Sunday, December 27, 2020

Peter Hornbeck, Master Boatbuilder And Wilderness Advocate, 1943-2020

Peter Hornbeck, founder of Hornbeck Boats and master boatbuilder of lightweight canoes and kayaks with a distinctive red stripe below the gunwales, famous throughout the Adirondacks and beyond, died quietly and unexpectedly at his home in Olmstedville on December 26, 2020, after a hike with his family.

Pete was a founding Board member of Protect the Adirondacks since 2009 and served on the Board of the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks (RCPA) before that from 1993 to 2009, serving eight years as the Chair. Pete was an unwavering advocate for the public Forest Preserve, especially on the need for more Wilderness lands in the Adirondack Park. Pete died at 77 years old. (Editor’s note: We posted this article about Pete on Adirondack Explorer’s website last night.)

Pete and I worked on a lot of issues over the years. As Pete tells his Adirondack story, he hitchhiked to the Adirondacks from western New York, when he was a teenager. He talked of walking on the side of Route 12 north of Utica, with a pack on his back, his thumb out, and a Lucky Strike dangling from his lips, and seeing the mountains of the Adirondacks in the distance and falling in love with the place.

Service in the Army and college in Buffalo delayed his plans to get to the Park, but Pete and his wife Ann were both school teachers and made the move to the Adirondacks in 1969. Ann got a job in Minerva teaching social studies and American History and Pete got a job as a elementary teacher nearby in Johnsburg. Pete was a popular teacher, where his 3rd and 6th graders always enjoyed correcting his spelling as he wrote out lessons on the chalkboard.

Adirondack advocate

Pete was a great advocate for the Forest Preserve and Wilderness. He was a strong supporter of state land purchases to expand the public Forest Preserve. But the thing that he most cherished was Wilderness. He loved the wild, motorless waters of the Adirondacks.

He took a lead role when the RCPA organized the Canoe-In for Wilderness at Little Tupper Lake in 1998. People in over 250 canoes and kayaks and other motorless watercraft joined in a protest at newly purchased Little Tupper Lake, which at that time had not yet been classified. With passion and good humor, he addressed the crowd that day. Pete talked about the connection between his business, and other businesses, and a wild Adirondacks, and about how the Forest Preserve was the greatest economic asset this region had. That event was an important milestone in the classification and creation of the William C. Whitney Wilderness Area.

In 2018, Pete was there again, with Ann, his daughter Leigh, and his two grandsons in their specially made 6- and 8-foot Hornbecks, as PROTECT organized the Canoe-In for a Motorless Weller Pond.

Pete retired from schoolteaching to make boats fulltime. He had suffered a heart attack as a relatively young man and said that as he lay in his hospital bed hooked up to tubes and monitors, he thought about the fact that he had not yet perfected boatmaking.

Master boatbuilder

Starting in 1971, Pete had experimented out of his garage with how to make lightweight canoes in the spirit of famed 19th century Adirondack boatbuilder John Henry Rushton of Canton, who had made the Sairy Gamp, among many other boats, which was used by George Washington Sears to paddle far and wide across the Adirondacks, trips memorialized in a series of popular articles written under the pen name Nessmuk. Pete studied the measurements and design of Rushton’s boat at the Adirondack Museum and used them to create a line he called Lost Pond Boats because they were light enough to carry into Lost Pond. The name Lost Pond Boats never took, and “Hornbecks” became known far and wide, growing in popularity because they were extremely lightweight, incredibly durable, easy to turn on twisting Adirondack rivers, great for fishing, and easy to portage or haul over a beaver dam.  The photographer Carl Heilman was an early Hornbeck devotee, and these boats featured prominently in many of Carl’s classic Adirondack landscapes.

Hornbecks were made first with Kevlar and then with carbon fiber, which created a 10-foot boat at 12 pounds in weight, ideal for pond-hopping in the Adirondacks. Slowly, the business took off, additional boatbuilders were added, buildings were built, and Pete branched out to guideboats, kayaks, and different lines of solo and tandem canoes, the newest being the New Tricks series.

