An eager apprentis joins me

In an earlier blog I told how I found my way back to building yet another guideboat.  This time around I would use the same materials that the old master builders used.  There was one exception.  I would use hackmatack roots for the ribs and stems.  The old timers would have used red spruce which is no longer available.  But this substitution should make no difference.

Much to my surprise and delight I found someone who was eager to join the enterprise of building a guideboat.  He is my brother -in-law Stew.  Stew is an extremely creative soul.  He has great nostalgia  for things of the past.  He loves old cars and has restored several.  He collects things from past years that seem, to others, as outlandish.  They include a wooden telephone booth, juke boxes(3), and an Atlantic City wheeled boardwalk stroller.

As I have gone along with this build I have learned new things about building this beautiful boat.  They have come to me quite unexpectedly,

So let’s get started.  We’ll need to start assembling the various critical parts of a guideboat.  We  will start with the bottom board.  I was fortunate to get enough grade A eastern white pine stock wide enough for making the bottom board.  Since it was too short to make the whole board, I would have to scarf it.  I’ve done that before so it’s not a problem.  Using a template I laid out the board on my new stock. Then off to the bandsaw with my able assistant, my wife Fran.  Here we are at the bandsaw.

Fran and cut one end of the bottom board.

Next the midship ends of the board are beveled to make the scarf.

Setting up the prepared stock for making the scarf.

I have put the two previously sawn planks on top of one another and offset them by the width of the scarf (a rule of thumb for making a scarf is to make its width six times the thickness of the stock).  By setting it up this way I can plane the two planks at once.  If I do it right the two sections should fit nicely together. (PS Be sure to allow the thickness of the scarf in laying out the length of the  bottom board.  If you don’t you will come up short)

I used recorcinal glue to bond the two sections.  In order for the planking to have a smooth transition from the bottom board to the ribs the bottom board must have a “rolling ” bevel.  I use a template  to trace the upper edge of the bottom board.

You can do the same thing by clamping a small, straight piece of wood to the foot end of a rib.  Extend it a few inches from the foot end.  Now place the rib with the clamped jig up against the bottom board at a rib station.  It should be snug against the underside  of the board.  There will be a gap where the rib extension does not meet the bottom board.  Measure that gap and mark it on the upside of the board.  Do that for each rib station.  Connect these “dots” with a batten.  This line delineates the waste that must be removed to produce a smooth transition between the bottom board and the rib.

Template to layout the upper edge of the bottom board.

Now we can star putting the pieces together.  The bottom board is slung on a hanger on each end of the strong back.  To have the bottom board hung vertically makes it easy to attach the ribs.

Bottom board ready to accept ribs.

Now the ribs are attached.  Here they are on a rack ready  to hang.  The rib patterns are in the lead on the rack.  I find that storing the ribs on a rack like this makes the whole assembly process easier.

Ribs on rack ready to be attached to the bottom board.

Here, the ribs have been attached to the bottom board.

Ribs attached to the bottom board.

Now the assembly is turned upside down and mounted on the strong back.

Rib/bottom board assembly attached to strong back,

As you can see from the photos above the strong back is fitted with a special beam.  It has slots to give clearance for the ribs.  It is also bent down slightly at each end to apply “rocker” to the hull.  This slight curve at each end of the hull makes the boat more maneuverable.

Next comes the stems,  Before they are installed a rabbet must be hewn to enable the plank (hood) ends to fit flush into the the stem.  For the most part it meets the stem at a low angle and must be as deep as the  plank thickness.

Here is Stew creating the rabbet on one of the the stems.  He uses a chisel to do the rough cutting and cabinet scraper to finish up.  A notch is cut in the aft end of the stem to receive the bottom board.

Stew cutting the rabbet on the stem.

The stems are now ready to be attached to the bottom board.

Stew attaches a stem to the bottom board.

The next steps are important to a proper build.  The bottom board must be level and the stems perpendicular to it.  Place a carpenter’s level crosswise on the bottom board at the midships.  If it is necessary to level the bottom board put shims under the strong back legs.  Now put the level up against each of the stems.  You may have to use shims to make the stems perpendicular to the bottom board.  As the old timers put it we are now level and plumb.

In the next post we will prepare the nascent hull for planking.



Ode to Bunny

                                           Bunny Austin

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.”




My Fifth Guideboat

Some primal urge took over and I start building yet another guideboat.  I fear building boats is in my family tree.  With the last name Fisher it is likely that there is a strong family connection with boats and boat building.  Then too, my father built a small sailboat that he and my mother raced on the Chesapeake Bay.  You have read about my Uncle Don and the Whitehall he built.

This time around I will build a guideboat as closely as I can to how the old master builders did in the late 1800’s.  I will use hackmatack roots for the stems and ribs and quarter sawn Eastern white pine for the planking.

How do I source these rather exotic materials? Fortunately I have a friend who can help.  Josh and I became close friends in the year 2000.  This was the year my wife Fran and I spent in the Adirondacks.  I volunteered at the Adirondack Museum in several different capacities.  Halley Bond, then the Museum’s curator of the Museum’s small boat collection, decided to initiate a guideboat building living exhibit.  A boat builder would construct a guideboat on site before the Museum visitor’s very eyes.  Josh had been hired as an intern, having just graduated from the Newport Rhode Island boat building school.  So he assumed the role of builder.  Since I had built a guideboat, I became a docent.  I would answer the visitor’s questions so that Josh could devote his full attention to boat building.

