Whitewater Dories: Rare Birds, Indeed

By Susan Munroe

Holiday prides itself on maintaining a sharp-looking fleet of rafts, custom-built for comfort and efficiency. In the last few years, however, guests on Holiday trips have been surprised to show up at the warehouse before a trip and see, among the white, red, and gray rafts stacked on trailers, a bonus wooden boat: a dory.

If you’ve read the book “The Emerald Mile” by Kevin Fedarko (and if you haven’t, you should), you’ll be familiar with the idea of a Grand Canyon dory: a gaily painted wooden craft that seems highly impractical for the rocky canyons of the Colorado River and yet so sleek and smooth that it seems to be made of the river itself.

Martin Litton, river runner and outspoken environmental activist, introduced dories to the Colorado River after rowing a version of them in Idaho and Oregon and falling in love with their floating teacup elegance. Serious students of boat building history can describe in loving detail how Litton and others experimented with several iterations before developing the now famous “Briggs” style, but you don’t have to understand the engineering to appreciate the look of a bright hull cutting through smooth, reflective water or exploding over a wave in a rapid.

Litton’s dories were painted in various patterns with colors that complement and blend with the desert river canyons: red, white, and turquoise. They were named for places that have been lost to human shortsightedness: Hetch Hetchy. Dark Canyon. Music Temple. Flaming Gorge. The title boat of “The Emerald Mile” was named “in honor of a dense and towering stand of continuous old-growth redwoods tucked deep in the coastal forests of Northern California—an entire mountainside mantled in some of the tallest virgin trees in the world, until a chunk of it was clear-cut during the early 1960s by a logging company that was hoping to disqualify the grove from inclusion in a national park” (Fedarko 2013:96). Dories have always been associated with Grand Canyon, mostly because of Litton’s company, “Grand Canyon Dories,” which ran dories-only trips in the Grand from 1970 to 1987, but every once in a while one will catch your eye on a section of river in the upper Colorado basin. They may be even more beautiful when seen up north for their relative rarity, like an exotic bird spotted far beyond its usual range.

Dee Holladay did his own sort of pioneering in boat building, working with rubber raft manufacturers to develop a custom design, building his own frames, and perfecting the triple rig that Holiday still uses today, but he never got into dories. They are finicky boats. They need more maintenance and upkeep than a rubber raft, and they are more fragile. Wood doesn’t bounce off of rocks the way rubber does, for one thing. But for those who row them, the fragility is part of the excitement, and developing the skill needed to row a dory and stay off the rocks is an art form, highly coveted.

So what, then, is the rogue wooden boat that occasionally appears in the Holiday boat yard, or parked alongside a line of rafts at a riverside camp? It’s that rare bird, a migrant blown off course, and it belongs to Brin Finnigan, guide for Holiday since 2005. If you know Brin, you won’t be surprised that his love for learning and experimenting led him to dories. His boat, the Diamond Desert, was built in coordination with the pros at Fretwater Boatworks in Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s a new take on the traditional Briggs-style dory—it’s the “Babe” model, shorter and wider, more stable, and with enviable below-deck storage capacity. Since he started rowing the Diamond Desert, Brin is rarely seen in a raft. The Diamond Desert adds an extra pop of color to Holiday trips and a totally different whitewater experience. Passengers play a key role in a dory’s safe passage through a rapid. Active high-siding is a must, to help keep the boat from keeling too far over to one side and swamping or flipping. Even in calm water, the boat responds immediately to the slightest movement of its cargo, so it’s up to passengers to shift their weight slowly and smoothly and to try to keep the boat level.

Dories are a compelling piece of river running history, alluring, enchanting. If river running is an art form, then dories are that art form made solid and tangible. The book “The Emerald Mile” brought the somewhat niche dory culture out of the river canyons and into the minds and imaginations of the world. Dory trips in Grand Canyon have skyrocketed in popularity since the book’s publication, and the company that Martin Litton founded is consistently booked out years in advance. But dories can float just about anywhere. And if you keep your eyes open, and show up for just the right trip, you just might find yourself floating with the Diamond Desert, water sparkling alongside like gemstones.


Fedarko, Kevin. 2013. The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon.” New York, New York: Scribner.


Susan Munroe Guide PhotoSusan Munroe is a reader, writer, traveler, and river guide. She moved to Utah from New Hampshire for the mountains, but it was the allure of the desert and its rivers that have truly kept her transfixed. More than eight years after she first came to work for Holiday River Expeditions, she still can’t get enough of life on the water. Susan spends her winters skiing and working in Salt Lake City, Utah, with frequent trips to southern Chile to run the Río Baker and support the work of the educational kayaking exchange program Ríos to Rivers. See more of  Susan’s work here: www.susanmunroe.com