Posted on June 2, 2017
In the past few years my boat, the “Obsession” has traveled a thousand rocky river miles in all kinds of weather, dodged a million rocks (and hit more than a few) while running rivers in Yellowstone, Tetons, Olympic, Rocky Mountain, Rainier and a dozen other National Parks.
It has run “backwards” through a tricky rapid on the Rogue River called Black Bar, been spun around at the top of Martens Rapid on the McKenzie River in a precarious side-ways run through the rapid, and it’s slammed into a canyon wall so hard it split a rib, shattered an oarlock, and put my boat out of commission for a month (Mule Creek Canyon).
It’s given me more pleasure and pride than just about anything I have done in my life and taken me to wild and scenic places I never dreamed existed. It connects me to the river with a bond that comes from having built it, rowed it, wrecked it, and repaired it – with my own two hands. The boat runs deep.
It’s given the guests in my boat experiences they will remember for the rest of their lives.
It’s a handcrafted drift boat made of wood and every mark on it represents a story of adventure and a brush with disaster. This boat has spent a lot of time at the intersection of Chaos and Calm where worlds collide on the rivers out west. The test of nerve and skill in a boat made of wood is a challenge I’m as passionate about now as the day I rolled my “Obsession” down the boat ramp for the very first time over ten seasons ago.
River Rocks and granite walls are unforgiving and unfortunately, my boat pays the price and takes the beating. Things happen. Those “confrontations, cause stress fractures, hairline cracks and sometimes even holes in the boat that need to be repaired. The sides need to be varnished every year and the everyday scrapes and dings and dents need to be sanded and “fixed” on a regular basis. This winter, I decided I would treat my boat to a full service “make-over”. I declared this “off-season” – the season of “repair”. As part of the wooden boat tune-up I removed every piece of wood that was removable, stripped it down to a shell and then restored, rebuilt, and refinished every single piece. You might say I got a little obsessive……
Here’s what I did:
First, I took the boat off the trailer and turned it upside down. I removed about 70 stainless steel screws and removed the quarter inch UHMW plastic shoe from the bottom of the boat so I could repair a few cracks, checks, and “push-ups” in the wood bottom. I was relieved that there were no serious holes or dead spots.
Drilled out and plugged every screw hole in the bottom of the boat (every screw represents a point of entry for water and “eventually” the water will find a way to seep in and rot out the wood around the screw). After lots and lots of sanding, I resealed the wood bottom with two coats of West System epoxy until the bottom was as smooth as glass. Once the bottom was sealed I reattached the plastic shoe by drilling fresh holes and using new stainless steel wood screws bedded with marine calk.
Then I flipped the boat back over and went to work on the interior of the boat. First I needed to repair and reinforce hairline cracks in three Alaskan Yellow Cedar boat frames #1, #2 and #9. As part of that process, I removed the oak dashboard with the mahogany knee braces and stripped and refinished every inch of it. I also removed the mahogany fly deck in the front of the boat and stripped and refinished it.On the inside bottom of the boat, I stripped the weathered faded Durabek floor liner, repaired all the inside push-ups by sanding down the “checking” and repaired it with West System Epoxy. When it was smooth as glass, I reapplied a fresh coat of Durabek floor covering (similar to truck bed lining – applied with a roller and paint brush).I repaired and refinished the “fun stuff” – the cup holders and passengers bench-seat, the mahogany rod holder and the fly boxes on the rowers thwart. I reworked the oar lock pins and rebuilt the mahogany drawers on the rowers bench… and then…….I did something I’ve wanted to do for several years…. I redesigned the rowers seat and raised it up two inches by adding a solid piece of mahogany to the braces on each side. The result is an elevated platform with a better view of the river over the heads of my passengers in front.To make the rowers seat “pop”, I restrung the rope seat with new black rope.The yellow cedar floorboards in the front and the back needed work – so I sanded them down and refinished them. I also added a floor lock to the floorboards in back to keep them from flopping around (wanted to do that for years, too).The “Bar in my Boat” gets a lot of use. I designed it and built it to give my feet something solid to push off of and give me greater leverage and power when I really need to move the boat. While I loved the patina and tarnish of the brass bar, I polished it and refinished the support braces.I repaired and refinished the mahogany front stem on the boat which was looking a little beat up as the first line of defense when my boat hits high rocks or canyon walls. I built it as a replaceable piece so when it becomes too busted up, I can build a new one and replace it.
The last thing I did was lightly sand the entire boat and then applied three coats of Z Spar Flagship Varnish – inside and out.It took almost 100 hours of attention, one gallon of West System epoxy (207) one tube of Six10 epoxy, one gallon of Pettit Z Spar Flagship Varnish, two quarts of Durabek for the floor, forty feet of rope, 75 discs of sandpaper (220 grit), 120 new stainless steel one inch wood screws, seven paper oxygen masks, a ton of patience, and a little obsession.
There is a busy season of boating ahead and a number of National Parks on the agenda including: the Buffalo National River, Teddy Roosevelt National Park, Glacier National Park, and the Wild and Scenic Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. Many of the scars on the boat are still visible and most of them have a story that I can remember. Every single one of the marks and dents are evidence of heroic runs, colossal blunders, lucky breaks, bad timing, and close calls in a boat that has visited some of the most beautiful and treacherous rivers in North America. They are marks of character and I’m kinda proud of each one.
More details on my boat “makeover” will be listed in an upcoming article I wrote for Epoxyworks from West System.
Posted on March 28, 2017
Six hundred pounds of Oregon Elk thundered up the small freestone creek in a desperate dash for life as a pack of gray wolves gave chase. Two or three wolves were closing in on her flanks in the shallow stream as the rest of the pack ran just behind them on the high banks of the small tributary. In a final powerful move to avoid the wolves at her heels, she wheeled left and attempted to jump up the six foot bank from the bottom of the creek bed. Her fate was sealed when her front legs sunk to her shoulders in four feet of deep snow. The trailing wolves, running lightly on a thin layer of crust, caught her quickly and ended the struggle for life at the top of the bank in a flurry of fangs and flesh.
