When I was young, my parents took us to upstate NY in the Adirondacks each summer for a two week vacation. In all the years we visited, and it was for as many summers as I can remember, it was always to the same spot, Lake Clear, just north of Saranac Lake.
I have wonderful vivid memories of those summer breaks, fishing, sailing on an old Sunfish and time spent watersking for hours each day. I also remember the daily trips to a local gas station with my dad to fill up the fuel tanks for the boat. Wow, but that boat, that we dubbed the “super pig” used gas.
When Brenda and I were newly married, we too took our time at Lake Clear and even considered buying a cottage, balking at what seemed like an unfathomably high cost of $50,000 for lakefront property in the late 70s.
While we had not yet begun to focus on sailing, I felt a strong pull to the water.
The cottage that we rented belonged to the Lathrops who were second generation owners of the property. The cottage was impossibly quaint if a bit rough around the edges. I seem to recall bringing our own vacuum to tidy up a bit when we arrived. During those years, Brenda played the guitar. Sadly, not these days but she has recently taken up the ukulele. Fingers crossed that she will catch that bug again. I fell in love with the traditional boats of the area. Perhaps the most iconic boat design of the region is the Guide Boat, so named because it was used for hunting and fishing by “sports” who visited the region by train from NYC to “rusticate”, beginning in the years after the close of the Civil War. These boats were crewed by the builders themselves, who spent winters building the boats and summers taking visitors on guided hunting and fishing trips. Guide boats are known for being easy to row and for being able to carry a lot of gear and as they had to as often it was a hunter, guide and any game that they may have bagged.
Windslow Homer spent time in the area too and painted this iconic image of a guide and his “sport”. However, this may not actually be a guideboat but you get the general idea.I got the bug to have one of these beautiful boats but couldn’t afford to buy a “real” one. Instead, I found someone who was offering a “bare hull” in Kevlar which I finished with walnut decks and cane seats. I even carved out oars to pretty exact specs. This is one sweet boat to row and very light. The hull and fitting design were taken off of the lines of a particular boat “Ghost”, built by H.D Grant. The original boat is now in the collection of the Adirondack Museum, renamed the Adirondack Experience.
Plans for the boat, which I purchased from the museum, are now available from, oddly, Mystic Seaport. The 16′ boat has beautiful lines and with her 8′ overlapping oars, is a dream to row. It is said that a traditional guide boat is the fastest rowing boat you can find without a sliding seat. The boat Ghost itself and museum are located on Blue Mountain Lake. It’s a really great place to visit and has examples of many boats that plied the waters of the many lakes that dot the area.
Here’s are some of the sheets of the plans that I purchased. The plans even specify details down to the oarlocks which I was able to purchase from a foundry that had duplicated the design to be true to the original. This design of boats has been remarkably popular for over 100 years and there are still boats being constructed using the exact same techniques and materials. These boats are very tough to make as the materials are impossibly thin to keep the weight of the boats to a minimum given the need to portage, or hand carry, from one lake to the next. There were many hotels dotting the lakes that featured guideboats for hire, complete with guides.We had many wonderful times heading out on picnics on the lake and nearby St Regis Lake. Wow, what a dish. Nice boat too. St Regis Lake was and is still today, home to many of the “Great Camps” where wealthy city dwellers would spend time “rusticating” in somewhat less than rustic conditions.
One of the most famous is the camp, Top Ridge, was built by Marjorie Merriweather Post, which she called a “rustic retreat”. While the lake is home to many “camps”, hers was the most lavish, featuring nearly 70 buildings, including a Russian dacha. She collected Russian art and her connection to the country was her third husband that served as the ambassador to the Soviet Union for a time.
