Forgotten Voices:


by George Washington Sears (Nessmuk), published 1884


George Washington Sears, known for his developing and popularizing the ultra-light canoe in the 1880's, had an life filled with travel and adventure.  He was not one to speak much of himself, and in fact only in a the few pages that he wrote at the insistence of his publisher for the beginning of his 1887 book of poetry "Forest Runes" does he reveal details about his life. 

Born in Massachusetts in 1821, he was admittedly not much of a book student.  When he was very young, by his own account around the age of five, a young Narragansett Indian named Nessmuk ("wood drake") befriended him and during his youth taught him hunting, fishing, and camping.  Later Sears took that as his pen name, and also used the name for some of his light canoes.  In his teens and early 20's he worked as a commercial fisherman, where he most likely contracted tuberculosis, something that troubled him for the rest of his life.  By 1848 he was back with his family, who by then had moved to Wellsville, Pennsylvania, which would become his residence for the rest of his life.  In 1857 he married, and he and his wife Mariette had three children.  He never seems to speak of his wife or family, though there is at least one of his poems sharing the grief of losing a son that could well be in reference to a personal tragedy in his life.  His wife far outlived Sears and died at ninety-three in 1925.

George Washington Sears served in the Civil War ,only for three months, and was discharged in 1861 after being hospitalized twice for asthma.  He made numerous trips out West, and between 1867 and 1870 made two trips to Brazil in hopes of becoming involved in the rubber trade.

It was soon after George became widely known to the general public as a writer and woodman under the name of his old Indian friend "Nessmuk."  He is best know for his light canoes, an innovation of that time period.  Before Sears, canoeing was mostly a decked, canoe-like boat made to be sailed, or in heavy guide canoes.  He had a number of light boats made and delivered to him by the Adirondack boat builder John Henry Rushton.  His experiences with these boats were published in Forest and Stream over the next few years.  His only book besides Forest Runes was Woodcraft, a book that for years was the bible for those seeking to travel light in the woods.

George Washington Sears died in Wellsville, Pa in 1890.  To honor his life and work a mountain near his home was named after him.  A few years after his death a bronze tablet was placed on his grave, the cost covered by donations from those who appreciated all he contributed to the knowledge of woodcraft during his life.

I am offering a chapter from his book Woodcraft as an example of both his writing style and his accomplishments in ultra-light canoeing.



The Light Canoe And Double Blade—Various Canoes For Various Canoeists—Reasons For Preferring The Clinker-Built Cedar


The canoe is coming to the front and canoeing is gaining rapidly in popular favor, in spite of the disparaging remark that "a canoe is a poor man's yacht."  The canoe editor of Forest and Stream pertinently says, "we may as properly call a bicycle 'the poor man's express train'."  But, suppose it is the poor man's yacht?  Are we to be debarred from aquatic sports because we are not rich?  And are we such weak flunkies as to be ashamed of poverty?  Or to attempt shams and subterfuges to hide it?


For myself, I freely accept the imputation.  In common with nine-tenths of my fellow citizens I am poor—and the canoe is my yacht, as it would be were I a millionaire.  We are a nation of many millions and comparatively few of us are rich enough to support a yacht, let alone the fact that not one man in fifty lives near enough to yachting waters to make such an acquisition desirable—or feasible, even.  It is different with the canoe. A man like myself can live in the backwoods, a hundred miles from a decent sized inland lake and much further from the sea coast, and yet be an enthusiastic canoeist. For instance.


Last July I made my preparations for a canoe cruise and spun out with as little delay as possible.  I had pitched on the Adirondacks as cruising ground and had more than 250 miles of railroads and buckboards to take, before launching the canoe on Moose River.  She was carried thirteen miles over the Brown's Tract road on the head of her skipper, cruised from the western side of the Wilderness to the Lower St. Regis on the east side, cruised back again by a somewhat different route, was taken home to Pennsylvania on the cars, 250 miles, sent back to her builder, St. Lawrence County, N.Y., over 300 miles, thence by rail to New York City, where, the last I heard of her, she was on exhibition at the Forest and Stream office.  She took her chances in the baggage car, with no special care and is today, so far as I know, staunch and tight, with not a check in her frail siding.


