our kids prefer wakeboarding and kneeboarding. There is no interest in traditional water skiing.

My fishing boat gets a good workout towing kids on tow toys. Itís great fun hitting large waves and watching the kids bounce and fly off. They scream with delight.

Recreational boating in the United States is really big business. According to the recreation boating industry, 87 million American adults enjoy recreational boating each year. In 2014, new boat sales totaled over 500,000 units. Another 955,000 used boats were sold. Total value of recreation boating in the United States is about a $35 billion annual business.

Boating, like everything else in the United States, seems to have become bigger, better and more expensive. But at our lake cabin, the $300 kayak is the favorite vessel used by our grandkids. I must also admit that my fancy new fishing boat really doesnít catch any more fish than my old used $75 aluminum fishing boat. Just donít tell my wife!

So experience Montanaís abundant lake and river recreation opportunities this summer. This recreation enjoyment is available to all citizens regardless of economic status. All Montana streams and lakes are owned by the public and available to all citizens and visitors. Enjoy!

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