By Daniel Way
As the dismal year of 2020 circled the drain in the waning months of summer, the tremendous impact of the COVID pandemic was being felt throughout the country, including the Adirondacks. Even the League of Extraordinary Adirondack Gentlemen, our tongue-in-cheek group of men of a certain age who enjoy an annual outing within the Blue Line found it hard to convince our significant others (and ourselves) that we could behave, stay safe, and maintain social distancing while having fun around a campfire for over 24 hours. In order to justify our continued existence, we needed to think outside the box.
Although the hiking trails and campsites we usually frequented were being heavily used as a welcome escape from the news cycle and the virus, the many non-profit organizations that help local causes were taking a financial beating. In the end we decided to combat the coronavirus’s negative impact on fund-raising for Adirondack non-profit organizations by using our combined manpower in an altruistic fashion. The inspiration for a new agenda came from our senior member Peter Hornbeck who, as he often does, came up with a simple yet clever idea. (Editor’s note: See Dan’s poignant tribute to Pete Hornbeck, who passed away Dec. 26, 2020)
“Let’s build a boat,” he said to me during a July phone visit. “I’d like to donate one to The Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation for a fundraising raffle – they could use our help.” I thought about it for a moment; having visited his boat shop during boat-building hours, I knew we would be working with powerful fumes from the liquid plastic used in building the magically-light, hand-made Kevlar hulls that have made Peter Hornbeck a legend in his own time over the last forty-plus years. I was skeptical that our members, many of whom had also witnessed the process, would agree to spend a day toiling indoors instead of paddling on scenic Adirondack waters. So we chose a Sunday in late August when Hornbeck’s regular crew would be off, and would welcome our newest LEAG member, WNYT’s meteorologist Neal Estano, a renowned fly fisherman and Adirondack paddler. Peter promised to provide us with lunch, full-body Tyvek suits, plus cannister-filtered facemasks that would keep out the fumes- and any viruses.
Anyone who lives within the Blue Line is familiar with Hornbeck boats, even if they don’t own one. How many of us have passed a car, SUV or truck sporting on the roof one or two of his iconic yellow Kevlar or black carbon-fiber boats with the tell-tale red stripe along the sides? His boats are considered to be the closest thing to bling that is manufactured within the Blue Line, and when one of his boats is raffled off by non-profit organizations for fund-raising, they will often raise $10,000 in ticket sales. Hence, our group felt privileged to take part in his new form of philanthropy.
The boat repair storage shed
So it was that on a breezy, partly cloudy morning on August 30, 2020, a quorum of seven LEAG members, including erstwhile Associated Press Chairman Tom Curley, renown Adirondack guide Mike Prescott, well-known Adirondack folksinger Dan Berggren, landscape photographer Tom Bessette, Peter and myself welcomed Neal Estano to the group at the Hornbeck Boats campus in Olmstedville.
Unfortunately, brewpub owner and brewmaster Rick Davidson, who was probably the most eager LEAG member to join us, had to call in sick at the last minute due to a head cold he caught from his five-year-old son. Three other members, Bill McKibben, Tom Warrington and Rick Rosen were reluctantly absent due to injury or other commitments. But we were eager to meet Estano, and he would prove his worth almost immediately. After we all introduced ourselves to him, Neal set up his phone camera in the boat shop to film what would prove to be a fascinating and amusing time-lapse documentary. As Peter was hoping to publicize our event to generate some buzz about the event, it would serve the purpose well.
Before entering the boat-building shop, Hornbeck passed out of Tyvek suits and cannister masks to each of us. “You can take them home with you”, he said; “They might come in handy later for Halloween!” He wrote our names on our suits so we could identify each other, then, looking like we had stepped out of a Ghostbusters movie, we gathered around a workbench as he explained the process of how to build a Hornbeck Classic hull.
Our first step was to sign our names to a sheet of Kevlar fabric which would be built into the hull, to personalize our creation. Pete then filled a plastic bucket with almost a gallon of liquid polyester, added a few ounces of methyl ethyl ketone peroxide as a catalyst, and stirred. He then put the resin concoction aside as we gathered around a red plastic hull mold.
“We’re going to line the mold with the resin liquid,” he said, “then apply layers of Kevlar which we will press against the inside of the mold with brushes and paint rollers to get out all the bubbles and wrinkles. I will take care of the ends of the hull ‘cause they are a little tricky; you guys focus on the middle two-thirds. We’ll build more layers there while I add more polyester, so you will end up applying four layers eventually. We’ll put the autograph sheet under the last full-length layer, which will seal it into the hull itself. When we’re done, we’ll let the boat harden while we eat lunch. I can show you around the grounds after that, and in about an hour and a half we can come back and pull the hull out of the mold and I’ll apply the red stripe. The finishing work applying the wood along the gunnels and thwarts will be done by my crew later.”
Tom Curley asked, “How many of these can you make in a typical day?” “Usually at least four,” was the reply. “And how many orders have you had this year?” I asked. “Over six hundred so far”, he said. “The COVID virus has actually been good for business- we have already set a record this year, and we have about five weeks of orders we haven’t built yet! When you think about it, people can still enjoy paddling on a lake or stream since they are socially distancing while enjoying the great outdoors.” Having visited the Facebook page of the Hornbeck Boat Lovers group, I had seen for myself the robust paddling activity of his 1000+ followers from the Adirondacks to places as far away as Sweden and the cypress swamps of the lower Mississippi region.
