Why Pack Canoes?

Not looking to start trouble - just curious. Who uses those really small solo sit-on-bottom canoes? Any links explaining their Adirondack history? Are they something more people ought to have, or more of a specialty niche?


When you go to an extreme, there will
be few people that will need it, or want it. Especially now, when bigger canoes can be made very, very light.


– Last Updated: Jun-03-09 1:19 AM EST –

Pack canoes have been used in the Adirondacks for over a hundred years.

There are many ponds which are accessed by hikes..not walks. The small length is handy for negotiating blowdowns. Portage trails are often non existent and not well cleared. People carrying long craft often have some real trouble negotiating trails.

Light weight sure it can be done in any canoe but why take more than you need when solo?

Sit on the bottom makes a good fishing platform and carrying a pack canoe requires no extra equipment. While some use Knu Pacs or an external frame backpack, the boats are so light they can be plopped on top of an internal frame backpack. Double carries are avoided.

Adirondack portages are often quite long..several miles.

Pack canoes usually have a configuration of thwarts that allow them to be carried on a shoulder like a kayak for day trips.

They have much the same advantages of a kayak, only with out the top deck, which is for the Adirondacks, not necessary.

I would venture a pack canoe is far more useful than a kayak for many rec kayak users.. I see decked boats used often where the decks are not needed. My only wish is that a true pack canoe came out in a ABS layup..aside from the OT Pack which is more like a cute floating bathtub.

For a specialty craft
they are pretty versatile. Ever seen an Au Sable River Boat? Not the type of thing that finds much use outside its local niche.

The pack canoe, however, can be a real good intro to canoeing and is actually pretty practical for many waterways.

I love the diversity in paddling boats and currently own 14 different ones.

If you are talking about the very short (10’-12’) and very light (12-18 lbs) pack canoes, the only virtue I see is portability. In every other measure they will be out-performed by longer and heavier canoes.

If portaging unladen canoes long distances dominates your paddling hobby, or if having the absolute easiest canoe to lift on and off your vehicle is important to you, then these canoes fill that niche.

I’d like more information from reputable historians before I conclude that these kinds of canoes were ever common in the Adirondacks or anywhere else. Yes, Rushton made a couple of diminutive models. Yes, the dwarfish writer George Washington Sears (“Nessmuk”) made one of these tiny Rushton canoes (the Sairy Gamp) famous in a series of articles he wrote. But I’m not aware that Rushton or anyone else ever produced these canoes in volume.

Adirondack guideboats are what dominated travel in the Adirondacks in the 19th and early 20th century. The big connected lakes and ponds were then in pristine wilderness. Why would anyone, then, want to carry a thwartless Sairy Gamp miles into some landlocked pond. Makes no sense to me.

Nor did Nessmuk write about the joys of portaging into remote ponds. He is described in an article on this very site as a “short, sickly” man who weighed only 100 pounds; and he was 62 years old when Rushton made him the boat. The Sairy Gamp was a gimmick boat made just for him. Nessmuk promoted himself through his probably exaggerated adventures in the Sairy Gamp.

I’d be surprised if Rushton had many more customers like Nessmuk. Only one Sairy Gamp is known to exist – in the superb Adirondack Museum.

I think pack canoes are mostly a phenomenon of lightweight composites and last 20 years. The makers of these canoes are the ones making history, both in the present and in the past.

check out Bryan Hansel’s website

http://www.nessmuking.com/ for information on pack canoes and George Washington Sears aka Nessmuck. I’d also recommend An Adirondack Passage The Cruise of the Canoe Sairy Gamp by Christine Jerome, in which the author retraces Sears’266 mile journey and gives background on Rushton’s boats.

Why would you want an ABS layup for
the uses you describe? Much less portageable. A carbon/Kevlar or glass/Kevlar pack canoe would be way more durable than required, stiff, and light.

the concept of pack boats need not be limited to wilderness trips.

For many people here day tripping is what they do and some paddle small ponds and lakes. My neighbors are both of Medicare age and like to paddle. But their rec boats are gaining weight each year. So one of them comes over to ask if RapidFire can come out and play. Why have a deck if you don’t need a deck?

I was just telling you the why of a pack canoe…not that you need to be in the Adirondacks conditions to enjoy one.

