What better place then Woodenboatpeople could there be to share a never before told Grand Canyon McKenzie drift boat story and to share the construction of some remarkable replica boats?

Dave Mortenson has a permit for a Grand Canyon river trip with a 2011 launch. Who is Dave? Well, he’s hiked more of the north side of the river in the western Grand Canyon then most anyone alive, having been hiking there yearly since 1961. He first ran the Colorado River in Grand Canyon as a wee lad of thirteen years back in 1962 before Glen Canyon Dam changed the river.

Dave’s dad, Vernon “Brick” Mortenson, worked his entire life for Lockheed Aircraft. Another Lockheed employee who Brick knew in the 1950’s was a guy named Plez Talmadge “PT” Reilly. Reilly was a river runner, with Grand Canyon traverses in Norm Nevills Cataract boats.

In 1954 and 1955, Reilly built two boats to run Grand Canyon, the SUSIE R and the FLAVELL. Brick got to help with the construction of the FLAVELL. Both of these boats were built out of fiberglass. Both boats used the same fiberglass mold and were fully decked double-ender Cataract boats. With two boats in his “fleet”, Reilly rowed the SUSIE R, but he needed someone else to row the second boat, the FLAVELL.

PT wanted to run the Grand Canyon in 1955, and had invited a fellow named Martin Litton to row his second boat. Martin’s wife and Brick would come along as passengers. Right before the trip, Martin hurt his shoulder. There was no way Martin could row a boat, and Reilly was in a pinch. PT asked Brick if he wanted to be the boatman instead of the passenger on the Grand Canyon River Trip. “You bet” said Mortenson. PT now had his boatman to row the FLAVELL.

The third boat to round out the 1955 trip was a boat called the GEM, made by a guy from Indiana. PT had been introduced to this fellow through correspondence with river historian Doc Marston. Maybe you have not heard about the GEM? Well, check this out…

In a nutshell, the GEM was built in the winter of 1951-52 in Muncie Indiana by Moulton Fulmer. Fulmer’s first exposure to river running occurred when he went on a Norm Nevills “San Juan punt” trip in 1942. Fulmer then built two modified “San Juan punt” design boats in Muncie before serving in WW II.

In 1945, Fulmer was stationed in Oregon where someone mentioned Fulmer should go meet a guy who was building boats. That guy was one Woodie Hindman. Fulmer sought out Woodie, the two talked, and Woody showed Fulmer what Hindman was working on, the McKenzie Double Ender. The concept of a steep rocker double-ender clicked with Fulmer.

Back in Muncie after the war, Fulmer built his first real boat, a 15 foot double-ender with a 4 foot beam. Fulmer ran this boat down the San Juan in 1947. Nevills took Fulmer on a 1948 Grand Canyon trip, and Fulmer went on to row the Yampa, the Uinta Basin and Desolation and Grey Canyons, and Bluff to Lee’s Ferry, all in his 15 foot double-ender.

Not happy with the thought of Grand Canyon rapids and the width of his boat’s small 4 foot beam or the Canyon’s rocks and the ¼ inch plywood he had used, Fulmer built another boat, the GEM. The GEM had a wider beam. Only in building the replica of the GEM have I come to realize Fulmer built a beautiful Hindman double-ender with a transom, and he armor plated it, using the armoring techniques he had seen on the Nevills cataract boats and the Hindman Double enders. It was an armored double-ender, the first of its kind in Grand Canyon, built for Grand Canyon’s rough and rocky water.

Fulmer and Reilly met up at Lee’s Ferry in 1955, and made a successful run through Grand Canyon. Mortenson ran the FLAVELL with passengers Martin Litton and Martin’s wife, making their first complete run of the Grand Canyon. They ran again in 1956. This time Martin rowed the FLAVELL. This was Martin’s first Lee’s Ferry to Temple Bar Grand Canyon trip where he rowed a double-ender Cataract boat. Reilly rowed the SUSIE R, and Fulmer the GEM.