Josh left the Adirondacks after his internship was over and set up shop in northern Wisconsin right near Lake Superior.  He knew that there was a need for hackmatack knees for boat building and other uses.  There had been a fellow who had a corner on the knee market; Newman, who called his business Newman’s Knees.  Tragically he was killed in a logging accident.

Josh found that hackmatack tress were numerous in his area.  They thrived in the boggy conditions found there.  He met a logger who was harvesting the hackmatack trees but had no interest in the knees.  The logger agreed to cut the trees chest high so that the roots were preserved.

Having learned from Newman’s demise, Josh uses a remote controlled power takeoff on his pick-up truck to pull the roots out of the ground.  Here is the flyer for his root business.

Flyer for Josh’s Knee Offerings

The flyer says “Custom cut crooks from trees in Northern Wisconsin.  Tell us your dimensions or send us your patterns,  We’ll ship directly to you.  Visit our website or call (715) 373-0126 for pricing.


I took Josh up on his offer.  It turns out that he already had a set of my plans.  The hull facing surface of the ribs he sent me fit perfectly to my rib patterns.  All I had to do was trim the interior facing part of the rib and round it.  I used spoke shaves, large and small, and a scraper, to do that.

Shaping inner rib surface

He also sent stems, fore and aft.  These needed a little trimming and the rabbet cut in them.

Josh said he could supply me quarter sawn clear eastern white pine 3/8″ thick.  It turns out that he knew some very old white pine trees that had their tops blown out in winter storms.  They were nearby and were scheduled to be harvested.

The stock he sent were 1/4″ thick by at least 4″ wide and up to 12 feet long.  Since Josh had been involved in building guideboats he knew how much stock to send.

Here is an edge view of the quarter sawn stock.

Quarter sawn edge view

Note that the grain is not perpendicular to the top and bottom surfaces.  This would be the case with truly quarter sawn stock.  The grain in this stock lies at an angle to the surfaces.  This is called riff cut and was preferred by the old timer boat builders.

Next time I will introduce someone who will help me build this boat.  We will start to assemble the boat piece by piece.




Search for Elysea

Many years ago my Uncle Don called me.  He asked if we could put him up overnight on his way to Mystic Seaport Museum.  We were living in Mahwah, NJ. about half way between where he was living in St. Michaels, MD and Mystic, CN.  It seems he was bringing a boat he and his boat building friends were donating to the Seaport Museum.

While he was with us I learned little about the boat he was donating; only that it was called a Whitehall and that it had  a history that went back to the early days of our country.

Here is Uncle Don in the Whitehall.

Uncle Don in his Whitehall destined for Mystic Seaport Museum.

The White hall has stunning lines.  Its planking is lapstrake and it sports a wineglass transom.  Uncle Don is sailing it but it is more commonly rowed.

There is some uncertainty regarding the name “Whitehall”.  Wikipedia claims it came from Whitehall street in Lower Manhattan.  Lower Manhattan was long a hub for shipping, dating back to pre-revolutionary days.  A small craft like the Whitehall would be indispensable for ferrying personnel and supplies between tall ships and the shore.

Somehow this origin story for the Whitehall did not ring true for me.  Whitehall street was a hub of commerce but not a hub for building ships.  I asked my son Stew where he thought the name Whitehall originated.   Stew had built a Whitehall (more about that below} so I thought he might know.  He said “Dad, I think the name came from a town called Whitehall near Lake Champaign in Vermont.”  So I googled Whitehall, NY and hit pay dirt.  Under what is Whitehall Famous for it ? says “Because of Revolutionary War actions the New York Legislature in 1960 declared the legacy that names Whitehall, N.Y. the Birthplace of the United States Navy.  So a navy needs lots of support including ship wrights and carpenters as well as materials such as tall pine and spruce trees.  This source of timber was readily available from the nearby Adirondack Mountains of New York and the Green Mountains of Vermont.

A small boat to move people and ship’s stores about would be essential to a shipping hub.   So a small row boat 16 to 20 feet long evolved to fill the need.   But why a sail?  Well it seems the now famous Whitehall became a requirement of other large ports in the northeast U.S.  Ship chandlers, who serviced the tall ships coming into Boston used them to intercept a Clipper to secure their business.  As soon as a tall ship’s sails appeared on the horizon a Whitehall would hoist its sail and head for it.  Most would leave Boston Harbor but some were stationed in Provincetown to ensure that they got to their potential customer first.  I’ll bet they brought along some enticement to make a deal, like Mum’s pies, not seen for many months at sea by the ship’s crew.  The Whitehall is a rugged craft that could take on rough seas often encountered off Cape Cod.

But the story doesn’t end here.  My son Stew decided to build a Whitehall many years after Uncle Don donated his Whitehall.  Here is Stew’s Whitehall.

