A new TV documentary about John Wesley Powell's famed exploration of the Grand Canyon has come to Washington for authentic — if ill-suited — wooden watercraft.
LONG BEFORE any modern-day, quinoa-gobbling Californian had the notion, John Wesley Powell may have been the first nonnative to advance the concept of sustainability in the American West. As an early director of the U.S. Geological Survey, he fought — unsuccessfully — to curb the 19th-century homesteading frenzy until the government could ensure there was enough water to go around (which there wasn’t).
However, the one-armed Union Army veteran’s big claim to fame was an adventure in which he brought a pocketknife to a gunfight. So to speak.
What he brought was a handful of alarmingly ill-suited wooden boats on the first recorded exploration of the Grand Canyon’s wild rapids.
It was 1869. More than 60 years after Lewis and Clark first mapped much of the West, one part of the American atlas remained a blur: the Green and Colorado River system of Utah and Arizona.
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Powell, a National Geographic Society founder known for his ego, wasn’t about to let that stand. He led a 1,000-mile journey into the unknown, only vaguely aware of — or perhaps unabashed by — the thrashing water that awaited him.
Through dumb luck, of his original 10-member expedition only three who deserted and hiked out perished. Over 99 days, others bulled their way through misadventures such as when Powell got in a jam scaling a cliff and a companion pulled off his own trousers to offer a lifeline to the expedition leader, who could grab with only one hand (the other taken by a Shiloh musket ball).
Symbolic of Powell’s almost numbskulled approach to Western rivers was his command post on a later exploration: a wooden captain’s chair, like you might find at any dining table, lashed atop his boat.
Nevertheless, his explorations captured the public’s imagination, the exploits told through Powell’s own journals along with later biographies and films.
Nor is that fascination finished. Set to film in August, a sort of reality-TV documentary for the BBC and Discovery Channel will retrace the expedition.
And there’s a Northwest connection. The BBC commissioned the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding, in Port Hadlock, Jefferson County, to construct for the program three replicas of Powell’s boats.
Like many things connected with modern television production, the order came with “rush” stamped at the top, calling for innovation and hard work from resourceful individuals unwilling to say “it can’t be done.”
In that sense, the endeavor, in its own little ways, mirrored Powell’s journey.
PETE LEENHOUTS, the retired U.S. Navy captain who runs the boat school, first heard from the BBC in June 2012.
A production assistant got wind of the school from someone in Arizona who remembered it had built similar boats for a TV production in the early 1980s.
“At least one of those is in a museum somewhere, we’re told,” Leenhouts says.
The BBC palavered into late fall before finalizing an order for three Whitehall “pulling boats” like Powell used, to be copied as best as possible. (Powell started with four boats, but one smashed on rocks 80 miles into the journey, losing many supplies and dashing original plans for a 10-month voyage.)
“I said absolutely we can do this,” Leenhouts recalls. “The Whitehall was the white pickup truck of its day.”
Many were certainly sturdy utility craft, while others were more like aquatic Lincoln Town Cars, ferrying the well-heeled back and forth to ships anchored in the harbors of Boston and New York.
All were a far cry from the maneuverable inflated rafts used on white water today.
It’s known that Powell’s Whitehalls were custom-built in Chicago, beefed up from the original design, but no precise plans exist. All the boat school had to go on were these paragraphs from Powell’s journal:
“Three are built of oak; stanch and firm; double-ribbed, with double stem and stern posts, and further strengthened by bulkheads, dividing each into three compartments.
Two of these, the fore and aft, are decked, forming watertight cabins. It is expected these will buoy the boats should the waves roll over them in rough water. The little vessels are 21 feet long, and, taking out the cargoes, can be carried by four men.
The fourth boat is made of pine, very light, but 16 feet in length, with a sharp cutwater, and every way built for fast rowing, and divided into compartments as the others.”
“That’s all I got!” bemoans Ben Kahn, the boat-school instructor who took on designing the larger vessels, a task he tackled Christmas Eve in his rural cabin.
