Traversing the Marion River Carry-Part II

Alright, now I have a proper vessel to take the day’s journey looping around by water from Blue Mountain Lake to Long Lake.  Here I am with my ultra-light canoe.

My ultra-light canoe on Long Lake. My guideboat is in the background and the Seward Range is up the lake.

If you read my previous blog you might suspect that these boats are vulnerable to a tear in the Dacron fabric covering.  I have never had such a problem but once I lent one to a friend and he somehow found  a sharp object that tore a hole in the hull.  He quickly sank.

To avoid such a mishap I always carry a roll of duct tape with me when in one of these small wonders.  When you are in the middle of a lake in an ultra-light you have the unsettling feeling that you are being levitated and could find yourself swimming for shore at any moment.  These craft are very flexible which adds to that sensation but also gives them an extra degree of resilience.

My plan to paddle from Blue to Long Lake was to leave the public beach at Blue Mountain Lake at about 8:00 am, paddle west through the Ectford Chain, take the Marion River Carry to the Marion River, then into Raquette Lake, then head northeast through Raquette Lake to the carry into Forked Lake (pronounced Fork -ed with emphasis on the ed).  Then go generally east on the southern arm of Forked until it ends at the campground beach,  Now begins a half mile carry and a paddle along the North Point Road.  The Raquette River has a stretch of rapids just after the campground beach, necessitating the carry, but there is a quiet, beautiful paddle down to Buttermilk Falls.   You mustcarry around Buttermilk Falls and down a stretch avoiding the Raquette River rapids.  The carry takes the North Point Road to the put-in at Long Lake.  Now you are essentially home with a paddle of about 3 miles ahead of you.

The Ice Age has determined my route today.  One of the receding glaciers dumped a moraine of gravel and sand just south of Blue Mountain Lake.  This “dam” stopped any flow of water coming down from the north from reaching the Hudson River.  So the Raquette River flows north until it reaches the St. Lawrence River.

Here is my route on a map of the lakes.

Racqette and Eckford
Route of my paddle from Blue Mountain Lake to Long Lake. The black dot on the right is the starting point and the one at upper middle is the pull-out at the Forked Lake campground beach.
Forked into LL
The end of the journey from Forked Lake to our Camp on Long Lake..

I had one concern when planning this trip.  A strong weather front would come through and cause dangerously high waves.  Both Raquette and Blue are situated such that a strong westerly wind blowing across them can raise some impressively high waves.  Fortunately, that was not the case on the day I chose for my adventure.  The wind was out of the northwest but not overly strong.  I was counting on it to stay out of the northwest.  I would have to paddle against it for the first leg of my trip but then it should be off my stern quarter for most of the trip.

So I set off on a beautiful summer day to make the loop from Blue Mountain Lake to Long Lake.  I tell my Fran and my Mom that I will return home at 6 pm.  I have no idea where I got that prediction but it came very close to reality.  I pack a lunch, water. duct tape, and a rain jacket just in case.

Here is a photo of Blue Mountain Lake taken from the Adirondack Museum.  The opening into Eagle Lake is in the far distance and in line with the middle of the large island in the foreground.

Blue Mt. Lake

I leave the town beach at Blue Mountain Lake and paddle west to the small opening into Eagle Lake.  I pass the place where the grandiose Prospect House once stood and the still very much alive Hedges, a Great Camp still in operation.

Here I am underway.

Cruise with lightweight
Underway in my ultralight canoe.  Notice how the sunlight “splashes'” off the waves and onto the translucent boat covering,

I pass under a bridge into Eagle Lake, the first of the Eckford Chain.  There is a large airplane hangar on the north shore.  That seems a bit incongruous.  But I remind myself that this area has always been moneyed.

On into Utowana Lake.  The western end has what I would call a dead swamp.  There are dead trees and vegetation at that end.  After my research on the Durants I realize that this is the result of William Durant’s scheme that raised the water level of these two lakes to accommodate steam boat traffic.  This evidence of vegetation drowned over 100 years ago is still here.

I pull out at the western end of Utowana which is at the eastern end of the Marion River Carry.  I hadn’t expected to see any evidence of its former use.  But just under water I see the remains of what was once  the steam boat landing.

My light weight canoe is easy to carry.  I throw it over my shoulder and grab a hold of the forward thwart.  I carry the paddle in my other hand and my other stuff in a day pack.

Traversing the Marion River carry doesn’t take long and I am soon in the Marion River headed towards Raquette Lake.  At first the River is full of twists and turns but then it straightens out.  It seems to take much paddling but finally I reach St. Hubert’s Lake, part of Raquette Lake.

W. H. H. Murray (Adirondack Murray) spent many days in Raquette Lake.  It was a favorite of his.  Any of his favorite lakes he called a “beautiful sheet of water”, quite a poetic term.  Indeed Raquette Lake is a beautiful sheet of water in the truest sense.  It is very irregular in shape with many bays that contribute to over ninety miles of shoreline.

I go between Woods Point and Osprey Island.  Adirondack Murray spent many summer days on Osprey Island.

The wind has changed direction and is now out of the northeast.  So my wish that it would stay out of the west and “push” me home was not to be.

I didn’t take a map with me so I am going by “dead reckoning”.  I will head north until I reach North Bay.  Then I’ll head northeast into North Bay and continue to bear northeast until I reach the carry to Forked Lake.

