As we drifted around the bend, grey cliffs in front of us parted before our boat like gates to an elven land. The velvety green hills reaching high above the pewter-colored cliffs would wow just about anyone, but they had a tough time competing for my attention with something else on the Main Salmon River: the other dories bobbing and gliding down the river behind us.
Dories turn heads. They’re graceful, both moving through the water and tied up at camp. And they’re less common on the rivers of the West these days than their big rubber cousins. But do they really live up to the hype? On a six-day dory trip down the Salmon this summer, I gave that some thought—and came out an unabashed dory fan. Here are three reasons dories take a river trip to the next level.
They give a super intimate sense of the river.
About to drop into Ludwig Rapid, guide Barry Dow stood up with the oars in his hands, eyeing his line. He waved one of us to scoot two inches to one side to balance our weight, and reminding us to be ready to “high side,” or jump to one side of the boat to help right it if it got tipped by a wave. The bow dipped over the glassy green edge of the rapid, the rest gliding behind, and we rode through the splashing whitewater below as smoothly as if it were a well greased roller coaster.
Dories are a lot less forgiving of rocks and crashes than rubber rafts are. A hit can put a hole in the hull, to be patched on the fly. Mistakes are costly. So to navigate one of these beautiful boats through serious water requires a deep understanding of what the water’s doing, and what it will do to the boat. Even riding along in one gives a more intimate sense of the river than most other boats allow.
They carry with them a sense of craftsmanship lost to most of the modern world.
Amber Shannon’s strokes with the oars were small, sensitive to the water’s own movements instead of muscling against them. I’d asked her about the boat she was rowing, the Quartz Creek, and she pointed out the funny quirks, like a slightly crooked latch, that make it unique. She explained that over the years, these historic boats—some of them as old as 40 years—have been mended by the different boatmen who’ve rowed them, slept on them, lived on them. In a culture where so many of the objects we surround ourselves with are mass-produced and throwaway, riding on a boat with its own history and character feels like a special treat. It whispers of past adventures, of feats of bravery and maybe even some stupidity. It carries with it a sense of craftsmanship and story that we rarely see in this day and age.
They’re a reminder of places lost—and of places that still need to be protected.
On each of the OARS dories, a hand-painted image decorates the bow. From the Glen Canyon to the Quartz Creek, they’re reminders of places in nature that have been changed or destroyed by human hands without need. They exist as memorials to those places, so they aren’t forgotten; but perhaps more importantly, they serve as a reminder that no place is sacred and forever protected. The paint strokes on each boat are reminders to us that none of our beloved natural sanctuaries are truly guaranteed to be preserved eternally. Lest we grow complacent, they implore us to take a stand against development of the wild places that remind us of our smallness as humans.
The story of river dories is deeply entwined with the history of conservation—with activist Martin Litton taking journalists out on rivers, hoping they would take a stand against developments like dams in the Grand Canyon. The eternal refrain is: the more people who get to experience these special places, the more people will be likely to stand up for their preservation. Any trip down a river is special, but floating on these sculptural boats, adorned with paintings of those lost gems, can be a heady experience. It’s a constant reminder of places that we’ve lost, and how fleeting our own river experiences could be, if we don’t pay attention and stand up to defend the places we love.