When I walk up Brad Dimock’s driveway toward his Fretwater Boatworks in the hills above Flagstaff, Arizona, the smell of cut wood hits me from 30 feet away. Dimock, lanky and weathered, yet somehow boyish at age 66, welcomes me inside, sawdust drifting from his shirt as we shake hands. His assistants, Amy “Cricket” Rust and Justin Gallen, break focus for a split second to nod terse hellos, then continue to shave wood from arced beams that will, if all goes well, form the hull of an experimental micro-dory. “We’re in a bit of a pinch,” says Dimock. “We gotta finish this thing tonight.” Then he blinks and shakes his head, as if he can’t quite believe it.
Dimock specializes in crafting handmade wooden dories that, because of ingenious design quirks developed by generations of boatmen, can handle some of the most terrifying rapids in the world. Most people who descend the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon today do so on motorized 35-foot rubber rafts that carry up to 20 and look like oversized bumper cars. By contrast, Dimock’s 17-foot wooden dories are agile, carry two to four passengers and are powered by a boatman and oars. It’s not just about the pleasure of paddling, says Dimock: “In boatbuilding you talk about a fair curve, a curve that pleases the eye. To me these things are just sexy.”
The reason Dimock and crew have to finish the boat tonight is because at 4 a.m. tomorrow, we’re leaving for the Colorado River and meeting up with what he calls his “river people,” a loose tribe of guides who’ve bonded together based on their time deep in the Grand Canyon. Though our trip is only three days up into Glen Canyon, typical excursions downriver last 7 to 16 days in a world that’s beautiful but unforgiving. Once a guide puts in, there are no roads for nearly 300 river miles, and they must navigate legendary rapids while taking care of guests. They play the role of rower, wilderness medic and naturalist, helping people understand the protected land they’re experiencing. Our journey will provide the test run for Dimock’s little dory, dubbed Peekaboo.
By the time I show up before dawn, Peekaboo is complete. We set off and rendezvous with the tribe at Lees Ferry a few hours later. Dimock hops into the boat and spins around in the shallows, working the oars like water-bug legs. “It’s a teacup,” he says, laughing. “A Mad Hatter’s teacup!” All the guides are rapt at the sight of the little nine-foot boat.
The group of five dories motors upriver, Peekaboo in tow, so we can float back down to Lees Ferry over three days. The walls of Glen Canyon stand 500 feet tall in shades of apricot and ocher and rust, the result of iron oxide within the sandstone. Sudden strands of gray limestone streak through, remnants from the bottom of a bygone ocean.
“You’re in these billion-year-old rocks and this powerful river, and whatever you do doesn’t mean anything. The river is going to flow and the rocks are not going to get that much older."
“You get down here and realize you are nothing,” says Dimock as we cruise along the cliffs. “You’re in these billion-year-old rocks and this powerful river, and whatever you do doesn’t mean anything. The river is going to flow and the rocks are not going to get that much older, in the big picture. They’ve been there.”
When we’re within sight of the Glen Canyon Dam, a hydroelectric behemoth completed in 1966, we pull in the motors. There’s a sudden serenity—the sound of water lapping against rocks and the hull of the boat, the squeak of oar locks, the thrust of oars into the current, and the current pulling us to its own speed.
We pass over undulating water grass, trout darting away. Dimock tells me he also sees peregrine falcons here, bighorn sheep and roadrunners. Coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions are around too, unseen, as are the Grand Canyon pink rattlesnakes that have taken on the hue of the rocks.
Our first stop is a hidden draw in the canyon walls that Dimock wants to share—he knows the river better than most. The entrance seems too shallow and narrow, but he’s determined. We bump into rocks, then hop out into cold mud and push the dory through a narrow gap. Once inside, there’s a pool and a cathedral-like ambiance of cool, still air. Ferns and moss grow luxuriously on the walls, and a wren flits from clump to clump, picking off insects. Dimock pulls out his ukulele and strums, the soft chords filling the 400-foot chamber.
As a kid growing up outside Ithaca, New York, Dimock was solitary and tells me he wandered around a lot in the woods. “I was kind of a weirdo hippie geek that skipped a lot of classes. I’m still one of the only American males I know who has yet to see a football game.” On his mother’s side, both the men and women had been carpenters for generations.
His freshman orientation at Prescott College in Arizona would change his life. “We took a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon,” he says. “And now look.” That was in 1971. When he needed a summer job he picked one up on the river as a “helper boy.” During his third summer the trip leader didn’t come to work. “I said to the boss, [in a squeaky voice] ‘Um, if Ed doesn’t show up, I think I could get the boat through.’ He didn’t even look up. He just says, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re the trip leader tomorrow.’”
