Lawrence Cheek


A wooden rowboat would seem to be far from the ideal conveyance to ride the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The river generates nearly 90 whitewater rapids in its 277-mile riffle through the Canyon. Many of these are voracious boateaters, the water boiling, flexing and aching to lunge at a boat and pinball it into the nearest boulder or dunk it under a towering wave. Blubbery pontoon rafts, outfitted with reassuring outboard motors, are the logical 21st century choice. Unless you’re up for a challenge. Or bewitched by a beautiful shape. Or into the indefinable, maybe mystical connection of a boat that draws its form and material from nature passing eventfully through one of nature’s most sublime and sacred waterways.

“It’s said the water respects a beautiful boat,” says Brad Dimock, who builds wooden dories specifically tailored to Canyon whitewater. But then Dimock, who finds it hard to take himself seriously for two sentences in a row, channels the thinking of the river: “I think I’ll wait and flip ’em over in a nice place.”

Dimock knows a great deal about the Colorado, both its  nice places and its malicious maws, and about boats made to meet the broad range of conditions one encounters on it. Now 69, he’s been around for a good long while. His furrowed and leathery face testifies to a life passed in the West’s outdoors; his broad and easy smile hints that it’s been pretty much always fun. Well read and articulate, he’s written books. But he’s never held a conventional job or worked in an office. He wouldn’t last a morning.

Dimock grew up in upstate New York and arrived in Arizona in 1971 as a student at then-new Prescott College, where the academic program was built around a core of outdoor education. His freshman orientation was an introductory trip through the Grand Canyon. By 1973, he’d gotten himself hired as an assistant for a river company’s motorized expeditions, and just two years later, he found himself leading expeditions. And then he learned to row and graduated from motors to oars.

In 1978, he went to work for Martin Litton, who had an offbeat little outfit offering extended Colorado River expeditions in classic wooden dories. Litton was a whiskery conservationist who tirelessly campaigned against dams and anything else he believed would threaten the integrity of the natural world. He was committed to wooden boats because he believed they had a deeper connection to the river’s moods. If you have to ask why, he liked to say, you’ll never understand the answer. After they’d worked together for a few years, Litton simply gave Dimock his 17-foot dory Cataract. The very next season, Dimock splintered it in a crash. In a way, the accident was fortuitous, because rebuilding it refigured Dimock’s life: run the river in summer, build and repair boats in winter. He’s still doing exactly this.

Dimock hadn’t planned to spend his life in Flagstaff. “I figured I’d eventually move on to a nicer town, but then the town became nicer,” he says. And where would anyone go to find a nicer river? In 2008, he built a large workshop adjacent to the home he and a girlfriend had constructed in Flagstaff, intending to mess around with boats in it but not actually go into a business venture. Turns out that if you build it, they will come, and people in the Colorado Plateau’s tight river community began finding their way to the shop for repairs or commissioning new boats. Dimock comes from a long family line of carpenters; he figures he’s like one of those sheepdogs that somehow know how to herd even though they’ve never seen a sheep before. So, without really intending to, Dimock found plenty of work to fill the offseasons, from November into March. He named the enterprise Fretwater Boatworks, after a rapid on Utah’s Green River.



Dories date to the 18th century, when, like so many historical boat types, they originally served for fishing. They have flat bottoms instead of “V”-shaped hulls, and these bottoms are bent into a slightly convex shape from fore to aft. This is the first of several characteristics that make them suitedfor running rapids: They’re highly maneuverable, pivoting easily with an oar’s quick stab at the water. The sides flare out widely, which provides a welcome characteristic called secondary stability. A small dory might feel nervous and tippy when you step into it, but when gnarly water rises up and tries to throw the boat over, the deeper its flared beam immerses and the more it resists further immersion. It’s like trying to force a basketball underwater. In extreme conditions, a dory will capsize, as will any boat, but until overwhelmed, it will work hard to keep its crew upright and safe.

