Wooden Friggin’ Dories: A Love Story


I’ve been awake for fourteen hours and working thirteen and a half. Early July sun bakes my shoulders as I open up a hatch of my boat. It reeks of splooge water, a moldy melon and wet neoprene. I grab a lone beer out of the flotsam, crack it, then find a bilge pump. Foamy water shoots over the side of the boat into the river. With the water back in its rightful place I focus on the sand. Swipe, swipe, wring, swish. Repeat. My head, shoulders and waist are shoved under the muggy deck when I hear commotion outside the boat.

“Dory meeting!” exclaims a guide.

My coworkers hop on board, opening their own cold beverages of choice. I take a break from cleaning and lean against a gunnel. Their chatter harmonizes with the sound of water pushing downstream and I let my thoughts wander to the boat beneath me.

Dories. Wooden friggin’ dories. Honestly, I’ve been nervous to write about these boats. Have you ever tried to describe being in love to someone? It usually sounds vomit-inducing cheesy or ungrateful, and someone will always insist you have love all wrong. Love is universal and omnipotent but then again, it’s only with something one truly loves that they can also hate it just a little.

The thing is guides who row wooden boats are in love, REAL love. It’s not just some weeklong river fling, although we don’t mind sharing that side of our boats with our guests. Being truly in love with dories, however, means we are deep in the five, ten, twenty-year marriage. We don’t just get the magic, we get the hard work, crappy days, sickness and health.

One day, the boat is trim. She slices up and over waves, quartering exactly into position for the next lateral. The river parts to let her pass. These are the days that have been turned into Technicolor photographs and 500-word essays. These are the romantic comedies of days on the water. Yet the next morning, a kid in the stern keeps bouncing from side to side, a wave in a class II pours over the gunnel, there’s sand everywhere, and long hours are spent back at the boathouse in town repairing her delicate frame.

I’m only a few seasons into this wooden-friggin’-dory relationship. At twenty-five, I’m not saying I know everything about rowing these boats, or anything about love for that matter. I guess it’s just…complicated, y’know?

Photo: Tom Gotchy

The history of whitewater dories can be found elsewhere in full-length books and countless articles. Dories are a crossover from Oregon-based McKenzie drift boats. The bottom features a rocker to help kick the boat up and over waves, while the pointed bow helps split the river rather than welcome it aboard. In the early 1960s, Martin Litton and P.T. Reilly worked with Oregon boat builder Jerry Briggs to perfect the “Grand Canyon dory” design—a blend of functionality and on-the-water grace. When commercial river running was becoming popular, dories were the opposite of the large, “bloat ‘em and load ‘em” motor rigs.

What interests me most, however, is the living history of how these boats continue to evolve. Today at the company I work for, each dory is named for a place impacted by human development, hand painted, and fussed over like a girl going to her first high school prom. Dories have become a character of the river, a further way for river runners to escape our plastic, Wi-Fi-connected world. River guests are choosing trips exclusively for the dory option, most guides hold the, “building my own dory” dream in their back pocket and it’s all culminating in some serious, full-blown dory-mania.

Why the mania? Dories are classic, timeless and 100% American made. They’re expensive to maintain. They hold the stories of rapids, legendary boatmen and river sunrises in their wooden innards. In purely practical industrial terms, wooden dories make about as much sense as a $16 grass-fed artisan hamburger. But there is part of our most human selves that wants the impractical, the beautiful and the meaningful. Dories remind me of writer Hilary Oliver when she says, “The point is, we all want to somehow communicate to the world something about who we are inside, and the moments and places that feel meaningful to us. No, that handcrafted coffee table sourced from reclaimed barn wood is not necessarily going to add meaning to our lives. But if we’re going to bring objects into our world, shouldn’t they be thoughtfully considered objects that bring us some sort of long-term enjoyment?” Dories may not be practical but there’s something about them that fit water better than any other boat I’ve rowed. And what are dories if not thoughtfully considered vehicles of long-term enjoyment?

Few of us, however, start with the $16 artisan hamburger. I grew up rowing catarafts with oar rights, potentially the antithesis of a dory. A cataraft was the perfect boat to learn on—stable, forgiving and fun. Watching my flailing runs through class III water my dad, a former guide told me, “Emerald, it’s supposed to be a dance with the water.”

“Okay whatever Dad,” I said, likely rolling my eyes like the fourteen-year-old I was. Then I proceeded to flail for another eight years.

We learn how to love by watching the people around us, first our family, then our greater community. My family taught me my first lessons about how to love each other and how to love water. Then I began guiding. I probably wouldn’t take human/human relationship advice from the guiding community. But boat/human relationships? There are no better experts. As I began working on the river, I watched the senior guides murmur sweet nothings to their boats. I watched them pull their boats up onto the beach and gently repair nicks and bumps. I watched them sit in the rowers seat and become a centaur of the river—part human, part boat, fused at the hips and the oars. A good river guide has a spark, an undercurrent of personality that bubbles up into their laughter and their eyes. I believe it comes from knowing how to love something other than a person and being brave enough to completely surrender their heart to it.

Photo: Jonathan Matthews

Guiding, I became a better oarsman but it wasn’t until my first run in a wooden dory that I knew what my dad meant about dancing. I had spent the previous year running an aluminum dory at low water, getting used to the way a hard boat tracked through water and marveling at the way that although it appeared the aluminum had no cracks, six inches of water would appear in my hatches at the end of every day. I bashed into a decent number of rocks. Maybe that’s where the cracks came from. Now, on a warm June day, I was standing at the Corn Creek boat ramp on the Main Salmon staring at a wooden boat named the Negit. The gull painted on the back stared back at me. The Negit was a Briggs-style boat, named for the island in Lake Mono in California. I wanted to be at that drought-stricken lake in California, back at home in bed, walking somewhere like a SANE human would…anything but studying this wooden boat with a group of twenty curious river guests behind me. The river bent to the right and out of sight into 79 miles of rock-filled, boulder-strewn wilderness.