Raquette Lake has few camps with road access so there is lots of boat traffic taking people to their water access only camps..  I’ll need to watch out for them.  I pass Tioga Point.  My son and his new bride camped there soon after they tied the knot.  They each took a lightweight canoe that I had built.  The canoes easily took them and all their gear.  They were expecting a wilderness experience but soon after dark the motor vessel  William Durantwith Dean Pohl in command came into view.  They had a band on board who wanted everyone within miles to hear their music.  So much for wilderness experience!

Why is it that things look so different from a canoe than from you think they should from reading a map? You really have to trust your instincts about your heading sometimes.  After almost 5 miles of paddling I reach the pull-out for the carry to Forked Lake.  The carry is not long and I am soon headed to the pull-out at the Forked Lake campground.

We spent many summer vacations at the Forked Lake campground so it is like an old pal to me.  Wildlife takes no heed to humans at the campground and black bears roam freely after dark.  Fran and I had just set up our tent and climbed into our sleeping bags one late twilight evening when there was a noise quite close by.  We had a large triangular window in the tent that was facing out onto the lake which was lit up by the long North Country twilight.  Suddenly the silhouette of a large black bear appeared in the window and slowly ambled away.  Fran levitated over me to get as far away from the bear as possible and commanded that I do something.  Thankfully there was nothing to be done, the bear was only interested in food .and was off to the next campsite.

There are many loons on Forked.  I have found loons to be curious creatures who like to check us out.  One day  I was out on Forked rowing my guideboat toward the campground.   Because I was rowing I was only vaguely aware of what was in front me.  Suddenly a loon, only a few yards away, passed by.  Apparently I was more surprised than he since he could easily have avoided me.  He was just checking me out.

I pull out at the campground and begin a carry around rapids that continue for about a  half mile.  I then put in to the Raquette River  It is a beautiful stretch of smooth water  but that will soon change.  The Raquette River began as it flowed out of Raquette Lake near where the canoed carry is.

The next stop is Buttermilk Falls.  Indeed you had better stop here or its all over but the shout’n.  As you can see Buttermilk Falls is quite impressive.

Buttermilk Falls from bottom
Buttermilk Falls

The pull-out is quite near where the falls begins.  Don’t go exploring here, the consequence could be fatal.  Just pull-out.  Here is what the River at the top of the Falls looks like.

Racquette River above Buttermilk Falls
The Raquette River just above Buttermilk Falls.

The carry around the rapids below Buttermilk Falls is about a half mile long.  You walk along North Point Road and it mostly downhill so it is not so bad as carries go.

I reach the carry into Long Lake and put-in.  Almost home now, only about 3 miles to go.  Here is our dock.  It is is off a bay from the main lake and is about two miles from Town.

our dock view from house
Our dock at Long Lake.

I pull in at about 6 pm, just as promised.  I calculate that I have paddled for 12 miles and carried for about 1 1/2 miles.

The Guideboat/Steamboat Mystery

I’m calling this post the guideboat/steamboat mystery because I am unsure why guideboats coexisted with steamboats after steamboats made a strong entrance on Adirondack waterway scene.  We know the coexistence was not always without strife from my post on the Buttercup.  But why do we often see guideboats in the presence of steamers?

First I’ll first describe the steam launch Osprey, a vessel typical of steam powered boats of the time.  The description of Ospreyon a plaque where it is displayed gives the rich history of these vessels.

The steamboat Ospreyis on permanent display at the Adirondack Museum.  During the year I spent in the Adirondacks I had the good fortune of working on her to do some minor face lifting.  She had been restored in 1967 by Johnson Brothers of Tupper Lake in 1967.  I was a member of a team of volunteers led by Josh Swan, a  young fellow who was a professional boat builder.   We added some additional details to this historic craft.  Here I am varnishing the cabin woodwork.

Strella 001
Here I am varnishing steam launch Osprey.

The plaque explaining the Ospreyreads as follows:

By the early 1880’s steamboats like this one cruised the major waterways of the Adirondacks.  In 1882 one could depart by steamer from the newly opened Prospect House on Blue Mountain Lake and make connections all the way through to Paul Smith’s Hotel, 60 miles to the northeast.  Steamboats made travel in the Adirondacks civilized and cheap.  No longer did one have to sleep outdoors or pay for the services of a guide to enjoy a holiday in the North Woods.  Hotels sprang up along the major steamboat routes as more and more people toured the region.  This democratizing trend was accelerated with the  completion of railroad routes which connected with the steamboats.

Ospreyis typical of the small steamboats which changed the character of tourism in the Adirondacks.  Like most of her sisters, her hull was probably built in the mountains by local boat builders.  The engine and boiler were imported.  Unlike boats such as Buttercup, or Orcosia, Killoquah, and Toowardooda, Ospreywas built as a private launch.  Her first owner was Charles W. Durant, who purchased Osprey Island in Racquette Lake in 1881.  Durant named his boat Stella.  She was renamed when she and the island were sold to I. Harvey Ladew in the late 1880’s.

Length: 42′ 7″

Beam:  10′ 5″

Builder of Hull;  Unknown, about 1881

Engine built by:  Clute Brothers, Schnectady, 1881

Here are some photos of Osprey.

