Will Madison retraced the 1883 paddle of his great-great-great grandfather George W. Sears.
By Mike Lynch
The nineteenth-century writings of George W. Sears—best known as Nessmuk—have inspired countless Adirondack paddlers. Among the most recent is his great-great-great-grandson Will Madison.
In September, the twenty-two-year-old St. Lawrence University graduate retraced much of Nessmuk’s 1883 canoe trip from the Old Forge area to Paul Smiths and back.
“I’ve known about the family connection for a long time, but it didn’t really hit me until the past couple of years how cool it was,” Madison said.
Nessmuk was a lead writer for Forest and Stream magazine and published numerous articles about his Adirondack canoeing trips. He is credited for popularizing lightweight canoes made by J. Henry Rushton of Canton and was an early proponent of the go-light camping ethic. The canoe used by Nessmuk, the white-cedar Sairy Gamp, was a mere nine feet long and weighed just ten and a half pounds.
“The lightest boat J. Henry Rushton had ever produced, she was so small that Sears could lift her with one hand,” wrote Christine Jerome in An Adirondack Passage, in which she recounted her retracing of Nessmuk’s trip.
Madison didn’t attempt to use a replica of the Sairy Gamp because it would have been too small. Nessmuk was only five-foot-three and 105 pounds. Instead, the larger Madison got permission to use a thirteen-foot, thirty-five-pound white-cedar canoe owned by Tupper Laker Jim Frenette. Jim’s son, Rob Frenette, built the vessel in 1981 while he was at a boat-building school in Maine. Though based on Rushton concepts, it was designed by another builder.
Madison learned of the boat while taking a woodworking class with Rob’s brother, Michael. This summer, Madison worked for Raquette River Outfitters in Tupper Lake, owned by Rob Frenette and Anne Fleck. The vessel held up great for Madison: from September 11 to October 1 he ventured about two hundred miles. His journey was shorter than the one taken by his celebrated ancestor, who traveled 266 miles from mid-July to late August. Nessmuk, though, paddled through both private and public lands, whereas Madison stuck to the public Forest Preserve.
Starting in Old Forge, Madison headed up the Fulton Chain to Raquette Lake and Forked Lake and down the Raquette River to Stony Creek Ponds. He portaged to Upper Saranac Lake, paddled north, and then portaged to Lake Clear Outlet before making his way to Lake Clear, whence he portaged to Little Clear Pond and then headed through the Seven Carries to the St. Regis Lakes. He turned around at Paul Smith’s College on Lower St. Regis and returned to the Raquette. He took the Raquette downriver to Tupper Lake, from where he headed up the Bog River and took Round Lake to Little Tupper Lake. From there, he got a shuttle to Forked Lake and then paddled up Raquette Lake. He took a side trip up the Marion River to visit Blue Mountain Lake and see the Nessmuk exhibit at the Adirondack Museum. After that, he paddled to Old Forge the way he came.
Madison said one of the highlights of the trip was seeing a black bear on the portage near Long Pond on the Seven Carries route. “It stood up on its hind legs and just kind of looked at me like a squirrel would out of curiosity,” Madison said.
The paddler also enjoyed a visit with Tom Thatcher on Indian Point on Raquette Lake. Thatcher is the great-great-grandson of George Thatcher, who is believed to have met with Nessmuk during his trip in 1883. Tom Thatcher wrote about the incident for the Adirondack Almanack, quoting from Nessmuk’s 1884 book Woodcraft.
“There are enthusiastic anglers, however, whose specialty is trolling for lake trout. A gentleman by the name of Thatcher, who has a fine residence on Raquette Lake—which he calls a camp—makes this his leading sport, and keeps a log of his fishing, putting nothing on record of less than ten pounds weight.”
Like their ancestors, Thatcher and Madison met at the Indian Lake camp. “It was really cool to meet up on this point and recreate this historic moment,” Madison said.
The Madison family has donated many Nessmuk belongings to the Adirondack Museum, but the family still owns a few prized items, including Nessmuk’s hatchet.
“In his writing, he talked about how it was his most valuable camping item,” Madison said. “He went through a lot of trouble to get it. He had it custom made.”
For the most part, Madison enjoyed spectacular fall weather with only a few rains. “It’s been really beautiful, just amazing, beautiful days of paddling,” he said. “I’ve seen some really amazing sunsets. I’ve had some hard days that have kept me busy paddling, and I’ve had some really relaxing days where I could just fish a lot, take it easy.”
The relaxing nature of the journey would have pleased Nessmuk, who advocated going into the woods with light equipment and a light attitude. As he wrote in Woodcraft, “We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it.”