Less than twenty four hours later we approached the scene on our snowcats not half a mile from our destination by the river in the heart of the Wallowa Mountains in the Eagle Cap Wilderness in the Northeast corner of Oregon.
Snow prints told the story.
It was a solemn moment in the middle of a remote area that had taken us several hours and a variety of vehicles to reach. Our destination was a cabin by the river, owned by my friend and river running brother, Jim Whitney who led our overland caravan of three through a maze of trails, locked gates, logging roads, switchbacks and abandoned railroad tracks in some of the most breathtaking country in Oregon. Steve Corey was with us – a good fisherman, great outdoorsman, and fantastic cook.
We reached the little cabin, started a fire, unloaded gear, and propped our wet boots by the stove to dry out. Steve’s Danner Boots were the same model as mine, with 50 more years of stories to tell. I slipped on my waders, grabbed my fly rod and headed upriver to pursue steelhead on the fly just as it started to snow.
A mile upriver, I started fishing for steelhead in the familiar two-step of a determined fly fisherman committed to the old school style of swinging flies with a single handed rod working the pools, tail-outs, slicks and likely looking pockets where those elusive fish might be holding. Four fishless hours later and I was ready for the warmth of the cabin and whatever food Jim and Steve were cooking.
I thought he was kidding when I walked through the door and Steve asked how many lobster tails I wanted for dinner, two or three? When I said four I thought I was calling his bluff but he said “alright but that won’t leave you with any for tomorrow night”….. WHAT?? Seriously?? They added roasted asparagus, caesar salad, toasted french bread, melted butter for the lobster and a bottle of wine too expensive for my palate to appreciate and I started thinking – my usual posse of river rats on the western side of the state need to step up their game !!
Clearly this was going to be a steelhead trip to remember… but the Pendleton Whiskey after dinner would challenge us to recall the details. The next morning was clear and crisp. I slipped on my waders, slipped out the cabin door and hiked to the pools upstream.
We fished hard all day – upstream, downstream, swinging, nymphing, plunking….. we tried it all with the same result. A fishless day – not at all uncommon or unfamiliar to steelhead fishermen…. and so, we headed to the cabin for ribs and lobster. Jim had been smoking ribs all afternoon on the grill (of course there’s a grill a million miles from nowhere). If nothing else, this trip would add a few pounds for us all to work off at a later date.
After another elegant dinner I grabbed my Therm-a-Rest cot, my sleeping bag, and my Pendleton blanket and headed for the river to do some open air winter sleeping down by the river. I explained it as a field test for winter gear – but I really wanted a closer connection to the river, the valley and the Nez Perce tribe of Native Americans that called this place “home” more than two hundred and fifty years before us. I looked up at the stars in the night sky and thought of them in this place.
My breath was heavy and my nose was cold but the familiar sound of running water over rocks and the rawness of the night was something I’ll never forget. The image of the slaughtered Elk was something else I’ll never forget and a few times during the night imagined I was being surrounded by the Minam pack of wolves that patrols this valley and did my best to snore loudly hoping to be mistaken for a hibernating bear. When I woke to the first light of dawn, I was pretty glad I hadn’t been eaten by wolves and figured either they thought I was a sleeping bear, a mad dog, or a middle aged fly fisherman that wouldn’t taste very good…. or maybe the wolf pack was only in my dreams. I hiked up to the cabin and made coffee.
Things were different from the very beginning of the third day. Jim positioned himself on a stretch of river he knew well and threw his egg pattern upriver in just the right spot so it would slide over and around rocks and boulders that had produced a boat load of steelhead in the past. He had several “bumps” before the solid hit that bent his rod over in that familiar powerful arc.
It was a native fish – wild and strong and after a classic fight Jim carefully released it back to the cold water.
Meanwhile, back upriver I was continuing my own quest for steelhead in some of the “fishiest” looking steelhead stretches I had ever seen. Perfect clarity, pace, and personality for those fish…. I was sure the steelhead were there but wasn’t convinced they would take the fly I was offering. So I switched flies… often. For over two hours I threw cast after cast with a variation of flies when suddenly, “WHAM” I had a solid hit from a solid fish which stopped me cold in my tracks and took my breath. The rod bent and the reel started to scream and then… just as suddenly, it didn’t. Everything quit. Silence. arrrrrg. It was almost as startling as the initial hit. It’s a helpless and defeated feeling. After the replay of events in my head, I gathered myself and went back to casting.
The sun came out briefly and I watched my shadow on the water making cast after cast and then it was time to pack up and leave the valley.
We made our way back up the steep narrow trail and near the top we stopped for one final look down at the river snaking it’s way between the mountains of the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
In 1877, over 800 members of the Nez Perce tribe and their 2,000 horses fled the valley and headed Northeast in a desperate attempt to elude the pursuers hot on their trail. They were searching for a new home and chased by the U.S. army for over 1,000 miles and three months across Idaho and parts of Montana before a final bloody battle less than 40 miles from the safety of Canada. It was the battle in the foothills of the Bear’s Paw Mountains where the Nez Perce were finally forced to surrender and Chief Joseph is said to have pronounced to the remaining Chiefs and the U.S. Army “Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
As I looked over the raw beauty of the Wallowa valley with the steep dark green Mountains on all sides dusted with a fine layer of white snow tumbling into the river below, his words took on a depth that made me ache for his people and the way of life they gave up. I was moved by the Wallowas.
Posted on October 17, 2016
In the Badlands National Park, there is a Wilderness Area where bison, coyotes, prairie dogs, and snakes make their homes. You can be a guest there and share this space with them – at least for a night or two.
It’s the primitive camping area at Sage Creek in the North Unit of the park and if you take the rutted dusty “rim road” on the north side of the Badlands park you will find it – tucked between the gentle bluffs and rolling hills of buffalo grass in South Dakota – just southeast of Rapid City and the Black Hills.
As I pulled into the area, it was a warm day for October and the only signs of life were a couple of bison calmly grazing who didn’t even look up as I rolled by in my FJ Cruiser pulling my little wooden boat. A ring-necked rooster pheasant was quite a bit more shy but still curious about the sound of loose gravel crunching beneath the tires. My window was down and I took a quick photo just before he put his head down and disappeared in the tall grass.