Osprey with GB
Steamboat Ospreyoff her home base, Osprey Island.

Here she is at the Adirondack Museum.

The Ospreyat the Adirondack Museum, bow view.
Stern view of steamboat Ospreynow at Adirondack Museum.

Because of the advent of steamboats on Adirondack waterways, the use of guideboats was bound to decline.  The advantages of steamer transport were clearly stated in the Osprey plaque.  But old photos of steamers showed that, at least for a time, there was a symbiosis between steamers and guideboats.  The old photos show that guideboats nearly always appear in the photos of steamboats.   Here are some examples:

Adirondack with GB
The steamboat Adirondackwith a guideboat along side.
Killoqah with GB
Steamboat Killoquahwith guideboat tied to her stern.
Killoqah with guide boat
Another views of Killoquahwith a guideboat close by.
steamers at Prospect House
Two steamers at the Prospect House dock on Blue Mountain Lake. The furthest steamboat has a guideboat on its roof. Close examination shows another guideboat in the distance on the left hand side of the photo.
Steamboat at landing. The guideboat on the left is square-ended. Guideboats were made doubled-ended after about 1870.

So what is going on here?  Why the close association of guideboat and steamboat? We will never know for sure but I will take a stab at why this occurred.

First, tourists came to the Adirondacks in the late 1800’s for a variety of reasons, just as they do today.  Adirondack Murray’s book, Adventures in the Wildernesswas published in 1879.  It extolled the virtues of camping in the backwoods where fish and game were plentiful and breathing the pine-scented air was a curative for all ills.  The response to his book was overwhelming and the meager tourist services at that time were overwhelmed.

Murray’s book affirmed the use of a guide to venture back off the beaten track to experience what he clearly felt was the ultimate wilderness adventure.  His book even recommended the best guides to hire.  This Seneca Ray Stoddard photo of a guide rowing his guideboat captures the romance of venturing deep into the Adirondack wilderness with one of these fine fellows.

the way it looks-3
Stoddard photo “the way it looks from the stern”.

So Murray’s book caused guides to be revered and sought after.

In the meantime the hotels in some locales became quite grandiose.  Remember, the Prospect House on Blue Mountain Lake was the first hotel in the world to have electric lights in every room.  As a service to their guests, hotels would often have a cadre of guides whom the hotel guests could hire by the hour or for a day’s sojourn.  Unfortunately these guides were not always as honest as those who did wilderness guiding.  Here is a Stoddard photo of hotel guides at Paul Smith’s Hotel.  They appear to be tending to their guideboats, perhaps patching leaks.

Paul Smith's
Hotel guides at Paul Smith’s hotel.

The presence of guideboats alongside steamers is perhaps not surprising.  Steamers brought real, or potential customers, to the guides.  Arrangements to hire a guide would have probably been made well beforehand with a meeting place and time set.  Then too, guides could be hired on the spot.

The wonderful tradition of guiding gradually faded away, doomed by the the automobile, paved roads and the outboard motor.  Strangely, it has been resurrected for an entirely unexpected reason.  Birding has become a popular hobby worldwide and Adirondack birds are ones that are sought after to complete a birder’s “life list”.  My friend Joan Collins of Long Lake operates a guiding service that takes birders to remote parts of the Adirondack Park to find rarely seen birds.  Hers is a skill that has been honed over years exploring and searching out hard to locate and even harder to see species.  So the Adirondack guiding tradition lives on!



Traversing the Marion River Carry-Part I

Last time I said I would tell about the time I traversed the Marion River Carry.  First I need to tell you about the vessel I used to make the trip.  It is called an Airolite Canoe and was devised by a fellow named Platt Monfort of Westport, ME.  It is basically an assemblage of thin sticks in the shape of a canoe covered with heat-shrinkable Dacron aircraft fabric.  I make his Snowshoe 12 model that is 11′ 8″ long and weighs 13 lbs.

Here she is:

An Airolite Ultra-lite Canoe

The impetus behind going lightweight was a canoe trip my son, Stew, and I took  over Labor Day of 1987.  With nothing but a Coleman “Tupperware” canoe, we set out on the three day trip.  The canoe plus our gear probably weighed 90 lbs.  This mass had to be carried, dragged, slid, or however transported over some mighty long carries.   Both Stew and I remember the blow-downs. Here are some smaller ones.  The canoe had to be lifted up and over them.  Some of the downed trunks were at eye level.

Blow-downs on a carry.

A succession of these carries will wear you down.

A long day!

Stew reminded me that we often resorted to dragging the canoe by its painters along the carry.  We left an orange trail on the rocks in our wake.  The Coleman hardly noticed.

I remember one embarrassing incident. Somewhere around Saranac Lake we lost our bearings on a carry.  That is not too hard to fathom since we were carrying the boat on our shoulders and our vision was limited.  At one point I looked down and saw a manicured pathway.  Something was not right so I told Stew that we needed to have a look around.  The canoe was let down with a crash.  We were left standing, rather dazed, right next to a tee on the Saranac Country Club. Of course, a foursome was just teeing off.

Our trip ended at the Saranac Lakes. The are three of them, Upper, Middle, and Lower, are arranged in a horseshoe fashion.  We entered at Upper and spent the night on Norway Island on Middle Saranac Lake.  Here is a view of Norway Island.

