I’ve always had an eye for canoes, kayaks and small wooden vessels that rely on true manpower to glide silently into the wilderness while hardly making a sound or wake. I find especially enchanting those of glorious wooden construction. The contours, the lines and the meticulous workmanship of hand-crafted models built one at a time by serious artisans can take over 300 hours to splice, glue, clamp and tack together. Once completed, however, they are sleek and shiny, silent and efficient, beautiful and rugged.
For me, at least, such craft are portals to simpler times before the ever-present drone of powerful engines, highway noise in the distance, jets overhead and unrelenting Internet connectivity. Not that I’m one to shun all modern conveniences; it’s just that I find these vessels easy to romanticize. They help me paint in my mind a beautiful picture of Nature in perfect balance, even if such a reality truly predates my own existence on this earth by at least a couple of eons.
While I had no great difficulty coming across a variety of kayaks, dories and canoes to jealously admire while growing up on Long Island, there was one style I never came across during my youth. It appeared to be a slightly wider canoe, with a high bow and seats that faced each other. It was rowed, as opposed to paddled, and I sometimes saw it featured in artwork on covers of national fishing and hunting magazines. Often, the drawing would show it packed with fishing or hunting gear and general provisions – or with a big-racked buck being ferried back to hunting camp at the end of a successful day.
I knew this wasn’t a traditional kayak or canoe, but it would take me several years before I finally figured out exactly what kind of vessel had so captured my imagination.
“That would be an Adirondack guideboat,” laughed Ian Martin as I related my story and told him I was in my 20s before finally seeing one of these classics somewhere near New York’s Saranac Lake. “They really are beautiful boats and, while they may look like a canoe or kayak at first glance, they’re quite different. Think of them as a cross between a canoe and a dory, with the best features of each amplified in a sleek, quiet, efficient shell.”
Martin knows of what he speaks. Along with his brother, Justin, the 34-year old entrepreneur owns Adirondack Guideboat in North Ferrisburgh, Vermont the most prolific builder of Adirondack-style guideboats in the country. The brothers first got into the business back in the late 1990s, working at Mad River Canoe. After putting in some quality time with the famous canoe manufacturer, Steve Kaulback and Dave Rosen, owners of Adirondack Guideboat, invited them to join their team after hearing from townsfolk that this dynamic duo were solid boat-builders and masters at working with composites. Over the next few years Ian and Justin worked their way up the company ladder, learning all the skills necessary to not only build the guideboats but to run the entire enterprise.
“From building guideboats to selling them, ordering materials, working shows and making sure each canoe was manufactured to the customer’s exact specifications,” explained Ian, “we learned the ropes from Steve, who designed the vessels and Dave, who sold them. When the company relocated to the Carolinas, we decided to stay here in Vermont. By that point, Dave had bought out Steve. He had seen our drive and knew that we wanted more than anything else to be building boats. In 2012, he set us up with an owner finance offer that allowed us to buy the company. For us, it was the opportunity of a lifetime—doing what we love—and we jumped at the chance.”
BACKBONE OF THE NORTH WOODS
But why Adirondack guideboats instead of canoes, kayaks or even rowboats? “Well,” continued Ian, “having built canoes and guideboats, there seemed to be little doubt as to which was the more practical and efficient mode of transportation on the waters of the Adirondack region. “The guideboat wins, hands-down, in just about every important category.”
Indeed, the guideboat was designed to be substantially different in performance from canoes and kayaks. First appearing in significant numbers during the 1830s, these craft were built to haul gear and provisions over long distances with minimal effort. They were made to be stable yet sleek, fast, and lightweight so they could cover a lot of water and still portage easily between rivers, streams, lakes and ponds. They came into vogue as an elite class of hunters, anglers and adventurers began to search for ways to escape the frenzy of city life, so guides used them to ferry sportsmen back and forth, transport provisions and bring harvested fish and game back to camp.
“Really, these vessels were built to be the pickup trucks of their day,” expounded Ian, “but they ended up being much more. For thousands of outdoorsmen who returned to the Adirondacks again and again in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they became part of backwoods legend and lore. These craft were built to serve as fishing boats, hunting boats and hauling vessels. They were designed to be carried by a man for a mile and rowed for a week.”
At the height of the guideboat’s popularity in the 1890s, Adirondack guides were pursuing customers as much as game. The stories a guide might tell, the game or fish his ‘sport’ might bag, the meal he might cook—all of this was part of the outdoors package being sold and it’s what kept sportsmen coming back year after year.
