Saturday, November 12, 2011


Many years ago my favorite aunt, Aunt Virginia Dawn Parslow Partridge gave me a copy of "Woodcaft" by Nessmuk and I was smitten by a severe case of wanderlust.  I can't tell you how often I read that book. 

George Washington Sears (b. December 2, 1821 – d. May 1, 1890) was a "correspondent" for Forest and Stream magazine in the 1880s and an early conservationist.Writing under the name "Nessmuk" he popularized self-guided canoe camping tours of the Adirondack lakes in open, lightweight solo canoes and what we call ultralight camping.

Typical canoe trips of the time used expert guides and heavy canoes. Sears, who was 5' 3" tall and weighed 103 pounds had a 9-foot-long, 10-1⁄2-pound solo canoe built by J. Henry Rushton of Canton, New York. He named it the Sairy Gamp used it to take a 266-mile trip through the central Adirondacks. He was 62 years old and in frail health (tuberculosis and asthma) when he did this. The Sairy Gamp is now owned by the Smithsonian Institution andon loan to the Adirondack Museum.

The eldest of ten children in South Oxford (now Webster), Massachusetts, he took his pen name from an American Indian who had befriended him in early childhood. His family had a few books about Indians and Nessmuk was fascinated and left with an abiding interest in forest life and adventure. His experience as a child working in a factory left him with a fondness for the writing of Charles Dickens. At age twelve he started working in a commercial fishing fleet based on Cape Cod and at nineteen he shipped out on a three-year whaling voyage in the South Pacific; this was 1841, the same year that Herman Melville shipped out of the same port bound for the same whaling grounds. On his return, his family moved to Wellsboro, Pennsylvania where he was to live for the rest of his life. However, he continued traveling for adventure, from the upper Midwest and Ontario to an Amazon tributary in Brazil (in 1867 and again in 1870).

Sears wrote "Woodcraft", a book on camping, in 1884, that has remained in print ever since. A book of poems, Forest Runes, appeared in 1887. He died at his home in Pennsylvania seven years later. Mount Nessmuk, in northern Pennsylvania, is named after him.
At the time I read "Woodcraft" I couldn't fully comprehend the extent of the disability Nessmuk endured. When I could understand the debilitating effects of tuberculosis I was fairly amazed by what he accomplished. I'm not the only one.

Today there are any number of cutlers offering their version of Nessmuk's knife and hatchet design. Boat/canoe builders are building modern, kevlar versions of his various canoes including Sairy Gamp. His books are still in print and in demand.  Most telling of all, there are any number of adherents who annually attempt to emulate a man who, while struggling with physical limitations, managed to live a full and adventuresome life.

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