Son Stew’s Whitehall

Some time afterwards, Stew, his wife and two small kids visited Mystic Seaport Museum.  After spending most of the day touring the large campus the kids were tired and nagging to go home.  But Stew had been urged to go to the boat livery and take out a small boat.  So on a whim he went to the livery.  A very lively woman asked what sort of boat he would like to take out for a row.  Stew said “By the way, My Uncle donated a boat to the Museum some years ago.  Would know anything about it?  ” What was his name” the woman replied.  “Dr. Donald Fisher” said Stew.  “Oh, the Elysea.  It is right here.  It is one of our favorites.  It goes out almost everyday.  It never gives us a problem.” she replied.

So fast forward to now.  Last fall my wife Fran and I visited Mystic Seaport Museum.  I was intent on finding Elysea.  Was she still around?  After all she had been a part of the Museum for over 40 years.

The guides at Mystic are most friendly and helpful.  I corralled one of then, a woman named Margaret, and told her of my search for Elysea. She said we should go and search around the livery and the pier.  So off we went but no luck.  No Elysea.  My heart sank!  What could have happened to Elysea?

Then Margaret said we should check with Trevor.  Trevor is a shipwright at Mystic and does restorations of their small craft.  We found Trevor in the livery barn at work on a restoration.


We asked Trevor if he knew the where abouts of Elysea.  “Oh, sure” he said, “She’s right outside on a trailer.  She’s due for a thorough refurbishing after I finish this boat.”

Sure enough, there she was.

                                            Elysea on her trailer.

Here are other views of her.



Stern view of Elysea.
                                                       Elysea-side view.


Bow view of Elysea.


                                                        Elysea-stern view.
Seat back.

We left Mystic feeling happy and satisfied that a Fisher family legacy was intact and will provide many happy times for Museum visitors in the years to come.  We were invited back for the relaunch of  Elysea next spring.  We’ll be there!

An afterword:  According to the internet the name Elysea is of Greek origin and means “blissful, noble, and honorable.”


The 2021 Adirondack 90 Miler-Some Thoughts after the Race

Well, Jon and Kevin did a fantastic job of winning the 2021 90 Miler under very harsh conditions.  They came in well ahead of the pack, in fact almost 60 minutes ahead of the other 2-man guideboat contestants.

Some time after the race I received a package from Jon.  I had no inkling of what it might be so I eagerly opened it.  Here is what I found.


Plaque commemorating the 2021 90 Miler

Jon took great care in acknowledging all who contributed to the great success that he and Kevin achieved.  We know of the long hours he and Kevin spent practicing during the summer.  They were meticulous in their preparation making sure that no detail was ignored.  For example, you will remember that they had an extra set of oars ready if needed.

Jon and Kevin realized that their boat was integral to winning.  They had great praise for Thankful during the race.  But they took time to recall the origins of their winning craft; Caleb Chase, the designer of Thankful and me, her builder.

Let’s take time to recall the life of guideboat builder Caleb Chase.  I chronicled his life in my book “Tale of an Historical Adirondack Guideboat and How to Build One“.  Here is how the chapter on Caleb begins:

” Speaking of old times reminds me of old Caleb Chase of Newcomb, with whom I had a most interesting talk not long ago when I happened to be passing by his way.  No Adirondacker of the old school but knows of the old boat builder of Newcomb, at least by reputation, for the famous “Chase boat ” has for over fifty years been regarded as the most perfect type of woodsman’s craft built or used in the North Woods.  The staunch little products of the old man’s skill are found in every corner of the Adirondacks.”  from Field and Stream, September, 1901. page 108.

So?  Well, it was Mr. Chase who built the Queen Anne guidedboat.   The Queen Anne was the guideboat whose lines I took to build Thankful.  (The name given my third guideboat was taken from Caleb Chase’s wife, Thankful.)  Caleb and Thankful settled in Rich Lake not far from Newcomb, NY.  They had seven children and Caleb, through various endeavors such as boat building, gunsmithing and farming was able to provide his family with a comfortable life.  The family compound grew to include an attractive home, a workshop, paint shop, black smith shop, a barn and an ice house.

At one time there were 70 guideboat builders in the Adirondacks.  So what makes a boat built by Chase distinctive?  First, Caleb was not hemmed in by traditional thinking.  His name is associated with the then radical change in design of a guideboat’s stern.  He realized that there were advantages to eliminating its traditional square-ended transom to make the boat double-ended.  It made the boat lighter and easier to carry.

Caleb was quick to capitalize on the shift in guideboat requirements that occurred during the 1880’s and beyond.  During that time guideboat design shifted from being primarily a workboat to a pleasure craft for use mainly by the well-to-do.   These were either  owners of or guests at the Great Camps or guests at the many hotels that sprung up in the region.  Either venue, Great Camp or hotel, had guides who would take a gentleman as well as his lady friend out on a lake for a day of fishing, exploring or picnicking.  Since the days of extended hunting and fishing trips were mostly gone, guideboats morphed into a “pleasure” vessel.  Caleb identified several characteristics that would make the craft more appealing to this wealthier class of users.  They were stability, durability, and beauty.

Guides would rate a boat as to whether it was “steady” (stable) or “cranky” (tippy).  Cranky boats were judged to be poorly built.  A joke went around that if you were rowing a cranky boat you should keep your hair parted in the middle.  Otherwise, the boat would be more likely to capsize.

Chase made his boats more stable by making the beam wider and keeping the hull less inclined below the waterline.

