Story by Steven Schwartz
Photography by Maaike Bernstrom
“There’s a part of the boat we call the ‘six-bay,’” Ian Martin said without hesitation. “It’s the last bay of the boat that’s underneath the decks and there’s no tool you can get inside. You’re in there with 60-grit sandpaper breaking rough epoxy and, by the time you’re done, you don’t really feel like you have any fingertips left. That’s a discouraging five hours.”
Ian’s describing his least favorite part of making an Adirondack Guide Boat, just a small part of a 450-hour process. Other steps include sourcing spruce from Maine for ribs and steam-bending them to form the ribs of the vessel, cutting western red cedar strips for the siding, applying a fiberglass coating on the exterior, and sanding the entire hull. Of course, that’s skipping a step or two or thirty. It’s a painstaking process, one filled with highs, lows, and bloody knuckles.
Ian and his brother Justin Martin are co-owners of Adirondack Guide Boats, a small-scale operation in Western Vermont that produces these boats, each of them a product steeped in legacy, craftsmanship, and hard-nosed determination. After starting their careers at Mad River Canoe, they came to work for then-owners Steve Kaulback and Dave Rosen, eventually buying the business in 2012 with just a little bit more than a handshake, as Justin puts it.
While building a guide boat may be a painstaking process, it’s also a process that ends with a work of art designed to glide across lakes, rivers, and inland waters with unmatched ease, stability, and style. It’s a striking boat with roots back to the 1800s, when guides would cut the boat ribs from tree stumps and match them to patterns for the hull. They were designed for efficiency and utility, carrying the hunters and anglers of the day with a low draft in the water and effortless rowing for the guides themselves. Now, these boats serve outdoorsmen in both form and function. Justin and Ian Martin have sold them to enthusiasts from across the country, to those who need a beautifully crafted masterpiece that can last for generations. For these two brothers, though, it simply started as a much better alternative to the job market in Vermont.
The boats themselves are wholly unique, somewhere in between a canoe and a traditional rowboat, made either out of wood or kevlar. Both brothers admitted that their kevlar guide boats outperform their wooden boats in nearly every way, but there’s still something about the latter that keeps drawing people to their workshop. Maybe it’s the romance of an antiquated design, or maybe they harken to a time when boatmen had an evolving relationship with their tool, which required care and attention. Beyond passengers, these boats carry the legacy of anyone who’s stepped over its gunwales.
Justin said and pointed out that they’ve restored historic boats for clients, including the Rockefellers, whose boat is on display at a museum in Massachusetts.
The Martin brothers’ craft is one wrapped up in history and legacy. It’s a time-tested product, but one that’s still at risk of being forgotten by time nonetheless. Both of them said that the greatest threat to their profession is not due to lack of demand or materials or even a globe-spanning pandemic, but simply a lack of people willing to learn and pursue the work of building these beautiful boats. To many, they’re less efficient, more expensive, and more difficult to care for than modern boats, which prompts a question: Why should we still be building them?
“Why? I don’t know,” Justin pondered. “We need these skills, not just to get by in life, but to enjoy life, and to lose them is terrible on any level. Hopefully, we get the chance to pass this down to someone, whether it’s to our children or someone who comes in and wants to do it. We sell every boat we make. Anyone that buys one of our boats loves it and it brings a lot of joy. To not have these boats around anymore, would be a shame.”
At a certain level, we value difficulty in our culture. People run marathons simply because they’re difficult. They break a horse because it needs to be tamed. But, when it comes to the products we buy, we want them to serve us when we need them and fade into the ether when we don’t. But, it hasn’t always been that way. In the 1800s, people needed these guide boats for their living and survival and cared for them as such.
Ian pointed out that guides would sink their boats to the bottom of a lake during the winter season so the wood could swell with moisture, preserving it until the waters thawed during the spring, ready to carry hardy adventurers to their next destination. It was a cyclical relationship that evolved—use, repair, restore, repeat—and it’s hard to ignore that these boats seem to be in the winter of their existence.
But, in our modern era, maybe we need these products in a different way, as a reminder to value the things we buy and appreciate the little difficulties that come with them, and with life. It’s less about survival in general and more about the survival of our souls. Justin and Ian believe that their customers understand this, and they see it every single day. They want the struggle; they embrace it, along with the relationships that are formed along the way.
“We work hard for our customers and people want to see our company going. Recently, a guy ordered a boat from us. He’s been waiting a long time for it and I thought I was just going to get yelled at, to be quite honest. But, he told me, ‘Life is tough right now. I want you to take a scrap board and I want you and your brother to sign it. Charge me anything you want for that board to help support your company.’ We have a lot of customers like that, who support our company because they believe our craft needs to go on just as much as we do.”
So, for now, the Martin brothers continue to build and their list of clients continues to grow, and they’ll continue to hope for someone to carry the torch. While society may look for comfort and convenience, they’ll keep embracing the little difficulties. They’ll keep sanding, steaming, coating, bending, sanding more, and rowing these works of art through the cool, dark waters of Vermont. On the surface, the legacy of Adirondack Guide Boats may seem like it’s in jeopardy, but if the people building and rowing these boats are of any indication, they’re not going anywhere. Their spring is coming.