Ever done dumb stuff in unworthy boats? I sure have! Here’s one of my favorites from back in my college days….
The salty ol’ sea dog who answered the door had a thick, bushy beard, bottomless black eyes and skin tanned by decades of sea salt and sun.
“Can I help you?” he asked impatiently.
I had seen the old, dilapidated 8-foot wooden pram lying upside-down in his yard near the bay. In a past life, it had been a tender — a little row boat used to get from shore out to fishing boats in the harbor. I had big plans for the little vessel and had come to knock on his door to see if he was interested in selling.
“If you are looking to sell that old boat, “I’ll give you $40 for it,” I said.
The old commercial fisherman tugged his beard and thought for a moment.
“Tell you what, kid,” he said. “Give me $20 and you have a deal…”
I thanked him profusely as he helped me load the rotting plywood craft into the back of my truck. I was so stoked…as a college student I barely could scratch up the $40 I had offered — and now not only did I have my first ever “drift boat,” but I also had $20 extra for beer!
The next morning, my buddy Randy and I dumped the boat into the river and pushed off. The plan was to pull plugs like the guide boats but we hardly had a chance to wet a line. I was too busy rowing in circles — and into trees — and Randy had his hands full with a Taco Bell cup bailing water out of the boat as fast as he could. Apparently, my new drifter had a lot more in common with a pasta strainer than I’d originally thought.
I suppose you could count the day as a success by the fact that we arrived back at the takeout alive. Sure, we had a few casualties: I lost a hat, a blue Lil’ Playmate cooler and some skin off my cheek in a dust up with an overhanging alder branch — and another tree took Randy’s most prized possession: his snow white Apache fiberglass fly rod and spinning reel combo. Overall, however, we were happy with the mission and made plans to do a two-day float through a rugged canyon in the thing.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can’t for the life of me understand how we thought we were prepared for a multi-day canyon float after a Class I run had almost done us in. But I guess that’s the beauty of youth…you think you can do anything.
For the next couple days, we prepared little boat for the big voyage. We dubbed her the “Rotten Tomato,” for the peeling red and green paint on her sides and interior. All the seams where the plywood came together got caulked and then gone over with fiberglass cloth and resin. After she dried, a quick water test on the local lake proved the leaks were fixed and she was ready for battle.
On a Friday morning, we got a lift to the upper put-in. Randy and I loaded some food, camping gear, fishing stuff and a plastic bailing bucket (just in case) into the boat set sail. As our shuttle driver pulled out of sight, I noticed that our leaks had mysteriously come back — perhaps even worse than before. Of course, that was in the days before cell phones so we had no way to call our ride back. Even if we’d had a phone, though, I’m pretty sure we would have just continued on anyway…
All we knew about this stretch of river was there was a portage you had to do around a set of falls. Supposedly, the cataract was somewhere roughly halfway down but we had very little intel to go on. And no Google Earth for that matter, either.
As Randy bailed, I got a little more comfortable on the oars. We successfully negotiated a couple class II rapids, which got our confidence up and then managed to catch a halfpounder on a plug. Things were looking good! Then it started to rain…
The canyon was socked in with low clouds the second half of the day and the rain never let up. That, of course, caused more work for both of us. Randy had to bail faster and I had to get out and drag the boat over almost every riffle because the water was so low everywhere but inside our boat. The little 8 footer probably had 20 gallons sloshing around on the bottom at all times.
As evening approached, we were spent. We pitched camp and ate cold, smoky hotdogs and beans cooked over a very wet pile of wood that just didn’t want to ignite.
The morning dawned clear and cold and we quickly bailed the boat, loaded up and pushed off. We fished, rowed and bailed for a few hours until the river made a hard right into a steep canyon wall. At first it looked as if the water simply disappeared and then, when we were past the point of no return, it dawned on us that we were probably headed for the waterfall! I rowed frantically and totally inefficiently as my first mate carefully stood up on the cooler to get a better look.
“Dude, I can’t see anything…but I hear some very loud, rushing water!”
With the river picking up speed and the canyon walls stretching up into high vertical faces on both sides, there was nowhere to go but downstream. The roar got louder and the pucker factor went through the roof. Even we dumb, “invincible” kids knew that this was a bad situation and there was no way out!
Just as I had resigned myself to the fact that we were going to get swept over the falls, we rounded the bend and the river revealed itself. Instead of a deadly drop, there was simply a fast riffle making all the racket. Exuberant high fives ensued and we continued on our merry way.