Marion River Carry-Part II

I said that you would be amazed at how the Marion River Carry was transformed in the late 1800’s.  It began as a mere dirt track used first by Native Americans and then by guides to skirt the Marion River rapids.  Then, with the advent of steam power, steamboats brought a more enjoyable and faster trip across Blue Mountain to Raquette Lake and back again.  Of course, those steam-borne passengers would miss the homespun tales and romance that guides with their boats could provide.

The Carry stayed much the same for about 20 years until the very late 1890’s.  Then the New York Central opened a direct line from Penn Station to Raquette Lake.  Passengers would board the train in early evening, travel overnight, and arrive at the Raquette Lake Terminal at about nine in the morning,

The Adirondack Experience (Adirondack Museum to us old folks) has a superb diorama that depicts the impact of this second direct rail line to Raquette.  Below is a photo of the Museum’s diorama of a view facing east of the Raquette Lake Rail terminal  and the Marion River (upper left).


Diorama at the Adirondack Museum depicting the New York Central Terminal at Raquette Lake. The terminal is below and to the right. The Marion River Carry is across the lake and slightly to the left.
Raquette Lake Station in 1909.  Photo courtesy of Adirondack Experience.

Previous to the New York Central coming on the scene, the flow of new visitors to Raquette was mainly from east to west, from Blue Mountain Lake to Raquette because of the rail line to North Creek.  The NYCRR changed that so that the flow of arriving tourists was now overwhelmingly in the opposite direction.  This must have put great stress on the Marion River Carry.  Apparently it could not handle the upsurge in passenger volume.  Then too, passenger must have included many women who where disdainful of walking three or four miles across the Carry in their best attire.  Also there were very posh hotels on Blue Mountain Lake that would attract tourists to Blue Mountain Lake. One of these was the Prospect House, the first hotel ever to boast electric lights in every room.  So expectations may have run very high so that tourists were looking for much more than walking a dusty dirt track to get to their accommodations.

Regardless, someone dreamed up a solution to the problem, a very small standard gauge railroad.  Never officially named, it became known as the Marion River Carry Railroad.  At a little over 4 miles in length it became the shortest standard gauge railroad in the world. Here is the original locomotive with its open-air cars as they appear in the Marion River Carry Pavilion at the Adirondack Museum.

Marion River Carry Railroad locomotive. It has what is known as saddle-back boiler.
Rear car on the Raquette River Railroad train.  These were obviously surplus rolling stock from Brooklyn.

Here is a view of the locomotive on the carry.

Marion River locomotive on the Marion River carry. The tall smokestack increased the locomotive’s power.  Photo courtesy of the Adirondack Experience.

Several people have produced maps of the carry.  Here is one by S. Berliner III.

Map of the Marion River carry produced by S. Berliner III. He has a very extensive website on the carry at

The Carry was much more elaborate than I expected.  There was a station at each end of the Carry and each had a restaurant.  There was also an Inn.  I imagine that these luxuries were to entertain travelers as they awaited the next steamboat.

S. Berliner III has done a nice job of documenting the history of the Marion River Carry railroad. He says it was commissioned by William West Durant in the summer of 1899,  Durant obtained the passenger cars, which were horse drawn streetcars from Brooklyn for $25 each!  This rolling stock operated for nearly 30 years,  It was retired in September , 1929 and placed in a shed near the carry.  There it remained until its preservation became part of the impetus for the founding of the Adirondack Museum in 1955.  There it has amused and educated thousands of Museum visitors for over 60 years.

Next time I tell how I traversed the Marion River Carry in my ultra light canoe on my way from Blue Mountain Lake to Long Lake.


The Marion River Carry-Part 1

In the Adirondacks portages are called carries.  The Marion River Carry is particularly well known.  You will find out why from the next post.

If you have been following along you know that William West Durant was the author of the Great Camp Style of Adirondack architecture.  William was sent by his father Dr. Thomas C. to Raquette Lake in the early 1870’s to develop 500,000 acres of Adirondack land he acquired while serving as VP of the Union Pacific railroad.  To facilitate travel to Raquette Lake by those interested in buying land or timber from the Durants, track was laid from Saratoga Springs to North Creek, NY in 1871.  But it was still a day’s travel by stagecoach from North Creek to Blue Mountain Lake.  There a guide and boat could be hired to take you on to Raquette Lake.

Guide carrying his boat in traditional fashion.  Photo courtesy of the Adirondack Experience.

William improved upon this mode of transportation by having two steamboats built, one for Raquette Lake, the Killoquah, and the other for Blue Mountain Lake, the Toowahloondah.

Blue Mountain Lake is connected to Raquette Lake by the Ectford Chain of lakes  (Eagle and Utowandah Lakes) and the Marion River.  William dammed up the Marion River to allow the Toowahloondah to navigate passage through the Ectford Chain to the head of the Marion River.  The passengers would disembark at the dock at the head of the Marion River and walk the 2-3 miles to catch another steamboat that would take them on to their final destination on Raquette.  Presumably baggage handlers would transport their duffel across the carry.

Steamboat at dock.  Photo courtesy of the Adirondack Experience.

Here is a steamboat at dock.  This may be the dock at the Marion River side of the carry although I am not sure.

