Building an Adirondack Guideboat-Attaching the ribs and Stems

This gallery contains 12 photos.

In the last post we prepared the bottom board to receive the ribs and stems.  The board was beveled so that there would be a smooth transition when going from the bottom board to each of the ribs.  Holes were … Continue reading

Gallery | Leave a comment

Building an Adirondack Guideboat-The bottom board

This is the first time I have built a guideboat where I have had long enough stock so that I can cut the bottom board out of a single plank.  Always before I have had to scarf two planks together to get the required length.  Problems always occur when you go to glue the scarfed planks together.  They always want to slide apart at the scarf.

So I obtained a 16 foot plank of quarter sawn white pine 10″ wide from Blue Line Hardwood in Long Lake.  It was just what I needed but a bit unwieldy.  I laid out the dimensions of the bottom board on the plank and then got my son to help me run it through my band saw to rough cut it.  Here we are doing the rough cutting.  We had to turn the saw 45 degrees and run the plank out the window to get enough room.

Rough cutting the bottom board plank

Rough cutting the bottom board plank

The next step is to trim the board with a bench plane to to bring it to its final shape.

Trimming the rough cut bottom board to its final shape.

Trimming the rough cut bottom board to its final shape.


The hard part comes next.  The board must be beveled so that the bevel exactly matches the angle of each rib between its foot and lower arm.  You start by laying out the distance from the edge of the bottom board inward to where the bevel ends.  You will end up with a rolling bevel, one that starts out amidships with a gradual slope but that becomes steeper as you move towards the stems.

To get the width of the bevel at each rib stations I went to my reference book, Tale of an Historic Adirondack Guideboat…, Table 4 .  Then I took my bench plane in hand again and started removing material until I got close to the final slope.  You have to be careful because if you take too much you will cut into the top of the bottom board and it will not be a pretty sight!  When I get close to the final shape I switch to a cabinet scraper.  It gives me more control of removal and eliminates any rounding that comes about when I use a plane.

Using a cabinet scraper to finish off the bottom board bevel.

Using a cabinet scraper to finish off the bottom board bevel.

I always check my work by putting a rib at its station to see if the angle of the rib matches the bevel.  I do this before I get too close to the final slope.   The bevel at each rib station was off by enough to make a difference.  I was really puzzled by this.

So I went back to the drawing board and to a method I use to lay out the bevel that is fail safe. It relies on the geometry of right angles.  Here it is below.

Obtaining the proper bottom board bevel.

Obtaining the proper bottom board bevel.

What you do is to clamp at its station.  Back the rib away from the board so that a straight piece of stock held against the lower arm of the rib just touches the top of the board.  This forms a right triangle with hypotenuse formed by the stock, the distance Y is the bottom board thickness, and X is the distance you are looking for.  It is the distance back from the edge of the bottom board to the back edge of the bevel.  If you use this distance for each rib you can’t go wrong.   I did this for each rib station and these are the half-widths for the bottom of the bottom board.

 Station Number      Half-width, inches

0                         2  11/16

1                           2  11/16

2                           2  9/16

3                           2   7/16

4                           2   1/16

5                            1    13/16

6                            1    11/16

7                             1     3/8

8                             1    5/16

9                              1   1/4

10                             1   1/8

11                               15/16

12                               13/16

Here I am checking the slope against a rib to make sure we are now OK.

Checking the slope of the bottom board bevel using a rib and straight edge.

Checking the slope of the bottom board bevel using a rib and straight edge.

That hurdle passed, we now lay out the holes for the screws that will fasten the ribs to the bottom board.   I wanted to make sure that the holes were perpendicular to the plane of the bottom board since any deviation off perpendicular one way or another could cause a problem.  The ribs are not very thick and we don’t want screws coming out the sides of them.

There are such things a screw centering devices so I ordered one.  It cost about $12 and was very nice.  The problem was that it would not take a screw as small as a #6.  So I made one of my own from a small block of cherry.  I drilled a hole in it with my drill press so I knew any holes drilled using it would be square.  Here I am using it.