While there are no rivers to “float” in the Badlands, I was towing my boat through the park on my way to the midwest for a little off-season repair work. I’m so used to camping next to the boat on the river, it somehow seemed to “fit” in this rustic setting. If nothing else, I figured it would be a nice wind break for my campsite. I picked a level spot for the tent that was in-between buffalo “pies” that were stale and crusty and no longer smelled. The canvas tent blended with the terrain and when camp was “set”, I pulled out my lap-top and did some late afternoon writing as the sun set and the temperatures started dropping.
Such a sharp contrast – using an apple computer in such a rustic setting – but it was actually a peaceful place to write – regardless of the instrument. The afternoon temperatures continued to drop and when the sun set behind the hills I put on my fleece jacket, moved my Therm-a-rest cot, bedroll, and camp chair inside the tent and continued to write. Temperatures dropped to the low 30’s and the clear cloudless sky revealed stars so bright I didn’t need a flashlight. One of the most vivid memories from that overnight stay in the hills was the haunting howls of the coyotes who were prowling in and around camp all night long. Their high pitched yelps and long lonely wails made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and I hoped I would snore loud enough to have somewhat the same effect on them a few hours later.
As I drove through the Badlands and admired the unique rock formations it all looked so raw and primitive. The strong wind of the prairies has been sandblasting and shaping these formations for thousands of years – just like the strong current of the river shapes the rocks and the channels where I run my boat. As I drove through the rock maze I thought of one of my favorite quotes from Teddy Roosevelt when talking about the Grand Canyon… “Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.”
Clearly the “ages” had been at work here and the evidence was unique and beautiful.
When I finally hit blacktop it was a welcome change to the washboard dirt and gravel roads that had been rattling the frame of my Toyota and my teeth for the past couple of days. And while the smooth park roads were a nice change, suddenly I felt like a park tourist and the adventure lost a little of it’s “edge” for me. The winding roads of the park snaked their way through the formations and I was glad it was off-season so I could take my time admiring the terrain without seeing much of anyone else.
The fall colors of army green and pale yellow prairie grass stretched to the horizon on all sides as far as the eye could see and were a perfect match for the Badlands park flag and Pendleton blanket. Big dark brown Bison dotted the prairie with their heads down and plodded slowly along, grazing on the grass before the cold winds from Canada would bring snowfall to cover the prairie in just a few weeks.
As I left the park and drove over the dusty ruts I rode in on – I appreciated the solitude of the setting and the fact that it remained so “unchanged”. The Badlands are truly a work of art and will continue to be under construction as long as the wind blows over the prairie.
If you go there and primitive camping is not your thing… there is an “improved” campground at Cedar Pass with tent sites and RV sites – electricity, toilets, and water. The Cedar Pass Lodge is open seasonally and there are even new cabins that offer all the indoor comforts of home – with a view of the Badlands.
Posted on October 11, 2016
The forecast for our October trip on the wild and scenic section of the Rogue River this year was rain…. lots of it. We could see it coming a week away and there was no way to stop it.
It was quite a contrast to last year when we launched on a record low level of water and had a hard time getting our boats “lined” around the Class VI Rainie Falls. This year, on a higher water level, the lining channel was treacherous for other reasons…. higher water, slippery rocks, and runaway boats kept us on our toes.
A few days before our launch date, while other groups were making decisions about whether or not to go at all, we were making decisions about what gear to pack. Our most seasoned river rat, Scott Vollstedt (Commander “Fun-sucker”), has a saying that goes something like this….. “there is no such thing as bad weather – just bad gear and poor planning”. We packed our best water-proof gear and planned to get nailed by one of the biggest weather systems of the season.
With rain flys and triangle tarps we had a covered kitchen and enough room for a mini mess-hall where we huddled and ate, smoked cigars and sampled various Oregon whiskey’s around a propane fire before “lights out”. The weather was even more aggressive than expected and we estimated that out of 4 days and nights on the river, it rained 65% to 70% of the time. That’s A LOT of water in October… even for Oregon.
Our drift boats became rain gauges for the nightly deluge and each morning we bailed them out before loading them up with gear and fishing our way downriver.
As usual, we ate well. Each cook team did their best to “outdo” the other and featured such favorites as “Huli Huli” Hawaiian Chicken, Pasta and rice, fresh “Guacamole” and chips, and steelhead appetizers. The blue ribbon of “river cuisine”, however, went to the Sunday night crew who prepared an Oregon Jambalaya which included fresh crawfish from Lake Billy Chinook in central Oregon (peeled and prepared by Jeremy) and blackened salmon from the Umpqua River in southern Oregon (caught and prepared by Jayson).
With such rainy weather we pretty much had the river to ourselves….. or did we?? On the morning of the third day I left camp early to fish a slot just below the riffle at Missouri Bar where we had camped for the night. Just a couple hundred yards from our camp, a black bear was making his way upriver toward camp. I grabbed the camera and started shooting. The bear stood on a mossy rock with a commanding view of the river as well as my boat and I slowly rowed to the rock for a closer shot.
It felt like I was craning my neck up at him from directly below but, figuring the bear would not jump off the rock and into my boat, I was pretty safe – although still pretty close. It was a cool way to start the day. Actually, the day started with a close encounter with a deer when Rick Allen and I hiked the hill behind our camp up to the remnants of the Old Frye cabin and surprised this little deer on the trail.
That same day we rowed the difficult Class IV’s – Mule Creek Canyon and Blossom Bar. It’s been my experience that the higher water and rising river makes Mule Creek a little easier and Blossom a little harder. All our boats made it safely through the twists and turns of the canyon and when we rounded the corner for Blossom we discovered that 3 boats from previous trips were “down” in Blossom. One was sunk in the Picket Fence, one was lodged at the top of the Beaver Slide – presenting us with an additional rowing challenge, and a raft, complete with frame, was “shipwrecked” and washed up on shore at the bottom of the rapid.
