You may love the Adirondack Mountains, but if marching up Marcy or hiking all 133 miles of the Northville-Lake Placid Trail isn't your idea of fun, there are other options.
Take a boat ride. A big boat ride. In places such as Lake George, Raquette Lake and Old Forge, there are abundant opportunities to relax on a large steamboat - or something that looks a lot like one - and enjoy your outdoor experience in a much more serene manner.
"The natural beauty of Lake George has been attracting people to this area since Thomas Jefferson fell in love with the place," said Luke Dow, whose family has owned the Lake George Steamboat Company for more than half a century. "It is a beautiful lake, the mountains are gorgeous, and the best place to see them is from the lake."
Donna Pohl and her husband Dean have owned the Raquette Lake Navigation Company for nearly three decades, and the view in that part of the Adirondacks is also a big boon to business.
"Raquette Lake has a shoreline of 99 miles and 80 percent of it is owned by the state of New York, which means things aren't going to change a lot," said Pohl. "The breath-taking scenery you see, the sparkling water, it's always going to be there."
Technically, there is only one authentic steamboat on Adirondack waterways, and that is the Minne-ha-ha, one of three boats owned by the Lake George Steamboat Company. The Dow family began building the boat in 1968 and it was officially launched on July 30, 1969. The newest member of the Dow fleet, the Minne-ha-ha is about 103 feet long, seats about 480 passengers and can reach a speed of seven miles an hour.
"My father was always enamored with the big steamships of the south and the Mississippi River, so he wanted to make something like that, and not just as a novelty," said Dow. "He wanted to draw on that technology and make it part of the show. He also foresaw back in the 1960s that he was going to need another boat. All the baby boomers were transforming Lake George into a real family town, and spending a couple of hours on a boat with the kids was becoming very popular."
Steamboats on Lake George go back to the early 19th century when the town was known as Caldwell, having been named after James Caldwell, one of the first major landowners in the area. He was born in Ireland in 1747 and made his way to America and Albany where he became quite successful selling groceries. In 1787 he bought 1,500 acres of land around Lake George and years later retired to that area.
"He was a great patron of the arts and is credited with popularizing Lake George as a tourist destination during the Victorian era," said Warren County Historical Society Executive Director Teri Gay. "With the landscapes of artist Thomas Cole and James Fenimore Cooper's legendary novel, 'The Last of the Mohicans,' Lake George became well known for its history and lore. The boat rides became popular because they are slow and give people time to enjoy the magnificent splendor of 'the Queen of American Lakes.'"
That first steamboat at Lake George in 1817 was named the Caldwell, and it was built by the Lake George Steamboat Company. Dow said there have been a handful of owners since his family took over right after World War II, and while Lake George was becoming a tourist destination in the 19th century, the steamboat was still primarily a practical tool for transportation.
"It wasn't a leisure or recreation vehicle until well into the 20th century," said Dow. "The road over Tongue Mountain didn't get built until 1929, so there was no way to reach various communities along the lake except by water. You didn't want to take this big loop around the mountains or head over into the Champlain Valley. The only real way to move goods and people was to make 14 stops along the lake, all the way up to Ticonderoga."
It was Dow's grandfather, Wilbur Dow, a maritime attorney from New York City, who bought the company in 1947. The family also owns the Mohican, originally launched in 1908, and the Lac du Saint Sacrement. Built in 1989, the Saint Sacrament is the largest boat on the inland waters of New York and can seat 1,000, while the Mohican has room for 320 passengers.
Also operating out of the village is Lake George Shoreline Cruises. It has been owned by the Quirk family for nearly three decades and has two boats, the Adirondac (which seats 150 people) and the Horicon (which seats about 350).
"The Horicon goes out seven times a day on a one-hour cruise that has a historical narration that people really find interesting," said Mariesa Muscatiello, a Rotterdam native and the marketing director for Lake George Shoreline Cruises. "People love listening to the history of this lake, and anyone who's been to Lake George knows how beautiful is is. It's a very nice way to relax and enjoy the view."
A bit further west along Route 28 is the Raquette Lake Navigation Company, which also has plenty of history to share with its patrons. The name of the Pohl's boat is the W.W. Durant, a millionaire businessman in the late 19th and early 20th century who brought the railroads to the Adirondacks and also designed and built many large summer homes for various New York City millionaires. The boat accommodates around 100 passengers.
"My husband and I are true entrepreneurs at heart, and we've tried a lot of different things over the years, and some have worked and some haven't," said Pohl. "We weren't afraid of failing. He's been a contractor and I was a teacher in Long Lake. It's worked because we're on a beautiful lake, people love our food, and my husband does a wonderful narration of the history of this area."
Much like the two boat companies on Lake George, the Racquette Lake Navigation Company is a family affair. Two of the Pohl's adult children are working in the family business and on the W.W. Durant, you might also catch a wedding. Captain Dean Pohl has performed over 300 marriage ceremonies since he and his wife took over the company.
"I think people like the fact that we're a family-owned business," said Pohl. "Our son, trained at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, is our executive chef and our daughter is the beverage manager, head bartender and events manager. Dean does 99 percent of the piloting and I'm on all of the dinner cruises and the private charters."
A bit further west on Route 28, Old Forge Lake Cruises will take you for a 15.3-mile trip on the Clearwater, a replica of an earlier steamboat on the lake. It fits around 100 passengers.The first steamboat on what is called the Fulton Chain of Lakes was launched in 1876.
"But it wasn't until the late 1920s and early 1930s when Joseph Young, the guy who developed Hollywood, Florida, got involved in making Old Forge a tourist area that the area really started drawing a lot of people," said Peg Masters, historian for the town of Webb. "He wanted to build a big hotel in Old Forge and he wanted to bring people there by steamboat."
Old Forge Lake Cruises was created in the 1970s by Don Lawson and was purchased in 2008 by Niskayuna native and University at Albany grad Paul Littman.
"My parents had a camp up here when I was a kid, so when I retired I bought the company and started a second career," said Littman, who also has plenty of family involvement (a mother and a daughter) in the business. "Don started the company and built the Clearwater a few years later in 1976, and that's remained out main boat."
There are other boat rides. Mohawk Maiden Cruises takes people on the Caldwell Belle up the Hudson River and Champlain Canal waterways. There are also ferry rides further north on Lake Champlain and canal boats out in central New York that take passengers along what was the path of the Erie Canal. But for an outdoor experience that includes mountains, lakes and fascinating history you can't beat visiting Lake George, Raquette Lake and Old Forge.
"People love to hear me talk about the French and Indian War, Ticonderoga and Millionaires Row on Lake George," said Bolton Landing's Bill Gates, who has been piloting boats for the Lake George Steamboat Company for 33 years. "And, there's just something about being on a big boat, floating on the water, that is really relaxing. Then you add great views of the mountains like we have here and you can't beat it."