Thursday, November 19, 2015

Paddling In Nessmuk’s Adirondack Wake

Will_Madison - NessmukThe nineteenth-century writings of George W. Sears – best known as Nessmuk – have inspired countless Adirondack paddlers. Among the most recent is his great-great-great-grandson Will Madison.

In September, the twenty-two-year-old St. Lawrence University graduate retraced much of Nessmuk’s 1883 canoe trip from the Old Forge area to Paul Smiths and back.

“I’ve known about the family connection for a long time, but it didn’t really hit me until the past couple of years how cool it was,” Madison said.

Nessmuk was a lead writer for Forest and Stream magazine and published numerous articles about his Adirondack canoeing trips. He is credited for popularizing lightweight canoes made by J. Henry Rushton of Canton and was an early proponent of the go-light camping ethic. The canoe used by Nessmuk, the white-cedar Sairy Gamp, was a mere nine feet long and weighed just ten and a half pounds.

“The lightest boat J. Henry Rushton had ever produced, she was so small that Sears could lift her with one hand,” wrote Christine Jerome in An Adirondack Passage, in which she recounted her retracing of Nessmuk’s trip.

Browns_tract - Will Madison - NessmuckMadison didn’t attempt to use a replica of the Sairy Gamp because it would have been too small. Nessmuk was only five-foot-three and 105 pounds. Instead, the larger Madison got permission to use a thirteen-foot, thirty-five-pound white-cedar canoe owned by Tupper Laker Jim Frenette. Jim’s son, Rob Frenette, built the vessel in 1981 while he was at a boat-building school in Maine. Though based on Rushton concepts, it was designed by another builder.

Madison learned of the boat while taking a woodworking class with Rob’s brother, Michael. This summer, Madison worked for Raquette River Outfitters in Tupper Lake, owned by Rob Frenette and Anne Fleck. The vessel held up great for Madison: from September 11 to October 1 he ventured about two hundred miles. His journey was shorter than the one taken by his celebrated ancestor, who traveled 266 miles from mid-July to late August. Nessmuk, though, paddled through both private and public lands, whereas Madison stuck to the public Forest Preserve.

Nessmuk route mapStarting in Old Forge, Madison headed up the Fulton Chain to Raquette Lake and Forked Lake and down the Raquette River to Stony Creek Ponds. He portaged to Upper Saranac Lake, paddled north, and then portaged to Lake Clear Outlet before making his way to Lake Clear, whence he portaged to Little Clear Pond and then headed through the Seven Carries to the St. Regis Lakes. He turned around at Paul Smith’s College on Lower St. Regis and returned to the Raquette. He took the Raquette downriver to Tupper Lake, from where he headed up the Bog River and took Round Lake to Little Tupper Lake. From there, he got a shuttle to Forked Lake and then paddled up Raquette Lake. He took a side trip up the Marion River to visit Blue Mountain Lake and see the Nessmuk exhibit at the Adirondack Museum. After that, he paddled to Old Forge the way he came.

Madison said one of the highlights of the trip was seeing a black bear on the portage near Long Pond on the Seven Carries route. “It stood up on its hind legs and just kind of looked at me like a squirrel would out of curiosity,” Madison said.

The paddler also enjoyed a visit with Tom Thatcher on Indian Point on Raquette Lake. Thatcher is the great-great-grandson of George Thatcher, who is believed to have met with Nessmuk during his trip in 1883. Tom Thatcher wrote about the incident for the Adirondack Almanack, quoting from Nessmuk’s 1884 book Woodcraft.

“There are enthusiastic anglers, however, whose specialty is trolling for lake trout. A gentleman by the name of Thatcher, who has a fine residence on Raquette Lake – which he calls a camp – makes this his leading sport, and keeps a log of his fishing, putting nothing on record of less than ten pounds weight.”

Like their ancestors, Thatcher and Madison met at the Indian Point camp. “It was really cool to meet up on this point and recreate this historic moment,” Madison said.

George Wsashington Sears, aka Nessmuck. Photo courtesy Adirodnack Museum.The Madison family has donated many Nessmuk belongings to the Adirondack Museum, but the family still owns a few prized items, including Nessmuk’s hatchet.

“In his writing, he talked about how it was his most valuable camping item,” Madison said. “He went through a lot of trouble to get it. He had it custom made.”

For the most part, Madison enjoyed spectacular fall weather with only a few rains. “It’s been really beautiful, just amazing, beautiful days of paddling,” he said. “I’ve seen some really amazing sunsets. I’ve had some hard days that have kept me busy paddling, and I’ve had some really relaxing days where I could just fish a lot, take it easy.”

The relaxing nature of the journey would have pleased Nessmuk, who advocated going into the woods with light equipment and a light attitude. As he wrote in Woodcraft, “We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it.”

Photos, from above: Will Madison (photo by Mike Lynch); Will Madison paddles Brown’s Tract Inlet in Raquette Lake on his way to Old Forge (Mike Lynch); a map by Nancy Bernstein; and Nessmuk (photo courtesy of the Adirondack Museum).

This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.

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Mike Lynch is a staff writer and photographer for the nonprofit Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly news magazine with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues. Mike’s favorite outdoor activities include paddling, hiking, fishing and backcountry skiing. In 2011, he paddled the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine. From 2007 until 2014, Mike worked as an outdoors writer and photographer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in Saranac Lake. Mike welcomes story ideas and can be reached at

4 Responses

  1. Bruce says:


    When I look at 50’s vintage topos, there are trails along what used to be the ‘brown’s tract road’ out of Moose River Settlement, but they don’t seem to go all the way through. Can one travel go all the way through today?

    When I read Nessmuk’s adventures, I noted that at the end of one of them, he crossed the Moose River and “landed in the tannery ooze.” Those places with large tanneries must have had a real aura about them, much like towns with paper mills, only much more repugnant.

  2. Alan Jone says:


    I really enjoyed your story about recreating the trip by Nessmunk having canoed most of those waters myself over the years.

    In your sentence:
    “Like their ancestors, Thatcher and Madison met at the Indian Lake camp.”

    Didn’t you mean “Indian Point camp?” (On Raquette Lake.)


  3. Charles Herr says:

    The route Nessmuk took is described in the Museum publication “Canoeing the Adirondacks With Nessmuk” edited by Dan Brenan and whose trip was duplicated with a similar sized Hornbeck canoe by Christine Jerome for her “Adirondack Passage”, also at the Museum across from the Sarry Gamp.

    A few years ago, I was with a group of folks from the Goodsell Museum seeking some semblance of the Peg Leg Railroad that picked folks up at an area near the “fording place” that was not too far away from where the Snyder tannery was . This is in the area of a “Moose river Ext. Road”. Both books are excellent pieces of history, especially Nessmuk’s sites and experiences traveling in the Fulton Chain at an early period.

    Anyways, after a futile search I joined the folks for a walk farther down the Moose River Road towards Boonville/Port Leyden direction and at some point beyond the extension road we walked through a meadow where the land is not too far from the Moose River and came upon the rectangular stone vats that would have been tanning pools. I don’t think I could find them again. Tanning required lots of fresh water for the tannin soup from hemlock chips, but well then there’s also the hides sitting around waiting to prepped for the tanning.

    • Bruce says:


      I have both those books, and many others concerning the folks and places Nessmuk had dealings with. I’ve been all the way through on Moose River Road a couple of times, but really haven’t had an opportunity to explore what’s left of the Moose River Settlement. Next year we’re spending a full two weeks in the Fulton Chain, so perhaps we can.