Upper St. Regis, N.Y. — WHEN Jim Cameron rows, rows, rows his boat gently down the stream, people merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily do a double take. It's not just Jim's passenger, Ursa the smiling wonder dog, a mammoth powder puff of a Samoyed, that turns heads, it's the slick, refined launch itself.
Mr. Cameron builds -- and repairs, when he can get his hands on them -- Adirondack guide boats, a boat described by Henry W. Longfellow as, ``Built for freight and yet for speed, a beautiful and gallant craft.''
These boats, peculiar to this remote area, were once as common on these lakes as merganser ducks.
``Guide boats were to the Adirondacks what covered wagons were to the West. They were used both to explore and settle this area,'' Cameron said as he alternately sanded and gently smoothed the prow of the boat he was working on.
These guide boats evolved here in the Adirondacks between 1825 and 1835. A vessel was needed that could carry a large amount of weight, was stable, and was light enough for one man to portage between the many lakes.
``A canoe,'' Cameron explained, ``will blow around the lake in a strong wind. And you know how stable they are! A guide boat can carry 1,200 pounds. The more weight it holds, the more stable it becomes. That's because these boats have a deep bottom, unlike the flat bottom of a canoe. And they're light. A sixteen-footer weighs only fifty pounds.''
According to Cameron, back in the last century visitors would hire both a guide and his boat.
``You needed a boat capable of carrying two men and enough gear for two weeks in the wilderness. And a deer, too, if they were hunting.''
Cameron's fascination for this area goes back to when his grandfather had a large camp right here on St. Regis Lake.
``I was raised in Jackson, Wyoming,'' he said, ``But my mother, four brothers, and I would spend every other summer here. Right over there,'' he added, pointing across the lake.
Cameron, his wife, Lynn, and Ursa and her five newborn pups now share a charming Hansel-and-Gretel cottage that was once the laundry building for a great camp owned by Cyrus McCormick's daughter. A fire ravaged the main lodge and the connecting buildings many years ago. The cottage, the boat house where Cameron works, and a few small out-buildings survived.
Cameron had worked as a carpenter in Wyoming, but came back here five years after high school with his collection of old and antique tools to settle. A course on boat building at a local college steered him towards guide boats.
``But after two years, the grant as well as local interest at school ran out,'' he says. Cameron's interest buoyed.
Cameron explained other characterics of these boats as we walked toward a weathered barn where several old boats are being restored.
``Nothing in these boats is steam-bent. All 25 pair of ribs are from spruce trees, naturally formed where the trunk curves into the roots. That gives them enormous strength. The rest is cedar or white pine for lightness.''
After 400 hours of labor, ``and five-thousand of these,'' Cameron groans, holding out a handful of tiny copper tacks, the boat is water worthy. That helps explain the $6,000 price tag on each new craft.
Cameron manages to build about one a year, between restoring other wooden boats. But there's not exactly a long line waiting at the dock for a new boat.
``There's a difference,'' he acknowledges, ``between those who want one, and those who can afford one.''
Something else that's unique about the craft is the horizontal laps that make up the hull. Rather than just butted together, each joining lap is cut at an angle and feathered against the next before being tacked together. This creates a smooth-skinned finish.
``The thickest part of the hull is only one quarter of an inch,'' Cameron added, explaining the lightness of the craft.
Each boat also has a hand-carved yoke across the center for portaging, a paddle for steering, a pair of oars for rowing, and a rather quaint caned seat for Ursa, or any two-legged passenger.
Cameron does the caning on those quiet evenings by the light of the television.
Years ago, these craft were painted in forest and lake hues of green, blue, brown, and black. Now, they are usually layered with many coats of varnish and finely sanded to a mellow sheen.
``Today,'' Cameron says, ``people like the craftsmanship to show.''
``You know,'' he added with a drop of nostalgia as we headed for the lake for a quick row, ``there's a whole revival of wooden boats going on. When fiberglass boats first came out people would pay 50 bucks to have their old wooden boat hauled out. But fiberglass has a life of about 50 years. After that, they start spider-webbing with a series of tiny cracks.
``Now people feel differently. Anyone with a wooden boat equates it with family and memories and wants it restored. Any virtually any wooden boat can be restored.''
That will keep the bacon on the Camerons' table.
Back at the cottage over tea and English muffins, Lynn Cameron was mapping out a dream.
``One day we're going to take a guide boat to Finland and row around the lakes there. And don't you say we're not,'' she teased her husband. ``We are! And It was your idea. And we're not camping. We're staying at bed and breakfasts. So there!''