Using a squared-up hole in a cherry block to drill true holes for fastening the ribs.

Using a squared-up hole in a cherry block to drill true holes for fastening the ribs.

I would check to make sure the holes were true every once in awhile.

Checking for hole trueness.

Checking for hole trueness.

I put the drill bit in the hole and checked for perpendicularity with my small square.

So now the bottom board is ready for attaching the ribs.  We will tackle that next time.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Adirondack Guideboat-90 Miler Guideboat Race-Brown’s Tract

Passage through Brown’s Tract occurs during the first day of the 90 Miler.  I’m told it is a nightmare for those in guideboats.  It is not only that it occurs later in a long day of racing when rowers and paddlers are near exhaustion.  It is mainly due to its crazy geography that inflicts hardship on guideboaters.  But more on that later.

Where did Brown’s Tract get is name? My friend Charlie at the Adirondack Museum has done extensive research on the history of the Central Adirondacks.  The result of his research of the Brown’s Tract is found under Brown Tract: The Hamilton-Burr Duel Connection.  Google it to get the full story.  In a nutshell John Brown was a merchant in Rhode Island who had a warehouse full of tea he had to unload.  This was in the late 1700’s when the wealthy were cash poor and often paid for things with land they owned.  New York State fanned the interest in owning Adirondack property by encouraging “speedy sale” of vast tracts of land left over from Native Americans and the English Crown after the Revolution.  One example of these sales was the purchase of over 3 million acres of land by Alexander Macomb who paid eight pence an acre for Adirondack land.

John Brown’s partner, John Francis went to New York city in the summer of 1795 to find a buyer for the 420,000 lbs of tea in the Rhode Island warehouse (Wow, that’s a lot of tea!).  He found a willing buyer, James Greenleaf, who agreed to pay $157,500 in three equal installments over a period of one year for the tea.  Perhaps suspicious of Greenleaf’s ability to honor the commitment, Francis took additional security in the form of mortgages on two properties.

Things went downhill from there.  Greenleaf was a deadbeat but was smart enough to hire, and involve, Aaron Burr to negotiate with his debtors.  After numerous ploys to defer payment by Greenleaf, Brown grew tired of the legal wrangling.   While still waiting for payment for his tea, decided to buy the tract he held as security.  He learned from Alexander Hamilton that the tract was being foreclosed.  If he wanted the tract he was to bring $30,000 (in a brown paper bag?) to the Court of Chancery for the auction of the property scheduled for November, 1798.  He went one better bringing $33,000 which gained him the deed to the tract.

John Brown’s travails were not yet over.  As Charlie writes” John Brown died on  September 20, 1803.  In February 1804, Brown’s 1798 deed was finally recorded in the Lewis County Clerk’s Office as Alexander Hamilton succeeded in having the NY Assembly approve Brown’s petition perfecting the tract’s title regardless of alien ownership or prior sales.  It was then truly the Brown’s Tract.

Reacting to Hamilton’s comments about him supposedly made at a social event, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel on July 11, 1804 resulting in Hamilton’s death one day later.”

So what is it about Brown’s Tract that makes it such a curse for guideboats.  I haven’t traversed Brown’s Tract in a guideboat but I have canoed the Oswegatchie Wild River in  the northern reaches of the Adirondack Park.  As rivers start into flow into flat areas they begin to follow a serpentine path.  I am told this is due to the Coriollis effect which, because of the curvature of the earth, causes weather systems in the northern hemisphere to rotate counterclockwise.  It also causes streams and rivers to try to deviate from a straight path.   My guide book on the Oswegtchie said that I would see the same stand of virgin white pines seven times while moving upstream or down.  Sure enough, the river was so serpentine that we indeed saw the same pines seven times.

There is a notable photo in the Adirondack Museum of 90 Milers in the Brown’s Tract.  It looks down the marshy area of the Tract for perhaps a half mile.  All that can be seen are the heads and shoulders of the racers, some going right to left, others going left to right.