Such cruising can only be made in a very light canoe and with a very light outfit.  It was sometimes necessary to make several carries in one day, aggregating as much as ten miles, besides from fifteen to twenty miles under paddle. No heavy, decked, paddling or sailing canoe would have been available for such a trip with a man of ordinary muscle.


The difference between a lone, independent cruise through an almost unbroken wilderness and cruising along civilized routes, where the canoeist can interview farm houses and village groceries for supplies, getting gratuitous stonings from the small boy and much reviling from ye ancient mariner of the towpath—I say, the difference is just immense.  Whence it comes that I always prefer a very light, open canoe; one that I can carry almost as easily as my hat, and yet that will float me easily, buoyantly and safely.  And such a canoe was my last cruiser.  She only weighed ten and one-half pounds when first launched, and after an all summer rattling by land and water had only gained half a pound.  I do not therefore advise anyone to buy a ten and a half pound canoe; although she would prove competent for a skilful lightweight.  She was built to order, as a test of lightness and was the third experiment in that line.


I have nothing to say against the really fine canoes that are in highest favor today.  Were I fond of sailing and satisfied to cruise on routes where clearings are more plentiful than carries, I dare say I should run a Shadow, or Stella Maris, at a cost of considerably more than $100—though I should hardly call it a "poor man's yacht."


Much is being said and written at the present day as to the "perfect canoe."  One writer decides in favor of a Pearl 15 x 31 1/2 inches.  In the same column another says, "the perfect canoe does not exist."  I should rather say there are several types of the modern canoe, each nearly perfect in its way and for the use to which it is best adapted.  The perfect paddling canoe is by no means perfect under canvas and vice versa. The best cruiser is not a perfect racer, while neither of them is at all perfect as a paddling cruiser where much carrying is to be done.  And the most perfect canoe for fishing and gunning around shallow, marshy waters, would be a very imperfect canoe for a rough and ready cruise of one hundred miles through a strange wilderness, where a day's cruise will sometimes include a dozen miles of carrying.


Believing, as I do, that the light, single canoe with double-bladed paddle is bound to soon become a leading—if not the leading—feature in summer recreation, and having been a light canoeist for nearly fifty years, during the last twenty of which I experimented much with the view of reducing weight, perhaps I can give some hints that may help a younger man in the selection of a canoe which shall be safe, pleasant to ride and not burdensome to carry.


Let me promise that, up to four years ago, I was never able to get a canoe that entirely satisfied me as to weight and model.  I bought the smallest birches I could find; procured a tiny Chippewa dugout from North Michigan and once owned a kayak.  They were all too heavy and they were cranky to a degree.


About twenty years ago I commenced making my own canoes.  The construction was of the simplest; a 22 inch pine board for the bottom, planed to 3/4 of an inch thickness; two wide 1/2 inch boards for the sides and two light oak stems; five pieces of wood in all. I found that the bend of the siding gave too much shear; for instance, if the siding was 12 inches wide, she would have a rise of 12 inches at stems and less than 5 inches at center. But the flat bottom made her very stiff, and for river work she was better than anything I had yet tried.  She was too heavy, however, always weighing from 45 to 50 pounds and awkward to carry.


My last canoe of this style went down the Susquehanna with an ice jam in the spring of '79, and in the meantime canoeing began to loom up. The best paper in the country which makes outdoor sport its specially, devoted liberal space to canoeing, and skilled boatbuilders were advertising canoes of various models and widely different material.  I commenced interviewing the builders by letter and studying catalogues carefully.   There was a wide margin of choice.  You could have lapstreak, smooth skin, paper, veneer, or canvas.  What I wanted was light weight and good model.  I liked the Peterboro canoes; they were decidedly canoey.  Also, the veneered Racines: but neither of them talked of a 20 pound canoe. The "Osgood folding canvas" did.  But I had some knowledge of canvas boats.  I knew they could make her down to 20 pounds.  How much would she weigh after being in the water a week and how would she behave when swamped in the middle of a lake, were questions to be asked, for I always get swamped.  One builder of cedar canoes thought he could make me the boat I wanted, inside of 20 pounds, clinker-built and at my own risk, as he hardly believed in so light a boat. I sent him the order and he turned out what is pretty well known in Brown's Tract as the "Nessmuk canoe."  She weighed just 17 pounds 13 3/4 ounces and was thought to be the lightest working canoe in existence.  Her builder gave me some advice about stiffening her with braces, etc., if I found her too frail, "and he never expected another like her."