A fortunate circumstance significantly aided the Durant’s scheme to develop their vast land holdings in the Adirondacks.  William Henry Harrison Murray published his book Adventures in the Wildernessin 1879.  Murray’s book was a sportsman’s guide to the Adirondacks.  It told of a vast wilderness with fish and game just ready to be had with rod and gun.  Just a short visit to this paradise would restore one’s health.  He gave instructions on what gear to buy, where to stay, the best guide to hire, and even a railroad timetable.

Murray’s tale was centered on Raquette Lake so tourism exploded there.  Durant had just finished the first of his Great Camps, Camp Pine Knot, so he was ready to entertain those interested in buying land and timber.

Part I of this post serves to give a background on the Marion River Carry.  The next post will describe the almost unbelievable changes that came to the Marion River Carry as the eighteen hundreds came to a close.


Fran and I have moved a number of times in our married life, in fact, at least five times.  As the years have crept by the subject of moving to  a retirement community have kept coming up.  After all, two people living in a four bedroom home didn’t make a lot of sense.  My objection was always that I would have to give up my boat shop.  Upon visiting a retirement community about a mile away, they made an offer I couldn’t refuse.  They would convert a garage and some extra space adjacent to it into a boat shop.  It turned out that this space was about equal to the usable space in my present shop.  So we signed up and a moving date was set for May 3.

So here’s how the move of a partially completed guideboat went.  I must say the movers were very conscious about insuring that the boat moved without a scratch.  Here’s the boat waiting to be moved.

Partially completed guideboat ready to go.

Here’s a view of the movers inspecting the boat and deciding how to safely move it to the truck.  They can take it out through a sliding glass door.

Careful inspection of the hull before moving it.

Next step was to remove the hull from the strongback, and start moving it out.

Lifting it off the strongback.

Starting through the door.

Starting out the door.

Here goes the hull through the door.

Here we go!

I’m sure the movers were not sure the hull would go through the door this easily.  They probably uttered a silent sigh of relief.  Now, on to the truck…

The hull goes onto the truck.

Next comes the strongback.  It was given to me by my Uncle Donald, and it is made of Georgia yellow pine, I’m told.  He spotted it in the bottom of a burned out mill in New Hampshire, and asked if he could have it. The powers that be said “Sure, if you can get it out of there, you can have it!”  Now Uncle Don was not a man to be easily deterred, and somehow he got it out.

The strongback is enormous and very heavy.  The movers quickly realized it was going to be quite a job getting it out of the shop and up the hill to the truck.  So here we go…

Oh my…! We need more help…

So it starts moving towards the door.

Strongback on the way.
Four men and up the hill!

Meanwhile, the hull rests safely in a truck entirely devoted to it and the strongback.

Hull safely padded and waiting for its companion strongback.

The strongback arrives and then is strapped in.

Both safe in the truck.

We arrive at the new shop location and start moving in.

Hull goes into its new home.
Hull is ready to install on the strongback.

Here’s the shop after moving power tools, benches and other equipment are moved into the new space.

Here’s the new shop!

So the move went without a hitch, although as you can imagine there is still some organization to be done.

This boat and its shop are located some four hundred miles south of the town of Long Lake, in the Adirondack mountains of New York.  The completed boat will eventually make its way north there.  Fran and I have been associated with Long Lake for nearly thirty years.  We have grown quite fond of the town and believe that it represents certain special qualities.  We have always lived near large cities, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.  Big cities swallow up their satellite towns by imparting on to them the big city’s culture, overwhelming the character of the smaller entity.  This is not so in the towns in the Adirondacks which are far away from metropolitan areas.  They have their own unique characteristics.  We have begun to realize what special characteristics they show.  So from time to time, we will highlight how Long Lake, a town of nine hundred people, exhibits its own personality.  These essays on Long Lake will be interspersed with the usual boating topics of this blog.  We hope you enjoy them.

Guideboat Paddles

I had a note from Tom from Wisconsin.  “I have greatly enjoyed your book (Guideboat Paddles An Adirondack Treasure”) I got some time back.  While I have acquired some interesting Penobscot paddles over the years, I have always wanted an original guide paddle.  I was fortunate recently to acquire one.  It appears to be a steering paddle at 56.5″. The grip and motif appear to be A. H. Billings much like the ones in the Clark’s Camp find.  (Paddle in the Adirondack Museum’s collection from the Clark’s Camp on Blue Mountain Lake).  It is made of bird’s eye maple which really makes it a gem.  The initials E K are carved on the motif.  I feel so fortunate to get one.  It came from an auction in Poughkeepsie, NY.

Here is Tom’s paddle.

Grip and motif on Tom’s paddle.
Tom’s guideboat steering paddle-full length.

Here is the grip and motif of the Adirondack Museum’s Clark’s Camp paddle.

Clark’s Camp steering paddle from the Adirondack Museum’s collection.

There is no doubt that these two paddles were made by the same person.  Tom believes the are from the hand of A. H. Billings, a builder of guideboats in the late 1800’s.  Here is a photo of Billings.

A. H. Billings, guideboat builder.

He looks to be an impressive fellow, one I would like to meet.  I couldn’t find any further information on him except the photo below where he is attending some sort of convention promoting outdoor adventure.  I am told these sorts of events occurred yearly in New York City.