So much destruction in one rapid made us cautious and careful but we all ran the gauntlet of boulders, eddies, and holes to reach the bottom “floating” – all boats upright… and had a quick shot of whiskey in Celebration Eddy before running Devils Staircase.
It’s a term of endearment and it “fit’s”. Scott is also the Commander of the kitchen, Captain feng shui of the campsite, and camp Sergeant-at-arms if we forget to wash our hands before coming into the kitchen or if we set up the dish washing station in anything but the “upriver to downriver” configuration. If the “Seinfeld Soup Nazi” was in charge of a river trip that would be Scott… and we love him for it. He’s also great on the oars and the camera.
Cot camping on such a rainy trip was challenging but Therm-a-Rest has a great rain-fly that kept me dry and Pendleton has a National Park Blanket that kept me warm so I was more than comfortable on this trip. If you ever have the chance to run the wild and scenic section of the Rogue – I would highly recommend it. If wilderness camping is not your thing – there are historic lodges along the way that are rustic and cozy.
Posted on September 27, 2016
As they walked the narrow path leading back to our campsite tucked away in the Willamette National Forest surrounded by old growth Doug Fir and towering Hemlock trees, they said it reminded them of a scene from Jurassic Park. Our rustic canvas teepee tents were drawn tight and the flaps were folded back to let the lite mountain breeze from the Cascade range blow through the opening and reveal a bright splash of color from the Pendleton wool blankets laid out on canvas cowboy bedrolls on Therm-a-rest cots inside. Just behind the camp a little stream of icy water provided just the right amount of white noise as it babbled away between the smooth river rocks and moss covered tree limbs. We were in the heart of Oregon between Eugene and Bend – Big Water country, known for steelhead, white water, and fly fishing. The Sansone men of St. Louis – Jim Sr, Jimmy, and Lan had come out west for a WoodenBoat adventure and wanted to test drive some rugged new apparel from their Normal line of clothing. While they are seasoned outdoorsmen, they had never experienced an Oregon river adventure and I was thrilled to be the one making the introductions.
One of the best parts of an Oregon adventure is fresh Salmon grilled on a cedar plank over a bed of coals. We brined the Chinook fillet’s in ice water with sea salt, lemon slices and herbs, brined the cedar plank in the icy brook behind camp and brought them both together on the grill.
Our proper campfire meal was followed by Pendleton Whiskey and cigars of course.
Deep sleep came easy and dawn came early to our camp in one of the largest National Forests in the country. After a big river-rat breakfast and hot coffee, we broke camp, loaded gear in the Toyota FJ40 and prepared for a day on the McKenzie River.
We were met at the boat ramp by my good friend and fellow guide George Recker who also runs a wood boat and is one of the best oarsmen and fishermen on the river… his specialty = the famous McKenzie redside rainbow trout which we would be pursuing that day. To get to these fish, we run whitewater in boats that are designed for this specific purpose on this particular river and are named for it. We run McKenzie style drift boats made of wood and their unique features allow us to move with speed and agility as we cut sharp lines with our Sawyer Oars around a variety of river obstacles to get to the fish.
We caught lots and lots of trout as we avoided rocks and boulders and cut an elegant path through Class II and III rapids on the McKenzie. The next day we pursued steelhead at sun-up on slower water draped in a heavy fog and the thrill of running white water rapids from the day before was replaced by the anticipation and possibility of hooking into this king of gamefish with flimsy rods and fancy flies.
With a reputation as “elusive” – Steelhead are hard to find, hard to catch and extremely difficult to land. We have found that ideal conditions for hooking up with a steelhead include cool water temperatures with an overcast sky and/or slight rain. By ten o’clock that morning our water temperature remained at a higher than normal 63 degrees and the bright sun had turned the fog into a beautiful clear blue sky. Degree of difficulty = EXTREMELY HIGH.
After a full morning of pursuit – throwing our best flies and making our most enticing presentations, we had nothing to show for it. No hits, no grabs, no bumps, no nothin… I gave a discouraging look at my watch as we approached one of the last best spots on the river and announced that we only had 5 minutes left of fishing time before we needed to wrap it up and get to the airport. Evidently one steelhead was listening and slammed young Jimmy’s fly sending our boat into a frenzy of activity. I dropped the anchor and stopped the boat as the steelhead charged the boat on his way upstream. The fly line went slack and everyone thought the big fish had gotten off…. everyone, that is, except Jimmy – who continued to reel as fast as he could and finally caught up to the large steelhead who sprang to life again and the fight was back on. Yikes. (9 out of 10 times, an upriver run like that will result in a lost fish – but not this time). The tug of war was classic and the fish took several epic downstream runs peeling line off the reel so fast he got deep into the backing at least three times. Finally, the fish was played out and came to the net in front of our whole river posse. It was a bigger than normal steelhead and demonstrated why these powerful fish are on almost every fly fishers “bucket list”.
It was a great ending to a river adventure that featured some of the best attributes of the great outdoors in the Pacific Northwest. And the BEST part is they “got it”….. all of it. Not just the fish and the fishing…… but the whole Oregon outdoor experience. Father and sons appreciated the little stuff as well as the big stuff and noticed things like the knobs on the FJ40, the little woodworking details on the boat, the extra touches in camp like the stacked firewood and the 1952 Coleman lantern, the wildlife on the river like the ducks and the geese, and the river otters and beavers and osprey and eagles. They noticed all the “stuff” that makes an adventure authentic and that we work so hard to show. It was as much fun for us as it was for them.
It was also special because we are all from the great state of Missouri – you know – the state “in the middle” – and while we don’t have steelhead back there – we DO have Cardinals, and Royals, and Tigers, Normal Gear, and the best barbecue in the country. As the Sansone’s headed back to the middle of the country and the “Show-me” state, they had a lot to talk about – and a lot to “show”. Another great thing they brought with them was a world class photographer named Garrett King. He took over 1,200 stunning photo’s and captured the little things and the big things to help tell about this Oregon adventure.
This trip was a highlight to my guiding season and will always be a fond memory. The things we could control went well and the things we couldn’t control seemed to fall into place like the stars were perfectly aligned. It was a great trip to be a part of.
