Thursday, April 12, 2012


I'll be heading downriver in the Julius in a few days. A few loose ends before I go. We finished up the Julius's fittings the other night, including the fancy non-original highly-inauthentic side boxes. But they sure will make life easier on a commercial trip, giving me simple, handy stowage and preventing full swamping of the cockpit.

And a floorboard with a highly inauthentic emergency feature:

After extensive testing of the new floor's features, I felt pressed to show Will, who is planning to do a bit of boating in the Julius, just how it is done:

Liam called from Prescott, wanting to bring his dory up for a little consulting. When I got home the craziest thing was in my driveway--the boat, not Liam. 

It is a very cool Pritchett classic Rogue River boat, built a while back from Roger Fletcher's plans. Man, does it look wildly different than the Colorado River style boats I have been working on for the last long while. Low sides, radical flare, and the truncated motor-mount stern. Liam was wondering about decking her over for Grand Canyon but we soon figured out that the oarlocks are four inches lower than the Briggs boats, which are almost too close to the water already. We imagined what would happen if you drove it up the face of a big Grand Canyon wave with that crazy stern. Quick and ugly, that's what it would be.

The wood fairy stopped by while I was out of town last week. This is a load of Modesto Ash from Southern California. My friend Jim McKenzie brought it by from his friend Don Seawater, who has a mill in San Luis Obispo. Last time Jim brought Monterey Cypress. Before that, sycamore. All of these woods are fascinating, but fail to show up in the books about structural properties of wood. Makes it more interesting. This Modesto Ash, which is the same species as our local Velvet Ash, looks great. We'll see how she works after a summer in the drying loft.

I went out on a training trip for AzRA a couple weeks ago, blathering to the new young boaters about all the stories I think I remember. Here is a shot of the mysterious "boat" near Nankoweap. It appears to have been the skeleton of some sort of fabric boat--canvas? animal hide? Hard saying. It has some round manufactured nails in it so it isn't ancient. Most likely some prospector wandered into the area in the 1900s, failed to strike it rich, and left this under a ledge in case he came back.

And lastly, here is a shot Lora took of us shopping for our Glen Canyon float. I seem to be dressed as the entire cast of Gilligan's Island.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mining for the Moqui

A couple years ago I donated eight hours of boatshop labor to a local charity auction. Marieke Taney won the bid and showed up in my driveway with the most horrendous unidentified floating object I have ever seen--it was once a whitewater dory in Martin Litton's fleet, but had since been so bastardized with bolted and glued on detritus that the original boat was barely visible.

It was built in 1973 by the notorious One-Armed Willie Illingworth of Medford, Oregon, inventor two years earlier of the aluminum drift boat. One of two Grand Canyon boats, it was called the Moqui Steps--its sister the Ootsa Lake. Originally delivered without decks, the Moqui ran several years with a wretched decking system made of a resin-impregnated gunkboard called finform, which had been screwed to the hull with sharp screws that were too long of the job, resulting in hatch interiors that were lethal to both duffel bags and flesh. It was a modified McKenzie hull, up-sized for Grand Canyon use and with the flat midsection usually associated with Rogue boats. Although the Moqui and Ootsa were both serviceable boats, they were outclassed by the growing fleet of Briggs boats and eventually sold off.

Here is a wonderful Rudi Petschek shot of her in her heyday, amid her peers at Phantom Ranch in Grand Canyon. She's right in the middle.

The Moqui Steps fortunately got aluminum decks to replace her old finform horrors, and eventually ended up in Williams, Arizona, where her owner modified her nearly to death for trips on smaller rivers with scouts or some such thing. Massive amounts of iron and plastic plumbing and wiring were bored through the decks; foam and rotting plywood were glued in every available spot, rotting floorboards were screwed inside all the hatches, paint and Bondo were exploding from the exterior, gallons of silicone seal were smeared in every conceivable place (and a few inconceivable ones) and, to be quite honest, the boat Marieke parked in my driveway did not look like there was much worth saving. Marieke and her brother Harlan had gone in on the purchase, primarily because the trailer it was on was worth the purchase price; the boat was essentially free.