A. H. Billings attending some sort of convention promoting outdoor adventure.

Tom and I chatted about the development of the Northern Wisconsin wilderness and how it differed from the Adirondack wilderness.  Whereas rails were first constructed in Northern Wisconsin to bring out timber, the loggers in the Adirondacks used the natural watercourses to funnel their logs to the great metropolitan hubs.  Once they had exploited the timber wealth of Northern Wisconsin the railroads then decided use their rails for a another  purpose.  They enticed the super wealthy of Chicago and Milwaukee to build camps in the northern woods thereby deriving a second income from tourism.

This was opposite from the Adirondacks.  Here the rails were laid down to bring the wealthy and others from a teeming, smoggy, hot summer existence in a big cities to a virtual paradise by comparison.

The fact that the Adirondacks had two major watercourses to transport logs to market gives an interesting sidelight to Adirondack history.  The major water highways where the Raquette and the Hudson Rivers.  The Raquette was less favorable since logs went to Canada where they demanded a much lower price.  Logs bound for the Hudson wound up in Glens Falls where they were sawn into lumber.  Their ultimate destination was the great metropolitan cities of the east.

The economic incentive to get logs from the Racquette drainage to the Hudson was a major one.  Farrand Benedict, professor at the University of Vermont, spent much of his working life trying to connect the Racquette River with the Hudson.  An early  scheme would use the Fulton Chain of Lakes, and others to transport timber and mineral riches out of the Adirondacks and agricultural products into it.

When that scheme failed he decided to try to join the Raquette River at Long Lake with the Hudson at Newcomb, a distance of 14 or 15 miles.  Work was started in the 1870’s somewhere west of Newcomb to build the canal and necessary locks.  It would require damming up Long Lake just below its outlet to raise its height twenty feet!  There was great opposition from the Raquette loggers who didn’t want their logs going to the Hudson.

Obviously Benedict’s plan did not succeed (my camp in Long Lake would be under water if it had).  However his attempt to join the two mighty rivers can still be seen today by bushwacking or flying Helm’s Aero Service in Long Lake.  I suggest the latter.

Building an Adirondack Guideboat- Rounds 4 and 5

I finally finished round 4 of planking on my latest guideboat.  This took longer than expected because we are preparing to downsize and move to a smaller home.  The good news is that I will still have a boat shop.  The bad news is that many interruptions occurred during planking because of other higher order things needing to be done.  Interruptions break up the rhythm of planking and cause much more trips back and forth between the hull and the bench.  Finally, all is ready for hanging a plank.  The bedding compound is applied, the plank is fastened with brass screws and the tacks “stuck”.  Here is what it looks like just before clinching the tacks.

Round 4 of planking ready for clinching of the tacks.

A little diversion here,  Scarf joints are necessary when planking because it is impossible to have a single plank span the width of the hull. A scarf is merely a bevel cut into each plank so that they fit smoothly together.  Here I have located the scarf over a rib.  That is a good place to locate it because the scarf is hidden from inside the hull.  Also fastening it to the rib probably gives it added strength.  I didn’t know of this custom when I built my first boat and my scarfs ended up between ribs.  After 20 years of use I see adverse effects of doing it this way.

Laying out a scarf joint.

My scarf joints are 7/8″ wide. After laying it out I use a chisel to cut away the excess to form the scarf.

Chiseling away the excess to form the scarf.

Incidentally I bought the Chinese chisel in the Long Lake hardware store for very little money.  It is a great tool.

I use my sanding board to smooth the surface of the scarf.

The scarf is smoothed using a sanding board.

Before the adjoining plank is fastened down, I make sure the fit is a good one.  Then tacks are driven and clinched along the edge of the scarf.  Here is a completed scarf.  Tacks are driven close together to seal the joint.

A completed scarf.

Despite the challenge of planking a guideboat, or perhaps because of it, I enjoy doing it.  There is great satisfaction in taking a bundle of sticks obtained from the root of a tree, fastening them to a long, tapered board and them covering the whole thing with an extraordinarily thin jacket of wood.

But even more, the guideboat hull reveals its sensuous, feminine nature as each round of planking is set in place.  It is indeed a joy to fill space with such a beautiful object that many have called a “work of art”.

Here she is so far;

She takes shape.

I learned something while planking this time around.  It is a shortcut that avoids spiling.  It uses the planks from the previous round as a template for the next round. So here is what you do.  Taking round 4 as an example, you have both sides all set to hang round 4.  Go ahead and fasten the planks on one side of round 4.  Now take one of the planks from the other, unfastened side and hold it up against the fastened down round 4 plank.  Obviously, it will not fit exactly to the previous plank but it won’t be too far off.   Now lightly mark on the “template plank” how far off it is at several points.  The deviations will come at the hood end (stem end) and around the midships.

Take the template plank and lay it down on fresh planking stock.  Mark off on the fresh stock where it deviates and where it pretty much matches.  Now you have a pretty good replication of where a round 5 plank matches the edge of round 4.  Cut off the excess with a band saw and trim it with your block plane.  Hold it up against round 4 and make corrections as necessary.  Here is what it looks like.

A new partial plank for round 5.

