Dory Trips in Grand Canyon
By the mid 1950’s, it was readily evident that inflatable rafts were the only sensible future for whitewater recreation. They were easy to transport and store, carried a heavy payload, and all but ignored the buffeting of rocks and jagged walls. And they were, at the time, dirt cheap, as the U.S. Military was dumping surplus rubber from war efforts overseas. The era of wooden boats had come to its logical end. Would the phenomenon of dory trips Grand Canyon ever exist?
Fortunately, logic is not everyone’s strong suit. Martin Litton, a self-taught environmentalist from California, did his first river trips in the mid 1950’s. He learned the trade from P.T. Reilly, who was running a fiberglass variation of the traditional wooden Cataract boat introduced in the 1930s by Norman Nevills. A few years later Reilly, disgusted with how leaky his boats had become, scuttled his fleet in the middle of Grand Canyon and retired. When Litton called Reilly in 1962 to run a publicity trip to fight the growing threat of dams in Grand Canyon, it was easy for Reilly to say no. He’d sunk all his boats.
Logic or Push the Boundaries?
At this point it would have been logical for Litton to buy a few rafts and run the trip. But no. He had rowed wooden Oregon drift boats a year earlier on the McKenzie River and thought their beautiful high prows and fired sides would make excellent boats for Grand Canyon’s rapids. And they did. Martin called them dories, for their strong resemblance to the archetype New England cod fishing dories. He liked not only the look, but the heritage the name evoked. The Grand Canyon dory boat was born.
The Grand Canyon Dory is Born
Litton and Reilly found the Oregon “dories” to be the finest whitewater boats they had yet rowed. And although Reilly retired from river running two years later, Litton doubled down on the fragile wooden boats. By 1970, he had begun a small commercial operation taking tourists through Grand Canyon in the fragile wooden boats. Asked why, he simply replied,
“There’s a kind of magic about the shape of the boat in terms of its stability and its ability to recover from extreme situations. The boat is something beautiful to look at: it has lines that belong on the water. There’s a mystic thing about a dory, to those of us who know them. I feel that anyone who looks at a dory and then has to ask why you use that will never understand, no matter what kind of answer you give.”
In the 80’s
Litton sold off his company in 1987, but by then the contagion had spread. One after another, commercial tour companies began adding these marvelous boats to their fleets; passengers began asking for them; and worst of all, boatmen continued to fall in love with the uniqueness of dory trips Grand Canyon. Although many river guides are quite content rowing a more forgiving, sensible, and still highly enjoyable inflatable raft, some guides have fallen prey to the siren lure of the dory.
Many have gone on to buy or build their own and delight in taking passengers through Grand Canyon’s great rapids aboard their beautiful craft. And although many passengers prefer to ride on a rowing or paddle raft, a few guests even swallow the hook of dory travel and from that point on, will travel no other way. Rowing wooden boats backward but still moving forward remains an intriguing piece of Grand Canyon history.
There are still commercial Colorado River rafting outfitters that offer a river trip through the Grand Canyon by dory. Arizona Raft Adventures (AzRA), out of Flagstaff, Arizona, offers a Grand Canyon adventure featuring these boats. The trip is staffed with dory captains who relish in the nostalgic and traditional ride. And while all seasons offer unique beauty in different forms, this trip is typically scheduled for April. April is a beautiful time of year as the Grand Canyon springs to life again. The guides are delicately chosen with guides who are not only exceptional at running the river but also possess a knack for storytelling. They relay the most amazing grand canyon stories in both history and present. Inquire directly with Arizona Raft Adventures (800-786-7238) to hear more about the next dory adventure.
Article primarily written by Grand Canyon River Guide and Dory enthusiast, Brad Dimock. Brad has a long history as a boatman, storyteller, boat builder and dory expert, and as a guide at Arizona Raft Adventures.