Raquette Lake Navigation Company
Floating a family business
by David Sommerstein
A luxury dinner cruise with Raquette Lake Navigation Company starts in the Pohls’ rustic family home, tucked behind a hill that rises up from the water’s edge. A longtime-customer-turned-front-desk-employee folds napkins and takes last-minute reservations over the phone (“chicken, prime rib, salmon, sea bass or flank steak?”) in the cluttered, wood-paneled office. Rocky the cat slinks by.
Donna Pohl, matriarch and official “majordomo” of the operation, breezes through, armed with a clipboard, pages of checklists for tonight’s voyage. “Every single cruise we ever do has to be the best one we’ve ever done,” Donna says, noting Raquette Lake is close to pretty much nowhere. “We have to make the experience so wonderful you can’t wait to go home and tell your friends and sign up again.”
In the late 1980s, Donna Pohl was a schoolteacher; her husband, Dean, was a contractor at a time when new home construction had tapered off in the area. He got tired of jacking up the foundations of old camps. “I don’t wanna do this,” Donna remembers him saying. Tourism was on the upswing. So the Pohls took a gamble on a new tourist attraction. Dean had the steel hull of a 60-foot-long cruise ship built and shipped in two pieces from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; the roads would have been too narrow to haul it in one piece. With the help of two employees, he built the rest of the W. W. Durant from the waterline up, including installing the engine, plumbing, wiring, two decks, everything down to the glowing wood paneling in the dining room. It’s a modern boat, but it’s reminiscent of the steamboats that plied Raquette Lake in the late 19th century.
The Pohls’ four children grew up working in the family business. The eldest and the youngest found their calling in other careers, but the middle two, Rachel and Jim, were 13 and 10, respectively, when they started—Rachel waiting tables, Jim washing pots and pans. For 16 years Jim has been the ship’s Culinary Institute of America–trained executive chef. For the last decade Rachel has been the head bartender, beverage manager and leading brand extender (she sells a line of Rachel’s Raquette Lake Elixir bloody mary mix across New York State). Now, as Donna and Dean start to flirt with retirement, Jim and Rachel seem poised to become the second generation of ownership of a popular Adirondack attraction.
Jim Pohl is in the kitchen roasting prime rib crusted with oregano and black pepper, pan-searing airline chicken breast with a Dijon mustard glaze, and flour-dusting sea bass that’ll be finished with a citrus cream sauce. It all happens simultaneously, set to a precise timeline that ends with serving dinner just after passengers have enjoyed cocktails and the sunset overlooking the Adirondacks’ largest natural lake. “We’re a catering operation,” Jim says. “We start everything on land, and then finish it on board.”
You can tell it has its stressful moments. All of the food must be precisely undercooked here, so that it finishes, perfectly cooked, inside the portable warming ovens the crew carries down to the boat. Jim estimates he’s prepared 15,000 meals this summer.
Jim is tall in a plain white T-shirt and Syracuse University ball cap. He strides outside to the porch, past bags of onions and potatoes and a small mountain of empty cardboard boxes, to check on the “chef’s special” sizzling on the grill: balsamic-marinated flank steak with whole-grain mustard. “Ever since I was a little kid I’ve wanted to be in the restaurant business,” Jim says as he turns each steak. After graduating from CIA in 2003, he worked summers here and winters at high-end restaurants in Florida, Las Vegas and New Orleans. Now he’s raising a family in Raquette Lake. (His daughter, six-year-old Avery, is Dean and Donna’s only grandchild.) “This is where I’ve always been drawn to. I don’t even think of it as a job. It’s more of a hobby,” Jim says.
Jim’s sister Rachel hustles in, flushed from the sun. “We just came off the afternoon excursion,” she says between mouthfuls of leftover garlic mashed potatoes. “Just restocking and snagging some food before the dinner cruise.”
In addition to daily dinner cruises, the Pohls offer lunch cruises, family-friendly pizza excursions, moonlight trips, wine and beer pairings, and Sunday brunch. “It’s like a crazy breakneck speed during the summer,” Rachel says. “But then we get a break in the winter and we’re all refreshed and ready to do it again in the spring.”
For Rachel, being a part of this family enterprise has made her feel rooted, to her job and to this extraordinarily beautiful and isolated place. “It’s a path in life, and it’s shaped who I am,” she says.
Outside, Captain Dean Pohl rumbles up in a four-wheeler, in full maritime regalia. Dean is a prominent—and sometimes controversial—public figure in the Adirondacks. He’s a councilman on the Long Lake town board. He’s clashed with the Adirondack Park Agency and with environmentalists over the popular Marion River Carry tract; he sold a portion of the property to the Open Space Institute in 2013.
Jim comes back in the kitchen and looks around. His prep cook, Lake George high-schooler James Bridges, chops up lettuce for salads. “We are right on schedule,” Jim announces. “The chicken’s about to come out of the oven. Prime rib is almost there. I just need to grill lemons.” Then he’ll buzz home to shower and change into his starched chef uniform before it’s time to shuttle the food down to the waterfront.
The shadows off the islands are just starting to lengthen as a golden sunset bathes Raquette Lake. In the pilot house, Dean Pohl blasts the horn and eases the 57-ton boat from the dock. He’s the embodiment of a captain—crisp white uniform, epaulets, captain’s hat. On the upper deck, a few dozen people clink glasses. Classic jazz floats from the sound system. People duck their heads in occasionally to greet the captain.
Dean grabs a microphone and welcomes passengers. “We will begin our cruise heading in an easterly course heading down South Bay. This bay is four miles long, with Golden Beach lying at the far end of the bay.”
Dean’s monologues are perhaps the best-known feature of these cruises. They’re loaded with historical fact, sometimes blended with myth and wry humor. He points out Camp Pine Knot, built by the boat’s namesake, who developed this area in the 19th century. He indicates properties that used to be vibrant hotels when he was a child, always incorporating new details into his speeches to keep repeat customers entertained.
Tonight’s voyage is nearly sold out—the boat’s traditional dinner cruises seat 64—and the dining room bustles with laughter and conversation. There’s a family from suburban Philadelphia, a couple from New York City celebrating their honeymoon, and no fewer than three groups who have been dining on the W. W. Durant for its entire 26-year existence.
Bob and Karen Kendall, from New Jersey, bought a camp on Raquette Lake the same summer the boat first launched. “It was amazing,” Bob says. “There were a bunch of boats in the water and they were beeping their horns. It was exciting for this lake to see a boat this large being launched.” Out of all their options, the Kendalls chose to celebrate their 40th anniversary here. “We feel this is one of the finest restaurants in the Adirondacks, boat or no boat,” Karen says.
As peach Melba and coffee are served, Donna Pohl sits behind Dean, shoes off, grinning, another successful work day in the books. “Doing anything in the Adirondacks is more difficult than anywhere else in the world,” Dean says. The couple has reached the age when retirement is an ongoing consideration. Donna talks about spending more time traveling. Dean, on the other hand, says he isn’t sure what he’d do with himself. “You can only play so much golf, or fish so much,” he says. “I’m pretty happy that I’m doing what I’m doing.”
Both of them are clearly proud of the business their family has built. “No one thought this was going to succeed but us,” Dean says.
It’s dark now, and the stars are glistening off the lake as Dean guides the boat back to the docks. Tomorrow there’s a lunch buffet cruise, an afternoon excursion, the traditional dinner cruise, and then a nighttime voyage with music by a guitarist visiting from Greenwich Village—more opportunities to convince passengers they’ll want to return for another posh and delicious experience in the heart of the wilderness.
For a schedule of cruises, call (315) 354-5532 or visit www.raquettelakenavigation.com.