This story featured in the 2012 July issue.
By Mike Lynch
In the 19th century, guideboats were the main mode of transportation for wilderness guides in the Adirondacks. Today, guideboats have been largely replaced by the lightweight likes of carbon fiber and Kevlar canoes. That is, unless you’re in the world of Chris Woodward—one of the few remaining builders who uses traditional construction methods to produce these indigenous part-canoe, part-rowboat hybrids. In fact, Woodward takes traditional to a whole new level, working out of a Saranac Lake, N.Y., shop once owned by guideboat legend Willard Hanmer. Though Hanmer died a half-century ago, the 50th annual Hanmer Guideboat Races will run here July 1, as they do every year.
Hanmer’s tools—and probably some of his original sawdust—still reside in Woodward’s shop as well.
“Some people would call it ignorance,” the bearded craftsman says with a smile, sitting next to the glowing wood stove, when asked about making the leap to modern boat-building. “I like working with my hands rather than the chemicals. Id much rather dig in the mud with the black flies than work with epoxy. It’s just the way I learned to do it.”
Deep roots: Woodward crafts the ribs of his traditional guideboats from wood with naturally curved grain. To get it, he digs up the roots and trunk of a spruce tree using only hand tools so he doesn’t damage the wood. He then cuts and sands the roots into the shape of ribs. “You need a nice clean stump,” Woodward says. “A backhoe would just tear it up. You really have to get in there and get into the mud.”
Tacky tradition: Each boat contains more than 1,500 screws and roughly 4,000 tacks to join the overlapping Eastern white pine planks. “I set every one by hand,” Woodward says.
Junk in the trunk: Wilderness guides who traveled the Adirondack waterways in the 19th and early 20th century used guideboats to tote large amounts of gear for their clients. That has caused people to refer to them as the “pickup truck of boats.”
Conversation starter: These sleek boats cut through the water like a canoe. However, they are rowed instead of paddled. This has an advantage for guides who, when rowing backwards, can talk face-to-face with their clients.
Master craft costs: Adirondack guideboats are labor-intensive, taking up to 500 hours from start to finish. This fact—along with their historical roots and relative rarity—has helped cause their prices to increase substantially. On the open market, they cost as much as $18,000. “Even today, most of my customers, they are not new money,” Woodward said. “It’