The North American revival in wooden boat building, which began blooming in the 1970s and today seems more vigorous than ever, has generated a constellation of new and nontraditional ways to construct wooden boats. The Fretwater boats look thoroughly traditional, but inside, they bristle with heresy. The hulls are plywood, fused together at the chines (the joints between sides and bottom) with fiberglass and epoxy. Hatched compartments surrounding the footwells serve dual purposes as food and gear storage and, in case of trouble, flotation. Dimock has developed a latch system so secure that only a few spoonfuls of water, or cups at worst, will squeeze in if the boat flips. An even more surprising innovation: Battery-powered bilge pumps flush water out if the boat gets swamped.

In certain ways, though, Dimock remains the stubborn traditionalist. He doesn’t tinker much with the basic architecture of river dories, whose classic design was set down by Oregon boatbuilder Jerry Briggs in the 1970s. With only occasional exceptions, he deploys the same three paint colors that Litton codified for Canyon dories: 1953 Cadillac Aztec red, 1954 Willys beryl green and refrigerator white. “They just don’t look right otherwise,” he says.

“Looking right” is a sacred priority. Although Fretwater’s boats aren’t gleamingly finished and detailed like teeny yachts — the river is going to batter them silly every time they’re used as intended, so a meticulous polish would be pointless — Dimock and his crew take immaculate care to get one detail perfect. Before painting, they’ll take each boat outside and percolate around it, studying the sheer line from all angles, then plane it into refinement determined by fractions of an inch.

The sheer is the gently curving top edge of the boat’s side, capped with the gunwale, and the grace — or lack of it — of the sheer’s contour has a profound effect on the aesthetic quality of any boat. A slightly clunky sheer yields a despicable boat. Dimock’s aim is “drop-dead gorgeous.” A dory’s sheer curls dramatically skyward at bow and stern, giving the boats a perky and toylike look. At the same time, they’re obviously tough and seaworthy. This inherent contradiction in their character is what makes them fascinating.

Three years ago, Dimock hatched a crazy idea to build an extreme performance boat for the Colorado and other wicked whitewater rivers: a classic dory shape shriveled to a midsize whitewater kayak’s 9-foot-4-inch length, a broad beam, motivated by oars and made, naturally, of wood — Port Orford cedar frames, marine plywood skin and ash gunwales. Like kayaks, Fretwater’s “doryaks” are intended as solo boats, but, like Fretwater’s bigger dories, they’ll swallow a substantial load of expedition gear and food in their watertight hatches. Depending on equipment, they leave Fretwater’s door for $8,000 to $10,000. “They performed beyond our wildest expectations,” Dimock says. One river guide rowed ashore after a trial run through the Canyon and gushed, “I feel like I’m cheating on my wife.”

The fun-loving Fretwater crew, all wetly experienced whitewater enthusiasts, seizes every opportunity to emphasize the boats’ sporty personalities. On a recent trio of doryaks, they used a stencil to spray-paint a rocket, complete with orange flame, on each boat’s bottom, just under the transom. It won’t be noticed, of course, until the boat flips over and the owner is hanging on as it bobs downstream, trying to right it and clamber back aboard. Amy “Cricket” Rust, Dimock’s right-hand woman in the shop, inscribed a mission statement on the underside of her own doryak. “If you can read this,” it says, “you’re still having fun.”



Even before the workday begins, you get a sense for the nature of the work that goes on at Fretwater by nosing around the shop. It’s organized neatly and methodically, but whimsically. A drawer for pliers and vise grips is labeled “Squeeze”; the one for hammers and mallets is “Whack.” The “Sex Nuts” drawer disappointingly yields only hex nuts. Admonitions adorn the power tools. Signs on the table saw and bandsaw declare, “Do not dumb here.” Warns another, “Any machine is a smoke machine if you operate it wrong enough.”

But then there’s the shop’s unofficial motto, posted outside, by the front door, and also celebrated by a video made last year for American Rivers by photographer Dawn Kish: “Can’t Beat This Place For Fun.” The small crew indeed seems to weave a remarkable amount of spontaneous fun into the workday. They work ferociously fast — three doryaks got built last November over just three weeks — but the pace doesn’t seem oppressive.

It’s worth a moment to step back and consider the unique nature of building wooden boats by hand — which is the only way to build them; their very nature defies most moves toward machine production. It’s dead-serious work: Whether it’s a 9-foot dory or a 90-foot blue-water yacht, its occupants have to trust it to protect them in an unforgiving environment that can quickly kill them. Boat building is also intellectually demanding: There are few straight lines and no right angles, and simply fabricating and fitting the pieces together can be devilishly difficult.