Photo’s by the legendary Garrett King.
Posted on September 17, 2016
The marina at the edge of Puget Sound with the Olympic National Park in the horizon, is the center of activity in the quaint little harbor of Port Townsend, Washington. It positively buzzes with activity every year in September with wood boats arriving from all over the western half of North America… including mine. I participated in the 40th Annual WoodenBoat Festival as a presenter (WoodenBoats in National Parks), as a wood boat builder, and as an enthusiastic admirer of boats made of wood. I had my river boat the “Obsession” on display amidst all the other small boats and if there had been an award for “rattiest”, my boat would’ve taken a trophy.
With scars and scratches from a life filled with adventure, it was quite a contrast to most every small boat on display around me. Every one of them looked like they just rolled out of a boat shop with a fresh coat. In contrast, my boat looked like it just rolled off the boat ramp, with a fresh mark. It was on a river trip the week before the Festival and it would be backed down a river ramp and running rapids the week after the Festival. I actually thought about putting a fresh coat of varnish on it before the show but simply ran out of time. So for my boat, it was a “come-as-you-are” party and I explained to anyone who stopped for a closer look that it was a “working boat”. I even proudly pointed to split ribs and chine dents and told the stories that gave my boat character. I rationalized that most of the boats in this neighborhood would never actually touch water let alone shred a Class IV on a wild & scenic river. Back in Oregon, we’d call them “garage boats” with derision – but I admired them just the same. The workmanship was inspiring and I had the urge to build another boat.
The evenings brought options. Either the live music from the Bar Harbor stage under the big canvas tent or the haunting sounds of the chanty songs from the old wooden community room on the far side of the marina where people gathered to sing old timey songs of the sea. Originally intended to set a rhythm for the strenuous manual work required of sailors who worked the tall wooden-ships of the day, they were at times bawdy and brawling but mostly they were wistful and melancholy. The songs, led by anyone in the room who felt led to answer the call which was presented to each attendee as a “request, pass, or lead” option…. spoke mostly of lost love, lost lives, and longing for home. The authentic voices and sad lyrics I heard that night will linger in my head forever.
At night, camping on Puget Sound, the air was filled with the sounds of the bells from the buoys, fog horns in the distance, and the gently crashing waves of the incoming tide . When the weather allowed, I left the tent and slept on the sandy beach in a bedroll and a Pendleton blanket on a Therm-a-rest inflatable pad and cot. Magical way to sleep with the stars overhead and the quarter moon rising.
I was field testing a new bedroll by my friend David Ellis called the Rocky Mountain “Swag-Bag” which provides a protective shell of the all-weather canvas bedroll and gives options for the padding and the bag that goes inside. For me it’s PERFECT. The pad I prefer is the neo-air by Therm-A-Rest and depending on the weather, I can slip my choice of sleeping bags inside the shell or when the temperature is right, just use my favorite Pendleton blanket.
Each morning, the dew was as thick as rain and the beads of moisture rolled off my bedroll each morning. I was cozy and dry even when the night-time temps dropped into the 40’s and if someone had a mute button for the sea-gulls I would’ve slept til noon. Oh – and there were a couple of presentations to give too – one on Saturday and one on Sunday talking about WoodenBoats in the National Parks
It was a great WoodenBoat Weekend in Port Townsend – already looking forward to next year!!
Posted on August 27, 2016
Cataract Canyon is a section of the Colorado River that has been on my bucket list for several years. It’s tucked away in the south east corner of Utah and it flows right through Canyonlands National Park. I went down there for a river run with my friends at Popticals right after the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City. It was just a week before the 100th Anniversary of the National Parks which made the trip even more special.
Our plan was to launch near Moab, Utah at the boat ramp at Potash. On the drive down from Salt Lake, we entered a world filled with red dirt, towering rock hoodoo’s and mesa’s that stretched for miles and miles. Such a stark contrast to the tall trees of the Pacific Northwest where most of my adventures occur. I felt out of place as we drove the bright green Popticals Jeep through the earth tones of the desert but got a number of enthusiastic waves from four wheel drive fans along the way.
Or maybe the waves were from admirers of the “rock star” graphic artist Ted Wright who drove the jeep and let me hang out with him at O.R. while he signed the National Park posters he created featuring the Poptical sunglasses. Ted was our trip photographer / graphic artist for the week and took hundreds and hundreds of photo’s.
On this stretch of the Colorado the water moves slowly and the scenery is breathtaking with sheer rock walls that are rooted in the river and reach straight up to the sky.
All of us were anticipating the faster water of Cataract Canyon… and steaks on the grill for dinner.
On a couple of side hikes, we got to explore ancient Puebloan granaries built about 1,000 years ago to protect and store grain from the flood plain far below.
There are petroglyphs in the Canyonlands that are estimated to be at least 800 years old and I was fascinated by the rock art and the history surrounding them.
When we reached the confluence of the Green River, things got even more interesting. “The junction”, as river runners call it, is the largest confluence of two rivers in the southwestern United States and it signals the start of Cataract Canyon – named by the Powell Expedition of 1869 because of it’s high degree of difficulty. The canyon walls quickly got steeper and the shadows grew longer as we faced rapid after rapid – each one more difficult than the last.
The premier rapid in Cataract is the third drop in the Class IV called Satan’s Gut. Around the campfire the night before, I learned that earlier in the spring on high water a couple of wood boats ran into big trouble. One got stranded on a rock and one got smashed in the technical and challenging rapid. We scouted before we ran it & I kept seeing and pointing to rocks that weren’t there (I missed every one of those).
After getting comfortable with the “line” we crawled over the rocks and made our way back upstream to our boats that were tied to shore.
The set-up was the key and with a blind drop it was hard to see the line until we were right on top of it. I watched a fully loaded rubber raft go over the drop and through the rapid which gave me a great “visual” of what I wanted to do in my little woodenboat.
A quick bow swing just after the first drop was required to send my boat sliding right to left to start the rapid. The set-up was perfect and the Portola slid right between two rocks into a narrow opening that was just a little wider than the boat. My buddy Kevin Miquelon shot some video of the Portola slicing through the chute.