“Shit,” I muttered under my breath.

I wasn’t ready for this. I was going to blast the poor wooden boat on a rock and sink her, Titanic style. There’s no room for error with old, wooden boats. As I had witnessed the summer before assisting a different dory captain, a hit can become a waist sized hole and evacuation. “Cue the orchestra,” I thought. “She’s going down.” My hands were shaking.

But as it turns out, I was ready for it. Mostly. The water level was friendly and the river gods weren’t feeling punitive. As I washed the boat through Killum, Gunbarrel, then Alder Creek I felt it. The boat was a knife, the river was warm butter. She responded to the slender thalwegs that I placed her on. She kicked up and over waves. It was dancing. The boat and I were waltzing, or tangoing, or maybe hip-hop booty bumping? That love feeling started hitting me deep in my sternum.

“Oh. My. God,” I thought as she rolled over another lateral and coasted through a tailwave eddy line. “This is what they’ve all been talking about.”

As soon as I become comfortable, of course, the river schemes to remind me who’s boss. Elkhorn isn’t the hardest rapid on the Salmon, but it’s one of the longest and I always seem to get lost. I scout the technical entrance from shore, squinting downstream to try to read the chaos of waves and current that stretch for the next quarter mile. Back behind the oars, I let the boat drift to the edge of the tongue.

“Here we go,” I mutter and then we’re in it. The first moves go smoothly, the boat slicing through the slot between the rocks. Then we’re in the center of the rapid, the painted nose of the boat rising above me, a turquoise triangle lifting over the huge ocean-size waves. I want to enjoy the rollercoaster of the biggest wave but I could have sworn there was a big hole somewhere down…

“SHIT!” I yell as the boat slams into the recirculating hydraulic. Instantly, the boat is hip deep in water but we teeter out the downstream side. My guests look back at me, wide-eyed. “Bail please.” I smile at them.

They continue to stare, mouth agape. The kid in the back is splashing his hands in the water around the bottom of his PFD. The boat is sucking toward the “elephant rock,” a twenty-foot domer hunk of granite.
“I NEED YOU TO BAIL RIGHT NOW,” I nearly shout in my best, deepest there-is-a-bear-in-the-woods voice.

They start scooping and throwing water as I heave the heavy boat into the current line around the rock and out the tail waves of the rapid.

As I began guiding I rowed 14-18 foot rubber rafts. They were reliable, sturdy, and oops-I-bumped-a-rock-able. Week after week, each yellow boat rowed pretty much the same. Then I rowed the Negit, the Glen Canyon and the Quartz Creek. Dories, all older than me, and a part of the oral history and legend of our rivers. They are both the most beautiful boats I’ve rowed and the most obnoxious. Each has its own strengths and peculiarities—a mix of former boatman attitude absorbed into the oars and Frankenstein-esque yearly repairs. I sheepishly thought back to my years of following dories, writing them off as being, “easier to row.” Now I was the guide zig-zagging back and forth across the river, shooting forward through sluggish eddies and pausing at the lip of rapids, creating traffic jams as I tried to read the rocks.

That first summer of rowing wooden boats I had beautiful lines and lines where I narrowly avoided epic wrecks. I rowed one morning for 20 minutes and two miles before realizing I had a 25-pound anchor dragging behind me. I full out prayed more than I generally do on the river. I got to camp each evening with strained eyes, mentally wiped out from giving myself no room for error. Sometimes I stood on the beach in the morning, a cup of coffee in hand, amazed anyone would let me float a piece of artwork like that downstream. Other mornings I looked longingly at the inflatable boats around me. A dory demands 100 percent of your attention, both for her good moments and bad.

Just like in love, however, we learn to speak each other’s language of affection. Quiet commitment often goes further than big gestures. I learned to speak the love dialect of each wooden boat I rowed. I tried to show my boat I cared with service—a cleaned out hatch, a soft spot to park her stern, or even piling all of my favorite coworkers on top so they could pass some love through their hands into her deck too.

I come back to the conversation of the guides around me. They’re teasing me (typical) and tossing me another beer (appreciated). I think back to my first years sitting on dories, wondering if I’d ever be brave enough to row one down river and if anyone would be crazy enough to let me.

“I’m a dory boatman,” one jokes. “All I can carry down this river is pillows and the bags of tortilla chips!”

I laugh and join in. The first rule of being a new dory boatman—don’t take yourself too seriously. That night as I roll out my pad and sleeping bag on to the (still sandy) deck of the boat, I wonder what the second rule is. I’d suppose it’s something like this:

Love your boat in that way you can’t explain to anyone. Talk to her above big rapids and after you nick rocks. Clean out her hatches, every night, even when your back is sore and you’ve been working for 16 hours and you know she’ll just be full of sand again tomorrow. Listen to the way she whispers to the water as you rise up and over waves. Put your ear against her fiberglassed nose and hear gravel and rocks pushing downstream to the ocean. Don’t be lazy, don’t take the river for granted, don’t assume you are better than anyone else in a boat. And when someone asks you to describe rowing that beautiful wooden piece of artwork just shrug and start, “Well it’s complicated…”


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