In a business environment like this one, there’s also the matter of doing the work efficiently enough that the shop can make a bit of money. Tension will always arise between doing something right and doing it perfectly. Craftspeople who love boats will yearn for perfect, but there’s never enough time for perfect — right will have to suffice, but how right? A shop like Fretwater will develop a hierarchy of imperfection, bearing down on the details that really matter, that make the boat sturdy and tuned to its intended working environment, and backing off on the lesser issues. For example, Fretwater boats’ bottoms are sheathed with fiberglass to strengthen and protect them. After two coats of epoxy are squeegeed into the fiberglass cloth, the surface becomes very hard but not immaculately smooth. More sanding? “Nah,” says Dimock. “We let the river do that.” 

Dimock and Rust are the heart and soul of the operation, although it’s hard to say which is which. Rust is 26, but the river runs as swiftly in her veins as in Dimock’s. Her grandfather first took her out on a boat on the Colorado when she was 2, and she became a guide while still in her teens. Although barely over 5 feet, she brims with competence. “She can crawl under a truck and fix it with a hammer,” Dimock says. A photo of her running the Colorado’s notoriously rowdy Hermit Rapid shows her giggling — and thoroughly in control. She says the only disadvantage to being a small woman running big rivers is people’s assumptions. “We’re actually at an advantage, because we can’t just muscle our way through,” she says. “We learn to see where the currents are, see where the best moves are. We have to read the river better.”

Like Dimock, Rust works as a river guide in the summers and builds boats through the winters. Her role in the workshop is a combination of coach, organizer and downand- dirty grunt boatwright — in other words, everything. On the afternoon they steam-bend the wooden noodles that will become the gunwales for all three November doryaks, it’s Dimock who invents a way to boost the heat in the steam box beyond the 199 degrees at which water boils at Flagstaff’s 7,000-foot elevation: Use a turkey-sized pressure cooker to generate hotter steam. It’s Rust who thinks to lay out several dozen clamps around the doryaks’ perimeters so they’ll fall right to hand when the hot 10-foot gunwale stalks emerge from the box, prepared to bend around the boats.

The quartet working on the doryaks — Dimock, Rust, Roy Lippman and Glade Zarn — functions like a well-oiled athletic team. There’s bluegrass on the stereo, a river of banter among the crew, and spontaneous outbreaks of singing, dancing and occasional cursing. The pressure-cooker ploy works: None of the gunwales, tortured into curves, breaks. Dimock erupts with a compliment: “Damn, we’re good!”

A little later, hammering rub strips into place along the boats’ chines, Zarn and Rust experiment with complementary rhythms, rendering the hammering as a percussion concerto. 

“I saw a great quote once,” Dimock explains. “ ‘If you want productive employees, let them play.’ We play a lot. Sometimes we’ll be jamming and some absurd idea will come along, and we’ll suddenly divert and build something weird or do something totally goofy, and it all just makes us really happy.”

Rust says the close relationships among the crew are another vital element. “We’re working pretty close together, and often it feels like we’re in a human pretzel,” she says. “You’ve got to feel comfortable with each other to work that close, and working close like this brings us together.”

And then, there’s trust. Rust recalls a different kind of experience working for one of the river companies while still in high school. “I thought it was getting me closer to wooden boats, but they wouldn’t ever let me touch them,” she says. “I think after five years, they finally let me oil the gunwales. When I met Brad, he said, ‘Come on up; let’s build boats!’ Day one, he had me sanding oars. The next week, we lofted a boat and started building it.”

Dimock says the right people for Fretwater are intelligent and self-directed, have a great sense of humor and love boats. The wrong person would be one who barges in full of ways to do everything better — or is too distracted to focus and keeps screwing up. “Because screw-ups cost time and money and make Cricket sad,” he says.

This little Flagstaff workshop might have something to teach modern American industry, which seems to have considerable trouble creating workplaces where people are happy. It doesn’t seem like a complicated formula: Keep the scale small, make a product that inspires passion among both its makers and its users, and encourage everyone to be creative and have fun.

For this, a wooden boat might be the ideal conveyance.