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.

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