A Q&A with Raquette Lake Navigation founder Dean Pohl
This story previously ran in November of 2020.
For the first time in 30 years, the iconic dinner cruise ship W.W. Durant is sitting uncharacteristically quiet at the dock in Raquette Lake in the height of the summer season, due to COVID-19.
No steaks are grilling. No stories of Adirondack history are being told at a stop in front of Camp Pine Knot, the first great camp in the Adirondacks built by the ship’s namesake William West Durant.
The horn isn’t sounding for kids on their docks. And the ship’s only captain, Dean Pohl, is finding other ways to fill the seven days of the week he would have been piloting the boat and introducing passengers to the Adirondack experience.
For many, a trip on the dinner cruise on the Adirondacks’ largest natural lake, with stories narrated by Pohl, is their first such introduction. And for Pohl, this is life—from Memorial Day until Columbus Day. Until recently, when he trained two substitute captains to fill in on nights when he serves on the Long Lake Town Board, Pohl never missed a cruise.
“It’s eerie; I don’t quite know how to describe it,” Pohl says, sitting at one of the empty dining tables on the ship in July. “For 30 years we’ve done it. I miss being out on the lake. I miss the people.” And one other transaction is on hold: The Pohls’—Dean and his business partner wife Donna were set to sell the business, Raquette Lake Navigation Co., to two of their children, Rachel and Jim, before the start of this season. But with courts and lawyers offices closed by the pandemic, they had to postpone. The deal is now set to be finalized by January of 2021. When it happens, it will complete an enviable Adirondack success story of a business built by and kept in the family.
Attracting and keeping young people in the Adirondacks is a constant challenge. But Rachel and Jim, who have had careers in the food and tourism industry elsewhere, wanted to come home and continue the family legacy. “It’s gratifying to build something that is longer-lived than you are,” Pohl says. It was the late ‘80s when there was a lull in construction that Pohl, a contractor, looked for a new opportunity to earn a living and, importantly, stay in the Adirondacks. He loved boats, and loved the lake, so it was natural he and Donna would notice there was no dinner boat within 100 miles of Raquette Lake. The closest were in Lake George and Alexandria Bay.
They set out to design a dinner cruise. They took their plans to a marine architect and the boat hull was built in Michigan and shipped back to the Pohls in two halves on 65-foot tractor trailers. They hired a certified welder for all the parts under the water line, an insurance requirement. The remainder of the construction— the mechanical work, electrical and plumbing and the distinctive yellow pine wainscoting— was done by Pohl and two friends. It wasn’t easy.
“It was much slower than I thought,” he says now, wiser at 77. “I underestimated that by 150%. I was full of optimism.” Neighbors and friends wondered if the ship would ever set sail on the lake.
“It was an idea that very few people thought would survive,” Pohl says. “They saw a rusted hulk on the sideline, but it finally got done.” They had started construction in 1988 and launched the boat in 1991. Pohl received a $175,000 Small Business Administration loan and borrowed another $100,000 from family and friends to launch the business.
“I was very grateful for their help,” he says. Even before they started the cruises, Donna and Dean helped form the NYS Tour Boat Association with 30 other boat operators. And Pohl says more than once, the W.W. Durant would not be here today without the family. Donna was “the glue” and the children were “faithful employees.”
A trip on the W.W. Durant is an experience, a three-hour tour with meals (8,000 in a year) and various other excursions and moonlight cruises entertaining 20,000 annually. “Once we set sail, you’re immersed in what’s here,” Pohl says. Son Jim, trained at the Culinary Institute of America, is the chef. As marriage officer for the Town of Long Lake, Pohl can even perform weddings on the boat—and has, 300 times.
It is a family operation, but the Pohls employ many to help during the summer, including children and grandchildren of people on the lake as well as foreign students with J-1 visas. Donna is a stickler for being on time, Pohl says, so the boat always leaves the dock promptly on schedule. Always. So if you miss the boat at the dock, you’ll need to grab a water taxi at Burke’s Marina and meet the cruise in progress. “We value people’s commitment to time,” Pohl says. “We pride ourselves on being just like the railroad used to be.”
Always a history buff but never a public speaker, Pohl says telling the history of Raquette Lake during the three-hour cruise has become easier over the years. And he is eager to share it.
“This was a birthplace of the great camp architect,” he says of Durant. “Durant built the first great camps here and it spread through the Adirondacks and out West. It all began right here.”
The wealthiest people in the world had camps on Raquette from the 1870s to 1910. The railroad was the only means to get to Raquette Lake and the majority of homes were, and still are, reachable only by boat. And, as a contractor, Pohl says he’s done work in most of them. So when he stops the boat to talk about the fireplace at Bluff Point, a camp once owned by magazine publisher Robert Collier, he’s been in there and seen it. And his stories have become so synonymous with the W.W. Durant experience the family took him to a recording studio in Utica three years ago to get them recorded. They are used during those infrequent times a substitute captain steps in. The regulars want to hear from Pohl.
From Ava, near Tug Hill, Pohl worked summers at Raquette Lake when he was young staying at his family’s camp. Compared to the work he did at home on the farm, he said he thought he had “died and gone to heaven.” He met Donna, from Syracuse, when he was a caretaker at Echo Camp for Girls and she was the dishwasher and laundress.
After 30 years of logging 1,000 hours a year in the pilot house (he missed only a lunch and dinner cruise when he lost two fingers repairing a generator), Pohl is looking forward to passing on the responsibility, but not the captain’s seat. “I’m looking at working for the next generation as long as they want me and as long as I feel safe.”
Favorite place he wants others to know about: Castle Rock in Blue Mountain Lake, a fairly easy hike with a “better view from the summit than the top of Blue Mountain.” He tries to hike it every year because it’s close to home and offers the best view of Blue Mountain Lake.