Chase certainly knew that guideboat ribs were something of an Achilles heel.  It is difficult to find root stock where the grain follows the shape of the rib over its entirety.   At some point, particularly with ribs near the bow and stern, some ribs will exhibit cross grain.  Cross grain is where the grain runs cross-wise rather than downward along the hull contour.  This “cross grain” is where the rib is very weak.  A sideways jolt, for example, from  a careless boot could cause the rib to snap.

Chase realized that his customers would not be happy if their boats were plagued with an annoying number of cracked ribs.  To counter this tendency, he made his ribs an 1/8″ thicker.  The extra weight this incurred was no longer a consequence.  By now guideboats had become a pleasure craft rather than a work boat used for week long trips for hunting and fishing.

As far as beauty, Chase made some subtle changes to enhance the appearance of his boats.  The decks of his boats are curved, rather than flat.  There is a deck cap at the fore and aft ends that along with the upward sweep of the deck, brings a sense of motion to the vessel.  The deck caps sport a brass feed-through used to hold a pennant or a jack light for hunting deer at night.  His stems have a sense of boldness and confidence since they are quite larger than those of his competitors’ boats.

Finished deck showing deck cap and brass feedthrough

Bold bow stem of a Chase boat.

So how did I get involved in building Thankful.  Have you ever undertaken  something that, looking back, seems truly absurd?  Well building a guideboat  and writing a book about it seems that way to me now.  But, in life, sometimes compulsions take over.  Here I am finishing up my fourth guideboat.


For my part the beauty of a guideboat became an obsession.  I really wanted to have a guideboat of my own.  I don’t know where this urge to have a guideboat came from.  I had never rowed one or even been a passenger in a guideboat.  But I just had to have one.  With four kids to raise I certainly couldn’t afford to purchase a guideboat.

So the only way to possess such a treasure was to build my own.  Fortunately I had some experience building small boats.  My Uncle Donald started to build the Sairy Gamp, a very small canoe that has become a legend in the Adirondacks.  When he lost interest in the project, I inherited the plans, materials and strongback necessary to build it.   My son Stew and I built the Sairy Gamp, shown below.

Sairy Gamp

I learned a lot building the Sairy Gamp.  It would serve me well as I moved on to build a guideboat.

I began the project of building my own guideboat with nothing, no plans, or instructions.  Fortunately, that would change.  As luck would have it, there was a guideboat up on saw horses down the lane from our summer place.  I asked its owner, Susan, if I could take the lines off her.   She said “Sure, its yours to work with”.   She said the boat was called Queen Anne and it was very special to her.

I later learned (and perhaps as I was working with Queen Anne) that guideboats have a rather simple DNA.  There are a few vital measurements that are needed to build any guideboat.   If you know the bottom board dimensions, and the stem and rib shapes you can  build one.  Something called the Boston Rule allows you to line off the planking. Nevertheless, I took every conceivable measurement off the Queen Anne.  Much later, when I wrote a book on how to build a guideboat I was very happy that I had been so thorough.

I had two mentors, old time guideboat builders; who were tremendous in their advice and support for my guideboat building venture.  They are Tom Bissell and Bunny Austin.

Tom Bissell holding his guideboat model.

Above, Tom holds a perfectly to scale model of a guideboat that he had built.  It is incredibly detailed, even down to tiny copper tacks along the plank seams.

Tom had taken a course in guideboat construction taught by Adirondack guideboat buiders and had built a boat using lessons learned from the course.  When he learned I was thinking of building a guideboat, he offered to share his expertise with me.  All of it was compiled in a scrap book that he shared with me one evening at his home in Endion.

Bunny Austin was another wonderful source of counsel.

The Rev. Bunny Austin.

Bunny’s family as boat builders goes way back.  His great grandfather, Billy, started building boats at the north end of Long Lake in the late 1800’s.  Bunny’s father, Merle, continued the trade as did Bunny.  One of Bunny’s boats is in the Adirondack Museum’s collection.

I began building my first guideboat in our home in Northern N. J,  a quaint older home, built in 1918.  My basement workshop was not plush, shall we say.  Things in that department went from bad to worse when my family was forced to move when I lost my job.  We ended up moving to New England and buying an old farmhouse in Sudbury, MA built in 1895.  The basement shop had a dirt floor, there was no heat to counter the cold winds filtering through the cracks in fieldstone foundation, the ceilings were low and the lighting poor.  But  I persevered and finally my first guideboat, the Frances C.,  emerged.

Gordon in the Frances C.

So there you have it.  Guideboat races are not won by only the grit and determination of the racers.  The boat and those who designed and built it count too.



The Adirondack 90 Miler Canoe Race-Day 3, 2021

Jon writes:  “Day 3 dawned with a steady, ominous wind in the trees above the hotel, a forbidding sign of things to come…We started in Square Pond at Fish Creek Ponds Campground.  From there we wound our way through a twisty channel into Upper Saranac Lake.  (The three Saranac Lakes, Upper, Middle and Lower are linked together in a  U shape).

