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The Sound Of Wood On Water

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2010

Last revision: Nov. 10, 2010

nothing but a saw, hammer and screwdriver, but they agreed power tools made things easier.

"It turned out better than I thought it would.," Brent said.

Brent estimated that his shiny green boat cost less than $300 for materials. Both boys used pine lumber from the local yard, a quart of resourcinol glue, ordinary caulk and a gallon of oil-based enamel. The biggest expense was $120 for the two sheets of marine plywood that comprised the bottom of each boat.

Although their classmates were at first skeptical, Brent and Zac's success inspired others at Marshfield High School, including Eric Nissen and teacher Pantleo, to try their hand at boat building. There was talk of a future float with all the boats.

The scene on the Niangua the following spring was right out of the 1930s. Four new johnboats were lined up beside mine at the water's edge. I wondered how long it had been since so many wooden boats had been launched at one time on a Missouri stream. Thirty years? Forty? In the finest Ozark tradition, Zac had even made his own paddle for the occasion. Boat after boat soon pushed out onto the water.

Though the boys had experience with canoes, handling a johnboat takes some getting used to. The boats are much more responsive than canoes but are heavier, so it is easy to oversteer. During the first minutes of the float, I saw some of the boats briefly running backwards and sideways in the current.

I was on hand to see how the captains and their craft handled the first big challenge-a downed tree that blocked most of the stream where it ran through a rapid.

Johnboats are inherently stable, but old time rivermen knew the one way a boat could be swamped was if it was allowed to get crossways in a rapid. If that happened, it would take a lot of muscle to free it.

The first team hesitated for a moment at the head of the chute before plunging in. The crew worked hard to keep the boat from sweeping into the bank, but they made it. The rest of the boats followed in succession as crewmen raised paddles triumphantly. Finally, the last of the boats glided from the roaring tumult into the calm of the pool. Confidence grew from that moment and the rest of the trip was relaxed.

The boys were surprised at how high the boats rode in the water and how easy they were to steer despite their weight. They had run rapids, dodged rocks and downed trees and had a rare chance in today's world to build a special memory from scratch.

A wooden johnboat is special. She isn't at all like her clunky aluminum cousin. She's a quiet, willowy beauty that glides through the water at the merest touch of a paddle. The wood seems to amplifiy the gentle tap-tap of wavelets pattering against the bow. It is an ancient rhythm that I've not heard in any other craft. It sounds like the heartbeat of the river.

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