Now throw some guideboats into Brown’s Tract serpentine and and add some eager kayakers and canoers to the mix.  A guideboat has a wing span of about 13 to 14 feet when taking into account its oars and beam.  Canoes and kayaks can squeeze though openings just slightly wider than their beam, about three feet.  So I imagine there is some clatter and banging as all three vessels negotiate the Tract, especially as the kayaks and canoes come upon a guideboat bottleneck.

Here is John Homer in Brown’s tract negotiating a turn in the river and a beaver dam.

John Homer negotiates a turn in Brown's tract

John Homer negotiates a turn in Brown’s Tract

What a relief when river spills into Racquette Lake and the end of the first day of racing is now in sight.

Racers leave Brown's Tract and enter Raquette Lake.

Racers leave Brown’s Tract and enter Raquette Lake.

Next time we return to guideboat building.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Adirondack Guideboat in wind

All boat designs are a result of trade offs.  The primary drivers for the Adirondack guideboat were that it had to be as light as possible yet hold as much as possible. The early builders achieved these goals with their design of a 16 foot wooden rowboat that weighs 55 pounds yet can carry up to 1000 pounds in a pinch.  A perhaps unexpected result of their conception was an exceeding fast rowboat said to be the fastest non-sliding seat rowboat in the world.

The boat has a flat bottom that enables it to be easily dragged up on a beach.  There is an upward sweep (snye) at bow and stern that makes it seaworthy in rough water. However these two attributes lead to drawbacks.

The flat bottom causes the boat not track very well.  Someone new to rowing the boat finds it hard to maintain a straight line course. A slightly stronger tug on one oar causes it to veer off course.  Rowing a guideboat has been likened by some to flying an airplane.  One must be attentive to the craft to stay on course.  This is an exaggeration because, with a little practice, a guideboat can be made to mind its manners.

Not so in a strong cross wind.  Here that flat bottom and snye cause havoc.  In sailor’s terms, the boat wants to “come about” and point into the wind.  John encountered this in a windy 90 Miler when he came out of Brown’s Tract into Raquette Lake.  He needed to cross a wide expanse of open water to reach the relative shelter of the Marion River.  He was headed from east to west and the wind was coming out of the northwest.  He said the boat wanted to “go in circles” and his arms became worn out from the effort to stay on course.  If he has a partner then the partner can use his paddle as a rudder and make things much easier.

I often go out in my guideboat when there is a stiff northwest wind blowing.  In my part of Long Lake the wind comes down off Owl’s Head Mountain from the northwest and enters a large bay.  Then it is funneled in a more northerly direction as it heads down the lake.  As I come out of our bay and head south it is easy rowing at first but then becomes a harder and harder row.  The sight of white caps is a sure sign that my forward progress will soon slow to a crawl.  I often wonder how the old timers managed with their pinned oars.  Their oars can not be feathered, or turned so the blades are parallel to the water, on the recovery stroke.  My oars have buttons and leathers which allow them to be feathered.  I have tried rowing into a stiff breeze with pinned oars.  Forward progress is next to impossible in a stiff breeze with them.

Once I get into Owl’s Head Bay I can turn more into the wind and continue to make some headway.  But I soon grow tired and it is time to head back to where I came from.  As I turn and head back now the boat takes over.  Any let up on the oars and the boat is broadside into the wind.  Here we have John’s “going around in circles” playing out.

The way I conquer this tendency is to drag the leeward (downwind) oar to act as a rudder and  row like crazy with the other, windward oar.  The craft takes wings and like a bird tears down the lake.  I’m back at my dock in no time.

I’ve thought about this tendency of a guideboat to be so unruly in a crosswind.  It occurred to me that other watercraft have solved this problem in a  rather simple manner.  Wind surfers, kayaks, and stand up paddle boards use a skeg, a small rudder-like appendage, fastened underneath the craft and near its stern.