The wave train between the rocks took us for a fast ride and then, twenty seconds later….it was over. Time to start planning for the “next” rapid.
At night, the stars were so bright they lit up the sky like someone left the light on. Sleep came easy in the tents and on the sand.
The Portola at first light in the canyon…. a great way to experience this national park.
If you haven’t been to Cataract Canyon on the Colorado, I highly recommend it. If you need a guide – contact the folks at NavTec in Moab – those guys are great.
Posted on June 16, 2016
As an outfitter and fly fishing guide in the state of Oregon, I’ve rowed a lot of “personalities” in my handcrafted wooden drift boat. I’ve hosted experienced anglers, beginners, athletes, celebrities, actors, artists, great casters, bad casters, quiet guests, loud guests, and guests that made me laugh so hard I cried. We fly fish for steelhead and we run some wild rapids in my boat made of wood and I’m pretty sure I’ve had more fun than my guests.
Of all the trips I host, I look forward to father-son outings the most. Perhaps it’s because it reminds me of the river adventures I’ve shared with my son over the years on these same rivers… or maybe it’s because I never got to share trips like these with my own father because cancer took him before he turned 40. Both of those are a part of it but what I enjoy most about Father-Son outings is the way they root for each other, talk to each other, and joke with each other as if they are sitting at a family dinner table.
From my rower’s seat just a few feet behind them, I’m privy to lots of those conversations and I can tell you – the dynamic between fathers and sons is special in my boat. Brothers tend to compete (first fish, biggest fish, smallest fish, most fish), married couples tend to bicker (just a little bit), friends tend to horse around and give each other a hard time… all of those are fun but father-son trips are just… special.
The most unique father/son trip I ever hosted was actually on Father’s Day several years ago. A father booked me for a trip with his 19 year old son and wanted me to teach his son the art of casting a fly rod and… “make him fall in love with fly fishing” he said, “so we can do that together as an activity” (his son was coming out of some rebellious “teen” years and… need I say more). There was a catch even before the trip… the father wanted to row his own boat and send the son with me. “How odd”, I thought. When I asked him why in the world he wanted to take his own boat I will never forget his answer… “if I am in your boat, I will interfere with your instruction, I will over-help, over-instruct, over-complicate the teaching and my son and I will end up in a big fight and he will hate fly fishing. I want you to teach my son without my interference and the only way that can happen is if I remove myself from your boat. I will row my own boat and take pictures of you guys from across the river of my son casting, of my son learning, of my son catching a fish on the fly – we will both have a better trip and hopefully a life-long sport that we can share together.”
How could I say no to that?? Well – my insurance agent told me how and why I should say no to that… but I drew up a plan anyway and off we went. It was one of the most memorable days of “guiding” I’ve ever had. The day was unique and special – the son was a quick study and he was casting great by noon. Not only did he catch several fish on the fly, the father took lots and lots of amazing photo’s and we shared a traditional Father’s Day grilled burger on a shoreline lunch. What I’ll remember most fondly about that trip was the insight and sensitivity the father had in his relationship with his son and the fact that he could set aside his desire to instruct his son about casting a fly rod and give him the space he needed to “learn” with someone else. There was so much depth to that day it left a profound impression on me as a father and a son… and actually, as a guide.
From my seat in the middle, I know the power of moving water as it shapes the course of a river, smooths the rough edges of rocks, and sweeps a boat along between steep canyon walls and peaceful green valley’s. I also see it have the same powerful effect on the people in my boat. I’ve seen it heal broken relationships and I’ve watched it strengthen the bond between fathers and sons in ways that are so moving I know they will remember the trip for the rest of their lives. It’s a privilege to row my boat for fathers and sons.
Happy Father’s Day.
If you are still shopping for a gift for your Father, Grandfather, or Son…… please consider supporting one of my excellent sponsors – they make great products that I enjoy showing off in our pictures and videos…. Pendleton Wool, Patagonia, Therm-a-Rest, Ellis Canvas Tents, Kokatat, Popticals, Mountain Khakis, Sawyer Oars, West System Epoxy, Phantom Fire Pans & Teathers, Watershed DryBags, Abel Reels, NormalBrand, LeibowitzMenswear
Some Fathers & Sons in my boat…..
Posted on June 8, 2016
Rocky Mountain National Park was established in 1915 and is one of the most visited parks in the entire National Park system. It’s located in north central Colorado and has so many incredible natural features it can take days to experience them all.
It was the first National Park I ever visited and when I was 10 years old Smokey the Bear seemed real, the Park Rangers in their pressed wool uniforms and flat brimmed hats were super heroes, and the park itself was an outdoor paradise just waiting for me to explore each year on family trips.
With all the beautiful waterfalls, hiking trails, snowy peaks, and colorful meadows of the Rocky Mountain National Park, the feature I most wanted to see on my recent trip was the headwaters of the Colorado River. The last time I saw this river, I was a thousand miles downstream and fighting for my life as I struggled to break free from the current and reach the surface from deep under the cold water. Since that experience in the Grand Canyon, I’ve had a strong desire to see the source of the river that was powerful enough to flip my boat like a toy and humble me as an oarsman and a person…
“Where’s my boat”… I asked Doug, as I gasped for air and coughed up river water in an eddy on the Colorado in the heart of the Grand Canyon. With a soulful look, my teammate, who had just fished me out of the river and onto the deck of his blue raft, pointed back up river to the keeper hole I had just escaped. I could see it there – or flashes of it – an empty boat violently spinning over and over and over as the powerful current pounded away at it. In river-speak it’s called the “spin cycle” and it happens when a powerful current pours over a house-sized boulder in the middle of the river with such force that it creates an “upstream” wave that crashes back on itself. The result is an endless cycle of waves that beat each other up and if you get sucked into the middle of that fight – there is only one way out….. the bottom of the hole – and everyone knows – THAT’S the scariest place on the river. It’s a trap that’s easy to get drawn into and nearly impossible to get out of in one piece. I got flushed through the bottom almost immediately. My boat, however, was not so lucky and remained “stuck” in the trap – spinning helplessly in the hole. Unless the current pounded it through the exit point at the very bottom of the hole it would continue to take a beating until it was reduced to pieces that were small enough to exit on their own. I spent hundreds of hours building and sanding and painting the Portola and when I visualized the broken remains that might come floating by as I watched from the eddy it made me sick.
