Event honoring boatmaker Willard Hanmer returning for July 4 weekend in Saranac Lake
By Mike Lynch
A classic Adirondack event is making its return in July after a 10-year hiatus.
The Willard Hanmer Guideboat and Canoe Race will take place in Saranac Lake on July 3, 60 years after the competition first took place.
“We feel that the Hanmer is a part of the Adirondack heritage, and his boats, and his legacy should not be forgotten,” said Sue Dyer, who came up with the idea to bring it back with her daughter, Kathy.
Hanmer was a guideboat builder who worked on boats from 1927 to 1962, when he died of a heart attack at the age of 59. A year later, the inaugural Willard J. Hanmer Memorial Race was launched.
Hanmer was introduced to guideboats at about the age 8 in 1910, under the tutelage of his father, Theodore, who had a boat shop near Upper Saranac Lake on Lake Street. By 1927, the guideboat builder took over the bulk of his dad’s work, and in 1930 built his own shop down the road.
Today, Chris Woodward still uses that shop for its original purpose. Woodward is part of a team helping to organize the event and is looking at ways to showcase the boats, Dyer said.
In its heyday, the Hanmer drews hundreds, if not thousands, of people to watch the boats race from Lake Flower down the Saranac River to the fish and game club.
This year’s event on July 3 will feature that traditional course for 1-person guideboats, while 2-person crafts will stay on Lake Flower to protect them from hitting rocks in the river. Plus, there will be classes for kayakers, canoes, SUPs, and war canoes for both children and adults.
Lake Clear resident Curt Reynolds, 60, won the solo guideboat race the last time it took place and participated for about 30 years before that. He recalled that the village was booming during the contest in the ’70s through the ’90s.
“That was the Fourth of July show,” he said. “Boy, everybody looked forward to the Hanmer races. I mean, they were running rub-a-dub-dub canoe races and all kinds of funny stuff down the river in (those) days, people floating in inner tubes with their coolers and such.”
Boat builders from Long Lake and Tupper Lake would show up and the contest would get competitive.
“Some of the old-timers took that stuff seriously,” Reynolds said.
The challenge this summer will be drawing participants, especially younger ones. Many of the people who once raced are now in their 60s or older. And in the years leading up to the 50th anniversary, numbers were small. That’s one of the main reasons the Hanmer stopped taking place.
Guideboats are fairly rare and cost a minimum of a few thousand dollars, regularly going for at least $10,000.
In the 19th century, the boats were used by guides to take clients out on the water for leisure, to fish, or travel between destinations before the creation of the automobiles.
Today, traditional wooden guideboats, which are rowed, are more commonly owned by Great Camp owners, in addition to guideboat enthusiasts.
But Dyer is hopeful they can draw a large crowd.
And Dyer said her goal is to not only bring back the Hanmer, but other traditional community events, once this one is in the books.
She has had success in the past with events as the Saranac Lake Chamber president in the ’70s and ’80s and one of the founders of the three-day 90-Miler paddling race from Old Forge to Saranac Lake.
She recalled the idea for the 90-Miler came at a celebration after the Hanmer race when race timer Bill Hulshoff chided her to put on a “real” canoe race. She asked him what he considered real, and he said 100 miles.
“We spent the next month or so going over maps and race routes and driving up and down and people (went up) in seaplanes … and that’s how it started,” Dyer said.