There’s nothing wooden about a tree, a friend who happens to be a poet once remarked. The same could be said about a true Adirondack guide-boat. There’s nothing wooden about it. The offspring of this region’s woods and waters, it is the most elegant rowing boat ever built. Handled properly, an anonymous sportsman once wrote, “it obeys the prompting of every impulse, and is so easily propelled in smooth water you need never tire.”
Easier said than done, of course. But even clumsy rowers, or those who have only rowed a metal clunker, find themselves besotted by the guide-boat’s lines, workmanship and history. Ask any one of the millions of people who have visited the Adirondack Museum, whose guide-boat collection is among its most popular attractions.
That collection was formed largely through the efforts of Kenneth Durant, whose scholarly research was the basis of the first and best book about the region’s native craft, The Adirondack Guide-Boat.
Completed by Durant’s wife Helen and published by the Museum in 1980, six years after his death, the book is a mixture of social history, small boat taxonomy and technical instructions. Unfortunately, it has long been out of print. The good news is that it has been reprinted by the Adirondack Museum.
Durant’s curiosity about the guide-boat was rooted in his own experience. His father, Frederick C. Durant, was the developer of the Prospect House on Blue Mountain Lake, the first luxury hotel in the Adirondacks. To accommodate his own family, Durant built a camp on Forked Lake in the style made popular by his relative, William West Durant, which they called “Camp Cedars.” Warren Cole, the Long Lake guide-boat builder, was the family’s guide, and Durant spent much of his youth in the guide-boat that Cole built specially for him.
Not long after graduating from Harvard, Durant spotted Cole rowing a sleeker version of his own boat, which he purchased from the builder. He would own it until 1957, the year he donated it to the Adirondack Museum
“I spent a large part of my youth in a guide-boat without ever looking at the boat unless it sprang a leak, and not until it was in the museum and I no longer in the boat did I begin to look at it with attention and curiosity,” Durant once wrote to John Gardner, the noted historian of American boats.
For the next decade, Durant devoted himself to researching the origins and construction of the guide-boat.
Between the 1720s, when a northern traveler observed “very light battoes, which may easily be carried on Men’s shoulders” and the 1890s, by which time guide-boat had been perfected, lay “an interval of obscure experimentation,” Durant wrote.
The task he set for himself was to trace the evolution of the guide-boat through that “interval of obscure experimentation.”
Before Durant began his researches, it was commonly assumed that Mitchell Sabattis, the Native American guide, hunter and all-around “prodigious fellow” invented the guide-boat as a lighter, swifter alternative to canoes.
Durant, however, came to understand that “No individual held a patent… No one hesitated to copy or improve the work of others, to follow the best methods or the best patterns available. Father and son worked together. Thus an art was passed from hand to hand and from generation to generation.”
He also found that the Adirondack guide-boat owed more to a Cornish gig than a Native American canoe, an insight that enabled him to place the boat within its proper context, that of American rowing boats.
Whitehalls, St. Lawrence skiffs, Banks dories, Monomoy surfboats and other boats of that ilk evolved to meet the particular needs of those who would use them. And, as the naval architect Francis Herreshoff once remarked, “out of perfect adaptation to use came beauty.”
An Adirondack boat had to be light enough to be carried by one man across portages, yet spacious enough to carry game, gear and luggage.
By the 1890s, when tourists began flocking to the region, they found a craft already suited to their needs.
Those needs could not have been met so perfectly had the appropriate materials not been at hand. Fortunately, the region abounded in old growth pine for planks and spruce roots for knees and light but sturdy ribs.
The wood available to a boat builder may limit his design, but it may also inspire him, Durant believed
“In an age of plywood, plastic and light metals, the carpenter’s dependence upon the qualities of wood is often forgotten. Spruce gave to the Adirondack builder what he needed, and he built accordingly,” Durant wrote.
The guide-boats full development was contingent upon yet another accident of history: the invention of a machine able to make the thousands of development of brass screws and copper tacks needed to hold the boat’s planks together.
Now that the Adirondack Museum has reprinted The Adirondack Guide-Boat, it should be encouraged to reprint its Guide Boat Days and Ways, Durant’s 1963 anthology of historical source materials, ranging from the earliest accounts of boating in the region to the reminiscences of builders such as Dwight Grant and Willard Hanmer.
Someone should also write Durant’s biography. A member of Harvard’s class of 1910, which also included John Reed and T.S. Eliot, he attended the Versailles peace conference as an aide to Woodrow Wilson’s envoy, Colonel House. And before retiring to Jamaica, Vermont, and devoting himself to researching the evolution of the guide-boat, he was the US bureau chief for TASS, the Soviet news agency.
Helen Durant, whom he married after the death of his second wife, a poet and biographer of Emily Dickinson named Genevieve Taggard, was celebrated in her own right as a film editor, having worked with on Joris Ivens’ 1936 Spanish Civil War film, The Spanish Earth, and Robert Flaherty’s “Louisiana Story,” among other seminal documentaries.
Their guide-boat researches occasionally brought them to Lake George to study the bateaux that had just been discovered at the bottom of the lake, and they visited my family often in Warrensburg, usually when traveling from their home in Vermont to Hamilton County, which Durant always called “the woods” and which he believed was the true Adirondacks.
(He once wrote to his friend, canoe authority Paul Jamieson: “When I was half as old as I am now we could say unctuously, ‘There are no venomous snakes in the Adirondacks,’ reciting a bit of nature lore: ‘Rattlesnakes do not advance beyond the oaks.’ Then, when I was not looking, someone moved the Blue Line around Lake George and took in oaks and rattlesnakes–and worse.”)
While he may have been harsh on Lake George, I remember Kenneth as the gentlest of men. And he managed to impart to many, through his books, his conversation and his example, something of his passionate interest in wooden boats and their history on the lakes of the Adirondacks. Those of us who have learned from him had had richer lives as a consequence.
Lake George Mirror file photos, from above: Kenneth Durant; S.R. Stoddard’s “View from the Stern”; a boat light enough to be carried by one man.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Lake George Mirror.