I could have said junk it, and perhaps I should have. But being the eternal optimist, I launched into a restoration attempt. I burned my entire eight charity hours removing debris from the boat, filled a giant trash bin, and although it looked a lot better, it still failed to inspire anyone.

Marieke subsequently fell in love with another boat, the Betty Boop, and has since begun a new life together with Betty. But somehow a fire kindled in Harlan this month and he brought the Moqui back for round two. On Monday we began a three-day assault on four decades worth of paint and gradoo. Terrifying work, but it paid off:

The Moqui was white. Then red. Then white. Then red. Then white. Then green. Then white.

Then shiny aluminum once again. Will Viktora, Harlan, and Marieke pause for refreshments amid the grind.

And go back at it. What a dreadful din:

More refreshments.

Getting there:

The hour grows late.

After midnight Will daintily massages some dents with a ten-pound sledge. The neighbors fail to alert the police.

This afternoon Will and Harlan delicately rework the side profiles:

Amazingly she actually looks like a boat again. Now she is off to the welder to get a hundred drill-holes patched and a few modifications to the hatch lids. That and some paint and I think she'll be a fine family boat for Harlan's growing brood. Another unique chapter in Grand Canyon boating history lives on.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Building the Blacktail

Here is a silly video of us assembling a drift boat at Fretwater Boatworks on Friday evening. This is a Woody Hindman 16' double-ender with transom, from plans in Roger Fletcher's Drift Boats and River Dories. With frames, sides, bow post and transom prepared, we build the hull in 80 minutes. Roy and Amy Lippman, whose boat this is, are calling it "Blacktail." Had the GoPro not run out of gas, it would have captured the insertion of the inner chines and application and finishing of the floor a couple hours later.

It is just as well that the camera did not record the mayhem that ensued after that. There was a bad reaction between wild women and a celebratory bottle of tequila that resulted in torn clothing, bite marks, and inexplicable bruises. I guess we should stick to whiskey.

Powell's Whitehall boats

One of my long-term projects at Fretwater Boatworks is to build and run every significant hard-hull rowboat in the Canyon's history. Which is impossible because several are unknown and undocumented. But it is a worthy goal.

The toughest boat by far to build will be the first: Major John Wesley Powell's Whitehall harbor boats. They were the fastest boat on the water in their day; a sophisticated curved hull designed to travel at high speed by oar or sail in the choppy water of America's busy shipping harbors. I hope to have one or more built for the 150th anniversary of Powell's 1869 journey, so I have seven years to finish my homework and get the boats done. I'll need it.

Powell's boats were built by Thomas Bagley of Chicago. I tracked down Ralph Frese, local canoe legend and boat historian in the windy city. He said, "They were built by a sailor that jumped ship in the port of Chicago, which in the 1880s, was the busiest port in our country. More boats arriving and departing each day than Boston, New York, New Orleans and San Francisco combined. He set up shop at one time under our Randolph Street bridge downtown to build small craft. There is not much more info available." That's a start, but I do hope to dig up a bit more on Bagley's background and training.

There are no photographs or accurate descriptions of the boats of the first expedition. Two were wrecked or abandoned along the way, and the other two drifted into obscurity somewhere on the lower Colorado. But Frederick Dellenbaugh of the second expedition of 1871–2 tells us this:

The boats for this trip were modelled on those used on the former descent, with such changes and improvements as experience had suggested. They were honestly and thoroughly constructed by a builder named Bagley, who had a yard where he turned out a small craft, the the north end of the old Clark Street bridge, and we often felt a sense of gratitude to him for doing his work so well. They were three in number, of well-seaasoned, clear-grained, half-inch oak, smooth-built, double-ribbed fore and aft, square-sterned, and all practically the same...