Before reaching Upper Saranac Lake, there is a bottleneck caused by a bridge the racers must squeeze under.  To make matters worse, a group of Tourist Class boats were started just before our flight. (Tourist Class paddlers are non-competitive kayakers or canoeists just in the race to finish)  Jon says ” We ran into a jumbled mess of Tourist Class racers.  This was because the Director started our wave only moments later than theirs.  We weaved our way through the boats as best we could, announcing our approach.  It was a mass of boats to navigate through and made for a thrilling start.

Below is the convergence of guideboats, kayaks, and canoes as they all try to get under the bridge.  The “wingspan” of a guideboat, counting the 3 foot beam plus at least 6 feet of oar on each side, is around 15 feet.  This makes it harder for a guideboat to maintain forward momentum in tight situations.  With the oars tucked in, the helmsman is the only source of propulsion.

Jumbled start on Day 3.

Jon and Kevin succeeded in being the first guideboat under the bridge.  “However, there was one two-person guideboat that was committed to staying with us.  They gave us chased the entire day.

Upper Saranac (Lake) was a washing machine of white capped rollers, pushing us and pulling us and at one point nearly pitch poling us.  The big water between Dear Island and Doctors Island was the heaviest.  It caused us to surf down the biggest waves.  I recall looking down on Kevin and thinking “We might go over”.  I was so far up in the air that my paddle couldn’t dig in a brace stroke.”

Gordon here: Jon and Kevin are in real peril.  The waves have become so high that they lift Thankful’s stern out of the water.  At the same time, they threaten to drive her bow into and under the forward wave.  If her bow is driven under water, it could cause Thankful to flip over upside down (pitch pole).

Fortunately, the old school guideboat builders recognized this danger and designed the hull to avoid catastrophe.  The shear line of guideboats rises upward rather abruptly at both the bow and stern.  This adds more buoyancy where it is most needed.  Decks, fore and aft, help prevent seas from entering the boat should the bow be submerged.

Here is a photo of a reproduction of a guideboat originally built by Warren Cole.  It shows the upsweep of the shear line at the bow.

Reproduction of guideboat originally built by Warren Cole in 1905.

There is another route to disaster that could end the race for Kevin and Jon.  Their boat could slip sideways down the face of a wave and flip over, dumping Jon and Kevin into the Lake.  Race over!…..

How to keep this from happening?  Jon is hindered from using his paddle to “brace” the boat and keep it perpendicular to the waves.  As said above, much of the time the stern is so high above the waves that his paddle is useless.  That leaves it to Kevin.  He must maintain forward momentum , pulling hard on the oars as best he can in these very rough seas.  One of the main obstacles is, strangely, the oars.  They are pinned meaning he can’t feather them  With oars that can be feathered you can rotate them on the recovery stroke so the blade is parallel to the water.  With pinned oars there is a greater chance of “catching a crab” as experienced rowers put it.  By that they mean the oar strikes the crest of a wave before the recovery stroke is finished.  This can pull the boat off course, feeding directly into sliding sideways down a wave and capsizing.  So, on the return stroke, Kevin must keep the oars up high, well above the chaos of the churning lake.

Jon and Kevin finally reach safety as they round Doctors Island.  They are on the lee side of the island, blocked from the strongest gusts and horrific waves.  Next is Bartlett Carry.  Jon continues “We arrived at Bartlett Carry only moments in front of the next guideboat.  That boat was committed to keeping us at full pace despite our extensive lead time.  We ran as fast as we could down the hill of the Carry to Middle Saranac Lake.  There we got into the water quickly.

As we left the Carry behind the water was calm until we made the turn into the main lake.  Feeling like we gained a bit we relaxed and focused on efficiency.  The wind was now cross our beam and lapped at the hull.  Things became quite bouncy as we headed towards the Saranac River.  As we approached the shallow river the seas became quite confused, pushing us into the channel.  Tricky stuff! But Thankful handled it well.

Next was the carry around the Upper Lock.  (Should you choose there are hand-operated locks for power boats and such.  They get you around the rapids on the Saranac River.  Obviously, Jon and Kevin choose not to use them today as they would take too much precious time.)

Once around the lock the course proceeds into Lower Saranac Lake.  Here the boats pass Devil’s Pulpit Rock formation.  It is named from a Native American legend of a young man who jumped to his death after being spurned by a woman of his interest.

Lower Saranac Lake returns to the Saranac River again and the lower lock.  The carry around the lock is steep up and then down and is the final carry.  After the carry we jumped back into Thankful, now onto Oseetah Lake.  We had about a 5 minute lead so I confidently suggested a shortcut to pad our lead.  We had used it in the spring during the Round the Mountain Race.  This is where races are won or lost…

We ran aground in the short cut, forcing both of us to jump into the mucky water up to our knees to pull the boat through.  We lost a minute here as the other team chasing us opted to go around and avoid the quagmire we were wading through.  We jumped back into Thankful, covered in mud, and back into the channel.  The other boat was about 100 yards behind us and quickly gaining.

I quietly asked Kevin if he had anything left in the tank.  He was on oars and said he did.  We put the hammer down and he dug down and so did I.  We pushed as hard as we did at any other point during the entire three days.  It was a 40 minute sprint through Lake Oseetah and Lake Flower.

We crossed the finish line about a minute in front of the next boat. Phew!”

Crossing the finish line on Day 3.






