DeRosa pulls back on his oars and eases the boat into the current, and we quickly glide beneath the Wilson bridge.
By Jim Stanford:
Published in the Summer 2001 Issue of Jackson Hole Magazine
Old-fashioned dories offer a floating experience fit for royalty.
The ice-cold river washes over our feet and ankles, providing instant relief on this baking-hot August afternoon. My friend Jen and I have come to the Snake for a sunset dinner float with A.J. DeRosa’s Wood Boat River Tours. Jen is a college friend who now resides in Manhattan. This will be her first river trip and a welcome escape from the gloomy grit of Gotham.
DeRosa, a jovial, 53-year-old Chicago native, will be our guide. DeRosa started running canoe trips on the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota as a teenager and has been taking people on floating and fishing trips in Jackson Hole since 1973. An avid angler, he owns the Fat Boy Fishing guide service and has stalked most of the rivers of the Rocky Mountain West. This is his second summer as owner and operator of Wooden Boat River Tours. Jim Farmer, a fellow ski patrolman and longtime valley resident, will guide another couple on a second boat.
“Ready for an adventure?” DeRosa asks, grinning.
The two veteran boatmen carefully remove canvas covers from their trailers, revealing a pair of magnificent wooden crafts. DeRosa’s is a flat-bottomed rowboat known as a Rapid Robert; Farmer’s is a dory with a high, curved bow. Both are 17-foot Mackenzie drift boats, a style first used on the Rogue River in Oregon.
DeRosa pulls back on his oars and eases the boat into the current, and we quickly glide beneath the Wilson bridge. The rumble of the traffic above us will be the last sounds of civilization we will hear for the next six hours.
Before long DeRosa rows us out of the main stem of the river into a quiet side channel, no more than a foot deep and perhaps 20 feet wide. The boatman explains that he prefers to take as many of these side channels as possible, away from “the interstate,” as he calls the main river. We will spend most of the late afternoon exploring the blue highways of the Snake.
“Why wood?” Jen asks, touching on one of the boatman’s favorite subjects.
DeRosa says he first became smitten with wooden watercraft when he was 8. He stayed at his uncle’s cabin on a lake in Wisconsin and made good use of an old, flat-bottomed wooden boat. “I loved the sound of the waves splashing on the wooden hull of that boat,” he says.
His Rapid Robert is a newer version of that old boat, made with better materials and much more sophisticated in structure. The boat has a spruce frame, sides and bottom made of marine fir plywood, rails made of oak. DeRosa tugs on a pair of laminated spruce oars affixed to a set of brass oar locks.
“Wood was the first boat-building material, and for certain crafts, it’s still the best,” he says. “It’s light and very strong.” Better yet, he adds, “It has soul, warmth.”
We can see Farmer’s boat in the distance, shining warmly in the late afternoon sun. His is one of the sexier dories, made of mahogany, fir, walnut and pine. Like all of DeRosa’s guides, Farmer has built his boat by hand using a kit made by Ray’s River Dories in Portland, Ore. For some guides, boat building is a winter’s project; DeRosa spent 16 days working in a cabinet maker’s shop assembling his Rapid Robert.
Riding in the boat is like sitting on a piece of fine furniture. Jen marvels at the craftsmanship, running her hands along the smooth contours. Compared to the rubber rafts and fiberglass dories prevalent on the Snake, this wooden boat is a Bentley.
“Our boats are our mission statement,” DeRosa says. “They define the way we run the river.”
After pausing to point out an osprey nest from which three chicks poke their heads, DeRosa explains that not only are the wooden boats pleasing to the eye and ear, they handle better than most watercraft. The chine baton, the strip of oak that protects the bottom joint on the outside of the boat, carves the surface of the water much like the edge of a ski on snow.
“They’re fast, and they swim across the river,” DeRosa says as he deftly feathers into an eddy so Jen can take a picture.
About three miles into the 13-mile trek, we come across our first bald eagle, an adult perched on a piece of driftwood near a calm pool. The bird stares intently at the water. Farther down the bank, we come across the rest of the family. Two huge brown eaglets are devouring a fish on a gravel bar, while another adult keeps watch from a nearby tree.
DeRosa explains how the adult eagles take care of the young birds during their first summer, first feeding them fish, later dropping the food into the river so the immatures learn to fish for themselves. It is the type of knowledge one learns not from a book but from a lifetime of observation.
Later, as we drift into another small side channel, we see a dark shape slink into the water.
“Muskrat?” Jen asks earnestly, the first to have spotted the critter.
“Otter,” DeRosa answers. “There’s another at the far side of that pool. They’re checking us out.”
We watch the otters frolic in the shallow water, chasing fish, before they vanish with a splash. DeRosa recalls a recent otter sighting where a family of the sleek, playful creatures swam alongside the boat for nearly five miles. “They were very curious about what we were doing,” he says. “I think they admired the boat.”
Our affable host patiently answers all of Jen’s questions, explaining the origins of the Snake, the habits of beavers, whose work we admire along the banks, and the thrill of powder skiing in wintertime. The conversation touches on Cubs games, jazz, fishing tips and A.J.’s many tales of adventure, including how he started the first rafting business in Argentina back in ’78 and later organized a gregarious gathering of Snake guides known as the Dawn of the Trout party. Still, we share plenty of quiet moments, enchanted by the mellifluous song of the river.
Occasionally we eddy out to enjoy the view; other times we get off the boat to take a stroll. The sun has dipped lower in the sky yet still looms above the distant peaks of the Snake River Range. It is time to eat, and we rendezvous with Farmer’s boat on a secluded island bounded by two meandering channels.
No sooner have we set foot on the rounded river cobbles and stretched our legs than the two boatmen have begun setting up a pair of Pyromid grills, an innovation in which they take great pride. Much like the rest of DeRosa’s operation, the shiny Pyromids are lightweight, clean and easy to use, a model of efficiency. “You can cook a whole meal with 12 pieces of charcoal,” DeRosa says.
And what a repast the two guides produce: fruit, cheese, a garden salad with fresh greens grown in DeRosa’s yard in Wilson, Italian sausage (no Chicago native worth his salt would omit good sausage from such a feast), grilled salmon steaks and succulent vegetable kabobs.
“We like to eat,” Farmer explains, drawing approving nods from all.
Jen and I have brought along a bottle of chilled chardonnay to wash down the fish. We couldn’t have enjoyed a finer meal had we stayed in town and dined at the Snake River Grill.
Fully satisfied, we board the boats for the home stretch of the float trip. Evening time, just before dark, is his favorite time on the river, DeRosa explains. “When the light is magic, every corner is something special.”
Indeed, by now the sun has dipped low enough to silhouette the mountains, and the sky is awash with an oil slick of crimson and purple hues. The air has become cool and sweet, and a slight breeze brings whiffs of fragrant silverberry bushes. Besides the din of the river, gently cascading down a series of neatly stacked riffles, we hear the soothing shimmer of quaking-leaf aspens rustling on the hillside.
Wide-eyed with wonder, Jen sighs, then smiles. Her first float trip on the Snake has been a romantic and memorable experience.
DeRosa slowly rows us to the takeout. The indigo sky, streaked with faint pink clouds, is reflected on the surface of the river. What we hear last – and what will stay with us for quite some time – is the peaceful sound of the water lapping against the wooden boat.