James Shamis grew up in the Adirondacks, where traveling among the lakes and ponds required boats that were lightly built and easily portaged. In his late teen years, he spent his summers working for Milo Williams restoring antique Adirondack guideboats. While working in Milo’s shop on the north shore of Little Moose Lake, he grew to appreciate the beauty of the guideboats and the pleasure of working with wood.
Among all of the boats Milo had under his care was a Wee Lassie, an undecked canoe designed by Henry Rushton. “I had never seen such a small boat before,” James said. “I thought it was a child’s boat the first time I saw it, and, after many days of prodding on my part, Milo finally let me bring it down and take it for a paddle. I was in love!” James had enjoyed rowing the guideboats, but the Wee Lassie, powered by a double-bladed paddle, was light and quick. And he was on his own. “No room for a guest, just me and the water.”
James made up his mind that he’d someday have a Wee Lassie, but the years slipped by and he never found one he could buy and restore. Still, his fondness for the canoe endured for decades.
In 2015, doctors discovered James had a vocal-cord cancer. Glottic cancers respond well to radiation treatment and are almost always curable, but the health scare was a wake-up call for James. During his radiation treatments, his thoughts were drawn to his teenage years and the time he spent paddling the Wee Lassie on Little Moose Lake. The memories were his refuge during a difficult time, and after a few rounds of radiation he decided to bring a Wee Lassie back into his life—he’d build his own.
Rushton’s original Wee Lassie, built in 1893, was 10′6″ long, weighed just 20 lbs, and was a delicate lapstrake construction of cedar planks, just 3/16″ thick, on closely spaced steam-bent oak frames. Building a replica true to the original would require the skills of an experienced craftsman. For a first boatbuilding project, James was drawn to Dave Gentry’s version of the Wee Lassie, an adaptation for skin-on-frame construction that would be quick to build, require nominal skills, and yet be as light as the original.
In July 2015, James had his last radiation treatment and rested for just two days before beginning building his Wee Lassie. Working in his barn, he got off to a slow start as he gradually regained his strength. When he would return to the house after working for a spell on the canoe, his wife would ask, “What are you doing out there in the barn?” “Building a boat,” he’d reply. She would laugh and say, “Oh, okay….” Weeks went by before she came out to the barn and, to her surprise, there was indeed a boat taking shape there.
In the Gentry plans, there are two options for fastening the longitudinals to the plywood frames: lashings or screws and epoxy. James opted for lashings. The nylon artificial sinew gave the connections flexibility in addition to great strength. He departed from the plans to add decks fore and aft to give his Wee Lassie a touch of Adirondack-guideboat class. This decorative touch brought the weight to 25 lbs, a bit over the 19 lbs specified in the plans, but still an easy carry.
James finished the canoe in three months, christened it WEE LASSIE SURVIVOR, and took his first outing on the waters of Lake Delta, not far from his home in Rome, New York. The moment she was afloat transported him back to his summers paddling Milo’s Wee Lassie on Little Moose Lake.
Winter descended not long after that first October outing and WEE LASSIE SURVIVOR went back into the barn. The following spring, James joined a Boy Scout canoe-camping trip. He had brought his dog, a golden retriever named Cody, but expected him stay ashore. James was well on his way when he discovered Cody was swimming in SURVIVOR’s wake. The two of them have since enjoyed many small ponds together, one paddling and the other dog-paddling.
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