That was two years ago and it was the last time my wood boat, the Portola, navigated that river. Or any river for that matter..
In Rocky Mountain National Park, the 1,400 mile Colorado River comes to life as a babbling little brook several hundred miles upriver from the Grand Canyon. A few weeks ago I trailered my fully restored and freshly repainted Portola across the plains of Kansas toward the headwaters of the Colorado River. I had a lot of miles to think about that experience.
Since it was before Memorial Day, the park area seemed to be just waking up from winter. A few of the campgrounds were opening and most were unoccupied, new park rangers were still training for the upcoming season, and patches of snow were as numerous as the visitors were sparse. Night temperatures were below freezing above 8,000 feet and the river water was ice cold. As we rounded the corner high above the valley of the Upper Colorado where we would start our river journey the following day – the view far below was stunning.
The river snaked its’ way in lazy “s” curves through a valley that seemed to have 1,000 shades of green and then it rounded the corner and disappeared into a deep, dark canyon in the distance. We set up camp on that scenic stretch of the Upper Colorado River just outside Rocky Mountain National Park with towering bluffs on one side and dramatic peaks on the other. The flat valley beside the river had a rough-hewn log fence that ran the length of the river and when we set up our cots and canvas tents, it looked a little bit like a civil war encampment.
Directly across the river was a dead tree that served as a fishing platform for a mature bald eagle that entertained us daily with his aerial exploits and fishing prowess. Recent warm spring temperatures had accelerated the snow melt from the mountain peaks so the river was running higher and faster than normal. Just as we arrived however, the temperature dropped for the week and we woke up each morning to a heavy layer of ice and dew. By mid morning the sun dried the David Ellis Canvas Tents and Pendleton blankets that we hung out on the fence.
On our first morning, after a full breakfast of eggs, home fries, bacon and cowboy coffee, we jumped in our boats and pushed off to run a ten mile section of the Colorado none of us had ever seen.
The river carves its way through Little Gore Canyon and is known for walls that rise 1,000 feet up from the river in some places, spectacular wildlife that includes Big Horn Sheep, Mule Deer, Moose and the occasional black bear… and is well known for a couple of technical Class III Rapids called “Eye of the Needle” and “Yarmony”.
Those rapids were immediately on my mind as I settled into the rower’s seat of the Portola and wrapped my hands around the oar handles I had worn smooth by rowing the little wooden dory through the Grand Canyon just a few short years ago. The original Portola played a large role in the history of Colorado River running in the early 1960’s and was Martin Litton’s first Grand Canyon Dory in what would become a fleet of colorful canyon boats – all made of wood. The Portola was one of the dories used in 1964 on a run through the Grand Canyon that would help tell the story of the mighty Colorado. At that time, the river and the Grand Canyon were threatened with extinction by an appropriations bill from Congress that would’ve turned the Grand Canyon into a lake and taken the river with it. The bill was ultimately defeated, thanks to people like Martin and David Brower of the Sierra Club and the dedication of many passionate and talented people. The little wooden boats played a starring role in the fight to save the river by illustrating an elegant way to run the river and experience the Grand Canyon. We replicated that famous trip on the 50th Anniversary in 2014 and I rebuilt and rowed an exact replica of the Portola. It was on that trip that I rowed myself and my boat into the bottom of a keeper hole and almost didn’t make it out.
All the emotions of that encounter came roaring back as I heard “Eye of the Needle” just downriver and around the corner. After a two-year hiatus from rowing the Portola, the sound and the fury of the rapid brought back a familiar anxiety. For me – it’s always a pre-rapid routine where I quickly go thru my checklist: oar blade angle set, oars tethered, rescue rope in reach, life jacket tight, knife and whistle clipped, oar locks secured, spare oars ready and so on. Then everything slows down just before the first drop and I calmly answer my own questions: can I find the line, can I “hold” the line, will the boat respond to my touch, do I have the strength, what’s my contingency if things go wrong, do I have the nerve, do I have the reflexes, do I have the judgement to row this rapid well???
Everything moved in slow motion as we approached the infinity line of the rapid where the bottom drops out of the river and then suddenly… we dropped over and we’re “in it”… and everything picked up speed – the rapids, the rocks, the eddies, the line, the canyon walls – everything comes at you quickly – like someone hit the “fast forward” button on the river remote. My instincts and reflexes took over as I made subtle moves to hit my spots and follow the line and I was reminded – THIS is the reason I row – to find the rhythm of the river where the line constantly shifts between calm and chaos, and challenges you to find it and hold it as it sweeps you along through a rapid filled with loud noise, conflicting currents and wild confusion. It’s the art of working with the river to keep the boat in that sweet spot as it snakes its way through the rapid in the midst of all the influences that are trying to tear you away from it. It is the ability to stay calm, keep your head, and make the moves that you’ve made a thousand times. To run these rivers in a vintage (and somewhat fragile) wood boat adds an element of risk and reward that heightens the senses and makes every rapid memorable.
On that particular run, I found the sweet spot in “the Needle” and with bold strokes and no hesitation, I was able to ride the zigzag line through the maze of rocks and swirling eddies the entire length of the rapid without touching a rock. The Portola felt light as a feather and very responsive without the 500 pounds of goods and gear it carried on the 24 day adventure through the Grand Canyon two years ago. I was pleased. It was a great start to four straight days of rowing…
One of my good river friends, Mark Stuber, came down from Montana to join us on the trip and rowed the wood dory he built by hand and named for his grandmother, Florence. The last time “Montana Mark” and I rowed together was on the Snake River in the Teton National Park in Wyoming – I rowed the “Obsession” and he rowed his Florence – that was almost a year ago. On that trip we played follow-the-leader for two days in our wood boats at the very base of the Teton Mountains and explored parts of the Snake where the Tetons rose straight up from the banks of the river and soared a mile to the sky. We set up camp along the banks of the river and rowed our boats with enthusiasm in one of the most breathtaking stretches of river either of us had ever seen. Mark is one of the best oarsmen in the northwest, and as with most rowers of wood boats, he can read the rapids, see “the line”, and avoid obstacles better than most any oarsman on the river. He maneuvered his boat with a fluid style and distinctive flair that was so much fun to watch I sometimes forgot that I needed to row my own boat instead of watching Mark row the Florence.