Would a skeg work with a guideboat to make it more manageable in a crosswind?  It wouldn’t have to be permanent but could be removed when not needed.  I think I’ll make several different designs and try them out on my guideboat next summer.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Adirondack Guideboat-Wind:The Enemy of the 90 mile Canoe Race

We’ve been talking about the 90 Mile Canoe (guideboat) race held in the Adirondacks every fall.  In three days, the racers follow the natural watercourses from Old Forge, NY to Saranac Lake, NY a distance of 90 miles.  At that time of year the weather is often lovely and great for paddling and rowing.  But every once in awhile, the weather turns nasty.  It is usually from a strong cold front moving through the kicks up some very strong southwest winds.  The third leg of this year’s 90 miler was cancelled because of high winds.

The orientation of the Ice Age-formed chains of lakes in the Adirondacks is conducive to funneling southwest winds down these lakes.  The winds are further intensified by the mountains that hug some of the shorelines.  Gale force winds can easily spring up and cause some large, angry swells as they pass down the wider stretches of water.

I witnessed the start of the second leg of the 90 Miler several years ago.  At eight in the morning the winds were already howling at around 30-40 miles and hour.  The racers were off in a flash propelled by the strong winds at their backs.  Everything was alright in the narrow, southern part of Long Lake.  About three miles above the bridge the Lake widens and the winds and waves take charge.  Many boats were swamped and their occupants had to be rescued.

John Homer remarks on his experience crossing Raquette Lake in his guideboat on a windy day while in the Race.  He says “Raquette Lake is a real bugger when it is windy.  But the guideboat is a very stable craft when in rough water.  If you are a team you must balance the boat as much as possible or you will be doing circles because of the wind gusts. (this is especially true in a guideboat because of the high stern and bow rise).  You will fight the wind and just about wear out your arms to keep the boat straight unless you get closer to shore and away from the wind.  I have seen many kayaks and canoes flip over out there  in bad weather but the volunteers are always ready to help in these situations.”

So what is it about a guideboat that makes it inherently stable in rough seas?  And what makes it misbehave in a cross wind and wear you out trying to keep it on track?

Let’s look at the why it is a stable craft in rough water.  Apparently the early guideboat builders raised teach end of the boat so that it could take on large swells.  This cleaver innovation goes back at  least to the Vikings.  The Vikings realized the need for a sharp rise in the bow and stern of their boats so that they could ride out the North Atlantic swells.  According to the Durant’s in their book, The Adirondack Guide-boat, the Norsemen called this rise “snye”.

I have always been fascinated with the Vikings and their extraordinary boat building skills. Some years ago I built a model of a Vikingskib, as it was called.  The original was discovered at the bottom of a fjord so the model is an accurate reproduction of one of their ships.  Here are a couple of photos of it.

Top view of Vikingskib model.

Top view of Vikingskib model.

Side view of Vikingskib model.

Side view of Vikingskib model.

These ships were so cleverly built that the boat, instead of plowing through a large swell, would flex to allow the wave to pass under it.  Amazing!

Note the snye, or upward rake of the planks at the bow and stern on the Vikingskib.  This snye is much more exaggerated than that on a guideboat for obvious reasons.  The Vikingskib has to survive a much harsher environment.

Here is a view of an Adirondack guideboat showing its snye.

View of guideboat showing snye,

View of guideboat showing snye,

One amazing thing about an Adirondack guideboat is that the depth of the hull at midships is only 12 inches.  Even with this minimal freeboard it is not prone to taking on water in rough seas, something I find truly amazing.

So John was able to traverse the rough waters of Raquette Lake while other craft, canoes and kayaks, flipped.  The guideboat has two things going for it in harsh seas, an upturned bow and stern (snye) and it is light.  I have often observed that it bobs like a cork in the large wakes generated by motorboats.