We entered the boat-building shop, where there were four red plastic boat hull molds on sawhorses, and we gathered around the one closest to the door. Having given us his brief tutorial, Peter poured a quart or so of the liquid polyester mix into the mold, and passed out a few paint brushes and two paint rollers to the nearest men. After donning latex gloves, we proceeded to spread the pungent liquid down the length of the mold and up the sides. We noted with relief how well our cannister filters were eliminating the fumes as we breathed through our masks.
A few minutes later, Pete pulled up a four-foot-wide roll of Kevlar fabric mounted on a wheeled rack to the foot of the boat mold. After unrolling a sheet of it down the length of the mold, we feverishly brushed and rolled the layer into the resin until it was completely adherent to the walls with no bubbles or wrinkles. Pete then cut away the excess Kevlar around the edges and laid down a piece of pre-cut fabric along the middle two-thirds of the boat, added another quart of resin, and we once again took to our brushes and rollers. Since there were more of us present than could fit around the mold, we passed the tools around so everyone had a fair chance to get the hang of the process. He repeated the full-length layer alternating with the reinforcing middle layers, sandwiching in our autographed panel as we brushed and rolled, then trimmed the edges again until, after less than two hours, we had completed the job. By then, our Tyvek suits and gloves were sticky with splashed polyester, so after removing them, we were ready to break for lunch.
By the time we got back, the boat was ready for removal from its mold. After trimming the remaining Kevlar fabric from the margins, Peter carefully slid a plastic wedge in between the mold and the hull, moving it along its length, then used vice grips to further loosen the boat from its mold. Finally, he slipped his hand inside until the hull literally popped free and presto– we had built ourselves a boat! After Peter applied the familiar red strip along the sides, we pulled our masks off for a few seconds and quickly posed behind the unfinished hull for another group photo.
Before going our separate ways, Dan Berggren serenaded us with his Adirondack folksong One With the Water while the seven of us shared a growler of Davidson’s IPA. Rick had kindly donated a cooler full of his best ales for the occasion. We raised our glasses to his generosity as Berggren sang what Hornbeck boats are all about:
One with the water
Sailing or rowing, or paddling a canoe
One with the water
As old as time, and each time its new
I want to be one with the water
And free as a bird on the wing
Care and worry behind me
Hope and expectation downstream
Thoughts are floating like clouds far above
Drifting in a distant dream
Then the splash of a beaver tail wakes me
Makes me aware of turning about
I’m already one with the water
Balanced in the here and now
Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation
Driving home that afternoon, I gave silent thanks for the opportunity to briefly escape the pandemic’s enervating burden. I was also curious to know more about our boat’s recipient, The Center for Loon Conservation, so I checked their website at https://www.adkloon.org/adklooncenter.
Based in a downtown storefront at 15 Broadway in Saranac Lake, the nonprofit ACLC has only been in existence since the Spring of 2017. The site explains it is “continuing research and fieldwork accumulated since 1998 by Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) to assess the impact of environmental mercury pollution on aquatic ecosystems throughout North America using the Common Loon as an indicator species.”
The website is a wonderful source of photographs and detailed information about loons, a library full of research literature, an on-line store offering loon books, memorabilia and collectibles, a blog page, a loon rescue page and more. Director Nina Schoch, an award-winning biologist wildlife veterinarian, author, and lover of loons, has been involved with the ALCA and BRI for over twenty years.
When I called Dr. Schoch to get her reaction upon learning of Hornbeck’s offer, she was very excited. “It’s fantastic- we’re very excited,” she gushed. “This was a complete surprise. We’re a young organization, with a paid staff of only five so far. But there are so many things we could do with the funds from auctioning the boat. We already perform loon rescues to remove fishing line from their mouths and necks, but birds who are very ill have to be shipped elsewhere for rehab. We also do banding, census-taking, public education, and testing birds for lead poisoning. Salaries and travel are our main expenses, but we’d love to be able to start a lead buy-back program and a local rehab center for injured and poisoned loons. Lead poisoning from lead fishing sinkers and jigs still goes on, and it’s terrible. Selling lead sinkers was outlawed years ago, but they are still legal to use. We are modelling our plan after one that is successful in New Hampshire; we would leave $10 vouchers at tackle stores to trade in lead sinkers for lead-free ones. We hope to provide ten or twenty vouchers in 50 stores for fishermen to exchange all their lead in for non-lead tackle, so we can get it out of the Adirondacks.”
After our talk, I thought about all the close encounters with loons I have had while paddling my Black Jack on an Adirondack Lake. A bird would pop up next to me and our eyes would meet- we would silently study each other for a few precious moments, then the loon would slip underwater, leaving me feeling grateful and spiritually uplifted. Then I knew Peter had chosen our LEAG boat recipient wisely.
The author and the LEAG can be found at http://www.danielway.com/leag-page. All photos courtesy of Dan Way.