The Adirondack Guideboat-Reuben Cary’s Guideboat

We have been talking about Reuben Cary, his prowess as an Adirondack guide in the late 1800’s.  As it turns out he was not only a legendary hunter and woodsman, but possessed extraordinary creativity as a builder of guideboats.  He became active as a boat builder when the Adirondack guideboat was undergoing a major upheaval in its construction.

As far as I know the first guide’s boats began appearing about 1840.  The only survivor of those early boats is what I call the Bookcase Boat.  It was collected by Franklin Brandreth and the boat now resides in the Brandreth Park Preserve.  Boats are fragile creatures that easily rot and decay.  The only reason this very old boat survives to this day is that it was made into a bookcase.  Alright, so the stern was lost when it was converted into a bookcase but we still have a treasure of information about the early guideboat prototypes.

Kenneth Durant, author, with his wife Helen, of the masterpiece “The Adirondack Guide-Boat” visited Franklin Brandreth at Brandreth Park probably in the 1960’s.  He photographed the bookcase boat and took some notes on what he saw.

The Bookcase Boat
The Bookcase Boat

Here is what his notes say.  There is a painted inscription “1848”on the deck.  There are six sets of ribs set on 13 1/2″ to 14″ centers.  They are 7/8″ wide and 1″ tall and are slightly beveled.  There are 4 lapstrake strakes (planks) per side that were fastened with iron nails.  The boat has a bottom board 10″ wide.  At the apparent midships, which is 6 feet from the stem, there are rounded notches that probably provided for using a carrying yoke.  If this point is indeed the midships then the boat would be about 12 feet long.  The beam at this point is 38 1/2 inches and the hull is 12 inches deep here.  The boat was rowed with the oars secured with thole pins, or pegs, in thole blocks.

It is rather astonishing that this very old boat set the overall dimensions of its progeny.  Guideboats of the future would have the same beam, bottom board, and depth dimensions at the midships,  and their length (LOA) would not stray far from 12 feet or so.

Fast forward about 20 years to see what changes were made.

Sketch of the carry at Raquette Falls done in 1870
Sketch of the carry at Raquette Falls done in 1870

In the sketch above, done in 1870, these guideboats now have seven or eight strakes on each side and, no doubt, many more ribs to support thinner planking.  They have the same lapstrake construction that the bookcase boat has.  I am sure that making these boats lighter was a high priority.

At the time the above sketch was done, Reuben Cary was building his guideboats.   Here is the stern view of one of his boats on permanent exhibition at The Adirondack Museum.

Stern view of Reuben Cary's guideboat.
Stern view of Reuben Cary’s guideboat.

There is something very intriguing about the construction of the stern of his boat.  This stern “tombstone” transom was fashioned from a spruce stump that had three orthogonal roots.  That is, there was a root that came outward to form the rudder-like portion of the stem, and two roots, one on either side, that formed the main plane of the transom.

Here’s another view of Cay’s guideboat looking forward from the stern.

Reuben Cary's guideboat, viewed from the stern
Reuben Cary’s guideboat, viewed from the stern

Another exceptional trait of Cary’s boat is that it is very nearly smooth skinned.  He used 12 planks on each side to get the hull to appear smooth-skinned.

Here is a view of the boat taken from the bow.

View of Cary's boat taken from the bow.
View of Cary’s boat taken from the bow.

Cary’s boat is 15 feet long with a beam of 38 inches.  It weighs 84 lbs, a bit more than later boats that would weigh in at 55-60 lbs.

Adoption of smooth-skinned hulls and the switch from square-end to double ended construction were the two major innovations that established what we all now know as the classic Adirondack  guideboat.  Double-ended guideboats are said to have originated with Caleb Chase of Newcomb, NY around the 1870’s.

There has been no credit given to who made the deft switch from lapstrake  to modified lapstrake construction that gave the guideboat its marvelously sensual smooth-skinned appearance.  Could it have been Reuben Cary?

Next time we follow John as he competes in the 90 Miler Classic Canoe (guideboat) Race.

Adirondack Guideboats-Making the Cary Guide’s Paddle

Last time, we heard about Reuben Cary, one of the most renowned guides and woodsmen the North Country has ever known.  Reuben was so proud of his skill in hunting from a guideboat that, after a successful hunt, he wanted his photograph taken with his paddle, not his rifle. I’ll show him once again posing with his paddle.

Guide Reuben Cary with his guideboat paddle.
Guide Reuben Cary with his guideboat paddle.

I decided to reproduce his paddle.  To my knowledge the original does not exist.  But, because there are two views of him with his paddle, I was able to rather accurately reproduce the upper portion of his paddle, the motif and grip.  For the shaft and blade, I had to guess that they were similar to the Adirondack Murray paddle.  The Murray paddle is on permanent display in the Guideboat Hall of the Adirondack Museum. Indeed, it could have been Cary who made the Murray paddle.  Adirondack Murray certainly knew Reuben and touted him as a highly sought after guide.  Anyway, by lining off the shaft and blade of the Murray paddle and using it for reproducing Cary’s paddle, I couldn’t go too far wrong.

The first thing I did when making the Cary paddle was to making a template of it.  The template is of 1/8″ stock and is used to trace the outline, or silhouette, of the paddle on to the stock selected for the paddle.  The stock I used was Spanish cedar.  Now Spanish cedar is neither Spanish nor cedar, but in fact is a relative of the mahogany family.  It is fairly lightweight, is easy to work, gives forth a delicious aroma when you plane or sand it, and is quite attractive.  I started with four quarter thick Spanish cedar stock and surface planed it down to 7/8″ thick.