"He builded better than he knew."  She needed no bracing; and she was, and is, a staunch, seaworthy little model.  I fell in love with her from the start.  I had at last found the canoe that I could ride in rough water, sleep in afloat, and carry with ease for miles.  I paddled her early and late, mainly on the Fulton Chain; but I also cruised her on Raquette Lake, Eagle, Utowana, Blue Mountain and Forked Lakes, I paddled her until there were black and blue streaks along the muscles from wrist to elbow.  Thank Heaven, I had found something that made me a boy again. Her log shows a cruise for 1880 of over 550 miles.


As regards her capacity (she is now on Third Lake, Brown's Tract), James P. Fifield, a muscular young Forge House guide of 6 feet 2 inches and 185 pounds weight, took her through the Fulton Chain to Raquette Lake last summer; and, happening on his camp, Seventh Lake, last July, I asked him how she performed under his weight.  He said, "I never made the trip to Raquette so lightly and easily in my life."  And as to the opinion of her builder, he wrote me, under date of Nov. 18, '83: "I thought when I built the Nessmuk, no one else would ever want one. But I now build about a dozen of them a year. Great big men, ladies, and two, aye, three schoolboys ride in them. It is wonderful how few pounds of cedar, rightly modeled and properly put together, it takes to float a man," Just so, Mr. Builder. That's what I said when I ordered her. But few seemed to see it then.


The Nessmuk was by no means the ultimatum of lightness and I ordered another six inches longer, two inches wider, and to weigh about 15 pounds.  When she came to hand she was a beauty, finished in oil and shellac.  But she weighed 16 pounds and would not only carry me and my duffle, but I could easily carry a passenger of my weight.  I cruised her in the summer of '81 over the Fulton Chain, Raquette Lake, Forked Lake, down the Raquette River, and on Long Lake.  But her log only showed a record of 206 miles.  The cruise that had been mapped for 600 miles was cut short by sickness and I went into quarantine at the hostelry of Mitchell Sabattis.  Slowly and feebly I crept back to the Fulton Chain, hung up at the Forge House, and the cruise of the Susan Nipper was ended.  Later in the season, I sent for her and she was forwarded by express, coming out over the fearful Brown's Tract road to Boonville (25 1/2 miles) by buckboard, From Boonville home, she took her chances in the baggage car without protection and reached her destination without a check or scratch. She hangs in her slings under the porch, a thing of beauty—and, like many beauties, a trifle frail—but staunch as the day I took her.  Her proper lading is about 200 pounds.  She can float 300 pounds.


Of my last and lightest venture, the Sairy Gamp, little more need be said.  I will only add that a Mr. Dutton, of Philadelphia, got into her at the Forge House and paddled her like an old canoeist, though it was his first experience with the double blade.  He gave his age as sixty-four years and weight, 140 pounds.  Billy Cornell, a bright young guide, cruised her on Raquette Lake quite as well as her owner could do it, and I thought she trimmed better with him.  He paddled at 14 1/2 pounds, which is just about her right lading.  And she was only an experiment, anyhow.  I wanted to find out how light a canoe it took to drown her skipper, and I do not yet know.  I never shall.  But, most of all, I desired to settle the question approximately at least, of weight, as regards canoe and canoeist.