In ABS the price point might come down. For now in carbon fiber or a good composite layup they are still pricey. There is no substiute for either of these layups but it is a significant investment for many.

And I am totally ignoring that there are light cedar stripper pack canoes out there…again either you pay for it or DIY.

No I would not want an ABS boat on my for many of the carries I am doing next week. 3.3 miles total.

loved it
I once owned a Bell Bucktail pack canoe. For what I used it for, exploring backcountry ponds and creeks via trails to fish and photograph nature, it was perfect. Far better than a kayak for getting in and out of frequently when maneuvering over beaver dams. far better for accessing gear alongside of me versus cockpits and hatches. The main complaint was while using a double bladed paddle without the ebefit of a sprayskirt of course, I was always soaked from paddle dripping.

Red Kayaks vs Pack Canoes
That’s a great point! The kinds of paddling done by most rec-kayak users could be done just as easily (more easily when camping gear comes along) in a pack canoe. Look at all the rec-boat users with large-cockpit boats who never use a spray skirt. If you don’t use a spray skirt, what’s the point of having a deck in the first place?

That’s my thoughts with large cockpit
kayaks that get paddle drips in the boat without a spray skirt. For them, those kayaks aren’t any dryer than an undecked pack canoe would be.

I get as much paddle drips in my Poke Boat as I do in my solo canoes when using a kayak paddle. I also rarely use a double bladed paddle in a solo canoe, because I don’t like the paddle drips in the boat.

No they are not a recent

– Last Updated: Jun-03-09 1:21 PM EST –


They have been built by members of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association since that groups inception and
Rushton was not the only maker.

Here is a link to get you started.

http://www.abm.org/boatbuilding-restoration.asp. Scherzo is a beauty.

Check out the old Racine on the photos of the home page of the WCHA


Yes guideboats were used probably more in the 1800s. Remember sports were often from the city and used guides. Train service than was much better!

Many people want to have a Nessmuk sized canoe and are larger than George Washington Sears and that is a bad match.

But noy necessarily any more healthy. One of the joys of using a pack canoe is that you can sit, you can enter and egress comparatively easily, you are secure and you can lift it. Anecdotally I have two friends in their eighties still tripping with pack canoes. They cannot manage a conventional canoe.

hmmm there is an article here from 2001

And another.


Whether these boats can be logically be called Pack Canoes may be a subject of debate. WHile there were certainly boats built bigger than that for the diminutive GW Sears, they were heavier.

And modern technology has allowed us to have lighter boats with more volume.

I looked up some of the history of the pack canoe in the book "The Canoe: a Living Tradition" by John Jennings.

Apparantly the Sairy Gamp was a perhaps later version of the Wee Lassie line , built for diminutive GW Sears. The first reportedly built by JH Rushton for William West Durant in 1883. Durant was big guy at six feet and Rushton deemed hin too big for the tiny canoe.

Old Town Pack
I have an Old Town Pack, and here’s why.

Super light, at 33 lbs. That’s lighter than alot of kayaks. I always get looks when I put in or pull out at boat launches where the parking area is up the hill from the launch. I just walk with my canoe on my shoulder, and all my gear including paddles and flyrod strapped in my boat. I very easily carry it on my shoulder.

Length. I hang mine in the basement where I dont have to worry about the effects of the sun on the Hull, hornets building nests, or someone stealing it. I can bring it in the front door, around a corner to the basement, and hang it up. A longer or heavier boat would be a problem. Also, since it’s a 12 footer, and very light, I dont use racks. I drop the tailgate, slide it in the truck bed with the tailgate down. There’s 8 feet in and 4 feet out. A longer or heavier boat sitting in this position would lead to hull distortion (especially in the sun).

Open decks. I fish, I carry gear, I can trap out of it, duck hunt. It’s just a joy and so easy to manage.

Stability. I’ve just recently began pushing this boat to see what kind of stability it has. Streams, and larger ponds and lakes with a wind chop or boat traffic are no problem for my little pack canoe. For me, it does everything perfectly. It’s very manuverable, love a kayak paddle, you can use a single blade but it wont be super fast. I know a guy that fishes for Stripers in his! I honstly cant say enough about mine…I’m actually building up my courage to try polling it!