Over the years, Pete liked to say that he was “the biggest industrialist in Olmstedville.” Early on in the life of Hornbeck Boats, Pete ran ads picturing himself in one of his boats. He said that in those years he sold boats mostly to old, skinny, gray-haired men. Then he started running ads picturing his wife Ann, with her bright red hair, paddling a Hornbeck, and he said he then started selling boats mostly to women. Evelyn Greene, who has put more miles on her Hornbeck than just about anybody, said of Pete “I will always thank him for making our wild adventures possible, without needing the help of a man or other person younger and/or stronger than we. He gave us Freedom!”

He generously donated boats to dozens of organizations to raffle or auction, raising untold thousands. There were few things more fun for me than calling a lucky winner to tell them they had won a Hornbeck canoe in a raffle and hear the screams of delight on the other end of the phone.

Fond memories

Weekends at Hornbeck Boats were festive. Over the years, I was at the shop many times. Pete was fond of saying that all the world came through his gates. A collection of buildings housed workshops for the molding of boat hulls, woodworking, storage, a showroom and office, all centered around picnic tables and chairs. There was a small pond where people tried paddling various boats, which often branched out to fishing and swimming. Kids loved the place. Many people stopped in for repairs, and many others simply to visit. All types of people from everywhere showed up and they all took a shine to Pete. Early in his Kevlar boat-making days a customer asked if Kevlar could really stop a bullet. Pete said yes. The guy said he had a rifle in his truck and asked if Pete wanted to stand behind his words. Pete set up a scrap of Kevlar on some sawhorses, and the guy shot it clean through.

Pete was also part marriage counselor. He’d watch a couple paddle together trying out one of his tandems, arguing about who should paddle on which side, and who should steer, and then he’d gently say “You two may want to try each paddling your own solo boat.”

For years, Protect the Adirondacks held its day-long Conservation Advocacy Committee meetings on Saturdays in Pete’s painting studio over his showroom at Hornbeck Boats. We’d crowd in to hash out our positions and responses to the pressing matters of the day. Pete would be in and out of the meeting, his words noted by all. At lunch, he’d buy everybody pizza, and at the end of the day, as the meeting broke up, PROTECT’s leaders would mingle with customers in the Hornbeck social hour, with Pete often sitting and holding court as he slowly puffed on a cigar.

When the RCPA ran a certification program for sustainable forestry in the 1990s-2000s, Pete was one of a pool of certified landowners. He said he was on a first name basis with many of the trees on his property and would not be cutting any, though he worked up a forest management plan. Though the program ended, the certification sign still hangs there today and reads “Hornbeckistan.” Pete did things his own way, whether following his dream to live in the Adirondacks, or building boats, or how he spent his time.

In the early 2000s when I was the RCPA Executive Director I participated in an executive directors training program through the Institute for Conservation Leadership. Three dozen EDs from grassroots groups in New England, the Upper Midwest and Canada went through extensive trainings over an 18-month period. We would all meet together for multi-day workshops. At one, we had to attend with our Board chair, and Pete and I flew to Minnesota. Pete said there was no way that he was going to sleep in a dorm room at a retreat center and brought his tent. He found a spot in the woods on the retreat center campus. He gamely attended the sessions and showed up for meals, but one afternoon he said he had had enough and was going to read and nap in his tent, and just blew off the afternoon sessions. As I made my way through the various exercises that afternoon alone without my Chair, a bunch of the other EDs came up to me and said “I love your Chairman, where can I get one just like that?”

Pete was easy to find at the shop, and many former Johnsburg students would stop in. He talked of one student who always stopped in when he came back to visit his parents. The kid had gone on to college and become a chemical engineer and just loved it. He worked for a big company in Buffalo and lived in a Buffalo suburb, near where Pete had grown up. “We switched lives,” Pete said. “That kid could not wait to get the hell out of the Adirondacks, and really couldn’t understand why I love it so much up here. Just like I could not wait to get the hell out of Buffalo and I can’t understand why he’d ever want to live there.”

Over the last 20 years, Pete regularly camped in the St. Regis Canoe Area, and other wild places, with a group of old men camping buddies that was humorously called the League of Extraordinary Adirondack Gentleman, which included Patrick Sisti and Howard Amann, who died in recent years, the photographer and medical doctor Dan Way, Bill McKibben, Tom Curley, and Mike Prescott, among others.

In these last few years, as his boatmaking dropped off, Pete painted a lot, and completed many watercolor landscapes.