“When you’re talking to a shipwright, those terms really don’t mean much. I presume a stem post is the stem and a stern post is the stern, and double ribbed means either twice as many frames or twice the sizes.”
Based on drawings of a 17-foot Whitehall, the closest thing he could find in a book of old boat plans, “I both boosted the number of frames and made them half again as thick and half again as wide.”
Kahn, an affable, ginger-bearded kid-in-a-grown-up’s-body, at 36 still totes a skateboard on the seat of his beat-up F250 pickup with the bumper sticker “Say no to GMO Frankenstein foods.” But he’s a boatbuilding whiz, with a degree in industrial technology from Kentucky’s Berea College. As an instructor in Port Hadlock’s Traditional Large Craft program, he oversaw construction of the boats he designed.
“I’ve always been really excited about building these boats,” Kahn says. “But I told the producer, ‘We’re just re-creating a really bad idea.’ “
“WE KNOW THESE remarkable guys navigated this river in boats that today we’d never consider,” says BBC producer Cameron Balbirnie, who calls his planned filming approach “experiential history.”
It won’t be a scripted re-enactment with period costume “and people talking funny,” but will take “a specially picked crew who will work with 19th-century tools and equipment, and eat the same type of food as Powell’s original expedition, re-creating some of his scientific investigations along the way.”
Powell was fascinated by geology and natural history, perhaps why he wanted to sit up high and get a good look around. In deference to him, will they bring a captain’s chair?
“That’s one thing we’ll be leaving behind, and nor are we demanding to cut off one of our crew’s arms. But we’ll bring along a geologist, a naturalist, a historian. With 19th-century barometers and sextants, what can we do that he did?”
They will also follow his river-running technique: portaging supplies around the wildest rapids, while using lines to guide boats through, “though we’ve been told that lining the boats on ropes is one of the most dangerous activities of all!” Balbirnie says.
The goal in reliving Powell’s difficulties, he explains, is to “more fully understand his remarkable experience.”
IN THEIR sawdust-scented workshop overlooking the bay at Port Hadlock, where a table saw’s whine competes with the honking of Canada geese from a nearby lagoon, the boat builders, too, got to understand some of Powell’s experience: specifically, the challenge of building traditional wooden boats on a deadline.
The construction time was enough, provided materials were ready at hand. They weren’t.
White pine, used in Powell’s smaller boat, once grew all over the upper Midwest, but that was 1869. It’s not available now. So, for the 16-foot boat, the builders substituted larch, which grows in the Northwest and has similar characteristics. Easy call.
But the BBC insisted on white oak for the bigger boats. And these days, you can’t just walk into Home Depot and find oak of the size needed for 21-foot planks.
Leenhouts located oak for the boats’ keels and frames (sometimes called ribs) from a Port Townsend supplier, Edensaw Woods. But for planks — the long, parallel pieces that are assembled like strips of banana skin to form the hull — he had to go farther. He called Newport (R.I.) Nautical Timbers, in New England’s maritime heartland.
“They speak boat building, and they got very excited,” he says.
They knew of a stand of oak they could cut, but it would take six weeks to get.
That was December. The clock was ticking.
HOW BULLETPROOF do these boats need to be? Here’s Powell’s journal, from June 8, 1869:
“A boat riding (a steep rapid) leaps and plunges along with great velocity. Now, the difficulty in riding over these falls … is in the first wave at the foot … If the boat strikes it the instant after it breaks, she cuts through, and the mad breaker dashes its spray over the boat, and would wash us overboard did we not cling tight. If the boat, in going over the falls, chances to get caught in some side current … so as to strike the wave ‘broadside on,’ and the wave breaks at the same instant, the boat is capsized. Still, we must cling to her, for, the watertight compartments acting as buoys, she cannot sink; and so we go, dragged through the waves, until still waters are reached. We then right the boat, and climb aboard. We have several such experiences today.”
