Will Madison traces his great-great-great grandfather’s steps in wooden canoe

Will Madison is the grandson of Shelburne residents Joan and Jim Madison. He is paddling the length of the Adirondacks starting in Old Forge and reaching as far north as the St. Regis Lakes and then looping back again. Courtesy photo
Will Madison is the grandson of Shelburne residents Joan and Jim Madison. He is paddling the length of the Adirondacks starting in Old Forge and reaching as far north as the St. Regis Lakes and then looping back again. Courtesy photo

Will Madison is recreating the journey his great-great-great grandfather traveled in 1883. He is the grandson of Shelburne resident Joan Madison, and the nephew of her son, Jim Madison, who also lives in Shelburne. This recent St. Lawrence University graduate is about to wrap up a journey that started 132 years ago. Will is paddling nearly the length of the Adirondacks starting in Old Forge and reaching as far north as the St. Regis Lakes and then looping back again. It is a solo trip taken in a handcrafted, one-person, wooden canoe.

The interest to follow in his ancestor’s footstep started many years ago, when he completed an elementary school project learning and writing about his great-great-great grandfather. As he joined Cub Scout Pack 63 and Boy Scout Troop 2 in Corning, New York, his love of the outdoors grew.

Most recently, Madison spent fall of his junior year in college as part of St. Lawrence’s unique Adirondack program where students live on a lake in yurts for a semester to focus on outdoor living and the Adirondacks region.

Madison’s great-great-great-grandfather was George Washington Sears, better known by his pen name, Nessmuk. Nessmuk, had roots in Wellsboro, Penn., and loved exploring the Adirondacks. He wrote numerous articles about the outdoors, authoring more than 90 pieces for Forest and Stream alone where he served as a lead contributor. He also penned several books with his most notable being Woodcraft and Camping which is still in publication today.  Nessmuk is considered to be an early voice of conservation.

During Nessmuk’s time, boats tended to be hefty, good-size boats that would bring parties to and from Adirondack camps or canoes for guided hunting and fishing expeditions. Nessmuk envisioned something different: a lightweight solo canoe for self-guided outdoor adventure. He partnered with J. Henry Ruston of Canton, NY who built a novel ten-and-a-half pound boat called the Sairy Gamp. This innovation was doubted by many, so Nessmuk tramped the Adirondacks, as he would say, to prove the concept to all. He is often considered the father of lightweight camping. The Sairy Gamp still exists today and is on display at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake thanks to a loan from the Smithsonian Institution.

Madison was inspired most recently by Christine Jerome who often writes for Adirondack Life magazine. In 1990, Chris and her husband, John, retraced Nessmuk’s trip in Kevlar canoes and documented it in the book An Adirondack Passage which was very helpful to Madison. Madison is also very appreciative of his employers, Robbie Frenette and Anne Fleck of Raquette River Outfitters in Tupper Lake, who crafted the canoe and helped equip him for his journey. Michael Frenette also provided valuable Adirondack information and Robbie and Michael’s father, Jim, former Adirondack Park Agency Chairman and the boat owner, was very willing to lend this special canoe to Madison. Madison is grateful as well to the handful of friends and family who were able to join him for a paddle, provide a meal or assist with a portage.

Madison began his trip on Sept. 11 and will wrap up in early October, having traveled more than 200 miles. The Pennsylvania State Historical Markers dedicated to Nessmuk refer to him as a poet, woodsman, adventurer, canoeist, pioneer conservationist and outdoor writer. In his time, Nessmuk served on a whaling ship that reached the Azores, traveled the Amazon in Brazil and adventured through his beloved Adirondacks.

Submitted by Karen Madison

2 Responses to "Will Madison traces his great-great-great grandfather’s steps in wooden canoe"

  1. Jess Buttery   October 4, 2015 at 12:35 am

    Can you give more information about this boat and builder? I am in the WCHA (Wooden Canoe Heritage Assoc.) And I make wooden “Wee Lassies” weighing about 22 pounds. I have paddled most of George Washington Sears Adirondack route solo but in stages so far. I like the look of tge canoe in the article and it looks to be true Lapstrake with ribs as the original by Rushton. Cheer and thanks for any info.

    Reply
  2. Will Madison   October 7, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    The boat was built by Rob Frenette in1981 and is a Pete Culler designed boat with Rushton influences. It’s 12′ 10” long and I’m not sure of the exact weight but probably about 35 lbs. It is indeed cedar lapstrake and has the ribs just as the Rushton’s. It was the first boat Rob built while in boat school in Maine and he says he could have made it lighter but since he was in Maine it was also made to be a seaworthy boat and is a bit more seaworthy than the typical Rushton design. It was a very fun boat to paddle and was quite fast!

    Reply

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