What about the trailing edge of the plank?  Slide the partial plank down past the tick mark denoting the end of plank 5.  Don’t shift the plank sideways. Now measure the distance from the top of the bevel on plank 4 to the tick mark on the rib for round 5 at that station.  Mark that distance on the new partial plank.  Here is what is looks like.

Measuring the width of the new plank, top of bevel to tick mark.
Recording the width of the new plank.

Now you just connect the dots using a batten.

Connecting the dots using a batten to define the other side of the new number 5 plank.

All done.

Next time I may go back into guideboat paddle lore to conquer up a story.







Another Famous Adirondack Wooden Boat-The Sairy Gamp-Part 2

I promised to fill you in on the Sairy Gamp, a little canoe that carries so much Adirondack history.

The story of Sairy begins with two men who are legends in the North Country.  The lives of these men, John Henry Rushton and George Washington Sears, were so intertwined that without one another they could not have achieved greatness.  They fed off one another’s talents, one built amazing wooden craft of superior quality and exquisite design while the other was a remarkable adventurer and journalist.

Sears needed a very small vessel to carry him through the Adirondacks for three voyages he planned to take from 1880 to 1883.  During these voyages he intended to write of his adventures for the popular outdoor magazine Forest and Stream under the pen name Nessmuk.  He challenged Rushton to build him a canoe that was sturdy, yet light weight.  Sears was especially concerned about the weight of his craft.  He knew that many carries must be crossed during his paddles.  He was a small man weighing only 110 lbs. so every ounce counted.

Rushton built five tiny canoes for Sears but Sears favorite was the Sairy Gamp.  She weighed 10 1/2 lbs. and was 9 feet long.  She was made of white cedar with half round elm ribs, closely spaced to give her additional strength.  Rushton warned Nessmuk not to ask for a smaller boat.  “Don’t try for a smaller one” he said, “If you get tired of this as a canoe use it as a soup dish”.

Sears was a very well read man and that assures me that he named the Sairy Gamp.  She was named after a nurse in one of Dicken’s novels who loved her gin straight and never took a drop of water with it.  So it was with the Sairy Gamp canoe who never took on a drop of water.

Nessmuk said that Sairy never let him down and only once did she dump him.  Nessmuk took full credit for that capsizing (he may have tried to look over his shoulder to see something behind him as I have done in light weight canoes and flipped over).

The Sairy Gamp on loan to the Adirondack Museum from the Smithsonian. Photo courtesy of John Homer.

Sears was born in Webster, MA in 1821 to a poor family.  When he was a small boy he made friends with a Native American youngster named Nessmuk, who taught him the wood lore that would stay with him the rest of his life.  Nessmuk means wood duck or drake in the Narragansett language.  He adopted the pen name Nessmuk in gratitude for all he learned from the Native American.  When he was but eight years old he was conscripted to work in a cotton mill.  There he worked from dawn to dusk with little time for rest.  What breaks he did have were spent with Nessmuk roaming in the nearby forests and honing his woodcraft skills..

At age twelve he left home for his grandmother’s home on Cape Cod.  There he would row a whale boat out to sea almost daily to fish.  When nearly 20 years old he signed on with the Rajah, whaler out of New Bedford, MA.  He spent three years on the Rajah in the Pacific in pursuit of whales.


Like Adirondack Murray, Sears felt that the common man should have access to the wilderness without having to spend beyond his means.  He published Woodcraft, a book that covered all aspects of living outdoors.  It would become a much sought after volume and was reprinted in 1963.

Title page of Nessmuk’s book Woodcraft.

In this posting I am grateful for the great treasure of information about Nessmuk found in the book Canoeing the Adirondacks with Nessmuk, The Adirondack Letters of George Washington Sears by Dan Brenan with revisions by Robert L. Lyon and Hallie E. Bond.

Now about John Henry Rushton, a North Country fellow who is renowned as a builder of wooden craft.  From 1873 until 1906 Rushton built a variety of small wooden boats; canoes, sailing canoes, rowboats and guideboats, and electric launches.  His shop was in the northern reaches of the Adirondack Park in Canton, NY,

In writing this post I am borrowing heavily from the Adirondack Museum’s exhibit on Rushton.  This means I am probably taking from the work of Hallie Bond who was the former curator of watercraft at the Museum.  I am supposing that she had much to do with planning and setting up the exhibit.

I spent a year working with Hallie at the Museum as a volunteer.  Her knowledge of boats and boating in the Adirondacks (she authored a book by that title) is extraordinary.  During my tenure we moved the Museum’s boat collection from temporary, inadequate quarters to a brand new state-of-the-art Collection Study and Storage Center in Blue Mountain Lake.  Great fun and a great learning experience.

Back to Rushton.  Here is a photo of J. H. and his wife Leah.

J. H. Rushton and his wife Leah.

J. H. was a hands on business man.  He was the earliest on the job each day where he make sure stock was milled and ready for his crew of 17 to 20 men who worked year round.  Here they are in 1920.

J. H. Rushton’s crew in 1904.

J. H. is standing on the left in vest and tie.  His workers earned anywhere from 10 to 25 cents an hour.  In 1881 they produced 250 canoes.