The high of surviving the “faux falls” was short lived, however, as we soon came to a rough patch of water about 300 yards long. It was foaming whitewater riddled with boulders, one exceptionally large log and ended with a 5-foot drop. Discretion being the better part of valor, we opted to portage. The terrain was very steep and littered with the same boulders that were in the river. Big suckers, too. And thats precisely when we realized that the Tomato was quite possibly the heaviest 8-foot boat ever built. I’m not sure if it was just that she leaked so much that all the plywood was super saturated or what, but man it felt like it was made from cast iron.
We grunted, yanked and pushed the boat up one side of a rock, rested and then slid it down the backside. Then it was blood, sweat and tears to get to the top of the next. On and on we went for what seemed like forever. After leaving a trail of red and green paint across the boulder field, we eventually got the boat back in the water, just below the drop.
“Well, dude…those must be the falls,” said Randy. “Glad we are done with that!”
Again, we were going on very limited and woefully incomplete intel on this mission but from what we had ascertained, it was smooth sailing after the falls. And, based on the info we had, we were now halfway home.
Randy and I then settled into a routine. I rowed and backed our plugs down the river and he bailed water with his cup. Stoke, stroke, scoop, scoop, scoop. Between his feet, there was a 2-foot line of bare wood, the paint long since worn off by the constant bailing. Since the river was still low, we were getting out at almost every riffle to drag our little vessel across the shallow bars. It became pretty apparent to us why real drift boats don’t have keels. It was exhausting but we were in good spirits knowing that, despite the slow fishing, we’d successfully made it through the tough spots and were on the home stretch.
Soon, the river started to narrow again and the gradient increased. The banks got steeper and the current picked up pace. Instead of floating out to the low lands near the ocean, we were descending into another canyon! And that’s when we heard it. Faint at first, but growing ever louder. There was no mistaking the low rumbling noise: There were falls ahead!
Luckily, there was a gravel bar within reach so we pulled the boat up onto the bank. We couldn’t see the whitewater from our position, so we hiked downstream to get a glimpse of what we were up against. I say “hiked,” but it was more of a scramble. The narrow cut in the hills was awash in boulders that made the ones we’d portaged earlier look like spawning gravel. These dudes were impressive: some were car sized, while others looked bigger than UPS trucks. More than a few were the size of small apartments. As we crawled downstream, it dawned on Randy and I that we were in for a brutal push-and-drag session if the falls were as bad as they sounded.
Well, they were. The river squeezed between two large boulders and then plunged a good 10 or 12 feet straight down.
“Um, I guess these are the real falls…”
It then hit us at the same time: Not only did we have another grinder of a portage on our hands but once we got through it all, we’d only be halfway home. Not really an awesome realization when it’s around 3 pm, you’ve still got roughly 8 or 9 miles to go and you didn’t plan on enough food for two nights on the river!
The passage over all those massive boulders was a slow, painful affair. When we finally made it to the drop, we could see that there was nowhere easy to launch the boat. So, I made an executive decision to push the boat off a 10-foot cliff to save time. As soon as she got airborne, I had some clarity. This drop could very easily blow the Tomato into a bazillion pieces and then we’d be stuck hoofing it out. Bailing and dragging her over gravel bars was laborious, but certainly better than walking over rough terrain while carrying all of our gear.
My heart was in my throat as she fell. The Tomato hit the water below with a sickening slap, shuddered for a moment and looked as if she was about to come completely apart. Then she centered up and started bobbing proudly.
“Randy, pease try to talk me out of it the next time I think dropping a boat off a cliff is a good idea!”
As the miles passed and the sun set, we had a huge new respect for our little craft.
“Dude, floating is so much better than walking…can you imagine hiking outta here?” Randy said as we floated past a thick wooded area. “We love you, Tomato!”
We shot the last few miles in the dark. All we had was a tiny penlight to see where we were going but we eventually got back down to the takeout. The Rotten Tomato had delivered us safely…and had earned a much more honorable name. That evening on the way back to the dorms, we christened her The Queen of the Canyons.
That was just the beginning of the adventures we had in that boat. She made all sorts of river descents, spent a lot of time trolling the lakes and even saw some saltwater action. Not a bad second life for a discarded tender.
We never could get the Queen to stop leaking so she eventually gave way to a 10-foot Sears Gamefisher jonboat (which I have written about here in the past). At the end of college, I took her back home to my folk’s house in Auburn, CA where my mom considered using it as a planter box.
The Queen wasn’t having any of it, though. She had one more adventure left in her. That winter, the small creek on my parents’ property got unusually high, and one night, The Queen set sail one last time. I never saw her again…