The life’s work of Stephen Sulavik, The Adirondack Guideboat: Its Origins, Its Builders and Their Boats (Bauhan Publishing, 2018) provides a heavily illustrated history of the iconic Adirondack guideboat.
Stephen Sulavik was a pulmonary surgeon fascinated by the guideboats. Upon his death, his book was shepherded to publication by his friend and former Chairman of the Board of the Adirondack Museum, Robert Worth. He enlisted the help of historian Edward “Ted” Comstock and guideboat builder and expert Christopher Woodward to revise and complete the project.
The Adirondack Guideboat features distinctive characteristics (lake by lake, builder by builder), historic photographs, reproductions of paintings (including those of Winslow Homer), contemporary photos that appear plucked from a design magazine, and a complete glossary of terms related to the Adirondack Guideboat.
Roads scarcely existed in the Adirondacks prior to the 19th century, so travel was largely limited to transport on water. The need to travel with a boat through the woods to another body of water made it essential — particularly for trappers, hunters, and fishermen — to have a boat that was light enough to be carried by one person.
In 1852, a popular summer resort was erected at the foot of Saranac Lake. According to the historian Alfred L. Donaldson, Martin’s Hotel “was the first hotel in the interior Adirondacks built solely to attract people of leisure and wealth.”
Although there has been some dispute, the book claims it was at Martin’s hotel that the first Adirondack Guideboats appeared. Martin hired William McLenathen to build and repair boats for use by guides and sportsmen, and they were light enough to be carried by one person. They were fast but able to accommodate passengers and equipment for lengthy trips into the wilderness.
The boats built at Martin’s were soon to be found at other hotels in the Saranac Lake region. These boats were described as slender, with a clapboard-lapstrake hull secured to matched pairs of natural crook ribs fastened to a flat, narrow bottom board, tapered at both ends. In sleekness and the shape of the bow, they somewhat resembled birchbark canoes, although unlike canoes they had narrow, high-tucked transom sterns.
This distinctive boat soon became widely recognized and referred to as the Saranac or Adirondack boat. By the 1860s, with the commercial availability of screws and small copper tacks, the clapboard lapstrake planks of the earliest guides’ boats could be finely enveloped to make a smooth hull surface, both inside and out. The strakes, or planks, could also be thinner, down to as little as three sixteenths of an inch. Over time the weight of a typical guideboat went from about 120 pounds to just over 70, resulting in a more efficient craft for travel, hunting, and fishing. With its increased lightness, the Saranac boat gained popularity among hotel owners, patrons, and their guides.
The Saranac boat was the precursor of the double-ended, or classic, guideboat we know today, which made its first appearance in the 1860s. Both types, transom-sterned and double-ended, with both clapboard-lapstrake and smooth-skin hulls, were being built simultaneously in the Adirondacks in the 1870s. Preferred by guides, the double-ender grew in popularity. By the late 1880s, the boats had reached the peak of refinement, and double-ended guideboats had all but replaced their transom-built prototypes.
Through its descriptions and illustrations, The Adirondack Guideboat reveals that the boats are distinctive in three regions: Saranac, Long Lake, and Brown’s Tract. The book provides the regional characteristics for guideboats built in each area.
Further, the entire second section of the book is devoted to the 56 known builders of the Adirondack Guideboat from 1852 to the present. They are listed chronologically and grouped into the communities in which they worked. Among them are:
William Alden, a Civil War Veteran, Justice of the Peace and boat builder who was the son-in-law of another guideboat builder, Caleb Chase in Newcomb. Both men’s boats shared distinguishing characteristics., although Chase built both transom stern and double-ended boats. Alden died from pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of 37.
Fred Burns, the only person known to have begun building guideboats as a serious endeavor at the age of 76, in 1968. He built a total of 13, one each year. No two were exactly the same.
John F. Buyce, who built not only boats, but also ornate fireplace sets, wooden snowplows, huge rollers (eight feet high by twelve feet wide) to pack down snow, three-seat buckboards, lumber wagons, and bolsters for hauling logs. Buyce’s son L. Milton Buyce recalls that a sign in front of the shop read: “Odds and Unusual Things that You Can’t Get Done at the Other Place.
Robert W. Frenette, who established Raquette River Outfitters and Spruce Knee Boat Building on High Street in Tupper Lake in 1983 with his partner and co-worker Anne Fleck. On his mother’s side, Adirondack guides go back three generations. At a different location on Tupper Lake, he is still building guideboats today.
Frederick W. Rice, who spent the summer of 1901 conversing about Adirondack Guideboats with a visitor to the region, Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. One of Rice’s guideboats was shown at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition at St. Louis.
There are regional differences in construction that indicate where in the Adirondacks the builder of a particular guideboat was probably working. The third section of the book, therefore, is a guide that provides painstaking detail on how to identify an Adirondack Guideboat’s origins. The shape of the stem profile, for example, will indicate whether the boat was of Saranac Lake, Long Lake, or Brown’s Tract origin. There are also similarities that identify lineages of builders — from father to son, or from a boat builder to a workman in his shop who then strikes out on his own. Most importantly, the construction of these boats makes it reasonable to assume that each boat’s builder has incorporated unique structural characteristics — a builder’s “signature” — by which he can be identified.
Finally, The Adirondack Guideboat features an illustrated glossary with 93 entries, from backrest to yoke wear plates — and featuring clapboard lapstrake, clinker built, coaming, ram bow, rib feet, seat cleats, thole pin, and tumblehome.
Stephen B. Sulavik was raised in New Haven, Connecticut, 250 miles southeast of the High Peaks. His love of the Adirondacks and of fishing, in particular, did not develop until his time at Georgetown Medical School, where he met his wife, Jeanne, a native of Tupper Lake. His first contact with the Adirondack Park was during the mid-1950s when he visited her parents, who owned and operated the Northland Hotel from 1935 until 1960. Sulavik and his family spent summers in Tupper Lake until his death in 2015. Professionally, he was a clinical professor of medicine at Yale University. At the end of his medical career and during his retirement, he poured his energies into researching the history of the Adirondacks, culminating in his first (non-medical) book, Adirondack: Of Indians and Mountains, 1535-1838 (Purple Mountain Press, 2007). Along the way, he also became an expert on identifying guide boats, and so had long planned, that his next project, would be to focus on the indigenous craft that helped shape the development of the region. Those efforts, many years in the making, resulted in this book.
During his 40-year Adirondack career, Ted Comstock has been a museum curator, specialty store owner, independent historian, editorial consultant, and art and old book dealer. One way or another, each of these inevitably has touched upon the Adirondack Guideboat. Today in Saranac Lake, he offers broker and appraisal services for vintage wooden rowing and paddling boats. He continues to marvel, as he did when he first rowed a guideboat as a teenager a half century ago, at this unique “carry boat” and the woodsmen who built them.
Chris Woodward is a builder and restorer of traditional guideboats, in Saranac Lake, with over 35 years experience. He is the third owner/operator of Willard Hanmer’s original shop, the oldest working guideboat shop in the Adirondacks. In 1980 he apprenticed under the last of the master builders, Carl Hathaway and Ralph Morrow. Chris has built 18 guideboats so far, and repaired, refinished, and restored hundreds of vintage guideboats. By using the traditional methods, materials, and tools of the previous generations, each boat is restored to its original condition. His new boats are also built in the traditional manner to the same standard.