Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Song of the Chattahoochee

Here is a glimpse of the mountain of ground up wood that is piling up in my old dory Cataract. She's long overdue for some deep love, and she's getting a heap of it. That last time I did any serious work on her was in the '90s sometime, when she got a new floor and red paint. Before that it was a full rebuild in '89. So yeah, she's ready for some lovin.'


Maybe I should introduce you. Cataract is my old gal from way back. She was born in 1972, part of the first fleet of dories Jerry Briggs built for Martin Litton. Briggs had designed and built a prototype, the Emerald Mile the year before and she was so popular with the boatmen that Martin ordered about half a dozen more. Mine was in that first batch, and was named the Chattahoochee after the much polluted Georgia River (now much restored). Here are two Gary Ladd shots of her at Martin's old warehouse in Kanab in the year of her creation. That's Carol Starling sitting on her deck, one of our long-time, lovely cooks. Note the careful storage system.


On this deck shot you can see the bow hatch has already been dislodged from the hull on the left side--signs she saw some hard living in '72.


Kenton Grua ran her, for the most part, in her early days. Here's a John Blaustein photograph of Kenton in the Chattahoochee running the old Crystal Rapid in the early '70s.


Here is a Greg Crampton shot of Ellen Tibbetts filling out the cook's shopping lists in the Chattahoochee at 110-Mile, while the boatmen are off getting utterly wasted in the back room. Crystal day, you know.


A little later the Emerald Mile was busted to smithereens in Lava Falls. They rowed out the wreckage and Kenton rebuilt her stick by stick and adopted her as his new boat. Abandoned, the Chattahoochee started sleeping around. When I showed up for my first trip in the fall of 1978, I was offered one of two boats: the giant aluminum Nechako River, which was ready to row, or the busted up old Chattahoochee, which was missing a good deal of gunwale. She looked like she'd been shooting smack for a while. I chose the wood boat, of course. We could fix her up, huh? We had two days... Tuck, the manager, helped me and we cobbled her back to rowability. 

Funny looking back on it now--Chattahoochee was only six years old and she was a beat up old wreck. But you have to consider life expectancies back then: Rudi asked Martin, when they got that first new Briggs boat, how long he thought they'd last. He said he hoped to get at least five or six trips out of her. Who knew we would refuse to let them die?

So here I am on that first trip, attempting the old nutso high inside right kamikaze run at Crystal. We always ran it empty. Somehow I made it. Somehow my shoulder did not dislocate in this shot.


I got her through the whole trip without destroying her and went right back out on another trip. I was starting to feel pretty good about rowing these goofy wooden things.


Oops. Flipped in the Slot at Lava. That tempered my cockiness for a while.


I ran her again in 1979. Martin, who let each of us take responsibility for one boat, got a lot of free work out of us between trips. But they were our babies, and what the hell else are you going to do on those long, hot nights in Hurricane? I dolled her up pretty good.


But paint doesn't make rot any stronger and at one camp the floor fell off and she sank. We duct-taped her back together and finished that trip. Then the trailer rollers went through the floor. So she went into dry-dock for a while and got a new floor. We ran together in 1980.



Here we are sleeping together at Scorpion Island on Lake Mead. 


But when I showed up for my first trip in 1981, Chattahoochee was gone. I think I actually shed tears. She'd been sold off to Marv Jensen. They never even asked me.

I was given a brand new Briggs. I varnished her interior, painted her white, and Martin named her the Skagit. I finally got over the old Chattahoochee and fell in love with my new girl. We ran together every trip until Martin sold the company. We flew together. We soared. She was one hell of a wild young pony. We went through the high-water of the mid-'80s together.


But so many great things come to an end. We got off a trip in fall of 1987 and found out that Martin had sold the company to O.A.R.S. and Outdoors Unlimited, to be parceled up and dragged off to Flagstaff. We kinda walked around dumbfounded for a while. It's over? Really? I was wandering out in the back lot, called the Ghetto, and noticed an old beat-up dory had appeared there. It looked familiar. It had no name. I stared at her for a while, then jumped on board and opened her right side hatch. There was a poem on the lid, the Song of the Chattahoochee, that I had taped inside there nine years earlier. Marv had given her back to the company and moved to Alaska. I was dumbfounded. What do you say to your old love? "I'm sorry... I didn't know you were still alive... I've, um, been sleeping with another boat... For seven years...Yeah, we're kind of an item..."

After I went home at the end of that season, I heard that Martin was giving a few boats to some of his long-time guides. I called him.
"Um you know that old boat that Marv Jensen had? That rotten one out in the Ghetto? The old Chattahoochee? I was wondering if you would consider selling it to me."
"That boat? That old wreck? You want to buy that boat?"
"Um, yeah. I used to row her, and I think I could fix her back up."
"Well, I'd love to sell you that boat, Brad, but I can't."
My heart sank. I figured he must have included it in the sale. But then he continued.
"I'd love to sell it to you, but I can't sell a man his own boat."
[Silence.]
"Get it out of the yard, and take that trailer with it."
[Gushing of thanks, followed by a high-speed drive to Hurricane.]

I brought her home to Flagstaff and started cleaning her up, repainting her, etc. But man, the years had not treated her kindly. I was going to have to do something. But the 1988 season rolled around and off I went, rowing my tired old wreck.

