SARANAC LAKE - The 50th running of the Willard Hanmer Guideboat Races lived up to its billing on Sunday, drawing hundreds of spectators and dozens of participants. Some called the event the best they've seen in years, decades even.
"I tip my hat to the people who organized it this year," said Curtis Reynolds of Lake Clear, who won in the one-person and two-person guideboat races. "They've done a wonderful job certainly, and it's a delight to be here this year for sure, to represent the Adirondacks, the guideboat itself and Willard Hanmer. This is what it's all about."
The guideboat, something of a cross between a canoe and a rowboat, is uniquely associated with the Adirondacks and the guides who used them to take their customers hunting and fishing.
Natalie Leduc of Saranac Lake and Jim Frenette of Tupper Lake lead a parade of more than 60 guideboats prior to the 50th annual Hanmer Guideboat Races Sunday on Lake Flower in Saranac Lake. Leduc was the commodore of the parade.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
Chris Covert and Chris Woodward headed up a team of volunteers who organized the event this year. Woodward owns and builds guideboats out of the Lake Street shop that Willard Hanmer used before he died in 1962. A year later, this race was created to memorialize the renowned guideboat maker.
One of Woodward's goals was to get 50 guideboats on the Lake Flower for a parade before the 50th Hanmer races. Woodward got those and then some. More than 60 boats paraded around Lake Flower, showcasing some that dated back to the 19th century.
The parade was led by Saranac Lake's Natalie Leduc and Tupper Lake's Jim Frenette, who paddled a two-person craft made by Frenette's son Robbie.
Leduc raced in the first Hanmer as the only woman in the event, and Frenette raced for years with his own family members.
"This is a natural fit for a place like Saranac Lake or a place like Tupper Lake," Frenette said. "It's just one of those things that should be done here. It reflects what culture is here. Being on the water, kids racing, being with your kids type of thing. That's why it was so popular. This was a big family thing, family and friends."
"God, it was fun," Leduc added.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Hanmer was known as the summer equivalent to the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival. It drew a large contingent of racers and hundreds, sometimes thousands, of spectators. Many of them would line the river in downtown Saranac Lake, cheering as the racers made their way from Lake Flower down the Saranac River to the Saranac Lake Fish and Game Club.
"There was some pretty good darn racers back in those days: the Hesseltines, Tony Mercurio and Billy Frenette, and, of course, Tony Dupree (Sr.), who I consider is the best guideboat racer in the business, even better than (John) Seaman," said Plattsburgh resident Glen Corl, who won the first Hanmer Guideboat Race in 1963, when he and Leduc were married to each other. "It was a nice occasion, a lot of people down at the fish and game club - good food and good fellowship. I think there was a beer or two downed there."
The races this year were also pretty competitive. There were guideboat races held just on Lake Flower and then canoe, kayak and guideboat races that went down the river. The main event was the one-man guideboat race that followed the traditional route of the Hanmer race. In recent years, that course had been abandoned because it can be hard on guideboats and more difficult logistically for the race organizers.
In this race, which used a staggered start to spread out the rowers, Curtis Reynolds took the top spot with a time of 37 minutes and 19 seconds. He beat out Tony Dupree Jr. (37:43) and Pat Brown (37:42).
"It's a big challenge," Reynolds said of the course. "I mean, you go from rowing to having to throw this 65- to 75-pound boat on your head, doing a sprint with it, and throwing back in the river and going back to rowing again. It's all timing, wind - there's a lot of variables. One little thing goes wrong, and it makes or breaks you. I started out breaking something. I broke my seat as soon as I dropped at the start the race, so I got the breaking part out of the way."
In the two-person race, Reynolds teamed with Tim Reilly to finish first. Greg and Jeff Dickson took second, and Lukas Atkinson and Forrest Morgan took third.
In the women's guideboat race, Ashley Doyle took first, followed by Emily Doyle and Sharon Mallett. Gabriel Woodward (Chris Woodward's son) won the junior guideboat race, followed by Gill Donahue and Ava Day. Complete results, including those in the Ralph Morrow Canoe and Kayak Races, will be available in the Enterprise Sports section later in the week when they are provided by the organizers.
As for Dupree, he ran into a little bit of trouble toward the end of the race when got tangled up with a canoe on the river.
"It went pretty smooth until behind Orville Paye's (the former Gold Mine store) I had two girls block off the river on me," he said. "Otherwise, the river is a little low. Everything else is good."
