Building a traditional Adirondack guideboat is a complex task, with ribs carved from spruce-tree roots and with thin hull planks held in place with several thousand tiny tacks. It can take many weeks to complete one.
“I grew up working with wood one way or another, and these are by far the most complex, demanding things, by a long shot, I’ve ever built,” said Rob Davidson, who started building guideboats a few years ago after moving to the Adirondacks from Oregon.
Most builders spend about three months on one boat and might sell it for $18,000 to $20,000. Jim Cameron, a builder on Upper St. Regis Lake, tells
prospective customers that he charges about $1,000 a foot for a fourteen-foot solo guideboat.
“They’re definitely the most beautiful small craft ever made, and they’re the only thing that is completely unique to the Adirondacks,” Cameron said.
Perhaps the most defining feature of the guideboat is its spruce ribs, to which thin cedar or pine planks are screwed. The beveled planks are then tacked together. Typically, the boats have one or two seats and a flat bottom board that runs the length of the vessel.
Alas, this Adirondack native is not practical for most people. Apart from their cost, guideboats are heavy and a bit bulky. The average guideboat is about sixteen feet long and weighs roughly sixty pounds. These days, people opt for lightweight canoes, plastic kayaks, and aluminum motorboats.
Because of the cost, guideboat buyers are often wealthy people with an interest in Adirondack history. Many have seasonal Great Camps on lakes. The Ausable Club and Adirondack League Club each owns dozens of the boats.
Yet guideboats have never exactly been mainstream outside of a few parts of the Adirondacks during the nineteenth century. Boat-builder Chris Woodward said only a few thousand traditional guideboats were made back in the day and very few are made today.
For Woodward and other builders, none of that matters. They build and restore guideboats because they love the crafts and the craftsmanship. All of the boats’ wooden materials come from native Adirondack trees.
“To be honest, I’d rather dig up a stump in the black flies than deal with mixing up epoxy and getting goop all over,” Woodward said, referring to chemicals used in modern guideboats and canoes. “There’s something satisfying and Zen-like about running a planking bevel with a hand plane. It takes time, but it’s not noisy. It’s very satisfying to do that.”
For all their beauty and craftsmanship, the original guideboats served a practical purpose. They were used by guides in the middle and late nineteenth century to take sports on hunting and fishing trips. They were fast, yet quiet enough to sneak up on fish and game, and they easily accommodated two people. A guide could row the boat from the middle of the vessel while his client fished in the back. And there was plenty of room for gear.
Many have thought that Mitchell Sabattis, a nineteenth-century guide from Long Lake, built the first guideboat, but Woodward said that isn’t the case. Sabattis isn’t believed to have the boat-building skills to construct such a craft.
Woodward, who is working on a detailed history of guidebooks with Explorer board member Bob Worth and others, said one strong theory is that a builder named William McLenathen from Jay built the first guideboat at Martin’s hotel on Lower Saranac Lake about 1850. Little else is known about him. At about the same time, Caleb Chase in Newcomb also was building guideboats, and some claim he built the first one.
Regardless, in the coming decades, guideboats became more popular, especially in the Fulton Chain of Lakes, the Saranac Lakes region, and the Long Lake/Raquette Lake region. In each part of the Adirondacks, guideboats would develop distinctive characteristics. And hotels, such as the one owned by Paul Smith on Lower St. Regis Lake, kept dozens of them, which were frequently used by guides and guests.
Woodward began restoring and building guideboats after taking a boat-building class at North Country Community College in the early 1980s. The instructor was Carl Hathaway, a skillful craftsman whose boat shop in Saranac Lake was once owned by Willard Hanmer, who had opened it in 1930. Hanmer and his father, Theodore, were both well-respected boat builders. Hathaway bought the shop from Hanmer in 1963, and Woodward bought it from Hathaway in 1991.
Over his career, Woodward has built eighteen guideboats. That’s not as many as some people (Cameron has built twenty-nine), but Woodward believes he has worked on more guideboats than anyone alive—about two hundred. And he’s seen about a thousand of the boats. Generally, the craftsmen say they make most of their money restoring boats, not building them. Building a new boat requires a commission, which is hard to come by.
Woodward and other builders worry that their art might not be passed on to the next generation. North Country Community College no longer offers its boat-building class, and Woodward said most builders cannot afford to hire assistants.
“There’s nobody coming up,” Woodward said. “There’s not a pathway for younger kids to get into this business really. I quite frankly have never had a kid approach me about wanting to learn it.”
One exception is forty-year-old Allison Warner, who began restoring guideboats in 1999 under the tutelage of Rob Frenette in Tupper Lake. In 2003, she started building them for the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, where the public can watch her at work in the summer. She’s now building her ninth boat.
Warner is optimistic that the craft will be carried on by younger generations. She got interested in building guideboats after attending the No Octane Regatta, an Adirondack festival that attracted many traditional boat-builders. Also, she once rowed a guideboat made by Michael Frenette, a carpenter she worked for at Great Camp Santanoni while she was in AmeriCorps. Michael is the brother of Rob Frenette, Warner’s teacher.
Rob Frenette is a respected guideboat builder in Tupper Lake, where he owns Raquette River Outfitters with his partner Anne Fleck. Frenette’s original business plan in the early 1980s was focused on guideboats and guided trips. When he started the business in his twenties with his cousin Rob Gillis, he owned five guideboats, and the two would lead clients on multiday trips from Old Forge up the Fulton Chain of Lakes and Raquette River to his shop in Tupper Lake. He said he was “trying to mirror what happened a hundred years before.”
At about the same time, Frenette planned on opening a guideboat-building shop. He figured he’d have the field to himself after Hathaway and others of his generation retired. With that in mind, he attended a school in Maine to learn how to make traditional wooden boats. To his surprise, Hathaway started teaching his course at North Country Community College while Frenette was in Maine. “So when I was away for that year, they were teaching twelve people how to be guideboat builders,” he said with a laugh.
Now sixty, Frenette has built twelve guideboats, but his work was interrupted for years due to a prolonged battle with cancer. He believes that the cancer was caused by chemicals he was exposed to when stripping boats and doing carpentry. In recent decades, he’s been very careful about what he exposes himself, too. He just recently finished his first guideboat in a long time. It took him four years to build. At first, he was reluctant to take on the project, but he later found it healing.
“I told the guy, I don’t even know if I want to build anymore. I’ve been so weak and sick, but then when I started working on it I found it really rewarding,” he said. “It was therapeutic to get back to work. It really helped my brain recover from the chemo process because it’s such a thought process to build a boat. Then I just found I enjoyed the handwork again. It was challenging as ever, even more challenging, but it was rewarding.”
Photos, from above: Boat-builder Jim Cameron; Chris Woodward builds and restores guideboats; Allison Warner and Rob Davidson at their shop in Lake Clear; and Rob Frenette makes wooden yokes as well as guideboats (photos by Mike Lynch).
A version of 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.