I took to the look and feel of that red canvas-over-wood canoe on my first up-close-and-personal encounter with paddling during Boy Scout camp at Twin Lakes in Waupaca, Wisconsin. And, I did pass Canoeing Merit Badge on my first try. I also remember the counselor throwing that final comment at me: “Schmidt, I’m going to pass you, but your J-stroke stinks!” He was right then…and it’s equally so now. Being long-armed, I could get the boat to really surge forward with a good forward reach and deep dip. But then came the old finishing move – the “aligning twist” a.k.a. the J-stroke – needed to keep the boat on course. So, there I went, surging forward and then thwarted and slowed by my J finish. Frustrating then and remains so today. My wife says I could probably benefit from some “professional help,” but then she says that a lot to me for some reason. Anyway….
The next merit badge in the water-front program was Rowing. Now, for me, the lights went on and everything clicked. A boat that went straight just by using one oar vs the other – no technical J-stroke needed! I passed that one with flying colors and won the rowing contest at the end of the week, too. But these were big boats and not sleek and athletic like canoes: broad and dented aluminum dark green and with unwieldy heavy oars. They were good for fishing and carrying the camping gear, but not what you’d call “a joy” to paddle, especially for longer trips. The agility and exhilaration factors were missing.
Both my canoeing and rowing experiences ended after that week of camp; good memories of achievement, but nothing lasting embedded and no carry-over opportunities at home either. Also, “back then,” there were no kayaks in sight, except in pictures of Eskimo’s paddling in the arctic. My would-be passion for boating lay dormant.
Many years later, my wife and I were visiting Vermont and it all came together. I was introduced to a boat that was sleek like a canoe, aesthetically balanced, lightweight, agile on the water and propelled (rowed) with beautiful oars: a Vermont Guideboat! It had all the juice of a canoe and the efficiencies and handling of a row boat. At the Stowe Art Fair, I first saw a hand-made, all wooden guideboat. Coming from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, I’d never seen or heard of a guideboat. The Adirondack Guideboat Company’s (AGB) all-cedar 15-footer was the most beautiful boat I’d ever seen. Being a bit too pricey, we bought one of their navy blue Kevlar hull guide boats as a “retirement present” instead. For 12 years I rowed it on lakes, streams and rivers throughout the Indiana countryside.
(photo courtesy of Adirondack Guideboat)
After some years, we moved to Vermont and I decided to upgrade to a larger boat in order to passenger more grandkids and dogs. Luckily for me, in AGB’s North Ferrisburgh shop’s lobby sat a magnificent Vermont Fishing Dory, with spruce-green sides, cherry gunnels and decks, woven rush seats and furniture-quality 7-foot maple and cherry oars with wonderful grain-swirls in the blade ends. I bought it on the spot and rowed it that day. When I pole-pushed off from the shore, the Dory softly drifted into a lengthy glide while I slid the brass oar pins into the oar-locks. Then, with the first reach-and-pull on the oars, the feeling said it all: “Wonderful!” The Dory went out into the river quickly, quietly, effortlessly and straight. I blissfully made a nearly two-hour maiden voyage.
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The Vermont Dory was developed by AGB to build upon the capabilities of the original guide boats that had been in use in the Northeast since the 1800s. As the “pickup trucks of the Adirondacks,” they were used for hunting, fishing and hauling in areas where there were no roads. They were light enough to drag or portage overland, stable on lakes under heavy winds and waves, agile in rivers and streams, and capable of carrying two people and a week’s worth of gear. The new Vermont Fishing Dory was modified with a wider beam (44”) and a flatter bottom (30”) to be more solid in the water, more stable getting in and out, and to have more carrying capacity – up to 700lbs! The trade-off was the weight (80lbs), but still manageable by one person.
Each boat built at AGB is a one-off undertaking, hand-crafted by brothers Ian and Justin Martin, who together have over 35 years in the boatbuilding trade. The Kevlar hulls are reinforced with select cherry gunwales, with ends capped by cherry decks. Fore and aft are flotation compartments, so the boats won’t sink if swamped. The frames for the seats are shaped from cherry, and the backs are made of a pre-woven material simulating old cane seats. The hull bottom and ends are reinforced with functional heavy-duty abrasion-resistant Kevlar skid plates; I know from experience that sand, gravel, or oyster bars won’t cut it.
As I got older and the grandkids moved on, I felt the need for a smaller boat that would be lighter and easier to handle by myself. That brought me to my next, and present, guideboat: the Pack Boat from AGB. Although the materials and basic design for this 12-foot and 36” beam boat are the same as the other guide boats in the line, it weighs in at 34 lbs. This is a single-person dream to handle – both in and out of our SUV and on the water with ease.
