Dolores boat builder keeps West's classic dories alive
Pioneers' whitewater craft resurfaces with modern improvements, composite construction
An eclectic gang of river runners, Grand Canyon guides, and boating purists take refuge in Dolores during the winter off-season.
The amicable group never strays too far from their coveted rivers, skiing backcountry powder that will soon transform into whitewater rapids, and then quaffing pints of craft beer made from the same water at the Dolores River Brewery.
In between, they gather for thousands of hours to talk rivers, play bluegrass, and build custom boats in the shop of local legend Andy Hutchinson, owner of High Desert Dories.
A master craftsman and Grand Canyon guide, Hutchinson's humble and casual demeanor masks his enthusiastic life passion for building custom dories and piloting them through river country.
"In 1982, I was on a beach at Nankoweap Canyon when I first saw a flotilla of these classic boats coming down the Colorado River," Hutchinson, 57, recalls. "It was like the heavens called down to me, and I've been obsessed ever since."
Dories are wooden oar boats originally used on the great rivers of the West by pioneers including Civil war veteran John Wesley Powell, who completed the first-ever trip down the rapid-choked Grand Canyon rowing a dory in 1869.
Replaced by less aesthetic plastic and rubber rafts that are more forgiving against river rocks, but also more cumbersome, dories fell out of mainstream favor in the 1970s.
But the dory's classic rocker shape, turn-on-a-dime maneuverability, and ample waterproof storage compartments always stayed popular for the old-school crowd, and today they are attracting more converts.
"Dories are the inverse of rafts, so they turn easily with a stroke of the oar, but they do not bounce of rocks very well, so you carry a good-size repair kit, or better yet miss the rocks!" Hutchinson said. "What's nice too is that they're like giant coolers with lots of compartments to take everything along."
Hutchinson's shop phone rings with the details of current and upcoming boat projects, part orders, and river-trip beta.
Dories are made with different materials than in the past, he explains, but they stay true to their original architectural designs. A combination of a fiberglass composite core, and overlapping, marine-grade hardwood panels, make up the modern frame. An "I-Beam" stitching technique reinforces the corners and joints.
The entire boat and hull are further strengthened with layers of additional fiberglass sheets that are "wetted down" with a resin. The concoction literally melts into the specialized wood panels and then cures.
"It is really strong and creates a solid seal," Hutchinson said. "The interior storage holds, the trim, seating, oar locks, and accessories are a lot of custom carpentry."
In older dories, the hull and frame were mostly built with wood planks secured with a rib-cage of lateral supports. But repairs after a crash were much tougher, often requiring several sections to be taken apart and rebuilt on the river.
"The newer composite construction does not require the ribs, and it is just as durable, more lightweight, and much easier to repair," Hutchinson said. "They have the same precision on the water. Loaded with people and gear they have impressive stability in rapids."
Dories float like a cork over towering wave rapids, and then slice down like a scimitar through the troughs, holes, and whirlpools of whitewater. The sleek oar boats have plenty of room for passengers, who don't paddle but are essential for balancing the boat through rough water.
"On a river trips, we have a long training session showing them how to lean into the rapid, take a bite of it, and not flinch backwards because it is so cold. It's just water," Hutchinson says. "With dories, the passenger plays a role using their weight to lean at the right moment to help the oarsman maneuver."
A tactic he knows well. In 2010, Hutchinson reached 100-plus rowing trips down the Grand Canyon. Also an expert kayaker, he won the FibArk down river kayak race on the Arkansas River in 1989 and was a member of the U.S. Mens K-1 Wildwater team Pre-world Championships in France.
Retro dories with their modern construction are expensive, but will last a good boater a lifetime.
Just the materials cost $6,000, and Hutchinson puts approximately 300 hours into building each one. When not guiding on the Colorado River, he's built 25 on his own, and been involved in an additional 70 to 80 dory projects.
In addition to whitewater models, specialized driftboat dories for fishing are also built by order at the Dolores shop. Dories are usually powered by oars, but they can be easily fitted with an outboard motor.
Local boater Scott Spear is contributing labor costs on his new dory, which he plans to name "Dolores" before its maiden voyage on the Green River in April.
"I love the craftsmanship and lines of them," he said. "Dories have a more pioneering feel, and because they are wood, there is more consequence for foul moves. I've only rowed one once. Helping to build it teaches me how to make repairs in case I smash into something."
High Desert Dories also does boat repairs for any type of water craft including canoes, rafts, kayaks and, of course, dories. Hutchinson also does historic boat restoration, boat remodels, and boat design.
Visit the High Desert Dories website at http://hddories.net/ or give Andy a call at (970) 882-3448.