Adirondack guide boat keeps rower connected to nature
Chris Allen rows boats. He has for nearly 30 years, beginning with a beamy 10-foot aluminum boat from Sears. In the years since, his tastes have become more refined, and his appreciation for rowing has deepened.
“I row most of the places I want to go,” Allen said. “I walk or row everywhere.”
Allen is an electrical engineer, now retired after 39 years with Continental Airlines in Houston. His enthusiasm for rowing has taken him onto the water from the Colorado River to Cape Ann on the North Atlantic coast.
He has several times rowed on the Erie Canal.
“What I liked about the canal was that it had these interesting little towns spaced about 15 miles apart,” he said. “I’m not a camper, so I would just row from one town to the next to get a meal and spend the night at a hotel. They would open the canal locks just for me.”
As a solo rower, he has been a part of the Christmas Boat Lane Parade on Clear Lake for 28 years, sporting a Santa Claus hat as he rowed, except for only a few years when high winds or fog conditions forced the parade’s cancellation.
Allen used to run, “but it was getting to my knees,” he said, after many marathons and the famous “Bay to Breakers” event across San Francisco.
He has also been a sailor, most recently owning a Pearson Ariel, but arranging for friends to crew it with him became too much of a production, he said. With his rowboats, he can simply launch from the floating dock at his canal-side home in the Glen Cove section of League City and pull out onto Clear Lake.
Nowadays, Allen’s usual boat is a 15-foot Adirondack guide boat, built of molded Kevlar/fiberglass composite and weighing only about 70 pounds. The hull is from an original design first produced in the 1860s for use by guides to take fishermen and hunters into remote areas of the Adirondack forest in upstate New York.
The guide boat is double-ended like a canoe, with a canoe’s backward-curving bow and stern, but far more stable and capacious to carry hunting and camping gear. It has two seat backs of wood and cane, as if to emphasize the relaxed, gentlemanly nature of its mission.
And unlike a canoe, the boat is powered with oars rather than paddles.
Allen’s oars are built by Shaw & Tenney of Orono, Maine, which has been in the business since 1858. Guide boat oars are 8 feet long, counterweighted to balance comfortably at the rail. They use a pin-type rowlock. This means that they cannot be rotated, or “feathered,” to reduce wind resistance on the return stroke, but that they are secure in place, and in no danger of coming adrift.
“I never learned to feather,” Allen said. He never felt the need.
Adirondack guide boats are made today in both the Kevlar/fiberglass version and the cedar strip-planked construction. Allen owns one of each, in addition to a fiberglass wherry built in Maine.
“The name of this boat is Gastownay,” Allen said. “It’s not a French word; I made it up. It’s three words: gas, tow and nay. The boat doesn’t use any gas, and when people see me on the water rowing, they think that something is wrong with my motor. They ask me if I want a tow. ‘Nay,’ I tell them. I don’t.”
For Allen, walking, bicycling and rowing aren’t just about exercise. They are a way to stay connected with the natural world around him — an antidote to the modern world. He quotes from his favorite poem by William Wordsworth: “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers/ little we see in Nature that is ours.”
“I remember rowing home from a party one night, and I watched the moon rise over the water — an orange crescent, like a tilted bowl, rising out of the water,” Allen said. “If I had just driven home, I never would have seen that.”