My two children both learned to paddle in a 9-foot Hornbeck that Pete gave them because, as he said, it was the perfect boat for kids.

In many ways, Pete’s lasting legacy beyond the love of his family, beyond the stands he took to protect the Adirondacks, is the thousands of Hornbecks paddled every year. Hornbecks are everywhere. I’ve seen them on Cape Cod, in Georgia, and up and down Interstate 95. Everywhere I paddle in the Adirondacks, they are widely used and loved. They are boats conceived in Wilderness, and they are boats that honor the wild Adirondack landscape.

Pete is survived by his wife Ann, daughter Leigh, a noted reporter with the Times Union, and his son-in-law Josh Trombley, who took over Hornbeck Boats in recent years, and two grandsons Rushton and Devlin, who Pete absolutely adored, and a pack of wild dogs.

Click here for a gallery of photos of Pete Hornbeck.

Share your memories/thoughts in the comments below.

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Peter Bauer

Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks.

He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve.

Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife and two children, enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.

Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Twitter.




21 Responses

  1. David Gibson says:

    Peter, one of the best “in memory and in honors of” I’ve ever read; straight from your heart. Thank you.
    God rest, Pete. Condolences to Ann and Leigh and families. Keep blading ahead. Protect our waters.

  2. Chris says:

    Thanks for all your contributions in work and spirit, Pete. Gods speed!

  3. Dave West says:

    Mr. Bauer, thank you for your chronicle of Peter Hornbeck’s life and contributions to the Adirondacks. I am sure that, like many other regular visitors to the ADKs, we’ve heard of Peter Hornbeck. We may know his name from his boats. We may have run into him at the Adirondack Hotel in Long Lake, We could have been involved in any of the many environmental interests he loved and contributed to. If you were fortunate enough to have known him, you know that Peter’s presence was unmistakable. I consider myself fortunate to have known him. He will be missed.

  4. Bob Meyer says:

    Pete’s passing is a tremendous loss to his family, all who knew him and the Adirondacks! My condolences to the Hornbeck family. May his memory be a blessing and may he rest in peace.

  5. Phil Brown P says:

    A well-written and fitting tribute that captures Pete’s spirit–as does the photo of him smiling.

  6. Henrietta Jordan says:

    Oh, Pete, gone way too soon! Every dip of my paddle from my beloved “New Trick” will be a prayer of thanksgiving to you and the lakes, rivers, and ponds you opened up to me. And to Pete Bauer. thank you for a lovely tribute to a man who enriched so many lives, including my own.

  7. Smitty says:

    What a wonderful man Peter was and how fortunate we were to have met him. We went to his workshop and testing pond to buy a boat, thinking it would be maybe a 30 minute process. Instead, he “held court” with us for several delightful hours discussing boats, Adirondack policy, and all manner of things. I’m so happy that I got him to autograph my prized 12-footer. Every paddle in backcountry ponds will be a tribute.

  8. Brian Sullivan says:

    Rest in Peace, Pete Hornbeck. By following your passion for lightweight boatbuilding, you improved the quality of life for countless others. As early members of the (no longer so exclusive) club of Hornbeck paddlers, my wife and I have enjoyed expanding our explorations of the quiet waters of the Adirondacks year after year.
    Yours was a life well lived. Our deepest condolences to Ann and the entire Hornbeck family.
    Brian Sullivan & Cathy Herman

  9. Tom Philo says:

    Good column ~ We are all saddened by the loss of this good man. My family has 7 Hornbecks and it was always a pleasure seeing Pete and purchasing one of his boats. There wasn’t a nicer man on the planet! Rest in Peace Peter Hornbeck one way or another you will al;ways be with us!

  10. Ed says:

    There should be a pond or lake named after him.

    • Tom Philo says:

      Amen ~ Agree 100%

    • Ed Burke says:

      Lost Pond near Putnam Pond would be an obvious choice. Maybe rename it Lost Hornbeck Pond. I borrowed a friend’s Lost Pond boat around 1985 because I had sold my 12′ Radisson. The Radisson was light but the Hornbeck was featherweight. Definitely a game changer for the Adirondacks as many brook trout probably found out.

