By Dan Way
When I learned my friend Peter Hornbeck had died suddenly at his home, I had mixed feelings. The initial shock was like a body blow to the heart: I could hardly breathe.
That shock wave would ripple through his realm of influence, which stretches as far as his unique boats roam, (from Sweden to Tasmania), and would be wrenching to thousands of friends and supporters. Certainly, I took comfort from knowing he passed the way we would all want to leave this world—swiftly, at home, without prolonged suffering, and surrounded by loving family—a class act to the last moment.
But it wasn’t just his skill as a boatbuilder or artist that we would miss. It was the man himself. To know Pete Hornbeck was to love him, while appreciating his kindness, humor, generosity, quick wit, creativity and vast knowledge of all things Adirondack. He seemed to be of another time—a simpler one without computers, cellphones or even electricity. He would have been happy living in a simple cabin—just like the ones he built on his own property. True, he had little concept of time; he was famously unable to stick to a strict schedule. Visitors looking for him at his Olmstedville shop had only a small chance of finding him at his desk, because he so often accepted or offered a spontaneous invitation to go paddling with a friend or customer.
Using one of my photographs, Peter created a poster of a beautiful lake on which he would draw a paddler in one of his boats, which he would give to any potential buyer. But, according to his very patient son-in-law Josh Trombley, Pete was such a soft touch that he would also hand out Hornbeck hats, T-shirts, and other memorabilia to anyone who looked at them sideways, even though they were meant for retail sales. When one of his friends was stricken with a stroke a year ago in Albany, Peter was there at the hospital to give him a pep talk. It worked too; the friend made a full recovery. Pete’s compassion and connection with his students as a teacher was also legendary.
I was fortunate enough to have spent many unforgettable outings with Peter through the League of Extraordinary Adirondack Gentlemen, a tongue-in-cheek group we created in 2010. Along with Patrick Sisti, we gathered together a group of interesting characters of a certain age with deep Adirondack roots who would explore historic and scenic Adirondack waters and campsites, while sharing stories and enjoying each other’s company. Those memories are priceless to myself and all the still-living members of our league.
The world is a far sadder place without him, and his passing put the year 2020 into an even more cruel and despicable category than it already earned. Peter was an unforgettable character, and although he is no longer a living legend, he has now joined the pantheon of Adirondack legends whose lives and deeds have left an indelible impact on the region: Stoddard, Colvin, Trudeau, Sabbattis.
I will remember him and silently thank him for his accomplishments every time I get into my Black Jack and set out on a pond, river or lake anywhere in the Adirondacks. And whenever I am paddling, I will remember one of my favorite Hornbeck stories, which he shared with LEAG members on a Tupper Lake island in 2012:
“I still remember a lot of my students,” he told us. “One of them, named Willie, was very shy. He never said much in class, and I always felt like there was something he wanted to tell me, but he wouldn’t. One night my phone rings. I pick it up, say hello, but there’s no response. I wait. Silence. Finally I said, ‘Is that you, Willie?’ A squeaky voice says, ‘Yes Mr. Hornbeck … how did you know?’ I said, ‘I recognized your breathing.’”
Daniel Way MD, a native of Glens Falls and co-founder of the LEAG, practiced rural family medicine in the Adirondack Park for 37 years with the Hudson Headwaters Health Network before retiring in 2018. He lives with his wife Harriet Busch MD in Glens Falls. You can learn more about his books, writing and photography through his website at www.danielway.com.