When my sons were ages four and eleven, my family drove to Blue Mountain Lake on a warm October day, filled our kayaks with food and gear, and launched our boats. Like hundreds of boaters before us, we planned to spend several days on the lakes and rivers of the most popular long-distance canoe route in the Adirondacks—Blue Mountain Lake, Raquette Lake, Forked Lake, Long Lake, Tupper Lake, and the winding miles of the Raquette River that connect them.
Our journey left me with magnificent memories, but I wish I’d known about Christine Jerome’s book, An Adirondack Passage. It should be required reading for any boating adventures in the central Adirondacks.
Jerome’s book chronicles her canoe journey in 1990 when she followed the route of the nineteenth-century adventurer George Washington Sears, or as he was known to his readers in Forest and Stream magazine, Nessmuk. Jerome paddled a lightweight boat similar to the one Sears had used, though hers was Kevlar and his was made of cedar strips. Henry Rushton designed and built Sears’s wisp of a boat. He told Sears, “Now you must stop with this one, don’t try any smaller one. If you get sick of this as a Canoe use it as a soup dish.” The boat, christened the Sairy Gamp after a tipsy character in a Dickens novel, weighed only ten and a half pounds.
In 1883, Sears planned to paddle and write about a grand canoe trip in the Adirondacks but at age sixty-one he could no longer carry a heavy boat and supplies. At 5-foot-3 and only 110 pounds, Sears wanted to go ultralight, a man ahead of his time. He carried his rifle, a clean shirt, strong green tea, and a pot to make it in. For food he relied on wild game (porcupine tasted “very like spring lamb, only better”) and the hospitality of friends and hotels along his route.
Both Sears and Jerome struggled when they encountered rough water as their light boats gave very little protection from the waves. Jerome christened her boat the Sairy Damp; Sears often avoided getting wet by finding other ways to get across the rough water of the big lakes. He sometimes caught rides on the steamboats that brought tourists to the big hotels, his little boat always bringing him much attention. On Seventh Lake in the Fulton Chain he met a guide, Fred Loveland, and the two of them traveled together. When the wind picked up and the lake churned with whitecaps Sears dreaded the crossing. It seemed “rather an unsocial way of traveling, that one should go ahead with a long, sharp boat, and his companion come puffing along in the rear with a canoe little larger than a bread tray.” Soon Sears sat in the rear of the guide boat with the Sairy Gamp tied up behind.
While Sears writes with a nineteenth-century drama and humor, Jerome’s prose is chatty but always precise. As she and her husband, John, journey through the Adirondacks she describes each day and each campsite and also the history along the way. Reading An Adirondack Passage is like paddling next to a knowledgeable and friendly guide and historian.
This is the third edition of An Adirondack Passage, and it has several improvements over the first paperback edition. The book is larger, with easy-to-read type and an attractive cover. The first edition had twenty-two blurry photos crammed into a few pages in the middle of the book while this edition has twenty-five high-quality photos sprinkled throughout. The addition of an old topographical map at the beginning of each chapter is less useful.
The book now ends with two afterwords, written for the second and third editions. In these, Jerome corrects some misstatements and gives updates on recent Adirondack history. In her original text, Jerome wrote that Sears was a bad husband and father, a man who didn’t love his wife or children and who would disappear for weeks at a time to the woods, abandoning his family and his job as a shoemaker. After reading more of his journals, Jerome now believes he was a devoted husband and father.
In the late nineteenth century, Sears was sickened by the destruction caused by dams and logging and the luxury at the big hotels along the lakes. He was one of the early voices advocating for protection for Adirondack lands and waters. In many ways, Jerome’s twentieth-century journey crossed a wilder landscape than Sears had encountered one hundred years earlier. Here’s Jerome:
All along my route I strained for glimpses of the old carries and buildings, but in almost every case they have vanished utterly. While the historian in me was disappointed, the environmentalist rejoiced to see how quickly nature can obliterate our works. One seedling takes hold, then another, and a road reverts to forest. Weeds push up flagstones, moss colonizes a shingle roof, wind, and rain splinter clapboard walls. Floors sag, joists dry into powder, sills warp, nails fall, and soon there are only wild blackberries nodding in sunny cellar holes.
In 1883, Sears called the area around Little Tupper Lake some of the prettiest, wildest part of his journey, but in 1990 Jerome was unable to get permission from the Whitney family to cross their privately owned land. Happily, Little Tupper Lake is now owned by New York State and open to the public. George Washington Sears, aka Nessmuk, would be pleased to know that much of the waters and lands of his beloved Adirondacks are now forever wild. ■