  11. Terry says:

    Beautiful tribute, Mr.Bauer, to a beautiful soul! If one could add Pete Hornbeck’s death to a list of tragedies we’ve experienced in 2020, let’s have our loss catapult us into more positive, productive and caring beings. Let’s be like Pete!!

  12. Mark Phillips says:

    An anecdote about my purchase of a Lost Pond. A new guy was in the shop when I arrived and the more experienced workers had already left. While there, I decided to also buy the carry system Pete had devised (a backpack that attached directly to the canoe). The worker drilled one of the carry-system bolt holes too close to the edge of the gunnel trim, making it likely that eventually the cherry would split. I pointed this out to the worker, who then went to the house and got Pete, When he reached the shop, Pete asked me, “How much off?”
    I didn’t know what he meant.
    He explained, “I mean, how much money do you want off?”
    I didn’t want any money off, just wanted the hole drilled again, but Pete said, “That’s not how we do things here. I’ll repair the problem and drop $100 from the price.” I repeated that I didn’t need or want any money back, but he insisted.
    A little later, when Pete was out of earshot, I tried to give the worker a $20 tip. I felt bad about embarrassing him. But he said, “Oh, no. Thank you, but I won’t take it. Pete takes good care of me.”
    That was 13 or 14 years ago, maybe more, and I’m still moved & encouraged by the decency I found at Hornbeck Boats.

  13. Jeffrey Sherman says:

    A great loss for all of us who believe in protecting the wildness and natural beauty of the Adirondacks. He was the most devoted and outspoken advocate of all for these goals. We have lost a hero. My heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.
    What will be the best way to honor his work?
    Jeffrey Sherman, M.D.

  14. Vanessa Banti Vanessa says:

    RIP Mr Hornbeck, you were indeed legendary ❤️

  15. Jon Voorhees says:

    A wonderful man. Idealistic, and realistic, too. He’s going to be sorely missed.

  16. Henrietta Jordan says:

    For years, I lusted for a Hornbeck solo canoe. Finally, when the Boreas Ponds were opened to the public, I bought my very own “New Trick,” and although I have 3 kayaks and 1 other solo canoe, the Hornbeck is always my first choice. Mike Carr, who ingeniously put together the Finch Pruyn land conservation deal that saved the Boreas Ponds, likes to say that Pete engineered an extra-large canoe just for him–and he has been paddling it on other lakes whose shorelines Adirondack Land Trust has preserved. Adirondack Land Trust was one of the many organizations Pete supported with a donated Hornbeck for auction. I remember packing out of Boreas with my Hornbeck and encountering an old-timer who had portaged a much heavier canoe. “You’re a tough old broad, ain’t you? he remarked. I didn’t let on that my boat weighed only 15 pounds. Thank you Pete Bauer for this wonderful tribute, and thank you, Pete Hornbeck, for my wonderful boat and the “tough old broad” moniker I will treasure forever.

  17. Todd Eastman says:

    Pete’s boats opened up many folks minds to the potential of wild travel in the Adirondack Park, many of the additions to the Forest Preserve were possible from the support of many who learned about the remote places through their adventures in his boats.

    Long live Pete!

  18. alice gail bier says:

    my brother in law (sort of) said that the closest thing to a wedding ring I would receive from his brother in law was the Nessmuk–how I cherish it, and the long relationship we had….

  19. Warren S Harman says:

    I imagine that for every Hornbeck canoe sold there is a Pete Hornbeck story. Ours began with a trip to his shop one day when we were staying in Indian Lake. I had finally saved enough to buy a canoe and couldn’t wait to get it. We arrived and there was no one there so we sat on the porch after walking through the office and looking at the canoes. Finally, Pete came walking over the hill and sat down to talk with us. Apparenetly, with Peter, buying a canoe wasn’t a transaction but an event. Even though we discovered that it was his day off, our discussion took what seemed to us to be all afternoon. When we suggested that wewere really there to buy a canoe, he said that if he went home he would have to paint a room. Finally I was able to try a canoe on his pond with him and we bought one. Then, he insisted on extending the width of my roof rack to accomodate our Bell solo canoe as well as the Hornbeck. He gave me the longer pipes and wouldn’t take my shorter ones in trade. Last but not least, he presented us with a Sharpie Hornbeck original sketch thanking us for his new tent. (He had just discovered mouse holes in his old one as he was preparing for a canoe trip)

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