By Darren Bush
Photos by Aaron Black-Schmidt
One of the things I love about paddling is the idea that weight doesn’t matter. I mean, it does matter on some level, but for the sake of simplicity let’s just say that if it comes down to a choice between packing something or leaving it behind, we paddlers can comfortably err on the side of taking it.
This means that while our backpacking brethren are sleeping on a piece of foam, we’re sleeping on air mattresses that are more comfortable than the futons in our college apartments. While they’re eating freeze-dried rice cakes and homemade cabbage jerky, we’re tucking into pan-seared lamb chops and fried potatoes — and finishing with fresh peach cobbler from the Dutch oven.
Contrast this hedonistic and gluttonous behavior with that of the ultralight backpacking movement, which started in the late 90s with the publication of Ray Jardine’s book Beyond Backpacking. The minimalist aesthetic is intuitively pleasing; it brings to mind the freedom to flit about in the wilderness without a Cordura and aluminum-tubed albatross strapped across your shoulders. Stuff, like, just totally weighs you down, man.
As cool as Ray Jardine is, though, ultralight wasn’t his baby. The movement started more than a century earlier, with a 105-pound recovering tuberculosis patient named George Washington Sears. Today, he’s better known by his pen name, Nessmuk.
Recreational opportunities were not exactly democratized in the 1880s. If you had money, you could pay someone a handsome fee to haul you and all your gear into the backcountry. If you didn’t, wilderness was beyond your means. A shoemaker from Pennsylvania, Sears was drawn to wild places. While he made a comfortable living, he was not wealthy enough to afford the handsome fees charged by Adirondack guides. So in 1880, Sears asked Henry Hudson Rushton, a renowned boat builder, to create a boat light enough that he could carry it himself over the portages between the lakes of the Adirondacks. The result was a masterpiece, a ten-foot lapstrake beauty called the Wood Drake or Nessmuk No.1, depending on the source. It weighed 15 pounds before paint.
The zenith watercraft of the Go-Light Brotherhood (yes, that was the name Sears gave them) was the nine-foot Sairy Gamp, an all-cedar lapstrake that weighed about 10 pounds. Sears felt that 10 pounds of well-crafted cedar should hold 100 pounds of man.
Nessmuk’s letters published in Forest and Stream did much to popularize the idea of unassisted wilderness travel. Sears dismantled the notion that wilderness was only for rich dandies from New York City or Philadelphia.
It was a perfect time for a man such as Sears to come along, just as the idea of public lands and wilderness was catching fire in our national ethos.
It’s fair to say that without Nessmuk, the flower of self-guided wilderness paddling might have never bloomed. Not that he would approve of our plush pads and Dutch oven dessert. In fact, his views on over-packing sting like a jab from a flyweight boxer: “We take a deal of stuff to the woods, only to wish we had left it at home.”
On the other hand, the boats descended from Sears’ collaboration with Rushton — rendered in ultralight composites or durable plastic—honor the Go Light Brotherhood in both form and function. On the following pages we review six examples of this proud lineage.
— This feature first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Canoe & Kayak.