John notes that a guideboat “will wear your arms out” in windy weather.   Next time we will explore why a guideboat fights its oarsman in a cross wind and what one might do about it.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Adirondack Guideboat-The 90 Miler Canoe and Guideboat Race-Part 2

Last time we met John Homer who races in the Adirondack 90 Mile Canoe and Guideboat race.  I need to clarify as to just how he got the guideboat he races in the 90 miler.  He did buy a guideboat from a fella in Saranac Lake but it was only a half of a boat.  This boat was built by McCaffery, of Bloomingdale, NY, who built guideboats around 1910.  It was stored in a barn by its owner.  Disaster in the form of a falling tree took out the barn and one-half of the guideboat.  John purchased the good half and used it as a pattern for the boat he built.  He stretched his boat to a little over 17′ long, a foot or so longer that the original.  He feels his boat is a bit slower than guideboats with the normal length of 16 feet.  Here is John’s boat outfitted for the Race.

John's boat rigged for the 90 Miler.

John’s boat rigged for the 90 Miler.

The route of the 90 miler follows what Hallie Bond calls the central valley of the Adirondacks.  It starts at Old Forge, NY at Old Forge Pond and proceeds northeast through a series of interconnected lakes called the Fulton Chain.  These lakes possess no exotic Native American names but are simply numbered First through Eighth.  The first carry is between Fifth and Sixth Lakes and is 1.1 miles long.  After a carry at Eighth Lake you enter the Brown’s Track, a meandering stream that we will devote a separate post to. Coming out of Brown’s Track you enter Raquette Lake and head nearly due east into the Marion River.  We are now in the old steamboat country that was described in early posts.  After carrying over the Marion River Carry (the old railroad bed) we drop into Utowana Lake, row through Utowana and Eagle Lakes and into Blue Mountain Lake, our final destination for the first day.  We have traveled 35 miles by boat and carried our boat for 3.5 miles.

The second day starts at Bissell’s beach in Long Lake (right outside my door), goes under the bridge at the town beach and, at the northern end of the Lake, enters the Raquette River. There is a long carry on the River at Raquette Falls.  Continuing down the Raquette the  second day ends at the state boat launch about five miles east of the town of Tupper Lake. This leg is 30 miles long and has one carry of 1.25 miles.

The third day of the race involves the Saranac Lakes; Upper, Middle, and Lower. These form sort of a lopsided U, with the right arm (Lower Saranac Lake) bent away from the left one (Upper Saranac Lake). Middle Saranac lies between the two.  The Race starts at the west end of Upper Saranac Lake at the Fish Creek Campground.  The racers quickly enter Upper Saranac Lake and head south.  After the Bartlett Carry, you enter Middle Saranac Lake.  Between Middle and Lower Saranac Lakes there is a hand operated lock that is fun to use if you have the time.  The racers bypass it to save time and then follow either Lower Saranac Lake or the Saranac River to arrive at Oseetah Lake.  From thence it is on to  Lake Flower and the final destination of Prescott Park in the town of Saranac Lake.  This final leg is the shortest of all, 25 miles, and there are three carries totaling one-half mile.

I asked John some questions about his experience with the 90 Miler.  Here is our dialogue.

What do you like most about the 90 Miler?What do you like least?

I enjoy the 90 Miler the most because it follows the route of the old days when guides used to bring people into the Great Camps and lodges to get away from the big city.  I think about that often as I row from day to day and how it must have been in those days.  I also enjoy the people that the 90 Miler brings together.  I have made several new friends since doing the past five races.

What is the hardest part of the 90 Miler?

The hardest part for a guideboat is probably Brown’s Tract.  With all the canoes and kayaks (in the race) it is difficult to maneuver a 16 foot plus boat through such a narrow passage.  (Brown’s Tract will be covered in a separate post).

You did the 90 Miler solo once and said never again. Why?

I believe I would do the 90 Miler by myself again but with a shorter boat.  With my boat being almost 18 feet long it made it difficult by myself.  But all the guideboaters stick together and help each other out so luckily it wasn’t too bad really.

John as a solo rower in the 90 Miler

John as a solo rower in the 90 Miler

Here is John as a solo rower in the 90 Miler.  Notice that he is taking a “peek” over his right shoulder to get his bearings.  Guideboaters need good peripheral vision because they can only see where they have been and not where they are going.  So they often glance over their shoulder to pick up landmarks.  When I row the half mile or so across Long Lake to Sagamore Beach to go the Post Office I invariably miss the beach by 50 to 100 yards.  So I can well identify with John who is trying to converge on a very small space after traveling many miles over open water.