At first, Dimock ran the big motorized rafts, but he would see guides in dories. “I thought they were so cool. I’d be driving by and these guys wouldn’t even look at me.” He eventually befriended a few and asked conservationist and boatman Martin Litton to hire him (Litton helped save the Grand Canyon from a series of dam projects in the 1960s). Litton allowed him to run a few trips in 1978, and Dimock never looked back. Collisions with rocks were common, so repairing dories was a constant part of the process. By the late 1990s, he decided to take the craft more seriously and eventually went to boatbuilding school. “After that, I kind of went obsessive—building, building, building.”
The functional beauty of Dimock's dories took more than a century to evolve. By the early 1900s, fishing guides on rivers in Oregon, rethinking their flat-bottomed rowboats, added a crescent arc to the hull, which allowed them to pivot in the current. They flared the sides for stability and better leverage, using light plywood for the exterior. Around 1940, a guide and boatbuilder named Woodie Hindman gave his boat two “bows” so he could row well against the current and still handle oncoming waves as he faced downstream.
The functional beauty of Dimock's dories took more than a century to evolve.
These vessels were perfect for their environment, but had limitations on more violent water. Jerry Briggs, another boat maker, continued to fiddle with design. His version has a fuller bow that lifts up out of the water. The sides of the hull taper at the top but the bottom is flat and broad in the front to help the boat go over waves, not through them. Litton brought the Briggs variation to the Grand Canyon in 1972, and it eclipsed all the dory iterations before it. “No one to this day has come up with anything better,” insists Dimock.
Just before sunset we pull off to a site below the famous Horseshoe Bend overlook. No one gives any orders, but the tribe of 15 immediately goes about the business of setting up camp: lugging food and tables, setting up a little kitchen with a gas stove and dishwashing station. Rust slices onions and mushrooms, Gallen seasons steaks and Stephanie White starts prepping a chocolate cake. I look up to the rim and see specks of people who’ve driven to the overlook. I feel lucky to be down here.
At twilight the temperature plummets and we sit around the firepit enjoying beautifully seared steaks, sautéed veggies, Arizona wines and that chocolate cake. Andy Hutchinson, Dimock’s best friend and rival boat maker, breaks out a guitar and starts strumming a cowboy song, Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Night Rider’s Lament,” about a life amid nature.
This section of the water is calm compared to the massive rapids downriver, where they also guide. I ask Dimock if he ever gets scared. “Yeah, but I would say on-point more than scared.” He pauses. “I might go the other way. The stresses of working down here are just so tiny compared to dealing with that unnatural, digital ERRERRERRERR out there. The stresses of coexisting with the river, campfire, crazy people you love, are pretty simple.”
There’s a bottle of Irish whiskey doing laps around the group and we each take a swig. We’re in the black maw of the canyon and the stars beyond are shockingly bright. With a full belly, back to the cold, feet to the hot fire, several swigs into the whiskey, I don’t want to move. One by one folks retire, as do I. During the night, the cold awakens me again and again, and each time I look the Little Dipper has moved along the rim.
The next day I’m on the dory of BJ Boyle and his wife, Stephanie White, both river guides. “You should row,” says Boyle. “Can’t really get in any trouble on this stretch.” I take the oars. At first I’m awkward—I sink one oar too deep, one too shallow. But when I nail a few clean strokes, there’s a grace between the density of the water, the arc of the hull and my intentions. The river tilts downhill and the water picks up speed as we approach a set of small rapids. I am able, however imperfectly, to guide the boat where Boyle instructs—a tongue of smooth water between two submerged rocks. We rise and fall through riffles, the fastest we’ve traveled—a fraction of what the boat can handle, but immediately fun.
A few miles downriver we pull off and Dimock leads us on a short hike between massive sandstone shards. We jump from rock to rock and step over bighorn sheep scat. At an oxidized wall he stops and points to a barely discernable human figure about eight inches tall, chipped into the rock. Next to it is what looks like a rudimentary bighorn sheep, and nearby is another animal with a long catlike tail—a mountain lion, perhaps. “Ancestral Puebloan, probably 1,000 years old,” he says.
That night, after dinner, we gather around the campfire again. Hutchinson plays Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” for the circle of friends. I comment to Dimock about how much mutual respect everyone seems to have for each other. “When you work down here, stuff comes down unexpectedly and you need to know everyone around you is there, that they’re not going to walk away. But it’s more than that. It’s a common love for the place and the profession we’re in, and an acceptance of each other’s foibles. All these people are crazy, just like I am. It’s like we found family here. The more you are who you are, the more everybody loves you. And I find in that other world up there, you don’t see that a lot.”
Hutchinson pauses between songs. Talk turns to my departure tomorrow, my return to the surface. Gallen points to the rim. “Remember, they’re the crazy ones.”
Hutchinson then starts strumming Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.” The tribe gathers and everyone belts out the primordial chorus: “Ah-hooo!” Our howl echoes up the canyon. I wonder if the bighorn sheep can hear us. I wonder what the coyotes think.