The 201 Adirondack 90 miler Race-Day 2

Day 2 of the 90Miler starts below the bridge at Long Lake, heads northeast under the Route 30 bridge, past Round Island and the Camp Islands, and into the Raquette River, just before the end of the Lake at Turtle Beach.  The River flows rather swiftly here up to the Raquette Falls.   There are multiple warnings here about not going further on the River past the entrance to the carry.  One that I (Gordon) remember most vividly is the hulk of a battered and torn up aluminum canoe set upright at the carry entrance.  The carry around the falls is one of the longest of the 90 Miler, about one mile.  It is rough going, hilly, bumpy and stony.

Here is an old illustration of a guide setting off on the carry.  Note that these guideboats are early models with a transom on their stern.  Around 1870 guideboat builders adopted the double-ended design.  This was perhaps to allow the boats to be easier to carry or to make them somewhat lighter.

Early guideboats at the Raquette River Carry.

Once completing the carry, racers join the Raquette River.  This leg of the race concludes at the public launch, called the “crusher” on the Raquette River.  It is just north of the town of Tupper Lake.   It is called the crusher since there used to be a large stone crusher there when Route 30 was built.

Jon’s narrative of Day 2 follows:  “A good night’s sleep and solid breakfast energized us for Day 2, a 30 mile run from Endion in Long Lake to the “crusher” boat launch near Tupper Lake.  We got off the starting line well, benefiting from a tailwind push down Long Lake.

            Start of Day 2-Heading down Long Lake.

We pulled away gradually today, confident in our lead but not wanting to give an inch.  We had several guideboats in sight as we entered the Raquette River.  The boost the current gave us was welcome and we cruised easily into the Raquette River Carry.

The carry is a mile long slog up and over the Raquette Falls,  Never has it been easy but it was an especially brutal climb this year with a fully laden guideboat.  We had our drinking water supply in back packs.  This allowed us to lighten the load and carry some stuff on our backs.  Our goal here was to move efficiently and quickly and get back into the water without sacrificing any time.

Back in the water we saw no guideboats in sight.

We spent the rest of the race catching and passing canoes.  We were surprised and thrilled to finish Day 2 still maintaining a solid lead over any other guideboat.

One more day to go.  Day 3 will prove to be the most difficult of the three legs.

The 2021 Adirondack 90 Miler-Day 1

The first day of the 90 Miler starts in Old Forge, heads  northeast through the Fulton Chain of Lakes, into Brown’s Tract, then into Raquette Lake and down the Marion River, over the old steamboat carry into Utowanna and Eagle Lakes, and ends at Blue Mountain Lake.  So the racers pass through a variety of watercourses, all of them presenting their own unique challenges.

What follows is a narrative written by Jon about the race.  I will add commentary from time to time.

“Kevin and I spent the entire summer training in Thankful, forsaking our usual canoe paddles and focusing exclusively on time in the guideboat seats.  Since the boat was at my house, I would concentrate on rowing solo during the week.  On weekends, Kevin would row while I paddled.  This gave us plenty of oar time.

We also spent a bit of time on practicing out carries.   We would run with the boat on wheels.

Jon and Kevin on a roll.

We would also switch paddle and oar stations while underway on the water.  To do this, the one on the oars stands up to allow the helmsman to duck under him.  The trick is for each to come up into their new seat simultaneously, while maintaining balance.”

The Seamans change positions during a guideboat race,

Here is an old photo of the renowned guideboat racer Howard Seaman and his son John changing positions during a race.

Jon goes on ” I must give tremendous credit to John Homer.  He was a very valuable resource for us.  We tried to absorb as much advice as we could from him in the month leading up to the race. John even fashioned a second pair of soft maple oars to match our primary oars.  We did this in case of breakage.  Race rules dictate that guideboat oars must be of the traditional fixed pin design.

For the helmsman we opted to use a bent shaft racing canoe paddle.  We were more familiar with this paddle design.  We felt it would give us better steering control over the entire race.”

Gordon adds:

“John Homer is a great friend of mine.  John spent over 25 years in the military, proudly serving his country, sometimes in war zones.  When he retired from the military, he decided to establish a business serving small wooden craft boat people.  His business, called Adirondack Rowboat, Paddle and Oar {315 418 0581} is located in North Creek, NY.

John is indeed one of the cleverest people I have ever met.  When he couldn’t find guideboat hardware he found out how to set=up his his own foundry and cast his own oarlocks and other hard to find hardware.  Having majored in metallurgy in college, I know how difficult this is to pull off. This is just one of many examples of  John’s creativity.  John and his son, Dalton. also race every year in the 90 Miler.  Here is John.


My friend John Homer

Thanks for serving John.

This year, 2021, the date of the 90 Miler coincided with the anniversary of 9-11.  To respect that awful day, Jon and Kevin wore commemorative T-shirts.  On the first day they wore red, the second, white and the third, blue shirts.

Gordon narrates:

“The first day of the race takes the racers through waterways with much history.  There is the Fulton Chain noteworthy for its many hotels and hostelries back in the 1800’s.  The chain starts with First Lake near Old Forge and proceeds to Eight Lake.  I will talk some about the history of the Raquette Lake environs later.

Back to Jon:

“We got to the end of Fifth Lake and into the first carry.  We were well in front of the pack, adding to our confidence.