Rushton would custom build boats for his clientele as he did for Nessmuk.  Nessmuk persuaded him to build small, lightweight canoes, a style not a favorite of Rushton.  This line of one man craft became quite popular with “outers”, men who chose to go out into the wilderness without a guide.  Rushton named this line Nessmuk, drafting on the popularity of Nessmuk’s journals published in Forest and Stream.

One of these “outers”, William West Durant, wanted a Nessmuk canoe.  He was determined to have a Sairy Gamp canoe.  The interchange between Rushton and Durant is hilarious.  It is captured in the book acknowledged above and authored by Brenan, Lyon and Bond.  It goes like this:

“By 1886 Rushton was bothered by all sorts of unrealistic expectations of these (Nessmuk line) boats.  “The trouble is,” he wrote to Nessmuk, “every d— fool who weighs less than 300 thinks he can use such a canoe too,  I get letters asking if the Bucktail (10 1/2 feet long and weighing 22 lbs.) will carry two good -sized men and camp duffel and be steady enough to shoot out of it.  I told one fellow that I thought he’d shoot out of it mighty quick if he tried it.

One such d— fool was William West Durant , the central Adirondack land developer.  “he is near six ft. and 170# (guess) ,” wrote Rushton of Durant when Durant visited the shop during construction of the Sairy Gamp.  “I had hard work to keep him from ordering a duplicate, as it was he ordered a ‘Nessmuk.’ “.  Durant named his boat, built on the dimensions of the Susan Nipper, Wie Lassie“.

Here is Wie Lassie on display in the Adirondack Museum..

Wie Lassie on display in the Adirondack Museum.

The Wie Lassie is 10 ft. 6 inches long and weighs 20 lbs.

To my mind Rushton’s legacy is the Nessmuk line of small, lightweight canoes.  Before these boats arrived on the scene the only option for getting about in the North Country was the guideboat or a two man canoe.  These little boats were propelled by one seated on a cushion in the bottom of the boat using a double bladed paddle.  “Outers” clamored for these boats because they opened up the vast wilderness of the North Country to common folk.

The Wie Lassie hull design has been reproduced or modified innumerable times right up to our times as professional boat builders and amateurs have recognized this near perfectly designed craft.

Hats off to Rushton.

A Famous Adirondack Boat-The Sairy Gamp

The first boat I ever built was called the Sairy Gamp.  I had no idea at the time why it was called the Sairy Gamp or any of its history.  I would learn that later on.

I happened to build Sairy quite by accident.  We had moved from Northern New Jersey to Sudbury, Mass.  That brought me closer to my Uncle Don who was living in Peterborough, NH,  Soon after we moved to Mass I decided to pay a visit to Uncle Don.  Uncle Don was a family physician but I saw him more as a Renaissance man.  He delved into all sorts of endeavors such as competitive pistol shooting and photography.  When he took up one of these activities it was never half-hearted.  He won awards for his photography and went to national pistol shooting events where he won prizes for his marksmanship.

So when I came to see him in Peterborough I didn’t know quite what to expect.  I hadn’t seen him in quite awhile.  It wasn’t long before I was intrigued with what he was up to.  First, he showed me his sugar shack where he boiled down  his own tree sap to make maple syrup.  We went inside to his workshop where I spied a row of various sized rounded boards attached in a row to what looked like a very sturdy work bench.  “What is that?” I exclaimed.  He said he was building the Sairy Gamp, a small wooden canoe.  There was little further discussion and we moved on to other things.

I returned about six months later and inquired about the canoe he was building.  He said “Oh, I haven’t done anything more on it, would you like to build it?”  “Sure,” I said whereupon he gave me a single sheet of paper with the plans for the boat, the molds for building it, the strong back, or boat builders work bench, and enough Atlantic white cedar to build it.  The sheet with the bare bones instructions for building the boat is shown below.

Sheet of instructions for building the Sairy Gamp.

The work bench, or strong back, was a massive affair.  Uncle Don said that he had seen it in the cellar of a local burned out mill.  He somehow found someone he could ask for permission to take it.  They said he could have it if he could haul it away.  Here it is below.  It has served well in building well over a dozen wooden boats.

Uncle Don’s strong back supporting an Adirondack guideboat under construction.

With the help of my son Stew we built the Sairy Gamp.  The boat is really quite small, only nine feet long.  I thought it would be a great little pack canoe for the Adirondacks.  I couldn’t wait to try it out.

One May day I decided to take it out on its maiden voyage.  The marsh adjacent to our Long Lake home was flooded from the spring runoff so it was a perfect spot for a trial spin.  Besides my wife Fran could watch from inside our home.

When I got into Sairy I was startled to see that the water rose right to the gunnels.  I gingerly paddled away expecting at any moment to be swamped.  Unknown to me, Fran was doubled over with laughter.  She said that I looked like I was paddling about in a saucer.

Something was definitely wrong.  Some inquiry revealed that Sairy had been built for a man who weighed around 110 lbs. whereas I weighed in excess of 170 lbs.

What to do with my first boat? I couldn’t use it with any assurance that I would say afloat.  It was decided that it would occupy a place of honor by hanging it from the cathedral ceiling in our Long Lake home.  Here she is.

My Sairy Gamp.
Another view of my Sairy Gamp.

The real Sairy is on loan from the Smithsonian Institution to the Adirondack Museum,  When you visit the Museum during the summer look her up.  She has a marvelous history which I will relate to you in the next post.