STORIES OF OUR ADIRONDACKS
The Cruise of the Sairy Gamp
Forest and Steam Magazine, August 9, 1883, page 22
By "Nessmuk" (George Washington Sears)
George Washington Sears, known for his developing and popularizing the ultra-light canoe in the 1880's, had a life filled with travel and adventure. For more details on the life of Mr. Sears, see “Woodcraft,” also on this Forgotten Voices Blog.
This article describes Nessmuk’s first experiences using his most famous ultralight canoe, named the Sairy Gamp. This name is probably taken from a character in the Charles Dickens novel of 1843, “The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit.” Mrs. Sarah, or Sairey Gamp, was an alcoholic midwife and layer-out of the dead, and one known to have conversations with an imaginary companion. (1)
The route that Sears walked in this story roughly follows what is now Rte. 28, between the hamlet of McKeever (then Lawrence) and the Forge House, in Old Forge, at the head of First Lake overlooking the Middle Moose River. The Forge House was opened in 1871, enlarged over the years to provide accommodations for 200, it was destroyed by fire in 1924. “Ned Ball,” the young guide that he met along the way could have been Edward Ball, who is in the 1893 Forest Commission list of Adirondack guides. (2)
The Cruise of the Sairy Gamp
“Thus far the Sairy Gamp has brought me to safety, and without wetting me once. The Sairy, I may remark, is a Rushton Canoe, weighing just 10 1/2 pounds.
And it is not that I may boast of cruising in the lightest canoe ever built of cedar, that I paddle such an eggshell by river and lake, through the Northern Wilderness. Not for the cheap notoriety that leads a man to tempt the ocean in a dory. But I have been testing light canoes for years, and my experience may be of some value to the future canoeist, who contemplates a lone cruise with the double blade. We, the “outers,” who go to the blessed woods for rest and recreation, are prone to handicap our pleasures in the matter of overweight; guns, rods, duffel, boats, etc. We take a deal of stuff to the woods only to wish we had left it at home, and end our trips by leaving dead loads of impediments in deserted camps.
I should be glad to see this amended, I hope at no distant day to meet independent canoeists, with canoes weighing 20 pounds or less, at every turn in the wilderness, and with no more duffel than is absolutely necessary.
I met the Sairy at Booneville; also my friend, Si Holiday, who contracted to land her at Moose River without a scratch, and he did it, though he came within an ace of capsizing. At Moose River I staid several days fishing for brook trout, testing and practicing canoe and paddle, likewise trying to brace up weak muscle, which sadly needed it.
I found the canoe much stauncher and steadier than I had been led to expect. Her maker had warned me that he would not warrant her for an hour. “She may go to pieces like an eggshell,” he said. He had tested her with his own weight (110 pounds), and she closed at gunwales an inch or more. He advised bracing her, and he thought with me and my duffel aboard she would only be two and a half inches out of water at center. “He builded better than he knew.” She does not close in perceptibly at gunwales, and she has full five inches rise above water when on a cruise, with her skipper and light cargo properly stowed.
The only part of the cruise to be dreaded was the 13 ½ miles of muddy, rocky trail between Moose River and the Forge House, called “Brown’s Tract Road.” I dared not trust her on the buckboards, and I hardly felt like making such a carry at the start; but I did it. I started before 5 A.M., and made the first three miles bravely. Began to weaken a little. Got some breakfast and went on. At the “six mile tree” felt beaten. Buckboard came along with party. Party got out to lift and admire canoe. Driver said if I would leave my knapsack at the tree he would fetch it in on his return. Left it gladly.
Went on and got caught in drenching thunder storm. Crept under canoe until it passed over. Road a muddy ditch. At the “eight mile tree” caught another and harder storm. Kept sulkily on, too mad and demoralized to dodge under canoe, arrived at “ten mile tree” pretty much tired, and stopped (4 P.M.) to get some tea and lunch. Felt it to be the hardest carry I have ever made, and wished I had gone in by Jones’s camp and the Stillwater of Moose River, as I had always done on previous trips.
Just then along came Ned Ball, a muscular young guide, and though he had four hounds in charge, he volunteered to hoist the canoe on his head and carry it in. “It don’t weigh more’n a stovepipe hat,” he said.
The last three and one-half miles of road were much better, and at 8 P.M. I arrived at the Forge House, wet, bruised, and looking like an ill-used tramp. Some dry woolens, much too large, with a bright fire in front of the hotel, a night’s rest, and a good breakfast brought me around and “paradise, reached through purgatory,” was attained. Paradise meaning Brown’s Tract, and purgatory the twenty five and one half miles of wretched road between Boonville and the Forge House. That is how the admirers of Brown’s Tract put it.
And the Sairy was safe on the lakes at last, without a check or scratch. I paddled her about the four first lakes of the chain. Practiced getting into and out of her in difficult places, and best of all, caught all the speckled trout I wanted sitting her at the springholes. This mode of fishing I pronounce the culmination of piscatorial sport. With a one pound trout on the hook it was not necessary to yield more than a yard or two of line at the start, and then play the fish to a standstill by the easy movement of the canoe, reeling up to about ten feet of line, leading the fish about as one pleased, and let him tow the canoe until he turned on his side utterly exhausted, and refused to raise a pectoral in defense of his life. Then gaff him by sticking a thumb in his open mouth and taking him in.
I had a very fair amount of this kind of sport, and came to have a deal of confidence in the Sairy as I learned her light but reliable ways. I visited the camps, picked up old acquaintances, was fed daily on trout, got up better muscle, and, best of all, gained health with every day’s exercise and sport. I found new camps on all the lakes, while the old camps were enlarged or improved, and fishing, I am pleased to say, much better than when I was here two years ago. This may be owing to restocking the lakes and streams. At any rate, I have seen thrice as many trout during a little more than two weeks’ stay in the woods as I saw in twice the time two years since.
In spite of the exceptionally cold, wet summer, sportsmen and health-seekers are enjoying the woods more satisfactorily. With at least five out of every six who came to this region for health, the improvement is decided and speedy, I have personal knowledge of some cases that seem almost marvelous; but there is a case here and there, mostly asthmatic, with which the cool, damp air does not agree. I know of two such cases. But I have conversed with a score who have gained health to an extent that exceeded their most sanguine expectations.
There is some complaint about the winged things that bite and sting, black flies were bad early in the season, and mosquitoes, as well as punkies, were never hungrier or plentier. To the man who prepares himself for the North Woods by getting up a pelt like a cellar-grown potato sprout and then runs a clipper over his head to give the insects a fair chance, no doubt they are a constant torment; especially if he is too aesthetic to use his fly medicine copiously, or so cleanly as to wash it off every day.
As for myself- even on Brown’s Inlet- they pass me be my as if I were a hot griddle. On starting in I established a good substantial glaze, which I am not fool enough to destroy by any weak leaning to soap and towels.
I once published the recipe for insects in Forest and Stream, but will close by giving it once more, it is as follows: 3 oz. pure tar, 2 oz. castor oil, 1 oz. pennyroyal. Simmer together thoroughly, apply copiously, and don’t fool with soap and water till you are out of the woods.” Nessmuk. Raquette Lake, July 27.
1. Wikipedia. Martin Chuzzlewit. Wikipedia. [Online] [Cited: April 16, 2014.] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Chuzzlewit.
2. Bryant F. Tolles, Jr. Resort Hotels of the Adirondacks. Hanover and London : University Press of New England, 2003.