The Wee Lassie Canoe
The canoe I love the best, and have taught hundreds of students how to make, is the Wee Lassie Canoe. Because of its simple design, the 12-foot, 20-pound canoe can be built to completion over the course of my 11-day canoe building class. It is always a thrill to see my students master the techniques used in canoe making and watch them leave the class proudly carrying their own custom-built canoes.
The Wee Lassie has a history closely intertwined with the Adirondack Park in upstate New York where I live part of the year. It is considered to be the first canoe widely used in the park when it was first opened to the public because it was so easy to carry — enabling visitors to travel between the lakes and streams without having to hire a guide.
The Rushton Boat Company in Canton, N.Y. designed the first Wee Lassie in the late 1800’s. The story starts with a journalist and conservationist of that time named George Washington Sears who wrote for Forest and Stream magazine (now known as Field and Stream) who was a proponent of self-guided canoe trips in the Adirondacks.
Sears had two problems. His first problem was his long name, which he shortened to Nessmuk for his pen name. His second problem was his size, he was 5’ 3” tall and weighed about 100 pounds soaking wet. When it came time to portage from one body of water to another he had to first carry his canoe over land, and then return to haul his gear across.
Sears asked Rushton to make him the smallest, lightest canoe possible. Rushton went on to make two styles of small, one-person canoes which were both big improvements over the traditional canoes of the day. The smaller of the two styles was called the Sairy Gamp, which Sears famously used to travel the Adirondack waterways for many years.
The other one-person canoe Rushton designed he called the Wee Lassie. Rushton is said to have produced the first commercial version of the Wee Lassie for a railroad heir named William West Durant with a camp in the Adirondacks. Sears, who continued to write about the joys of traveling solo through the forests and streams of the Adirondacks wrote at the time that the Wee Lassie “gets over the water like a scared loon.”
I was originally drawn to the history of the Wee Lassie by the fact that I could teach it to students, who could build their own one-person canoe, over the course of an 11-day class. It is made primarily of wood, and it also uses fiberglass cloth and epoxy to make the boat extraordinarily strong and waterproof.
Not only is the Wee Lassie a beautiful canoe but it is an heirloom with historical significance which is a work of art in itself.