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 firstname.lastname@example.org