Many years ago, I became convinced that we were all, as canoeists, carrying and paddling just twice as much wood as was at all needful, and something more than a year since, I advanced the opinion in Forest and Stream, that ten pounds of well made cedar ought to carry one hundred pounds of man.  The past season has more than proved it; but, as I may be a little exceptional, I leave myself out of the question and have ordered my next canoe on lines and dimensions that, in my judgment, will be found nearly perfect for the average canoeist of 150 to 160 pounds.  She will be much stronger than either of any other canoes, because few men would like a canoe so frail and limber that she can be sprung inward by hand pressure on the gunwales, as easily as a hat-box.  And many men are clumsy or careless with a boat, while others are lubberly by nature.  Her dimensions are: Length, 10 1/2 feet; beam, 26 inches; rise at center, 9 inches: at seams, 15 inches; oval red elm ribs, 1 inch apart; an inch home tumble; stems, plumb and sharp; oak keel and keelson; clinker-built, of white cedar.


Such a canoe will weigh about 22 pounds and will do just as well for the man of 140 or 170 pounds, while even a light weight of 110 pounds ought to take her over a portage with a light, elastic carrying frame, without distress.  She will trim best, however, at about 160 pounds.  For a welter, say of some 200 pounds, add 6 inches to her length, 2 inches to her beam and 1 inch rise at center.  The light weight canoeist will find that either of these two canoes will prove satisfactory, that is 10 feet in length, weight 16 pounds, or 10 1/2 feet length, weight 18 pounds.  Either is capable of 160 pounds and they are very steady and buoyant, as I happen to know.  I dare say any first class manufacturers will build canoes of these dimensions.


Provide your canoe with a flooring of oil cloth 3 1/2 feet long by 15 inches wide; punch holes in it and tie it neatly to the ribbing, just where it will best protect the bottom from wear and danger.  Use only a cushion for a seat and do not buy a fancy one with permanent stuffing, but get sixpence worth of good, unbleached cotton cloth and have it sewed into bag shape.  Stuff the bag with fine browse, dry grass or leaves, settle it well together and fasten the open end by turning it flatly back and using two or three pins. You can empty it if you like when going over a carry, and it makes a good pillow at night.


Select a canoe that fits you, just as you would a coat or hat.  A 16 pound canoe may fit me exactly, but would be a bad misfit for a man of 180 pounds.  And don't neglect the auxiliary paddle, or "pudding stick," as my friends call it.  The notion may be new to most canoeists, but will be found exceedingly handy and useful.  It is simply a little one-handed paddle weighing 5 to 7 ounces, 20 to 22 inches long, with a blade 3 1/2 inches wide.  Work it out of half-inch cherry or maple and fine the blade down thin.  Tie it to a rib with a slip-knot, having the handle in easy reach, and when you come to a narrow, tortuous channel, where shrubs and weeds crowd you on both sides, take the double-blade inboard, use the pudding stick, and you can go almost anywhere that a muskrat can.


In fishing for trout or floating deer, remember you are dealing with the wary, and that the broad blades are very showy in motion.  Therefore, on approaching a spring-hole, lay the double-blade on the lily-pads where you can pick it up when wanted and handle your canoe with the auxiliary.  On hooking a large fish, handle the rod with one hand and with the other lay the canoe out into deep water, away from all entangling alliances.  You may be surprised to find how easily, with a little practice, you can make a two-pound trout or bass tow the canoe the way you want it to go.


In floating for deer, use the double-blade only in making the passage to the ground; then take it apart and lay it inboard, using only the little paddle to float with, tying it to a rib with a yard and a half of linen line.  On approaching a deer near enough to shoot, let go the paddle, leaving it to drift alongside while you attend to venison.


Beneath a hemlock grim and dark,
Where shrub and vine are intertwining,
Our shany stands, well roofed with bark,
On which the cheerful blaze is shining.
The smoke ascends in spiral wreath,
With upward curve the sparks are trending;
The coffee kettle sings beneath
Where sparks and smoke with leaves are blending.

And on the stream a light canoe
Floats like a freshly fallen feather,
A fairy thing, that will not do
For broader seas and stormy weather.
Her sides no thicker than the shell
Of Ole Bull's Cremona fiddle,
The mall who rides her will do well
To part his scalp-lock in the middle.

Forest Runes —Nessmuk




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