They were back in 1957. Brick was once again at the oars of the FLAVELL, as Martin had other commitments, with Reilly in the SUSIE R and Fulmer in the GEM. The river was running at almost 120,000cfs when the group departed Lees Ferry. When they reached Bright Angel the river was still at 103,000cfs. The group decided to stop the trip at Phantom Ranch and they all hiked out.

The 1958 river party hiked back into Phantom where the water was over 60,000cfs and rising. PT was again at the sticks on the SUSIE R, Fulmer in the GEM, and Brick in the FLAVELL. Tragedy struck when Brick flipped the FLAVELL below Deer Creek at about 80,000cfs, and the FLAVELL was lost downriver. After rescuing Brick and his passenger, the party of six, now on two boats, ran down to Lava Falls. At Lava it was decided to ghost run the boats from Lava Falls to Lake Mead and hike out the Lava Falls Trail. The empty boats were pushed into the river upstream of Lava. Without boats, the river runners became hikers, hiking up the steep Lava Falls route. Ranger John Riffey at Toroweap loaned them his car, and they drove around to Temple Bar, rented a motorboat, and headed up-lake to look for their boats.

On the lake up-run, they met Georgie White, who had been running a day ahead of them when they lost the FLAVELL. Here she was, on her run-out towing the FLAVELL! Georgie agreed to tow the Flavell into Temple Bar while PT and his crew looked for the other two boats. The search party recovered the SUSIE R. And the GEM? It was lost. Simply gone. How could a boat just disappear?

Reilly invited Fulmer in 1959 to run the Grand Canyon rowing the FLAVELL, while PT would run the SUSIE R. The now five year old fiberglass boats were in bad shape and just after leaving Phantom, the SUSIE R and FLAVELL were loaded with rocks, holed, and pushed into the water above Pipe Creek Rapid. The Colorado claimed two more boats never to be seen again.

But the GEM was not lost. Amazingly, low water in Lake Mead in 1964 uncovered the GEM in a cleft of rock in Lake Mead. The hulk was removed to Boulder City, then to the South Rim, where it was put in the back of the Kolb Studio Garage. Yes, the same garage of the famous river runner Emery Kolb. Dave Mortenson asked me to go see if I could find the GEM at the South Rim in 2006. With the help of Grand Canyon National Park Special Collections staff and a few dedicated friends like Hazel Clark and Jim McCarthy, after two years of cleaning and building a temporary cradle under the boat, the GEM was ready for removal from the garage. The NPS removed the cradled GEM from the Kolb Garage in late 2008 and the GEM is now being stored with the other historic boats in the Park’s collection of boats.

The “We” that helped build the replica of the GEM in 2009 are Tom Martin, with assistance and oversight from a lot of folks including Dave Mortenson, Hazel Clark, Kyle and Lincoln Frye, Bob and Beth Goforth, Larry Hedrick and Jon Aldritt. While the GEM replica was built in Arizona, up in the Seattle area, Dave Mortenson and Ian Alexander have just completed building replica's of the SUSIE R and the FLAVELL. In 2011, a few short months away, we plan to launch these historic replicas at Lee's Ferry and head downriver into Grand Canyon to honor those who paved the way for so many river runners who followed in their oar strokes.


Meanwhile, Tom took the GEM replica through Grand Canyon in December January 2009-2010. The GEM handled beautifully! Tom managed not to flip the GEM in Grand Canyon, but did flip the boat in Pearce Ferry Rapid in Lake Mead (of all places!). Practice makes perfect!

