Fear & Dories: The Ups and Downs of Rowing the Legendary Whitewater Boats

6 Min. Read
An OARS guide rows a dory on the Salmon River
Photo courtesy Mia Clyatt

I let my oars drag in the cool, clear water, flexing my wrists experimentally. I feel the weight of the wooden handles shift against my palms as I float away from the put-in. I look over my shoulder at the line of yellow rafts spooling out from the shore, then turn and push confidently into the current. The water catches the wooden chine of the Negit, the 40-year-old dory I’m rowing.

The first rapid on the Snake River through Hells Canyon is immediately below the put-in, a fan of shallow rocks constricting the current as it careens into a massive basalt cliff face. The result is a rollercoaster of a right turn, a splashy crowd-pleaser promising what’s to come. I feel the balance of the dory, immediately recognizing it’s off. A co-worker packed the boat for me, and my instructions weren’t very good. The boat is stern heavy and lilting to the left. When water catches the heavy stern, it spins the boat, the dory eagerly tracking, keen and alive in a way entirely separate from rafts. It is this sensation, this aliveness, that spawns the unique relationship between guides and dories. The dories have names, and we can’t help but give them character and charisma, as well. When the boat charges towards a large rapid, picking up speed, racing with the river and dancing up and over waves, I give the vote of confidence to the boat, and not my own skill. “She loves big water,” I say. “She was built for this.”

Whitewater dories at the OARS boathouse in Flagstaff, AZ.
Cathedral in the Desert dory at the OARS boathouse in Flagstaff, AZ | Photo by Amy Martin

And that’s the truth—she was built for this. Modern whitewater dories were developed in the 1970’s by Martin Litton, the late conservationist and founder of Grand Canyon Dories. They were built to take on the massive whitewater of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. The legacy of these hand-crafted boats remains intact, and they shine in big water. I feel this intimately every time I row big rapids, and struggle with the inverse whenever I’m picking a rocky, low-water line on a September Salmon River trip. “They are silly boats,” I tell my guests with a lopsided smile, explaining time and time again how to high-side, how to bail, and half-joke, half-plea, “No sand in the Negit!”

As the water level in the free-flowing Salmon drops from June highs, it becomes calamitously low for wooden boats. The metal fleet goes out instead—dented favorites like the Tuolumne and Malibu Canyon, their battered sides an ode to new dory boaters and low-water mistakes. By August, only one or two wooden boats will be out on the water. I hold this knowledge in my gut when I row the Negit, occasionally letting the wariness rise to my throat and chest as I navigate the river corridor cautiously, and ever alert. When I’m hot and exhausted, and my forearms and back are killing me, it is protectiveness, and on a deeper level, fear, that I turn to: fear of harming this precious, fragile boat, but also fear of disappointing those who have rowed her before, or will row her someday.

A dory running the Snake River through Hells Canyon on an OARS trip
The Negit dory on the Snake River | Photo by Andrew Miller

The Negit was Joel’s boat in the beginning. When I started it was Amber’s boat then Lauren’s, and Kale rows it now, too. I think of them: every person who has ever sat centered on her hull, every guide who has ever navigated her through the rapids. I can feel them, watching, some of them waiting back at the warehouse. Their potential disappointment laps at the edges of my mind.

The first time I rowed the Negit, it was only my third time rowing a dory. OARS Idaho’s Lower Salmon Dory School was out on the water, and the Negit was the only available boat in the warehouse. I took it down Hells Canyon then, too. As nervous as I was, I “fluff packed” it, putting only light gear in the boat with the hope that it would sit higher in the water and be less likely to hit a rock. It was a rookie mistake, particularly on a high-volume river like the Snake. A dory that is lightly packed floats like a cork, prone to the whims of the current more than the intention of the guide. A heavy dory tracks and is easier to maneuver, despite the increased physical strain. I ran clean, luckily, and learned innumerable lessons, the simplest of which runs through my mind every time I row a dory: stop looking at the rock, gosh darn it…look where you want to go.

Rowing a dory on the Snake River in Idaho
The author rowing a dory on the Snake River | Photo courtesy of Mia Clyatt

I remember this lesson in Lower Bernard as I shoot through the rapid and catapult toward a barely-submerged boulder. I’m trying to push right of the rock. My eyes lock onto it as I rocket sideways, a seemingly magnetic pull dragging the Negit towards it. I move the boat left at the last second, the massive strokes tearing at my aching shoulders, my breath sucked in and held as if I could somehow suck the bottom of the boat up and away from the boulder. The dory slides inches past the rock, and I let out a sigh of relief. I thank the Negit for taking care of me on that one.

I like to trade stories with other river guides about rowing dories. We laugh over near misses and big lines, interjecting into each other’s stories with excited exclamations, the shared experiences rolling us through a familiar emotional landscape. In these conversations, I also see the nuance in our sentiments. Fear is the universal undercurrent: fear of hitting rocks, damaging the dory, running a bad line, or losing the hard-earned status given to a dory boater. Fear of never getting to row a dory again. But fear intertwines with excitement and joy.

Dories require us to be alert and always in-tune with the river, setting a careful and intentional line at all water levels. Perhaps it is this added challenge, an intoxicating mixture of trepidation and delight, that draws us, holds us, and makes us love these silly wooden boats.

Back in Hells Canyon, I square my shoulders below Lower Bernard. Next up is a Class IV rapid called Waterspout. At the current water level, a series of large laterals coming off the right shore push you into a massive wave train, terminating with a rock that will wrap an 18-foot boat in a heartbeat. It’s big volume, big consequence. I start to smile—it’s just the kind of rapid the Negit loves.


Mia Clyatt

Mia Clyatt is a professional river guide, ski patroller and an advocate for wilderness. She loves good food, good company, and open ranges.

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