Jon and Kevin in their first carry of Day 1.

However, we knew we had to work hard to stay in front.  This added to the burden of stress we were to experience over the next three days.

We didn’t do an official time trial to determine this. but it was my belief that we were faster with Kevin on the oars than myself.  This is primarily due to boat trim (Kevin being about 20 pounds lighter than I). We managed the rest of the Fulton Chain quickly and efficiently, both feeling very strong.

Next, into Brown’s Tract.  Brown’s Tract is a very windy, narrow, shallow stream.  It provides a real challenge for racers, especially those in guideboats.  Below, John Homer navigates Brown’s Tract in a single person guideboat.

John Homer navigates Brown’s Tract.

But as Jon reports “Brown’s Tract is a lot easier in a two -person configuration as the paddler (helmsman) can predict the curves and communicate with the oarsman as to when to tuck in the oars. This allows the boat to glide through a tight passage.”  Jon calls Brown’s Tract “an interesting negotiation, and exercise in boat leaning and stern directional paddling.”

Another challenge faced by racers are beaver dams.  Jon reports that fortunately most dams have an opening large enough to allow Thankful to pass through.  With some though, you have to get out and pull the boat across.

Here is as photo of Jon and Kevin coming out of Brown’s Tract and entering Raquette Lake when they were contestants in a previous 90 Miler.

Jon and Kevin leaving Brown’s Tract.

They are now in Raquette Lake, a lake known for its rich history.  Back in the late 1800’s Raquette and Blue Mountain Lake were known as a mecca for the rich and famous.

Quite a number of Great Camps were built on or near Raquette Lake.  William West Durant was the author of the Great Camp architectural style.

Great Camps are characterized by large compounds comprised of many separate buildings, each devoted to a separate function.  Durant made clever use of natural materials, like twigs, to embellish the appearance of his buildings.

Another avant-garde trend happened in Blue Mountain Lake.  There the Prospect House was the first hotel in the world to have electric lights in every room, courtesy of Thomas Edison.

The Prospect House, Blue Mountain Lake.

To get to this remote region, the Robber Barons of that day would arrive by overnight train from New York City.  Many would be accommodated in their on private railway coach.  Those headed to Blue Mountain Lake would take a steamboat down the Marion River.

Steamboat on the Marion River.

Back to the racers.  Coming out of Brown’s Tract the racers cross Raquette Lake and enter the Marion River.  They now retrace the path taken by the steamboats.  The Marion River is full of twists and turns but wider than Brown’s Tract.  This makes sense since steamboats negotiated it.

At the end of the Marion River is the Marin River Carry.  The carry is about a quarter mile long and enables one to pass from Marion River to Utowanna Lake.

Back in the late 1800’s, steamboat passengers would disembark  at  Marion River end of the carry and climb aboard open-air railway cars.  A very small steam locomotive would pull the passengers and their duffel to the other end of the carry.  This narrow gauge railroad owned by the Raquette River Navigation Company, was the shortest railroad in the world at that time.

The Adirondack Museum acquired the locomotive and cars.  They are on display in the Marion River Pavilion at the Museum.  Here are photos of the locomotive and one of the cars.

The tiny steam locomotive used at the Marin River Carry.
Railway car used at the Marion River Carry.

Back to the race.  Racers will use the old railroad bed to carry their boats to the put-in at Utowanna Lake.   They are almost home now as they pass through Utowanna and Eagle Lakes into Blue Mountain Lake.

Jon writes about traversing Blue Mountain Lake.

“The first day was characterized by massive wind-driven waves on Blue Mountain Lake.  Negotiating the points means having to go parallel to the weaves periodically.  This can be a bit harrowing, but Thankful handles big lumpy water very well.”

Gordon adds:

The originators of the Adirondack guideboat realized that Adirondack lakes were not always calm.  In s recent 90 Miler gale force winds came whistling down Long Lake on Day 2 of the race.  The canoes didn’t fare very well in the huge swells generated by the wind.  Many were swamped.  As I recall the guideboats were much more seaworthy and handled the heavy seas much better.

Why?  Guideboats have an upward sweep along the shear line.  This hinders large waves from surging over the deck and into the boat, swamping it.

Here I am in one of my guideboats on a calm day. Notice the upward sweep of the shear line, fore and aft.

Jon and Kevin arrive at the first day’s race finish line, the Blue Mountain Lake Town Beach.  They are well ahead of other 2- man guideboat racers.  In fact, it will be almost twenty minutes before the next two-man guideboats appear.

Will they be able to maintain their lead?  Stay tuned…






The 2021 Adirondack 90 Mile Canoe Race

As you may know I follow the 90 miler very closely each year.  My friend Jon owns the Thankful, a guideboat I built a few years back.  He and his friend Kevin race the Thankful in the 90 miler every year.

Jon, on the right and Kevin

They take the race very seriously and train all summer.  By the time the 90 miler kicks off they are at their peak.

Have you ever read “Boys in a Boat”?  It is the story of nine young men who raced in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.  Against all odds they won the gold medal for racing sculls.  So here are our Adirondack “boys in a boat”.  Well they aren’t quite boys now but they are fierce competitors.

