The Sound Of Wood On Water

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2010

Last revision: Nov. 10, 2010

"Wow! Look at the big frog!" my seven-year-old son said as we fished along the bank of a local lake.

His four-year-old sister, following his gaze, asked "Where?"

Before I could say a word, the two suddenly stood (not the best idea in a canoe) and pushed up against the gunnel, but it wasn't until the boy leaned out to point that the horizon seemed to tilt and everything in the boat began to move.

An orange soda can shot past my feet like a speed skater. Cheese puffs fountained from the opened bag that rested on top of the sliding cooler. Fishing poles and tackle clattered against the side.

I instinctively shifted my weight to counter-balance the kids. The canoe seemed to tremble on the very verge of tipping, then rocked back heavily before steadying itself.

I heard someone shout in a stern voice, "Kids, don't do that!"

It was me.

That close call convinced me we needed something more stable than a canoe for our family floats, so I built an old-fashioned wooden johnboat. I finished it clear, allowing the Missouri oak and the warm glow of the pine it was fashioned from to show through. The kids named it Water Eagle.

The 14-foot Water Eagle easily carries two adults, two kids, a dog, and gear for cooking, floating and overnight camping. She has run many rivers and some lakes to boot. She has served as a pirate ship, a diving board, a water toy and the subject of a Conservation Department video.

The Water Eagle attracts attention wherever she goes., "Nice boat, did you make it?" people ask. Though I am proud of my work, I think the people are just attracted to the novelty of seeing a wooden johnboat.

The first johnboats were all made of wood. It may seem like heresy to say it, but it wasn't a Missourian or, for that matter, an American who invented the johnboat. F. H. Chapman's Architectura Navalis Mercatoria, published in 1768, contains an image of a trim little craft it labeled a pirogue. You and I would call it a johnboat. The actual origin of this type of small workboat may go back to Roman times.

The origin of the name is also lost to us. It may have been a corruption of "joined boat," a boat comprised of boards rather than the common dugout made from a hollowed-out log. Oddly, the term "johnboat" didn't come into use in the Ozarks until the early 1930s though it was well enough known elsewhere that by 1919 it appears in a federal government publication on the musselshell button industry as the term for the boat type.

What Missouri can claim is the advent of float fishing from johnboats. Before the early part of the century, johnboats were primarily used for transportation in roadless areas. The railroads built in the Ozarks during the lumber boom at the turn of the 20th century opened the area to a new form of recreational tourism and the humble "flat bottom boat" and "redhorse runner" became the storied johnboat of Ozark lore. In the sense that Missouri builders adapted and perfected an old style to meet the needs of the floaters and guides on our rivers, the johnboat is uniquely ours.

Three distinct variations show up in the old photographs. The classic White River style is defined by the boats built by Charlie Barnes for promoter Jim Owen and the well-known Owen boat line. These were built around iron braces made from old wagon tires and other scrap. This method created an open boat in which anglers sat in chairs.

The Current River style used a series of sawn oak frames to hold the shape of the boat. Seats were simple removable boards that rested between the frames.

The Piney River style, developed by Fred Dablemont and fine tuned by his son Farrel, is built around temporary forming braces or molds like a lot of small boat types that are built today. After seat crossbraces are added to hold the shape of the boat, the molds are removed and the two center seats are installed.

The lone survivor of the heyday of the Missouri johnboat is a battered White River boat that is on display at the School of the Ozarks. The National Park Service revived the nearly lost art of building Current River type boats in the 1970s with the help of local craftsmen. They also preserved several boats used by the Eminence-based Bales guide service in the 1950s and 1960s. The Piney River style survives in the form of a little book by Farrel Dablemont's son, Larry, who provides step-by-step instructions for building a johnboat.

I used Dablemont's The Authentic American Johnboat along with a basic knowledge of modern boat building techniques and a few tools, to build my first boat. It's not that hard to do. But you don't have to take my word for it: 9th grade students at Marshfield High School built johnboats, too.

Brent Replogle, then 14, and Zac Chisum, then 15, are polite, modest guys. They are also determined. With a bit of guidance from their Wood Technology 1 teacher, David Pantleo, Zac and Brent made a bit of history.

"We saw a Conservation Department video on forest management and wood products as part of our woodworking class," Chisum said. "One of the segments featured a man making a boat. Brent and I thought, We can do that."

"Normally, first year students start out making simple items," Pantleo said, "These are the biggest projects ever undertaken in this class."

Brent wound up with the first boat because he obtained the materials first, but the boys cooperated in all aspects of building their boats.

Each part of the project was a learning experience. The boys put on safety goggles and took turns shaping the bow and stern transoms with a jig saw. After Zac struggled to cut one side of the curve on the bow transom, the boys agreed it would be easier to cut the other if the boat was right side up. They then took turns using a belt sander, router and files to finish the rough cut and round the edges to the final shape.

In the early stages, the boats are built upside down. With the boat right side up, the boys removed the temporary forms. That was the first time Zac saw his boat as it would look on the water. It still lacked seats and paint, but the slender lines of the traditional johnboat were evident.

Since the seats have complex, compound angles, the boys got help from some of the older Wood II students. They got a bit of ribbing too. "There was some skepticism about the boats," Pantleo said, "Some students didn't think they'd float."

The boys struggled with various aspects of their new boatbuilding craft. Brent thought bending the sides uniformly was the toughest part. Zac thought shaping the runners was the most difficult.

The boys finished the first boat in three weeks, working two hours a day in class and some evenings after school. Both said a person should be able to build one start-to-finish in a long weekend with 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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