My first pull away from shore in the Pack was exhilarating – a quick and straight line, the boat almost seemed to jump to the oar stroke. I got up to speed rapidly and held the pace for a few minutes, watching the line of white bubbles trail behind me. I then planted both oars swiftly and deep and stopped abruptly, just checking for when I might need to do that. Rotating the oars, left backward and right forward stroking, I found I could spin the boat tightly. I then zigzagged across the pond. The boat responded directly to light touches to the water with one oar or the other. Just dipping a tip veered me right or left. (Note: Now, just for aesthetics, I’ve painted and striped the end of my oars…classy…and beautiful to see in clear water). It became obvious that the Solo Pack boat’s design (reduced weight and length and flat bottom) gave the boat an agility that the other boats didn’t have.
A darkening cloud bank to the West and a drop in temperature signaled that I should start heading back, but the wind picked up fast and soon the water was white capping with some swells on the shallow pond. I anxiously headed into the waves to see how the Solo handled, uncertain of what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised to feel the boat cut nicely into the waves or just ride over them.
When I spun the boat and headed down wind, I experienced what I hoped for: nice tracking and the thrill of the surfing push when a breaker came behind. The touch of an oar (or a kayak paddle for forward facing fun) allowed me to position the boat to catch wave after wave and rush forward, with the water coming up inches from the gunnel and schussing alongside. The agility of the Solo made this first row sports-car-like. And exiting the boat was easy by using what I call a “pull-up” rope …actually a horse halter from the barn that I attached to the brass ring on the bow deck: pull up and step out.
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Nothing tricky, and easy on the knees.
“Easy in…and Out” – By using my ‘pull-up rope’ attached to the bow of the pack I can ease into the boat and pull up cleanly to get out. Nice on 80-year-old knees!
But there was another nice surprise that came with the Solo Pack boat’s design: it really can kayak! Yup…row some…then kayak some.
From time-to-time there’s a need or desire to propel facing forward, rather than rowing backwards – like birdwatching in the swamps and rushes or handling narrows. Pushing both long oars forward in tandem will accomplish this, or alternating right oar, left oar push strokes can work well too in open water or when coming in to dock. But 7-foot oars get tangled in the shore brush of narrow creeks in Vermont or dense mangrove cuts in Florida water. Since I knew I’d be plagued by my inherent J-stroke deficiencies if I tried to paddle, I decided to try a kayak paddle for my “forwardness.” I found a beautiful hand-tooled wooden kayak paddle from Bending Branches that was over 100” in length, yet could be taken apart for storage. Also, I felt more secure having a back-up paddle in case of an emergency. This kayak paddle worked well in my AGB guideboat and Fishing Dory; however, the wide beam of these boats did cause me to bang on the gunnels at times.
“Wind up and Switching to Kayaking” – Nice to change muscles from rowing to kayaking, and the Bending Branches Navigator can really dig!
But, now in a Solo Pack guideboat with a narrower beam (36” vs 44” of the Dory boat), it makes a very fine “kayak.” Once again, its quickness and maneuverability came through. I found it nice to switch periodically from rowing to kayaking. It offered a change of pace, a rest for some muscles and a good use of muscles otherwise not used. And, the ability to raise the kayak paddle almost vertically allows movement through tight spots on creeks and along steep banks. Of course, the Pack can be propelled by canoe paddles, but I’ve stayed with the kayak paddle. Most recently I paddle with a superb and more modern 240cm Navigator paddle from Bending Branches and absolutely love the way it controls the boat. It’s also very much in harmony with the aesthetics and athleticism of AGB’s guideboats: both are handmade with beautiful woods, light to the touch, agile in the water, and functionally built to do the job they were meant to do for a long time.
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So, I feel I’ve reached the end of my long journey for the “right boat. I now pilot a Solo Pack Guideboat that I row with AGB’s now blade-sculpted cherry oars, and kayak with the light weight red alder/roasted basswood-ended kayak paddle from Bending Branches. I have a nicely versatile all-around paddling partner on the water. It has all the power, efficiency and speed that dual oars and rowing gets you; but the tight-spaces and forward-facing capabilities of a kayak or canoe when you want or need that. All the boxes checked, if you’re one to count boxes.
Look into getting an Adirondack Guide Boat and pair it with a stellar Bending Branches paddle. And keep having fun on the water!
Mike Schmidt lives an active life in the small town of New Smyrna Beach, Florida, near the mouth of the Indian River where it opens into the Atlantic. He rows and kayak-paddles his guideboat on lagoons, mangrove backwaters and streams, with birds and dolphins for company. In the spring, he and his wife move to the hills of Vermont to live in an old log cabin, surrounded by forest and overlooking a small trout pond. He rows Lake Champlain, and its surrounding rivers and reservoirs and when not rowing, does sport shooting with a recurve bow and a shotgun, rides his bike, plays the guitar, works at playing golf, and spends time with his grandkids
(All photos courtesy of Mike Schmidt)
*Note: Portions of this article previously appeared in Small Boats magazine.
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