Their boat, the Thankful, is very much up to the task of winning.  She is no dainty young lass although she may look demure while underway in a pleasure cruse.  Her laminated ribs made of thin strips of wood held together with resourcinal glue are tougher than steel.  Jon and Kevin tell me she is a FAST boat.  We will see how fast.  Her do or die moment lies ahead soon.

The 90 miler rules governing the race seem stacked against guideboats.  First, the oars must be pinned.  This means they cannot be feathered, or turned sideways during the recovery stroke.  When rowing into a stiff breeze with these oars it feels like you are barely making forward progress.  Another item is the rules made me laugh.  It applies to behavior of guideboat competitors while in the Brown’s Tract  The Brown’s Tract is a twisty, turny narrow stream that must be traversed after you leave the Fulton Chain on your way to Raquette Lake.  The rule states that guideboat competitors cannot stow their oars and use a paddle while in the Brown’s tract.  My friend John Homer can see how tempting it is to switch to a paddle while in the Brown’s tract.  I failed to mention above that pinned oars are unforgiving.   They do not “give” when they strike a pier or riverbank.  That happened to John while zig-zaging  through the Tract.  One of his oars struck a bank causing an abrupt sideways thrust that nearly capsized his boat.  Clearly, damage was done. Sure enough, the gunnel had a sustained large crack,  John and his partner limped to the Day 1 finish line.  Temporary repairs were made the next morning in Tom Bissell’s field before starting Day 2 of the race.

There are many carries on the 90 miler, three of them a mile long or longer.  Guideboat crews  are allowed to carry with them a set of wheels to speed them along the carry.  Here are Jon and Kevin on a roll.

Jon and Kevin on a roll.

To win the two man guideboat flight of the 90 miler the crew must have it all together, the crew and the boat.  Now Thankful has great bloodlines,  She was an offspring of the Queen Anne, a guideboat prized by the Pruyn family.  They commissioned Caleb Chase, of Newcomb, who was a renowned boat builder of the late 1890’s, to build her.   The Queen Anne was a favorite of Anna Pruyn, wife of Robert Pruyn. builder of Great Camp Santanoni   This precious family heirloom was passed down to her granddaughter Susan Pruyn King.  It was in Susan’s backyard in Long Lake that I found her.  Right then I determined to build a replica of her.  Thankful is the third guideboat built after the Queen Anne’s lines.  She is named after Caleb Chase’s wife whose maiden name was Thankful Preston.

Does this guideboat heritage add some karma to this upcoming race?  We will never know but it can’t hurt.

Mike’s Guideboat

It always makes me feel great when I get feedback on my book Tale of an Historic Adirondack Guideboat and How to Build One.  A while back I received an email from Mike who was just finishing a beautiful guideboat built in the traditional Adirondack fashion.  Mike is just the one I envisioned who would benefit from my book.  Why?  Well I spent some time in the Adirondack Museum’s boat shop  as a docent.  My job was to answer questions while Allyson built guideboats.  Many of the questions were routine like “What is it made of” and “How long does it take to build?”.  Then, every so often, someone would express real interest in building a guideboat.  They would ask” Is there a course on how to build a guideboat?” or “Is there a book on building a guideboat?’  In both instances I would have to reply “No”.  Finally after disappointing enough visitors I vowed to write a book on how to build a guideboat.  That came about while I was building my second guideboat Showboat.

I thought at the time, “How outrageous of me to think I can write a book on building the Adirondack icon.  Over many years Adirondack fathers have passed down to sons and uncles to nephews the art of building a guideboat.  All I had going for me was some prior boat building experience and a love of guideboats.  Little did I know what long hours and tedious effort lay ahead.  Mike seemed to grasp what I went through.  He said “I appreciate the great care and time you put into taking the measurements and lines off of the Queen Anne…then to write it down for others to use…tremendous work”.

He goes on to say “As a visual learner I found that seeing the diagrams immensely helpful,  I am sure others will too.  You would have enjoyed seeing xeroxed copies of some key pages of your book taped to  the ribs as I was lining the hull for the strakes to be hung,”  Mike goes on to say “I found myself saying many times as I was translating what you wrote into a real product…”This is what he means”,

Thanks Mike for your honesty and openness.  One of the great fears I had when I published the book was “Have I forgotten anything?  Is there anything I wrote that would mislead someone and cause them to go astray?” Your narrative and reports from others have reassured me that all is well.  It makes all the many, many hours taking the lines off the Queen Anne and the many, many, many hour to write the book and get it published. all worthwhile.

Now let’s look at the boat Mike built.  His boat has the elements of three guideboats in it.  He took Jim Cameron’s bottom board pattern and combined it with John Michne’s  rib patterns from the Virginia and the dimensions for the Queen Anne’s strakes from my book.

Here is the nearly finished product (seats need caning).  What a beauty!

Mike’s guideboat

A side view. The strakes are of Spanish Cedar except for the sheer which is of Alaskan Yellow  Cedar.  The gunnel is of Black Cherry.  The tack work is amazing.!

Side view of Mike’s guideboat.

The deck,  Eastern white pine with a bird’s eye maple center strip.

The deck.

Mike’s final words to me “Thank you for writing your book and passing along such valuable information to help preserve a beautiful work of art and craftmanship.”

My reply “Thank you Mike for sharing your story with all of us.