Special thanks to the Fulmer Family, the Joe Szep Family, the Special Collections of Grand Canyon National Park, the University of Utah, Northern Arizona University, the Huntington Library and the State of Utah Archives. None of this text or the attached photos may be used without my express permission, thanks, Tom Martin tomhazel@grand-canyon.az.us

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Comment by Tom Martin on December 14, 2009 at 5:36am
Hi Uku, there are a bunch of wonderful stories out there to discover, and it is a lot of fun! No, Dave doesn't have a page up yet, but when he does, I'll post it here. Your boat looks great! And it looks like a lot of fun to build with your dad! A lot of this boat building and running is a family thing and that is very cool! Please keep on posting pictures of your dory progress! Happy River Trails, tom
Comment by Kelly Neu on December 13, 2009 at 9:54pm
Does Dave Mortenson have a blog or any project pics online? I'm building a wwdory close to Seattle too. It would be fun to see what he is up to.
Comment by Kelly Neu on December 13, 2009 at 9:44pm
Thanks for the story Tom. I think its stories like these that make me love the river so much. What these guys and gals were doing back in the day is adventure and misadventure at its best. Kinda of makes me wish for a time machine. I guess a wooden boat will have to do...
Comment by Tom Martin on October 11, 2009 at 9:15pm
Hi mike, thanks for your thoughts! It seems there's a big resurgence in dorys commercially on the Grand these days. That's VERY cool! As far as i can tell, Fulmers two boats, the MOJA and the GEM, are the first McKenzie double enders to travel the Colorado river. It IS a very cool story. Yes, we are certainly going to be doing filming and photo rematching as we go. It will be in the winter, so the lighting won't be right, but getting a summer permit is mightyy hard. Thanks for your offer of support. I'll pass your request on to Dave Mortenson if you could please e-mail me at tomhazel@grand-canyon.az.us

Thanks so much, yours, tom
Comment by Tom Martin on April 13, 2009 at 9:14pm
Hi Greg and Rick, no, Kyle is just building the Keith Steele replica of the SUSIE TOO. Dave Mortenson has a good friend who's brother had built three drift boats, and he's excited to start the construction of the FLAVELL and SUSIE R near Seattle. If you'd like to get involved in this project, contact Dave at dave_AT_davemortenson.com
Best to you both, tom
Comment by Rick Newman on April 13, 2009 at 6:10pm
Maybe you will have to bring a videographer along! I don't know if anyone has ever done a live feed from a raft trip in the Canyon. that would be your department!

Rick Newman
Comment by Greg Hatten on April 13, 2009 at 2:36pm
Tom,
Is Kyle building the replica of the Flavell, too? If not, I'd volunteer to help on that one & I'm pretty sure Randy and Roger would love to be involved as well... just a thought from your McKenzie River boat building brothers.
By the way - I like the idea of the satellite feed on the building and the running of the river... (helmut cam??).
GH
Comment by Tom Martin on April 12, 2009 at 9:07pm
Hi Dave, thanks for your note. Yes, ti IS very interesting. Glen Canyon Dam changed the Grand Canyon in many ways. One was allowing the bloom in outfitting trips, which Martin was a part of as you point out. The small dory's were transformed into big boats capable of hauling 5 folks in comfort. The 1950's dory's carried two to three in comfort, and that was it. Kyle Frye is building a replica of the Keith Steele boat the SUSIE TOO. You can see his replica in some of the shots of the GEM. It's the boat in the background. All the best, yours, tom
Comment by David Jensen on April 12, 2009 at 4:11pm
Very interesting story. Martin Litton went on to outfitting trips through the Canyon. At one time he had his wooden dorries built here in Vida, Oregon, by the late Keith Steele. Several of us saw Litton's dorries when in Jordan Valley, Oregon, when we were getting ready to start down the Owyhee River in our wooden McKenzie driftboats. The dorries, by then fiberglass, were huge and very cool.
Comment by Tom Martin on April 12, 2009 at 7:54am
Hi Geg, Rick and Randy, thanks so much for your kindness and interest. Will keep adding photos as we go along. Satellite feed? Never thought of that...will check with Dave! The web cam at the building sites? Well, we could train it on the chickens in their cage...way better then watching me get splinters in my fingers and covered in epoxy :>) All the best, tom

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