On my template I mark off the thickness of the center of the blade at 6″ intervals.  I then transfer these thicknesses to the paddle blank.  This saves time later on when you are milling the blade down to its final shape.

Here is the template, on the right, and the blank.

Cary paddle blank, on the left, and template.
Cary paddle blank, on the left, and template.

In the above photo I have already milled the blade down to its final shape.  I did the rough milling using my jointer, then followed using “elbow grease” applied to a bench plane.  I also rounded the shaft using a spoke shave and contour planes.  I did this step by eye but some like to mark off the shaft in eights using a compass.

Guideboat paddles are know by their motifs, which usually take the form of an arrowhead, and their lollipop grips.  Execution of the motif gets a little tricky. It has to be sculpted.  In the photo above I have begun sculpting the motif using a chisel to remove excess material so that the motif slopes downward towards the grip.

The next step is to layout the arrowhead shape of the motif.

Marking off the arrowhead shape of the motif.
Marking off the arrowhead shape of the motif.

Note that I have already laid out the centerlines before starting to remove any material. I then use a variety of hand tools to sculpt the motif.  They are shown below.

Tools for sculpting the motif.
Tools for sculpting the motif.

They include a chisel, contour planes, tri-square, compass, sanding long board and cabinet scraper. Here I am shaping the arrowhead with a contour plane.

Sculpting the arrowhead of the motif with a contour plane.
Sculpting the arrowhead of the motif with a contour plane.

All the above tools are used as the need arises.  No one tool can do it all.

Finally its time to do the lollipop grip.  I draw an inner circle around the lollipop about 3/8″ in as a guide as I round the edges using a contour plane.  I do a final sanding and, except for several coats of marine spar varnish, the paddle is finished.

Here it is:

The finished Cary paddle.
The finished Cary paddle.

By the way if you want to reproduce some of the famous guideboat paddles, you can do so using the plans and instructions in my book, Guideboat Paddles An Adirondack Treasure.

Next time, Reuben Cary’s guideboat.

The Adirondack Guideboat-Guide Reuben Cary’s Guideboat Paddle

Before going back to boat building this fall, I decided to finish the Reuben Cary guide’s paddle I started this summer at the Adirondack Museum as Artisan-in-Residence.  Reuben is a favorite of mine for several reasons that should become clear as I go along.

Guide Reuben Cary with his guideboat paddle.
Guide Reuben Cary with his guideboat paddle.  Photo courtesy of the Adirondack Museum

Reuben was born in Long Lake in 1844 and lived to be 89 years old.  Paul Brandreth called Cary “Rube” and wrote his biography.  Brandreth called him the “one of the most famous hunters and expert woodsman the north country has ever known.”  Rube had a concern for the preservation of the natural world, rare for those days.  He deplored the slaughter of cougars which led to their extirpation from the Adirondacks.  On the other hand he shot the last Adirondack wolf about 1900. DNA analysis showed the wolf to be part coyote.  Cary would be pleased to know that wolves have returned to the Adirondacks as Coy-wolves, a cross between western coyotes and Canadian red wolves.  Having seen these canines in the wild I can say they are very much wolves in size and demeanor.

In their book Brandreth, A History of Brandreth Park, Orlando and Donald Potter describe Cary as follows, “Reuben was a peerless hunter, trapper, and fisherman, and a most skillful woodsman, traits which, when combined with his quiet and dependable personality, made him an invaluable and much sought-after guide.”  He had a wry sense of humor.  When he complained of a toothache one time, someone said “Why don’t you see a dentist?” to which he replied, “Ain’t no use in doin’ that, its too close to sunset”.

So what’s all the fuss about guideboat paddles?  Guideboats are rowboats, right? Yes, indeed they are.  But to satisfy their clients need to return home with a trophy buck, guides resorted to hunting at night from their guideboats.  They would quietly paddle their guideboat along the shore of a marsh where they expected to find deer feeding.  The guide would paddle from the stern while the “sport” would be up in the bow with candle lantern and rifle.  At the sound of a deer splashing about the sport would light the lantern and, with luck, freeze the deer “in the headlight”  and shoot him.  The adventure, called floating for deer, is depicted in this sketch done by Davis in 1868.

Floating for deer in the Adirondacks, a sketch by Theodore Davis done in 1868.  Photo courtesy of the Adirondack Museum.
Floating for deer in the Adirondacks, a sketch by Theodore Davis done in 1868. Photo courtesy of the Adirondack Museum.

There is a story behind Cary’s guideboat paddle.  To my knowledge, the original does not exist.  So how was I able to make a replica of Rube’s paddle?  Well I found two old photos of Reuben with his paddle, either holding it or with it close by.  These scenes were taken after the hunt, most likely the morning after “floating for deer” the night before.  In one photo the sports and other guides are sitting about a deer carcass hung up for cleaning.  Everyone except Reuben is armed with their hunting rifles.  Reuben poses with his guideboat paddle as you see in the first photo above.

I was convinced that he was trying to tell us, over a hundred years later, something about who he was.  I firmly believe that he is saying “They shot the deer, but they would have gotten nothing if it hadn’t been for my paddle, my boat and my skill in using both.

So, by seeing both views of Reuben’s paddle, I was able to closely replicate the original.  Next time I will talk about how to make a Reuben Cary guideboat paddle.