Capsizing aside, Ben Kahn’s challenge was to deliver boats that don’t leak. With freshly cut oak?
For the lumber-ly uninitiated, a quick primer: Trees, like any living thing, are full of water. Cut wood naturally shrinks as it dries. For boatbuilding, wood should be dried sufficiently that it won’t keep shrinking after the boat is built, lest seams open and let in water. Kiln-drying is good for firewood but not for boats; it sets up the wood’s natural lignin, kind of an internal glue, and makes the wood too stiff to twist to a hull’s shape and too brittle to take screws.
The ideal natural drying time for oak is a year per inch of thickness. The equation: Boats ordered in November + trees cut in January + July delivery date = Nail-biting shipwrights.
“Who knows how this oak will shrink up when taken to (the Grand Canyon), with 12 percent humidity and 9,500 degrees?” boat-school instructor Jeff Hammond wonders, with only partial hyperbole.
But Powell’s original boats were also built in a rush, “and they leaked like a sieve, too,” Kahn observes, somehow finding comfort there.
Bottom line: This re-enactment may be authentic.
KAHN AND HIS eight students, ranging in age from 19 to 63, beavered away into spring with the wood’s 33 percent moisture content foremost in mind. (In the range of 12 percent is desirable.)
They tweaked building techniques, skipping planks as they attached them to frames to allow shrinkage before adding adjoining pieces.
With most boats, planks that require twisting to follow the hull’s shape are limbered up in a steam oven. With these boats every plank went in a home-built steamer, hand-labeled the “Steamy Caboose.” Oak planks sweated out water the way a tubby spa-goer perspires in a steam room.
On a March visit, I watch students scurry with a hot plank, steam billowing from it like a tea kettle, to be affixed to a nascent hull. Four helpers place it as student Gina Bonneau, a 28-year-old University of Nebraska film-studies grad who belatedly chose to become a shipwright, drives first screws with the “braaap, braaap” of a power drill.
“Go ahead and start twisting!” Kahn calls out, his head pivoting as if in charge at an operating table. Then, like a cardiac surgeon who’s found a bleeder, “We need more clamps!”
It’s meticulous work, using skills 200 years old. In 10 minutes 25 C-clamps clench the plank in place. “Looks good, I think it’s lunchtime!” Kahn calls.
Students gather outside and create a makeshift barbecue from the steamer’s propane burner to heat what they’ve brought for lunch. Backgrounds vary widely. Mark Stuber, 32, loves this project because he is a white-water river runner who has paddled the Grand Canyon. Noah Flegeal, 26, from Philadelphia, is here to supplement his English degree. Patrick Carlisle, 63, who lives on Camano Island, is switching careers to be a boat surveyor — and wants to beef up his old Chris-Craft for an Alaska cruise.
For now, they’re all part of a history project.
TOWARD CONSTRUCTION’S end — the deadline trounced — comes news that Kahn will join the BBC voyage, something for which Leenhouts lobbied hard.
Before committing, the producers asked for a screen test, which a Port Townsend videographer shot in February. Among other things, “they wanted a soulful picture of Ben looking up into space,” Leenhouts says with a wry shrug.
But he’s happy it’s worked out.
“There needs to be a boat builder to help repair these boats. They’re going to ram rocks and bounce off things. One boat was crushed to kindling (on the original voyage). They’re going to have planking sprung and caulking pounded out and oars broken.”
Kahn says he’s already had anxiety dreams about it.
“These boats aren’t at all right for the Grand Canyon. It’s dangerous … But I’m one of these persons who likes near-death experiences, with the rush of adrenaline that comes. That sort of adrenaline lets us know we’re alive.”
He’ll have to eat what Powell ate, sleep as Powell slept and get doused as Powell got doused. Ironically, Powell encountered more water in the West — up close and personally — than he likely ever wished for.
Kahn can take comfort in one thing to which this expedition will have access that the original didn’t:
Brian J. Cantwell is The Seattle Times outdoors editor and travel writer. Mark Harrison is a Times staff photographer.