The Adirondack guideboat influenced commerce, culture and helped grow the fledgling rowing sport in the Lakes Region of New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Constructed of local pine, spruce, cedar and 8,000 tiny tacks and screws, they flourished for perhaps 60 years. With the advent of the automobile and access roads, however, their influence waned as they were no longer needed for regional transportation.
Today, the basic design lives on, finding favor among recreational rowers and anglers or boaters with a nostalgic taste and desire for practicality. Ever evolving, today’s models, mostly made of Kevlar, are even lighter, faster, more stable and easier to row than their predecessors. For those who use them, the beauty and grace of these elegant craft remain an integral—and practical—part of the wilderness experience.
THIS IS NO CANOE
While they may look fairly similar at first glance, there are major differences between guideboats and canoes or kayaks. With high bows and wider amidships, the guideboat is far more stable. Adding additional stability, the seats are positioned just above the floor for a lower center of gravity than canoe seats which are generally suspended from the gunnels.
As noted earlier, guideboats are rowed, not paddled. This provides greater leverage, optimizing manpower for more speed and distance covered with less effort. The seats on a canoe or kayak face in the same direction so that the paddler and passenger are always looking forward. In a guideboat, however, the rower and passenger face each other which promotes conversation, greatly increases usable space, makes it easier to net fish, and can simply provide for a more pleasant experience when it comes to companionship and camaraderie.
“With a guideboat,” says Ian, “there is almost no extra effort needed to go against the wind or current. Canoeists and kayakers usually want to be near shore or stay in the lee on a windy day to avoid a chop. With a guideboat, you determine the course most times rather than allowing the conditions to dictate your route. Just point your bow and go where you want – even in a heavy chop.”
The true “need” for a guideboat may be a thing of the past, admits Ian, but these days people want the best for their recreational endeavors. So, whereas a canoe is easy to acquire and quite affordable, guideboats, which cost considerably more, are still very much worth the investment if you can afford it because they are a much more effective, stable and efficient way to travel without having a motor.
A COUPLE OF SELECTIONS
While “Adirondackguideboat” is a general term for these vessels, there are different styles available. Ian and Justin’s company, for example, offers several Kevlar models including a 12-foot Ultra-Light Solo Packboat for $2,400, a 12-foot Vermont Packboat for $2,900, a 14-foot Vermont Fishing Dory for $4,480 and a 15-foot Adirondack Guideboat for $4,430. They also offer hand-crafted cedar guideboats ranging in price from $14,960 to $18,040, depending on length. If you are a do-it-yourself kind of outdoorsman, a quick Internet search will turn up several different guideboat kits available online.
For anglers, Ian highly recommends the 14-foot Vermont Fishing Dory because it features a reverse chine on the hull that provides extra stability and additional open space near the floor. This model is so stable that, once you have the feel for it, it’s possible to stand up and fly-cast.
John Gibbons is a longtime fan of Adirondack guideboats, but it wasn’t until four years ago that he finally found himself at a point in life when he could buy one.
“Buying a fishing dory from Adirondack Guideboats was one of the best things I’ve ever done,” he stated. “I just love these boats for the way they look, their style, versatility and practicality. I’m six feet, four inches tall and two-hundred and forty pounds, so kayaks have always been an uncomfortable fit and I have a habit of tipping canoes when I enter and exit, so the stability of the guideboat is a real plus. I also like how easily they glide – they are perfect for trolling, which I do a lot for walleye and pike. I had mine set up with custom rod holders and trolley anchors installed at each end of the boat so I can anchor precisely for smallies in a river or largemouths on a lake. It’s a pretty sweet setup.”
Gibbons also likes how comfortable these vessels are, noting that he often tours for six or seven hours at a time!
“I’m a pretty big fella,” he chuckles, “but this is like rowing in an easy chair. I love it.”
A BRIGHT FUTURE
Ian and Justin are continuing to grow Adirondack Guideboat and are quite positive about the future. On firm business footing at this point, they take pride not only in building beautiful boats, but in preserving, continuing and adding their own stamp to the guideboat tradition.
“We’re still a small company, but we know how to get things done,” summed up Ian. “We currently make about 150 Adirondack guideboats a year, and we figure there are about 3,000 currently afloat. That’s pretty good when you consider we have only five people in the company and that Justin and I actually make about 80% of the hulls ourselves.”
If nothing else, the company’s small size ensures great quality control since there’s little chance to pass the buck, and it’s hard to find anyone who has a complaint about these vessels. In keeping with tradition, each one is beautiful, well designed, custom built and backed by pride.
Those old-time guides on the Adirondacks’ most remote waters wouldn’t have had it any other way.