Here is where a partner in the race is invaluable.  The partner provides “eyes” and a paddle to steer the craft.

The following are photos of the race.

Boats and boaters getting ready for launching.

Boats and boaters getting ready for launching.

Guideboats waiting the start of the day's race.

Guideboats awaiting the start of the day’s race.

They're off!

They’re off!

What are the carries like?

The carries are OK as long as you rig up your boat for them.  If you are solo you have to tie up your oars and seat so they won’t fall out during the carry.  If you are a team your partner carries the oars and paddle and any water/food needed.  The good thing about doing the 90 Miler as a team is that you are able to take turns carrying the boat.  If you are solo of course you are on your own and the longest carry is about 1 1/2 miles long.

Here are John and his partner Ed on the carry between Fifth and Sixth Lakes.

John and partner Ed on the carry between Fifth and Sixth Lakes.

John and partner Ed on the carry between Fifth and Sixth Lakes.

Next time-Wind, the enemy of the 90 Miler.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Adirondack Guideboat-The 90 Mile Adirondack Canoe (Guideboat) Classic

The 90 Miler, as it is known in the Adirondacks, is a three-day boat race held on the second weekend of September.  It is open, not just to canoes, but to guideboats and kayaks as well.  On day one the Canoe Classic starts in Old Forge, NY and by day three the racers are in Saranac Lake, NY.

I am fortunate to know one of the guideboat racers in the Race, John Homer.  John was kind enough to share his experiences with me while racing in the Classic.  Here he is at the end of the Race on Day 3.  He has just been presented with a pin for completing the race within the allotted time limit.

Guideboat racer John

Guideboat racer John

I asked John how many 90 Milers he had been in and how he got started.  His reply, ” I started in 2009 and rowed with Chris Hoyt from Colorado.  We had never met or even rowed together before the race and he agreed to let me do the 90 Miler with him.  At that time I had just returned from Afghanistan from a redeployment.  I wish I could have done more races since then but with the Military and moving around as well with all my deployments totaling 38 months since 2007, I have only been able to participate in five 90 Milers.”

John with racing partner, Chris Hoyt.

John with racing partner, Chris Hoyt.

John went on to add, “As for partners, I have done a few races with relatives, but as I got to know other guideboat racers we would offer each other’s boat as a team for the following year.  Ed Vankuren and I raced solo before and got to know each other that way and decided to to row together the following year.  Here they are together before the race.

John and his partner Ed Vankuren before the race.

John and his partner Ed Vankuren before the race.

John was awarded the Robert L. Evans Memorial Adirondack Canoe Classic 90 Miler home-built boat award in 2015 for a guideboat he built.  Here are a couple of photos of the boat he built, a beauty!

John with the boat he built.

John with the boat he built.

A closer look at John's boat.

A closer look at John’s boat.

John’s racing boat is 17′ 6″ long and was purchased from a fella in Saranac Lake.  The boat belonged to his father who bought it from a neighbor.  John adds, “I do believe the old timers made the boats around 16′ long because that was the best length for portaging and speed as well as carrying supplies and sports for hunting and fishing.”

John also makes very handsome paddles.  Here is one he made especially for guideboat racing.  He calls it the 90 Miler.

John with his 90 Miler guideboat paddle.

John with his 90 Miler guideboat paddle.

I asked John if he ever switched positions with his partner during a race.  Here is an old photo of that rather tricky maneuver.  It may be of the famed guideboat racer Howard Seaman and his son.

Guideboat racers switching positions during a race. Photo courtesy of The Adirondack Museum.

Guideboat racers switching positions during a race. Photo courtesy of The Adirondack Museum.

John replied, ” We do change position sometimes but mostly row to each portage and switch then.  This can be a tough way to do it because of the distances between the portages which can be easily 10 miles at times.”

Next time we will talk more about the route of the race and John’s experiences rowing it.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment