They Did It! Two Lake George Men Row 500 Miles in Adirondack Guide-Boats
Brian Rooney and Al Freihofer can scratch one more item off their “To Do” list. The intrepid pair successfully completed their quest to row their Adirondack Guide- Boats more than 500 miles from Kingston, Ontario, Canada to Lake George, N.Y.
Right from the start, the two 59-year-old men learned that flexibility and adaptability would be the rules they would live by for the next 18 days. The original game plan was to arrive in Kingston, Ontario on June 20 and start the incredible journey to the Queen of American Lakes early the next morning.
As it turned out, they arrived at the starting point around mid-day on June 21, launched the boats and started rowing. “It was good that the first day was just a half-day because I was exhausted,” Rooney said. “The reality is that rowing is really tiring and often very painful.”
Rooney said at the end of the first day he wondered if he had the stamina to finish the journey. “But, I had no choice either. We were up there and the only way home was to row there,” he said. “There was no bailing out.”
Both men said they never thought about giving up at any point. “The whole time we had to draw on reserves of strength to keep on going,” Freihofer said. “Al is a much better rower than I. He has magic in his stroke and he gets much more out of it,” Rooney said.
Freihofer said he noticed a difference in Rooney’s style of rowing as the trip progressed. “He was getting smoother…it all comes down to efficiency…how can you convert whatever energy you have into power to move your boat through the water,” he said. “He bit off a big first trip. Psychologically, just anticipating having to get up every day and doing the same thing again and again and again takes its toll,” Freihofer said. “By mid-trip Brian’s endurance had skyrocketed,” he said.
Freihofer said the most pleasurable element of the excursion were the acts of kindness they experienced along the way. “People who had no interest or nothing to gain by bending a rule or making an exception, after hearing our story, would say ‘how can we help’,” he said.
Rooney said a few times they had to row after dark to find a suitable place to pitch their tents. “On Day 12 we didn’t put up until almost 10 o’clock at night,” Freihofer said. “We had at least three nights that we were into darkness by the time we stopped,” Rooney added.
The men said seeing the countryside at four-miles-per-hour was rewarding. They said the Rideau Canal was the most gratifying segment of the trip. “I envisioned it as just an ordinary canal but it’s really a chain of lakes connected by a series of canals,” Rooney said. “It was evocative of rowing through the “Narrows” right here on Lake George, but without the effect of the surrounding mountains,” Freihofer added.
Both men said the manner in which the canal system is managed was impressive. “Every lock had a lock-keeper’s house that was immaculately kept…white clapboard siding with green trim and bathrooms for the public,” Rooney said. “I didn’t see one piece of plastic or garbage floating in the water until we got to New York State,” Freihofer added with a frown. “The Canadians really take care of their public places.”
The two seldom traveled side-by-side, with Freihofer often leading the way. They said they did not encounter any commercial shipping vessels until they reached the St. Lawrence River. “Even on the Ottawa River, headed towards Montreal, we did not see any major ships…it was all recreational boats,” Rooney said.
They were alone most of the time but on the Ottawa River they encountered a group of kayakers. “We sort of embedded ourselves in this gaggle of kayaks,” Freihofer said. “We rowed with them for a few hours. As soon as we went through a lock they turned off and went for lunch and we didn’t get invited,” he said with a laugh.
Looking one way and rowing another has its trials and tribulations as well. Freihofer said they had to be alert while navigating the St. Lawrence River. “If there is a huge ship coming at you, you better be looking at it every few minutes,” he said. “They’re moving along at a pretty good clip. If you let 10 minutes go past…they’re right on top of you.”
Rooney said the wakes produced by the cargo ships were not problematic but at one point they encountered an Italian mega-yacht which threw a four-foot wake off its bow. “We had to turn and take it (the wave) bow first and when we did, half the length of our boats was lifted out of the water,” Rooney said. “It could have easily rolled us over if we had taken it sideways,” Freihofer added. Both men spoke very highly about the performance and stability of their Adirondack Guide-Boats.
Inclement weather was a factor on several occasions. “We had a lot of rain the first week. One day, early on, we rowed non-stop for five hours in steady rain,” Freihofer said. According to Rooney, when they were on the Ottawa River going into Montreal a nasty squall came through the area. “A Canadian Coast Guard boat came along to ask if we were OK,” Rooney said. “There was no ‘are you crazy?…get off the water! or anything like that,” he said. “They looked at the rig, looked at me…I was wearing my life jacket, and they must have figured ‘he knows what he is doing and he knows what the risks are’ so they left,” Rooney said.
“A trip like this is not about how fast you can row but rather how much time can you sit in the seat pulling the oars,” Freihofer said. “I’d lie awake in my tent at night and every old athletic injury I have ever suffered was screaming at me,” Rooney said.
Freihofer said at the three-quarter mark they made it into Lake Champlain. By the time they reached Burlington, the trip had come to feel serendipitous. The pair completed the 100-mile length of the vast lake rowing up the La Chute River at the southern end as far as they could go. “We used two-wheeled carts which we strapped to the boats and we walked them a mile-and-a-half through downtown Ticonderoga, right by Aubuchon Hardware,” Freihofer said with a laugh. “A former Town Supervisor let us put them back in the water in his brother’s back yard which was a couple of hundred feet from the dam.”
Rooney said it wasn’t until they began rowing the last leg on Lake George that he felt relief. The pair ate egg salad sandwiches at Mossy Point. “That was our fuel for the day,” Freihofer said. The incentive on the final day of the voyage was to enjoy a lobster dinner at the Lake George Club in Diamond Point but the greater reward was their sense of accomplishment.
Right up to last the day the pair encountered challenges. “A south wind came up just when we reached the top of the Narrows. A row that could have taken an hour or maybe less took us two-and-a-half hours,” Rooney said. They arrived at the Lake George Club at 8:30 in the evening…just in time for dinner.
Rooney said his wife, Cecile, encouraged him to attempt the 500-mile long trip. At the end of the journey, Rooney said he was happy to find out that he was as tough as he thought he was. Freihofer said, for him, rowing a 14-foot Adirondack Guideboat with his best friend made him arguably the richest man in the world.
When asked what advice they might offer to others who might attempt rowing for several hundred miles Rooney said, “You have to embrace the unknown ahead of you. You have to press on, not knowing where you’re going to land tonight.” Freihofer said he believes people seek adventure. “Just go…take that journey…that would be my advice,” he said.
When asked if they would do it all over again a pall of silence fell over the porch where we were sitting. After what seemed like an eternity Rooney replied, “I don’t know that I would do it again. It was the most sustained, grueling physical thing I have ever done.”
Freihofer, who has made several long-distance rowing trips, said, “For me, it would have to do with destinations. This row interested me because I heard other people talk about the Rideau in such glowing terms,” he said. “But, this is the first time I finished one of these rows where, in the past I felt this primal urge to get back in the boat and row another day…and now I’m not ready to get back in the boat today,” he said.