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By Tom Pamperin


Tuesday, March 27
Day 7: The Boats That Saved Grand canyon

An easy day on the river, about eight miles from our camp at Tanner Rapid to tonight's camp just above the much bigger Hance Rapid. Tom Martin's guidebook rates Hance an 8 out of 10, the biggest rapid we've come to so far--a thirty-foot drop in about 1/6 of a mile. And we'll be camping right at the lip, with the rapid roaring through our dreams all night. My dreams, anyway.

Along the way to our camp at Hance, Greg Hatten and Randy Dersham let me row their replica boats, the Portola and the Susie Too.

The Damnation of a River--Almost

In a lot of ways, Greg and Randy's boats are the heart of this trip. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the original boats' launch. More importantly, the Portola and the Susie Too were used by the Sierra Club to document Grand Canyon in the early 1960s, just before the gates of Glen Canyon Dam were closed. The photos from those trips were compiled in a book called Time and the River Flowing. The story is that when Congress and the Senate were voting on the installation of a series of dams and waterworks in Grand Canyon (but outside the 1960s Park boundaries), every legislator in Washington found a copy of Time and the River Flowing in his mailbox. Funding for the dams was rejected, and the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park were expanded to include the proposed dam sites.

Marble Canyon Dam, Diamond Creek Dam, Bridge Canyon Dam, a water diversion tunnel from Marble Canyon Dam to Kanab canyon--such extreme development would have radically changed Grand Canyon. Tom Martin kneels down with a stick in hand and draws a few squiggly lines in the sand. "So here's a rough map of the canyon," he says, pausing to revise the twists and turns at the western end of the Park. "They were gonna put a dam here and build a tunnel out to Kanab Canyon," he explains, drawing a line from the proposed Marble Canyon Dam site below Lee's Ferry to Kanab Canyon, which even after even days we haven't reached yet. The line Tom draws to represent the tunnel is a clean straight line, a human line, that slices well north of the Colorado Rivers sinuous curves.

Basically, they were going to leave Grand Canyon National Park "untouched"--except for taking all the water.

"And everything above the dam, you know, from Lee's Ferry, would have been a lake," Tom Martin says.

I ask Tom Martin what Hance Rapid, roaring along like a windstorm just below our camp, would look like now if the dams had gone in.

"We wouldn't be on a lake, but we would be on much less water than this," Tom tells me. "All this water would be used for electric production, and there would be maybe 1,000 cubic feet per second here, at minimum flow."

Tomorrow when we run Hance Rapid, we'll be at fairly low water: between 7,000 and 13,000 cubic feet per second.

The Boats

Keith Steele, who built the original Portola and Susie Too, was a boat builder who specialized in MacKenzie River drift boats--a type still widely used throughout the world for access to whitewater rivers. Pat Reilly and Martin Litton each ordered a boat from Steele. The Litton and Reilly boats--the Portola and the Susie Too--are not true MacKenzie River drift boats, but they share many similarities.

Greg Hatten, who built the replica Portola, is a MacKenzie River guide, rowing Grand Canyon for the first time on this trip. When I ask him about the differences between the Portola and a true MacKenzie River boat, he sketches two profile hull views in his journal. One is banana-shaped, the other a mostly flat-bottomed boat with upturned ends.

"A typical MacKenzie River boat is a 16 footer," Greg says. "It's 48 inches wide. The ones we're running [the Portola and the Susie R] are 52-54 inches wide, and they come out at just over 16 feet." He brings the journal over to let me have a closer look at his quick sketch. "The biggest difference is the flat spot," he says. "Most MacKenize River boats have a continuous rocker--" he taps the banana-shaped sketch, "and these boats have an enormous flat spot, like that--" he taps the flat-bottomed profile, "which helps them track better."

Of course, the huge buoyancy chambers fore and aft, and the sealed seats, are another difference--one that makes these boats a sane ride in Grand Canyon whitewater.Greg Hatten and Randy Dersham built the two replica hulls together over two weekends last summer in Randy's boat shop (he builds MacKenzie River drift boats in Nimrod, Oregon, just ten miles from Keith Steele's 1960s shop). Then each took a hull home to finish it. The Portola has the red-white-and-blue Harper Goff paint scheme shared by all of Pat Reilly's boats, while the Susie Too is white with a teal sheer stripe (the stripe was later re-painted red; Martin Litton apparently hated the teal).

The hulls are 1/4" plywood, with a 1/2" bottom and 3/8" horizontal surfaces--decks, seats, etc. What kind of plywood, I ask Randy. Meranti?

"No, they're all fir," he says. "We bitched about it every step of the way." Although Greg and Randy wanted to use fir to match the original boats, marine fir plywood is not what it used to be. The football-shaped patches kept popping off the panels as they bent the sides on, needing a lot of filling and fairing. But the job got done, and done well.

The Ride

So today I got to row both the Portola and the Susie Too. After rowing Fat George (a better name for my raft than Georgie, I've decided), the nine-foot oars in Greg and Randy's boats feel like toys. And in a raft I'm perched high atop a gargantuan cooler. In Greg and Randy's boats I'm so low to the water I feel like I'm paddling with my hands.

It's a FAR better experience in the hard boats, like moving from an overloaded garbage scow to an elegant Whitehall. Except that the Portola and Susie Too turn on a dime and give you fifteen cents change, which no Whitehall could match. One stroke of an oar is enough to spin me around 180 degrees in the current. It's so much fun that after I ride through Unkar Rapid (a 6) on my fat raft, I run back upstream to ride through again in the Portola with Greg Hatten and his other passenger, Pam Mortenson.

Unlike the heavy rafts, the Portola is alive in the water, leaping high over the waves even with three people aboard. Greg steers a line through the long rapid (one of the longes in the Canyon, maybe 1/4 mile long) dodging holes and porpoising over big standing waves. At one point the bottom hits a hidden rock in the trough of a wave, and apart from a dull thud, there's no problem--the Portola just keeps driving on.

Later I get to row Randy's Susie Too through a couple of smaller riffles, with Dave Mortenson as my passenger. A few days back the oak pad at the base of one oarlock split--whitewater puts tremendous leverage on nine-foot oars--and Randy eventully sawed off the pad flush with the gunwale on that side to fix it, reinforcing the new lower oarlock with fiberglass. There's a difference in feel between the two oars after Randy's surgery, but not one that seems to matter much. Again, the boat is like a live thing, fast and nimble. Despite being a bit nervous--no one wants to ding someone else's boat--we come through unscathed. Not only unscathed, but already thinking about what my wife would think of another boat in our garage, something like a drift boat, maybe...

I guess I should finish the boat I'm working on now first. But if I come back to run Grand Canyon again--make that when--I'll be in a hard boat if I can. I ask Randy what he thinks of the Susie Too, since he knows this kind of boat a lot better than I do.

"It is made for this river," he tells me. "I rowed it down the Rogue river and it felt too big and too heavy. But it's a healthy size for this river." The Rogue is smaller; though it's much more technical and rocky, it typically runs anywhere from 2,000 to 8,000 cubic feet per second. "Very definitely it's big big water here," Randy says. "7,000 and 13,000 right now--and that's low water."

Tomorrow morning, first thing, the Portola and the Susie Too will see their biggest rapid yet--a rapid that would be nothing more than a rocky trickle today if David Brower, the Sierra Club, and a whole community of river rats had not collaborated on a book designed to show Congress the colossal mistake they were about to make.

Looking down the rocky jaws of Hance Rapid, knowing that I'll be taking my raft through tomorrow morning, I'm still grateful. Incredibly grateful. I just hope I don't end up swimming.


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