I learned the other day that a true Adirondack mountain man, Bunny Austin, had passed on. I treasured my relationship with Bunny although I hadn’t seen him for awhile. He was a gentle, humble, and compassionate man. He always made you feel welcome. He freely shared his knowledge of boat building and Long Lake Town history.
I would often visit him during the summer. We would sit on his porch and chat. His house was high above the lake and had a wonderful view of Mt. Sabattis, East Inlet Mountain and, of course, Long Lake. Bunny told me that when he grew up in the 1930’s and 40’s there were hay fields everywhere. Now, instead of seeing fields from his porch, the forest has taken over. The only field I know of in Long Lake is owned by Tom Bissell. Tom graciously allows the 90 miler canoe race to start from that field on the second day of the race.
Bunny was born into a guideboat building family. His father. Merlie, built them to help support his family. Bunny said that Merlie spent many hours building and could build a guideboat in about 300 hours. Then there was his grandfather Billy who built rowboats around 1870 or so. He dwelled at the north end of Long Lake. I was curious about where Billy came from. I suspected that at least some of the early migrants to the Adirondacks were shipwrights. Bunny said that his grandfather moved from Ferrisburg, Vermont to Long Lake. Hmm, I thought, Vermont is known for dairy cows, the Green Mountains, and maple syrup, not boat building. How wrong I was! I forgot about Lake Champlain. It was the hub of naval activity during the Revolutionary war and the War of 1812. Doubtless, many Vermonters left their homes for the Adirondacks bringing their ship building skills with them.
Bunny’s grandfather must have been one of them. Ferrisburg is located very near the shore of Lake Champlain. This large lake was the site of intense naval activity during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The tall ships engaged in these battles needed the skills of shipwrights of many abilities.
Bunny had a nephew, Keith, who also built guideboats. I knew Keith and had talked with him of our mutual interest in building guideboats. He related an amusing story about an exchange he had with his Uncle Bunny. Keith had run into a real jam while building a boat. He was totally exasperated and called his Uncle Bunny for advice. Bunny told him to pull up his “crying chair” and think about it. How I can relate to the crying chair!
As a young man Bunny enlisted in the Marine Corps and excelled in marksmanship during boot training. In fact he was so proficient at marksmanship that he became an instructor. Later he was only one of two enlisted men in his platoon to be offered pilot training. Bunny told me that he played a crucial role as a pilot during the Cuban missile crisis. He flew photo reconnaissance missions over Cuba to gain invaluable intelligence about the Russia’s intentions. This required him to fly very low over sensitive military installations, a very dangerous mission. His commanding officer was well aware that Bunny might not return from every mission.
Bunny would often take me back into his shop. It was like going back in time to the early 1900’s. It was sort of an old barn filled with impressive power tools. There were always one or two guideboats under construction or being refurbished. I have a vivid memory of rib patterns hanging on the wall. Each set had the name of the builder who used them. It reinforced the idea that guideboat builders would freely share their expertise with other builders. Perhaps that is why guideboats are remarkably similar regardless of who built them. It also reinforced my sense that Adirondackers freely share their knowledge and possessions.
Bunny felt the call to serve as a Pastor and was trained at the United Wesleyan College in Allentown, PA. He then became a Pastor at a Brant Lake Church in the Adirondacks and also in Germany as a Pastor for three years.
“Well done good and faithful servant.”