The “Rangeley Boat” Is A Seldom Seen Maine Classic
The last remaining fleet, at Grant’s Kennebago Camps, is undergoing meticulous restoration.
Photographed by Jeff Leino.
Fly-fishing, as die-hard anglers will tell you, is equal parts art and science, with time-proven tools like bamboo rods and hand-tied flies as prized for their aesthetics as their performance. Same goes for the vintage wooden craft known as the Rangeley Boat — a strikingly elegant Maine classic designed more than 150 years ago to give anglers an advantage in some of the country’s finest waters for brook trout and landlocked salmon.
When sportsmen first turned on to the Rangeley Lakes in the 1870s, the then-popular Adirondack guide boats weren’t sturdy enough for Maine’s often-shallow (and therefore choppy) mountain lakes. Guides in the Rangeley region needed boats that could handle big waves and weather, long enough to cut cleanly through rough waters and with wide bottoms stable enough for casting. Rangeley Boats, as they came to be known, were a hit: burly, high-sided, and (eventually) square-sterner.
Today, they’re throwback artifacts admired by anglers and boatbuilders alike — finding an old one in good shape can get a lake-lover’s heart racing. Grant’s Kennebago Camps, a traditional sporting camp on legendary Kennebago Lake, maintains a whopping 35 wooden Rangeley Boats — the oldest date back to the Truman administration — and this summer, they’ve hired an experienced craftsman to painstakingly restore their fleet.
John Blunt, owner of Grant’s Kennebago Camps, says the vintage boats appeal to guests because they’re a piece of living history, but also because they’re practical for everyday use. “They’re wonderful to fish in,” Blunt says. “They’re stable, and they’re quiet, so you don’t spook the fish. Wooden boats don’t get as hot in the sun, and because they don’t have rivets, you can’t cut your line on the side of the boat. They’re so thoughtfully designed for this place. And serious fishermen appreciate the care it takes to maintain these special boats.”
Blunt’s daughter, Cathy Dexter, also works at Grant’s and says guests come to the camp in order to feel like they’ve been transported back to a simpler time. That might mean enjoying the exceptional trout and salmon fishing (Kennebago is the East’s largest fly-fishing–only lake). Or it might mean hiking, swimming, boating, or just sitting on a rustic porch with a good book. Either way, Dexter says, the vintage boats fit Grant’s leisurely, nostalgic vibe: “This is a gorgeous venue with a lot of history. It’s really beloved by generations who grew up learning to fish from their ancestors, and so they love details like the Rangeley Boats that connect them to the past.”
Grant’s has hired a boatbuilder from the Carpenter’s Boat Shop in Bristol to restore their Rangeley Boats, and it’s no small undertaking. “The boats are handmade from cedar and spruce, with oak or ash ribs and spruce gunnels,” says Blunt. “They’re hand-clinched and have copper nails. We take the ribs out and steam them for a full day, so they’re rubbery by late afternoon and can be shaped. A boatbuilder has to work fast and know what they’re doing.”
Dexter says the many anglers who frequent Grant’s tend to have a deep appreciation for craft. “Many of our guests bring their vises and set up right on the camp tables in our dining hall to tie flies together,” she says. “They understand the time and care it takes to do something beautifully. Sure, they could buy their flies, just like we could buy new boats, but there’s something about taking the time to preserve this art that connects us.” ◼