Dupree, like Reynolds, has won this race numerous times in the past. He also has a long family tradition of being in the races and with guideboats. Both Tony Dupree Jr. and Sr. make guideboats. In fact, he had a boat made just for Sunday's race.
"This boat here, its first-day maiden's voyage is today," Dupree Jr. said. "First day it's seen water. My dad made it."
There were a number of guideboat builders who participated in the guideboat parade. One of those was Robbie Frenette of Tupper Lake, who said he became a guideboat builder after trying to work on a 19th-century boat from Upper Saranac Lake made by Willard Hanmer's father, Theodore.
"I tried restoring it myself and realized my carpenter skills weren't that good and started researching and ended up going to a boat school in Maine to learn boatbuilding," Frenette said. "So that's how I got started."
Stories tied to guideboats was the theme of the day. Ed Petty, son of legendary conservationist Clarence Petty, who died at 104 in 2009, also rowed in the parade. He was in a guideboat that had been given to his grandfather Ellsworth for his 90th birthday.
The guideboat is in nearly pristine shape because Ellsworth only used it once in 1952, Ed Petty said. That's because the sides are high and would catch the winds on Upper Saranac Lake. After a few decades, Ed Petty wound up with it when it was passed down through the family.
"We try to use it once a summer for some place to go because it's really a beautiful guideboat," Petty said.
As a resident of the Upper Saranac Lake area and later Coreys, Ellsworth frequently used other guideboats. He would trap, hunt and fish in them, and in the early 20th century, when the Petty family lived as squatters on state land on Upper Saranac Lake, he would use a guideboat to take his young children to Saranac Lake village.
When Ellsworth died at age 94 in 1956, it was in a guideboat. His last moments were spent rocking in the waves on Upper Saranac Lake.
Guideboats on the Saranac lakes was once a more common sight. Willard Hanmer himself spent many days on the Saranac lakes because his shop was located within walking distance to the lower lake.
Hanmer's nephew Steve Bennett, of Freedom, Maine, recalled being on the lake as a child with Hanmer in the 1950s - not in guideboat but in a houseboat Hanmer had built.
Bennett was one of 17 family members who came for the event. Bennett was the maiden name of Hanmer's wife Pauline. Willard and Pauline never had children, but Pauline came from a large family and had many nieces and nephews.
Bennett said he visited the old Hanmer shop on Lake Street Saturday, then watched the parade and races Sunday.
"I remember looking inside that cabin and that the hinges on the kitchen cabinets were made out of wood," Bennett said. "He handcrafted even the hinges, but what impressed me the most was going in the living room and seeing hundreds of guns. I bet he had most of the wild animals that live in this part of the country on the wall and in the workshop."
Bennett's daughter Erin Bennett-Wade, also of Freedom, Maine, said her family still enjoys hunting, fishing, being outdoors and the tradition of being independent.
"You need something done, you take care of it yourself," Bennett-Wade said.
Bennett also pointed out that his aunt "Paulie," as she was known in the family, played a key role in the guideboat-making process. She did all the sanding and varnishing.
"Once he got it built, she would kick him out and finish it," Bennett said. "You couldn't even come in the building when she was in there."
Woodward, who works in the shop where Paulie Hanmer finished the boats, was extremely excited about the turnout for the 50th race. He said it was important to not only memorialize Willard Hanmer but also guideboats.
"Today was awesome: the boat show part, the boat parade," Woodward said. "Everyone pitched in, brought there boats out, brought their boats out of the barn. It was great,"
As far as a race goes, Woodward said he's done organizing it and will pass it on.
"We're going to scale back on the race part of it, and hopefully an organization will pick it up as a race - canoe race with a guideboat class, per se," Woodward said. "Chris (Covert) and I would like to focus on the guideboat regatta end of it, the parade, and tie that in with Spencer Boatworks, the antique classic Roundabout Rendezvous, which is the following weekend."
If this was the last Hanmer race, it will be missed by those who participated in it and love guideboats.
"It's the indigenous craft of this area," Robbie Frenette said. "It's nice to be part of that whole culture from that historical perspective. As a woodworker, it's probably one of the finest wooden things you can build - to take the challenge of building a guideboat."
(Editor's note: The Enterprise will publish a presentation of photos of the 50th Hanmer races this week, in print and online.)