I don’t agree. I’ve been in a rec kayak
and its decks were significantly lower than decks on an open pack canoe of equal capacity. The cockpit was big enough that I could raise my knees, but much smaller than the water entry aperture would be in an equivalent pack canoe. So for an equivalent carrying capacity, a properly designed rec kayak should be a little dryer, and less susceptible to wind.

This is not putting down pack canoes. I don’t see anyone portaging two miles between ponds in a rec kayak, not even if it were made as light as possible.

Further historical research on Rushton

– Last Updated: Jun-03-09 8:07 PM EST –

After writing my earlier post, I became concerned that I was too skeptical about the historical place of Rushton’s Nessmuk canoes – and canoe history is of great interest to me. So, I finally found my Rushton biography, “Rushton and His Times in American Canoeing” by Atwood Manley, which I hadn’t read in 20 years.

I went over the parts of the book that might give some indication as to how popular Nessmuk canoes really were, and read some of Nessmuk’s writings. All the quotes in this post are taken from that book.

There is no hard evidence as to the number of Nessmuk-type canoes made, but there are some clues. Bottom line, I would guess Rushton made about 250 at most, between 1880 and his death in 1906, which were probably shipped all over the U.S. and not necessarily concentrated in the Adirondacks.

Nessmuk (George Washington Sears), a shoemaker from Pennsylvania, contacted Rushton in late 1880 to make him a canoe weighing less than 20 pounds. Nessmuk was about 60, very short, very sickly and weighed somewhere between 100 and 108 pounds.

At that time, the lightest canoe in Rushton’s catalog was a 13 footer at 35 pounds. One could speculate that this was not a big seller. Rushton’s business was early dominated by “cruising canoes” of the Rob Roy type (decked, sails, rudder, double blade), rowboats, dingys and, from the late 90’s to his death, by wood and canvas open canoes of the Peterborough, Canada design.

I think one can reasonably conclude that, as of 1880, no one was making, buying or using sub-35 pound canoes in the Adirondacks or anywhere else, much less sub-20 or sub-12 pound canoes.

Rushton thought a 20 pound canoe was foolish, but he acceded to Nessmuk’s request because of his diminutive stature, ill health and reputation as a writer for Forest and Stream magazine.

We know that Rushton made five miniature canoes for Sears between 1880 and 1885. In order, they were named:

1. Wood Drake (or Nessmuk No. 1). 10’ long x 26”width x 8” depth, about 18 lbs including the paint.

2. Susan Nipper. “Slightly wider” than Wood Drake and about 16 lbs.

3. Sairy Gamp. 9’ x 26” x 6”, 10.5 lbs. Rushton warned Nessmuk that he “would not warrant her for an hour” of paddling and that “she may go to pieces like an eggshell.” This was the model that Nessmuk made famous in his articles for Forest and Stream. He returned the canoe to Rushton after his one journey in it. Rushton kept it and used it as his best marketing tool, by displaying it as the world’s lightest canoe at exhibitions all over the country. And, importantly, it has survived intact in museums. Thus Sairy Gamp has become perhaps the most famous canoe in history and, as far as I can tell, is the source of all the history and mythology about “Nessmuk canoes”.

4. Bucktail. No dimensions given, but said to be stronger and deeper than the first three at 23 lbs. Nessmuk realized that there wasn’t really a market for canoes that could fit only men of his “exceptional” size (a male chauvinist viewpoint), so the Bucktail was conceived as the ultra-lightweight canoe “for the average canoeist of 150 to 160 pounds.”

5. Rushton-Fairbanks. 8.5’ x 23” x 8”; 9 lbs., 15 oz. This was the smallest and lightest canoe ever built by Rushton in the Nessmuk series. It was specifically ordered for the wife of a friend of Nessmuk in Tarpon Springs, Florida, who “was jubilant at the thought that she could make her own carries without help from the male element.” The carries being referred to were from the shore to the water.

The last two boats were used by Nessmuk and his friends in Florida, not in the Adirondacks.

The only other evidence of numbers I could find is in a letter Rushton wrote to Sears in 1883, at which time he had been making the Wood Drake for two or three years: “I thought when I built the Nessmuk, no one else would ever want one. But I now build about a dozen of them a year.”