They say it's bad luck to change the name of a boat, but I really had no choice. Not wanting to waste a perfectly good name, Martin had re-assigned the Chat's name to a new AlumiWeld boat. (I took her out one cold trip. Here I am with a fire going on deck. We kept the flame going from Parashant to 220 camp.) Notice too, that the final E is missing from her name. Rhymes with pooch.


Anyhow, my old Briggs boat had lost her name in the sale, so I had to come up with a new name. The first place I ever rowed was Cataract Canyon back in 1973. Lake Powell was still filling, flooding out ever more of Cataract Canyon. I figured that fit Martin's bill for naming dories after things of beauty destroyed by mankind. Besides, my dad had cataracts. And Cataract was the name of Clyde Eddy's bear--the only bear ever to run Grand Canyon.

Cataract was feeling a bit sluggish that year--heavy and wallowy and a bit rotten. So for the last trip of the year I asked to take a company AlumiWeld. But there weren't any. I had to take Cataract. And, well, we got down to Upset, and we decided, on account of really low water, to run right. And I didn't make it. Didn't even come close. And I went into the big old hole dead sideways pulling my guts out to no avail. We flipped so fast my neck still hurts thinking about it. Long story here, but a couple of us got up on the bottom and were about to right her when we saw the big rock coming. Not wanting to dump my clients between a rock and a hard boat, I let her hit. And she exploded, tearing the front third of the boat into a million jig-saw puzzle pieces. Maybe old Cataract figured that I was never going to get around to cutting out all that old rot, so she just got rid of it herself. Pretty much every bit of rot in that boat was removed in under two seconds.

Here are a couple Dave Edwards shots of me trying to put Humpty together again.


Between the splintered pieces, some driftwood, a pound or so of drywall screws, and a lot of duct tape, I got her running by the next day. We dropped the right side of Lava with her and she held up fine. But when I got home, I couldn't bear to look at the poor thing, so I covered her with a tarp and she disappeared in the snowbank until spring.

But I had a private trip that coming summer. With my mom. So I set about rebuilding her. Tore out any remaining rot, scarfed in new side-panels in the front. Rebuilt some of the decking. Fiberglassed her exterior and decks. And laminated on some new gunwales. Somehow she ended up with a taller bow after the rebuild, but that was okay--she ran a bit drier. I got her done with several minutes to spare. I painted her white, like my old Skagit (who was now getting a new look as the new owners, free from Martin's three-color menu, went wild with colored paint. And she was sleeping with a lot of different guys, some of whom did not treat her well. It was disturbing.)

Yeah, so my new white Cataract ran like a dream. It was kind of like the old days again. Except that the new days went on a lot longer.



Martin Litton came out to do a San Juan trip and needed a boat. What could I say? He had given Cataract to me. He had given me ten years of the best, most exciting, lowest-paid job I'll ever have. I sent him off to the San Juan with my boat and my blessings. Damned guy put fourteen holes in the floor. No problem--here, have another gin and tonic.


Somewhere in the late nineties the old floor began to get a little too funky. I tore it off and replaced it with a foam floor. Seemed like a good idea at the time but I am not sure I would do that again. And I got tired of the all-white boat. A few other boats had adopted white, so I went red. I chose an old favorite paint job that Bego had used on the Tenaya. Here is a nice Lynn Myers shot of her in Lava a while back. At first I was so used to Cataract being white that she looked to me like a white boat with a bunch on red on it.


Here is a Tom Tavee shot of her on her first trip with AzRA--a storytelling trip. She makes a nice prop. The funny part of this particular story is that this was the first dory on an AzRA trip in many, many years, because only now had enough institutional memory passed on at AzRA since their last utterly disastrous dory experiment in the early '80s.



She's been an absolutely wonderful boat for decades now. She's been all over the West--Rogue, Salmon, Snake, Green River, upper Colorado, Yampa, San Juan. AzRA lets me run her through Grand Canyon once or twice a year. She's not afraid of the occasional motor.


She doesn't mind hanging out in my loft with my other girlfriends.


Chicks dig her.


Okay, so where was I? Right: so I am finally fixing up the old Cataract. Sweet new ash gunwales. I tried Rob's chop saw scarf jig and like it. Way easier than my last set-up. And we steamed the gunwales right onto the boat before we even took the old ones off. They have a nice bend and maybe won't explode when we put them on. And a nice oil finish.





Heavy sanding, patching wee dings, and a full coat of Kirby paint. Love that stuff.




And always more little bronze stars to polish.


A spare oar slot after forty-two years of wanting, but not having, one.


My new skookum bronze stern-eye from boat school.


And a new transom petroglyph: Gin and Tonic Man. 


We discovered the original Gin and Tonic Man in a remote side-canyon off the Green in Desolation Canyon a few years back. He seemed to speak to me.



6 comments:

  1. Sweet. Very Sweet. Looking forward to seeing heron the water

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  2. Brad, I loved this. The brief history, with detail. Awesome. Can't wait for the next face of this (now) storied boat.

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  3. Wonderful as usual. Will we be seeing you at the McKenzie fest this year?

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  4. I'm afraid the McKenzie festival is, as always, in the middle of my high river season. I'm a working girl. Maybe someday that window will open.

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  5. I really enjoyed the history of your boat and the way you told it. Especially the Martin Litton commets....that got me really laughing! She looks beautiful, great job.

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  6. Thanks for a lovely recounting of a passionate affair :)
    -Julia Grua Chennault

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