Want to gain an appreciation of little boats in the Big Ditch? Look no farther than Flagstaff author and longtime Grand Canyon river guide Tom Martin’s new book, Big Water, Little Boats; Moulty Fulmer and the First Grand Canyon Dory on the last of the Wild Colorado River.
“The book project took shape in a most wonderful way,” says Martin, who also heads River Runners for Wilderness and has penned several guidebooks to rivers in the Southwest. “We were able to track down and visit with a number of the 1950’s river runners who played a part in this incredible story. Their enthusiasm to share their Grand Canyon experiences was contagious.”
In piecing together the book, Martin traipsed across the country interviewing those still around from the Grand Canyon’s early dory days. “I’ll never forget the day in 2006 when we opened up the Kolb Garage at the South Rim to lay eyes on Grand Canyon’s first dory, the GEM,” he says. “It was covered in rat excrement and seemed destined to live out its remaining years in poor curation. It had spent six years underwater in Lake Mead before being recovered in 1964. Then it spent a decade and a half in a Boulder, Nevada, warehouse.”
In 1979, he says, the boat was shipped to Grand Canyon National Park, where Martin stumbled upon it. Since writing Big Water Little Boats, he adds, the GEM has gone through a full curation visit by National Park Service curators and has a new lease on life.
Throughout the project, Martin also took several historical missions into the Canyon. “At one point we were re-matching photos from the historic 1957 high water river trip at 126,000 cfs,” he says. “We found not only the campfire rings from that trip, but some tools the river runners had left behind.”
One of the 1957 river runners, he says, was 15-year-old Priss Becker. “At one camp we found a small collection of wonderfully colored rocks,” he says. “I called her from Phantom Ranch after we found the rock cluster, and while Priss remembered leaving the rocks in a pile, she did not recall where she had done it. She told me her uncle, Moulton Fulmer, the builder of the original GEM, had asked her to collect nice looking rocks on that high water trip as he was into lapidary at the time.”
As for the rebuilt GEM, Martin says it handles like its namesake. “Building an exact sized replica of it was a blast,” he says. “It’s like a sports car, and is super fun to row. If you see the red, white and blue GEM on the water, row over and hop in the driver’s seat. I’ll sit in the back while you take it for a spin!”
The bottom line, he adds, is one of respect for river runners of the past in the Big Ditch. “We will do well to remember that 1950s Grand Canyon river runners had a skill set that included running big water in little boats,” he says. “We owe it to the river runners who went before us to remember their history.”
Martin is touring the West this spring and summer with a 55-minute, multi-media program featuring original photographs and film footage from various early Grand Canyon River trips, including the 1957 flow of 126,000 cfs, the highest water ever navigated in Grand Canyon. The presentation tells how Indiana native Fulmer happened upon the McKenzie River hull design of today’s Pacific Northwest boats, and how he used that design to build the Gem, the first Grand Canyon dory. Martin also touches upon building a full-sized replica of the Gem and what it was like to row it through the Grand Canyon.