The question is whether this volume increased or decreased. Sears’ writings were Rushton’s marketing tool, but Sears’ three Adirondack journeys were in 1880, 1881 and 1883 -- the last being the famous Sairy Gamp journey. Query whether the Nessmuk hype died down after the mid-80’s. Rushton also had up and down years as the economy swung in and out of recessions and recreation fads changed. The bicycle hurt his business badly beginning in the late 1880’s, and the Canadian canoe styles began to dominate canoe production in the 1890’s.

Rushton apparently kept the Bucktail and Nessmuk model in his catalog over the years. However, he also featured a 17 man, 30 foot war canoe. He admitted featuring the Nessmuk line for marketing reasons: “I do not publish this statement [an endorsement by Nessmuk about the lightest canoes ever made] to persuade anyone that they better buy an eighteen pound canoe, for very few men would like one so small, but rather to show that … the purchaser of the larger sizes has nothing to fear for their strength and seaworthiness.”

My speculation is that 12 per year is the probably maximum amount of Nessmuk type boats built from 1880 to 1906. They seemed to be shipped all over the country – the records showing Florida, Buffalo and Michigan. This number would have been a rounding error to Rushton. In 1906, the year of Rushton’s death, 750 Indian Girl model wood-canvas canoes were produced.

I further speculate that most Nessmuk-type canoes, like the one to Tarpon Springs, were ordered as “toys” for women and children from about 1880 to 1895 – not as hiking and portaging boats for Adirondack woodsmen.

Must’ve be a relatively small cockpitted
rec kayak and not one of the plastic Krugers.

I paddle high angle in solo canoes as well as kayaks with a 230cm paddle in the canoes and the water dumps on my feet and legs below the knees. If the cockpit extends past my knees and is 18" wide or wider, water is coming in the boat and landing on my legs and feet.

If one uses low angle and a long paddle (8’ or 9’), or the cockpit is shorter than 36", then water dripping into the boat may not be much of an issue.

Yes, of course rec kayaks will have less windage than open canoes of similar length.

The portage on grown-up trails…

– Last Updated: Jun-03-09 4:23 PM EST –

Easily portaged, manicured trails...along with solid, dry land around the perimeter of bogs often doesn't exist. Your local chapter of the Forest Service rarely makes it up into the real woods. Often areas that have been cut...are laden with lots of tangled bits of limbs and branches = not easy walking...you need to steady the canoe with one hand and use the other for balance. Mother nature rules, along with beaver. A smaller(and light) canoe, as said, makes picking your path through the brush an easier lift...usually with one hand holding on as your other hand is often quite useful in preventing a nasty fall.

Better rec kayak?

– Last Updated: Jun-03-09 4:48 PM EST –

So in place of a rec kayak, they are lighter, easier to pack and portage, and just a little less seaworthy. That makes sense - might be fun for people who aren't quite as big/strong to use for short trips around the cottage.

There was one for sale nearby, at a great price. I wanted it, as I like a bargain, but can't justify it as it seems like other than the weight, it is worse than canoes I already own. Incidentally, anybody know if the Wenonah Wee Lassie would hold me at nearly 200, and a bit of day-tripping stuff - say another 30 lbs, and still perform as intended?

I am glad they exist, though, and happy that we as canoeists can choose from many available models from 12-20 feet (and then there's them fancy decked canoes you sit on the floor of and paddle with a double blade).

It was a 13’ Old Town , an "otter"
I believe, and it is routinely used to cross the inlet between Tybee Island and Little Tybee Island. I think if there had been waves, I could have used my open boat skills to avoid most of the slosh.

Wee Lassie

– Last Updated: Jun-03-09 7:09 PM EST –

The Wenonah Wee Lassie will easily float 230lbs. I've paddled my Wenonah Wee Lassie on the lakes and tidal creeks of Cape Cod, on the Cedar River Flow and the Bog River Flow in the Adirondacks, on many tidal creeks in Maryland and in Virginia, and on the local lakes here in central Virginia. I'm not saying that my pack canoe replaces my other boats, but it is fun, light and very capable. I paddle with a 240cm double bladed paddle with a relaxed, low angle stroke and hardly get wet at all. And just for the record I'm 5'11", 220lbs and generally carry 10 to 20 lbs. when daytripping.