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Nessmuk lives

A few months ago, I received a book as a gift from a friend in Vermont. The jacket was inscribed to me, “My Dear Christian,” and after a few comments concluded, “… and that it will entice you back to these verdant shores. Signed, Nessmuk.”

This is mysterious. Nessmuk, as some may know, was the pen name of George Washington Sears, a late-19th-century tourism writer for the outdoor magazine Forest & Stream. He was born almost 200 years ago, in 1821, and died in 1890, making his signature unlikely on this new (copyright 1993) copy of “Canoeing the Adirondacks with Nessmuk: The Adirondack Letters of George Washington Sears.”

I read ahead quickly, paying special attention to the foreward by local poet Alice Wolf Gilborn. Was she, perhaps, the sneaky inscriber? Her comments told me a bit of manuscript background on the manuscript — the book was first assembled “from archival oblivion” by a dedicated Nessmuk enthusiast, Dan Brenan, before his own death in the early 1960s. Brenan’s version contained some biographical mistakes; this edition worked to rectify them with help from its editors Hallie Bond and Robert L. Lyon.

I flipped eagerly to the first chapter, tantalizingly titled “Nessmuk Himself.” Maybe Hallie or Robert had signed the book? How did they know me, or my friend in Vermont? I was looking, I guess, for some secret code that would reveal the inscriber’s identity and the strangely personal note. Maybe a series of underlined letters, or a dog-eared page that indicated … something.

In retrospect, I think I bring this wild anticipation to most books, even those not inscribed by the long-dead popularizer of ultra-light canoeing. I believe, irrationally and sometimes erroneously, that there is something FOR ME in books. And I felt certain that this book, which addressed a landscape and a pursuit that I find compelling, would meet those expectations.

And it did, and does. The editors give good historical perspective on Nessmuk and his place at the vanguard of light, personally outfitted canoe tripping. The balance of the text is direct transcript of Nessmuk’s publications in Forest & Stream, covering his gear (a series of custom-built Rushton canoes), his recipe for bug repellent (a mix of tar and castor oil: “A light coating will do; and don’t wash it off”) and his routes across the now-well-traveled Fulton Chain, Beaver River, and various ins and outs around Long and Tupper Lakes.

And once I got into Nessmuk’s letters, these routes started to interest me even more than the phantom dust-jacket inscriber. Some of the traverses that seemed purely logical to Nessmuk have been disputed or illegal in my lifetime, thanks to private landowners. Nessmuk traveled at the dawn of Adirondack dam building, so while he laments to flooding of some stretches, he also describes others that are all but lost under sediment.

The yesteryear images and diction feel like peeking around geographic corners I’ve always turned back from, and also like looking back in time. The book is rich with photos from the Adirondack Experience collection — portraits of old guides, hotels, antique boats … The effect of these sometimes-familiar shots with Nessmuk’s enthusiastic prose is a rare balance between nostalgia and history. For anyone who has enjoyed the quiet, freedom and, yes, nostalgia, of canoeing in the Adirondacks, this book will be a pleasure.

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