I can still vividly recall seeing a plane at the nearby Adirondack Airport that my dad, an airplane buff, told me was hers as she still used the camp for vacationing and lavish entertaining when my family visited Lake Clear in the early years. This is a photo of what was probably the plane I saw so many years ago as it’s the one that she used traveled in when she visited Top Ridge. I’d guess that my father knew it was her plane because her name was right on the bow, “Merriweather.”While there was eventually there was a service road to the estate, during Post’s ownership all materials and visitors arrived by water, landing at this magnificent boathouse. The largest building for the estate, above the boathouse, featured what was, at the time, the largest piece of plate glass in the area, offering a beautiful view of the lake. Following her death in 1973, she willed the compound to NY State that used it as a retreat for a number of years. During that period it was open to the public so Brenda and I visited. The state eventually sold the property to the flamboyant Roger Jakubowski, who had made millions selling hotdogs in the NY City area.
This article in Adirondack Life gives some interesting information about him, the property and it’s furnishings. When we visited the estate, prior to his ownership, the main cabin was open for visitors and I recall many of the furnishings mentioned in the article. This photo of the great room in the main building, is out of a wonderful book, Great Camps of the Adirondacks, that chronicles the history of these remarkable “camps”, er, estates. It’s no longer in print but used copies are available at a very reasonable price on Amazon. Anyway, the estate is now owned by Hartlan Crow, a developer from Texas, who has substantially restored the camp.
Marjorie wealth was as a result of being the owner of General Foods and she was for a long time, the wealthiest women in the country. She became wealthy the old fashioned way, at the tender age of 27 she inherited the Postum Cereal Company, the predecessor to the company we’ve all heard of today.
The lake is also the home of a class of a very unique gaff rigged sloops, the Idem class. Originally designed for the St Regis Yacht Club in 1899, the fleet consisted of a dozen boats. How about this for a serious looking group of owners?Here’s a shot of them racing in 1900. Those same boats racing 100 years later. This is one we saw when Brenda and I visited the lake in our guideboat. One of the original dozen that were built is now on display in the Adirondack Museum with all of the others lovingly maintained and still kept on the lake. In 2004 a new boat was built to the class so that now, once again, there are a dozen boats on the lake that race together.
As you can imagine, a great deal of work and care goes into keeping these boats in top shape more than 100 years after they were launched. There is one shop in particular, Nik and Sons, that specializes in keeping these beauties on the water. Here’s a shot of Idem Elfmere getting all new fastenings, 3000 in all. When Post married for the second time, it was to E.F. Hutton and subsequently she and Hutton were the owners of Sea Cloud, built in Germany and launched in 1931. When launched she was the largest privately owned yacht in the world. We spied Sea Cloud in Bequia last winter, now a boutique cruise ship, having many lives since being sold by Post in 1955,Post was also the builder and first owner of Mar-a-Lago, now owned by our current president, Trump, if somehow you missed his tweet reminding you.
Anyway, back to Lake Clear. We took our guideboat up to St Regis and passed Topridge but by that time it was in private hands. We portaged to nearby ponds and often stopped for a break at this spot, a huge rock just breaking the surface of Bear Pond. This shot must have been from when we only had little Rob. I recall that the water had a strange blue-green color and was impossibly clear. Anyway, visiting Lake Clear was a big part of my early years as well as when Brenda and I were newly married. We spent many hours around the proverbial campfire at the Lathrop’s cabin nearby, first with just Rob and then Chris too. The four of us went on outings in the Guideboat. And sat on the dock. In our early years together, we rented a cabin with my parents. This is them on the top of Whiteface mountain. My mom is now nearly 90 and my dad’s been gone for about 5 years. He was a great guy and I think about him every day and still miss him terribly. Personally, I think he should have been given more time for “good behavior”. Not sure what this was all about but there were lots of shenanigans while the Osborn clan was visiting.
These days I am still very much a boat lover and spend as much time afloat as I can but then you already know that. Today we spend more of our time on salt water with the sweet kind which is limited to our time on the CT River near our home.
However, is was those early days spending time on the sweet waters of the lakes of the Adirondacks and Lake Clear that ingrained, in me, a love of being on the water.
I sometimes wonder what life would have been like if Brenda and I had taken the plunge and purchased a camp. While it would surely not have been a “great camp” it would have been terrific, never the less, all those years ago.
Who knows. But, either way, it’s worked out pretty well. Sweet, I’d say. Yes, very sweet.