When I went the first time to look at the boats lying on Bagley's wharf, their ominous porpoise-like appearance gave me a peculiar sensation. I had experienced rough-water but this was the first understanding I had that the journey was to be more or less amphibian. On a day when the waves on Lake Michigan were running high we took them out for a trial. The crews were filled out by Bagley's men, our party not all being present, and with some reporters and a cargo of champagne and cigars our course was laid for the open sea. The action of the boats was all that could be desired, and, in the great billows it was so constant that our reportorial friends found some difficulty in obtaining their share of the refreshments. We were satisfied that the boats could ride any sea...

These three boats are well documented in the photographs of the second expedition:

and etchings from 1871-2 pictures were used in the Powell report of his earlier voyage:

 Two of the 1871-2 boats were abandoned at Kanab Creek in the heart of Grand Canyon, and thought to be used by later prospectors before they vanished. But the third one, the Nellie Powell, was left at Lee's Ferry. In 1938 Leo Weaver, who then ran the ranch at Lee's Ferry wrote to Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Minor Tillotson:

Several years ago I noticed a boat down in the willows of one of my fields near the Paria. Dimly, I could see just the word NELLIE in black on the prow. At the time it made no impression on me, in fact I forgot all about it except at such times as I rode through through those willows looking for the cows perhaps.

I had a man clear the brush down there and burn it. Next time I saw the old boat, half of it was burned. Still I thought nothing of it, but now I DO.

I have all that is left of the NELLIE POWELL right in my basement.... some large segments of it....spruce, and some of the nails are square and of copper. Mr. Stone and that bunch who spent a little time with us lately almost had a fit over it. There is no question in MY mind but what it is the NELLIE POWELL all right, but I cannot prove it in the least. 

Tillotson sent Chief Naturalist Eddie McKee to Lee's Ferry to retrieve a large fragment of the Nellie Powell that Weaver offered. Here they are on the very spot Weaver found the boat.:

My friend Lora and I spent the day at the South Rim on Tuesday and paid a visit to the Nellie fragment that remains up there--about five feet by twenty inches. The planking appears to be softwood as Weaver suggests--spruce, fir, or pine; the ribs oak; the clench-nails square, round-headed copper.

At any rate, I'm on the trail, off to traditional boatbuilding school in May, Chicago for a bit of snooping in June... 

Obsession is a delightful thing.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Back in the river, where they belong

At long last the Betty Boop and the Julius got back into the water at Lee's Ferry--Betty after a quarter century in the desert sun and a mammoth rebuild over the winter, and Julius after a reconditioning and a new floor. Marieke Taney, Betty's new steward, celebrates:

And looks the part:

 We hired Colorado River Discovery, who operates tours from Glen Canyon Dam downriver to the Ferry, to haul us fifteen miles up to the dam. Of the five boats we up-hauled, Julius, with her broad stern, planed out the best:

We got to witness an unexplained release of the river outlet works:


And camp in some outrageous scenery:

And blather on:

And see amazing places:

And enjoy one another's company to the fullest:

Turns out those high turtle-decks on the Betty Boop make her float very high when inverted, and make her a cinch to roll back up with one person:

Julius's new floor held up fine. It was great to have the boat shining in the sun again after eight years of dormancy and mild abuse:

From the early 1970s through the early 1980s, the Betty Boop ran as Larry Testerman's Great Thumb, in the company of Gary Ladd's Tatahoto (now moving to the stewardship of Jim Hall) and Jim Deveny's Nonnezhoshe (for the last decade running as the Surprise Canyon with RJ Johnson and Terri Merz). Here the three are running together again for the first time since 1983. Gary came to the put-in to see the fleet off. I would like to believe the boats were as touched to be together again as we were to be a part of it all.

Betty Boop is on the San Juan as I write, and Julius is gearing up for her fourth Grand Canyon run next week. Boats weren't built to sit in the barn, eh?

(Thanks to Terri Merz for photos 2,4, 5, and 13.)