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Treasured Guide Boat Goes Home to Newcomb Campus

Archer and Anna Huntington’s boat returns to Rich Lake
8/8/2013

A gleaming wooden Adirondack guide boat, made from pine and cherry, and sporting original cane seats and graceful oars along with a history that dates to Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, is again gliding through the waters of the Central Adirondacks where it was crafted at the turn of the 20th century.

The boat, still bearing the original "Beaver" nameplate that marked it as part of the fleet at Arbutus Great Camp, is back at work at the Adirondack Interpretive Center here, poised to serve as the flagship of a small fleet of guide boats that will be used for educational purposes by the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), which owns the interpretive center. The program will give members of the public a rare opportunity to see, touch and ride in an authentic guide boat.

The Beaver returned to Newcomb this summer after an absence of more than 70 years.

"It has its original oars, its original seats, it even has all the original brass plating," said Paul Hai, program coordinator for ESF's Northern Forest Institute, which oversees the AIC. "So it's a boat that has its history remarkably well preserved. It was in great shape."

The Beaver was constructed in 1902 by Warren Cole, a highly regarded boat builder from nearby Long Lake. The boat was purchased by Anna and Archer Huntington, who owned Arbutus Great Camp in Newcomb. Cole constructed the Beaver in accordance with a design that had evolved since the middle of the 19th century: a smooth-sided wooden boat, nimble and pointed at both ends, finely adapted for swiftly navigating the lakes and narrow, shallow streams of the Adirondacks. Guide boats were spacious enough to carry three people and a load of fresh game and sturdy enough to be left out in the weather.

"These boats are unique to the Adirondacks, this is where they evolved," Hai said. "This boat winds up being the height of design for efficiency and effectiveness for moving around the Adirondack landscape with gear and guides."

Over the second half of the century, the guide boat went from a working craft to one prized by affluent great camp owners and seasonal visitors to the Adirondacks. Inventory records show that in 1911, the Huntingtons owned 17 boats. Eleven of them were guide boats. When the Huntingtons donated their 15,000-acre property to ESF in the 1930s, the family's fleet was transferred to their property in Connecticut.

Hai didn't know this boat existed until two years ago when he was contacted by a colleague at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, who said a boat collector had the Beaver and was considering selling it. Hai's associate at the museum saw the owner's photos and knew the plates bearing the names "Beaver" and "Arbutus 8" marked the boat as part of the Huntingtons' original fleet.

"No one else had the Arbutus nameplate and no one else had a preserve named Arbutus," Hai said. "There was no need to even question it. We were really excited to know another one of our boats still existed."

The owner agreed to sell the boat to the college, in part, because he wanted the craft to be used for educational purposes.

"The owner was excited about the kinds of work we are doing," Hai said. "We wanted to use the guide boat for education, for putting people on the lake; to be able to teach them about not just boat design and this great cultural artifact but also to teach them about lake ecology and the human history here, forestry, wildlife management, all these things we're so involved with here at the college."

Before the boat was launched this summer, restoration work was done on it by Mason Smith of Long Lake, who called the craft a "treasure."

"I don't think anything I've ever seen is better made than Beaver," Smith said. "That boat was very, very fine craftsmanship."

Smith said the boat has some unusually fine points: the bottom board has vertical grain all the way across, revealing its life as an old, slow-growth pine tree, and there is evidence of white lead in the seams, which discourages rot.

"Boats that are put together with white lead tend to stay younger," he said. "Cole did it extremely well in that boat and it has stayed extremely healthy."

When he began working on the boat, Smith said, it was in good condition expect for the back third which appeared to have been less protected than the rest of rest of the craft during storage. Smith spent the equivalent of about two months working on the boat, including replacing a couple pieces of rotted wood, stripping the boat and coating it with oil and marine varnish.

"In it's current condition, it's extremely good," he said. "It's a proper boat, ready to use, no more to be babied than any other guide boat."

In that sturdy state, the Beaver is now part of a weekly educational program called Guide Boat Fridays held at the Adirondack Interpretive Center through August. Center staff members use the boat to take visitors on guided tours of Rich Lake to learn about the human and environmental history of the area.

Then on Sept. 7, the Beaver will be part of the center's second annual Guide Boat Day on Rich Lake. Last year, some 40 people gathered at the center with their guide boats for a day of programming about the craft's historic role in Adirondack history, and most importantly, a day of rowing on Rich Lake.

"Everybody loves guide boats. They are literally an icon of the Adirondacks," Hai said.

And while people can see the boats in museums or on display in restaurants or stores, it's rare for a non-owner to be able to take a ride in one. Hai expects the Adirondack Interpretive Center's fleet to grow with additional restorations and donations.

"Part of our excitement is about creating a broad education program about the Adirondacks," he said. "We will be able to have 15 people on the water at once to experience a bygone way of engaging in the Adirondacks."

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