Also along on this trip was my friend and professional tent maker, David Ellis from Durango, my son-in-law Josh Weaver, and my Uncle Tim from Grand Junction, who was the photographer for the trip. Special guests were my friend Bill and my pastor Darrell Jones and his three sons-in-law – Royce, Andrew, and Josh. It was nice to have a pastor on the trip as we approached treacherous rapids – it felt like our prayers would have a more direct connection than normal. Quite a crew on this trip!
We ate well on the river, as usual, and prepared each meal in cook teams using a variety of cooking methods – Coleman two-burners, charcoal in the Phantom fire pan, Dutch Ovens, Jet Boils…. we each had our own “style” of cooking which made things interesting and fun in the kitchen. While cooking the evening meal wasn’t a competition, sometimes it seemed like it. The result was some fancy outdoor cooking and a lot of “overeating”.
We actually had a lot of fun planning and preparing our elaborate meals – and in the course of just the first couple of days on the river we had pork loin schnitzel, asparagus in bacon, buffalo burgers, diced sweet potatoes, fresh vegetables, sweet corn, tossed salads, bacon bomb appetizers and dutch oven cobbler and apple crisp with CoolWhip.
On the fourth day, we split up. A few of us left the boats and hiked the National Park trails through patches of snow and towering pine trees to explore the Colorado River, where it’s so narrow you can jump across it.
The cold, clear water that ran under my feet and the wood bridge where I stood was headed for the Grand Canyon but had miles and miles to go. On the long journey southwest it would continue to swell and expand as snow melt, spring rain and tributaries fed the river and shaped its personality.The Colorado pauses behind Glen Canyon Dam just for a bit and then comes roaring out the other side near the bottom of the concrete wall with all the power and passion of a natural force that’s been controlled and pent-up too long.The river comes into its own as it rips through the canyon and it’s hard to believe it’s the same river I could walk across in Rocky Mountain National Park.
While casting flies in such a serene setting, the river seems incapable of inflicting pain and punishment in the raging torrent down river. Those little riffles that swirled around my ankles high in the Rockies could be the very same water that holds someone else’s ankles in an undertow a thousand miles away next week. The river doesn’t care or discriminate. It keeps moving – without apologies or explanations, it moves on – and so must we.
I went to the headwaters of the Colorado River in the Rocky Mountain National Park out of curiosity. What I found, in a quiet pool above the chaos, surrounded by tall pines and snowy river banks, was closure to an event that shook my core two years ago on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. GH
Photography: Tim Hatten
If you go there, I highly recommend camping in a canvas tent or under the stars. If “indoor” camping is your thing with plumbing and running water check out The YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park or Snow Mountain Lodge. Both have lots of activities and are great for families. If rafting is your thing, I suggest Mad Adventures – quite simply the best outfitters and guides on the rivers!!
Posted on April 25, 2016
The Owyhee Canyonland in southeastern Oregon is an area filled with spectacular natural wonders that very few people have seen. It is raw and rugged and remote. And while it’s not a National Park… yet, one day it might be. I had a chance to run it between my “other” National Park adventures.
In a typical year, the Owyhee River that flows through the “Grand Canyon of Oregon” is only “runnable” for a couple of months each year when the river level is high enough. Thanks to above average snow in the Sierra’s this winter, that window opened briefly this spring creating an opportunity that only comes along every few years. Any chance to run my wooden boat in such a wild and beautiful place is worth a little “creative scheduling” and I dropped what I was doing to join my favorite crew of river rats for the trip of a lifetime.
The Owyhee is named after three trappers in Donald MacKenzie’s North West fur company that were sent by him to explore the river in 1819 and were never seen again. They were natives of Hawaii which, at that time, was spelled Owyhee and the spelling and pronunciation stuck. No one knew for certain what happened to them.
Our first night on the river was several degree’s below freezing and a thick layer of frost covered everything when we woke. It warmed up each night we were in the canyon and night-time temps stayed mostly in the lower forty’s.
As we rowed into the depths of the Owyhee, the light created shadow creatures on the walls of the canyons that appeared even during the middle of the day. They seemed to be guardians of the gorge. Keepers of the secrets. Protectors of the wild and scenic river.
We ate well, and the food always tastes better in remote and beautiful settings. Entree’s of fresh halibut, prime rib, and chicken were complimented by sides of baked potatoes, rice pilaf, fresh salad, and finished off with cheesecake and dutch oven cobbler.
River running in the Owyhee was filled with challenges as the rocks and boulders formed several technical rapids that we ran with respect – always watching out for each other. All told – we stuck two rafts on rocks that had to be roped off, flipped one raft completely over, and had one thrill ride in a wooden boat that got turned around in a Class IV and had to finish the rapid “backwards” (… which I prefer to remember as a “demonstration” for my team-mates of the “old school” style of river running when “backwards” was the preferred method of rowing). ((No-one around the campfire bought that explanation either…. DOH))
There weren’t a lot of fishing opportunities, but we had an “angler” in the group and Aaron caught several nice smallmouth bass on the fly.
While this trip was filled with great scenery, fantastic food, and thrilling rapids – I will remember the fellowship around the campfire as a particular highlight of this trip on the Owyhee.
If you want to go there… I recommend the section of river from Rome down to Birch Creek at a river level above 1,000 CFS. Make sure you are with an experienced crew of rowers that can handle technical rapids and river rescues. If you want to hire professional guides to take you through this incredible canyon – contact the helfrich group….they are quite simply the best and you will have an unforgettable experience.