REVIEWS and Comments
of Big Water, Little Boats by Tom Martin:
from Tom Myers, co-author of Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon
Sent: December 2012
Had I been asked only yesterday, I would have confidently proclaimed that both the bulk and the best of the history of river running in Grand Canyon had long been written. But I would not have been more wrong. Somehow despite the many histories written, the wonderful story of Moulty Fulmer and his boat the Gem—Grand Canyon’s first dory—had silently slipped downstream unnoticed or perhaps ignored by the hundreds of previous chroniclers of the Colorado’s rich historical legacy. Fortunately for us, Fulmer did not escape Tom Martin. His book Big Water, Little Boats not only tells Fulmer’s story, it also fills in the important gap of never-been-told river history from the bold and bygone era of the 1940s and 1950s when the Colorado still ran free.
Boaters back then came only in small handfuls. Big commercial river businesses barely loomed on the horizon. Martin’s book reads nostalgic and sentimental yet it also hauls us aboard an enlightening journey through an evolutionary “end-of-innocence” era in Colorado River running. Reading it, one cannot help but root for the humble YMCA manager from Indiana who finally earns his undeniable place in Canyon history. The Big Water’s unassuming protagonist, do-it-yourself Fulmer, was pursuing a simple agenda: to experience the wild and scenic rivers and canyons of the West, mostly in boats he built. This latter category included the ultimate construction of his classic whitewater boat, the Gem, the forerunner of modern-day Canyon dories.
Floating along with Fulmer and friends during the twilight years of the wild and muddy Colorado proves a delight. Especially fascinating are his journeys on the last great flood flows of 1957 and 1958 before Glen Canyon Dam would rein in the river and alter its character dramatically to its current flows as political plumbing.
Exceptionally researched and well written, Big Water is also filled with many rare, never been published, and superb color photographs of the pre-dam river, including several of the now, near-mythical high flows of over 100,000 cfs. These photos alone prove worth the price of the book both for boaters who lament never being able to see such flows and for the lucky few who ran it in July of 1983. In its own way, Big Water compares as a vicarious witnessing of the last of America’s great buffalo herds. All in all, Big Water, Little Boats is a timeless classic, and with all due respect to Fulmer’s dory—the real gem.
from Tom Pamperin, review in the online magazine
The full review is at
Here is the text-only version.
I met author Tom Martin on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. We had plenty of time to talk on our journey together - twenty-four days’ worth. At some point I remember asking Tom how
many times he had run the Colorado River through Grand Canyon.
“I don’t know,” he told me. “I stopped counting when I passed my age.”
Which, I’m guessing, means he has run the Canyon more than fifty times. It would be fair, I think, to call Tom’s interest in the Canyon and its history an obsession.
And the result of that obsession—one result, anyway—is his new book Big Water Little Boats,, just released this spring from Vishnu Temple Press.
* * *
The best description I found of the book’s content is in the Prologue, where the author explains that Big Water Little Boats “contains the stories of an incredibly rich array of self-guided river
runners in Grand Canyon, based on their trip logs, letters, photos, and personal recollections”(12). Indeed. The book is exactly that. The story of boat builder and whitewater pioneer Moulty
Fulmer is the unifying thread that runs through the book, but the picture that emerges is far bigger than one man’s story. Instead, it’s a fascinating history of do-it-yourselfers who designed
and built their own boats, taught themselves how to run big whitewater safely, and all on their own, pretty much invented modern self-guided river running in the Grand Canyon.
It’s that story—the story of everyday people going out and finding adventure for themselves without guides or instruction books or official certifications—that lies at the heart of the book.
Tom Martin’s exhaustive research into Fulmer and his contemporaries (there are detailed end notes for any readers who might want to track down Martin’s sources) introduces readers to the world
that existed before outdoor adventure had become the high-priced commodity it is today—a world with no R.E.I. stores, no high-tech gear from Patagonia or The North Face, no instruction manuals
or Falcon guides. There was no “right” way to do anything but to go out and give it a try and see for yourself what would happen if you did. And what happened was the introduction of a new class
of whitewater boats whose descendants still run the Colorado today.
But Big Water Little Boats, as the subtitle suggests, is also the story of one man: Moulty Fulmer. Fulmer is a relatively unknown figure in the whitewater world, but Martin’s book aims to change
that. After providing a brief overview of Fulmer’s early life and his career with the Muncie, Indiana YMCA, the story moves quickly to Fulmer’s growing involvement with Grand Canyon river
running through the 1940s and 1950s, and his efforts to build the perfect whitewater boat. Martin makes a good argument that Moulty Fulmer was the first to introduce a decked, dory-style hull to
Grand Canyon boatmen with his 1953 design Gem. Although Martin makes more of the connection between Fulmer’s Gem and today’s McKenzie River drift boats than I would (the Gem has much less
freeboard, and less flare, than a drift boat, and is not a double-ender as the typical drift boat is—in short, it doesn’t look much like a drift boat to my eye), he does provide support for his
claim that Moulty Fulmer was familiar with, and probably to some extent inspired by, the McKenzie River boats of the 1950s. And whether based on a drift boat hull or not, Fulmer’s innovative
Gem, with its full-flotation decked hull and continuous rocker for maneuverability, set an important precedent in designs for big whitewater.
Along with tracing Fulmer and contemporary Pat Reilly’s evolution as boat designers and builders, Martin provides detailed accounts of their 1940s and 50s river runs, including an historic
trip in 1957, when the Colorado River topped out at over 125,000 cubic feet per second—the highest water ever run. Here Martin’s writing is at its best, describing the river and its unprecedented
power in energetic prose that puts the reader into the action, as in this passage:
Suddenly, a large whirlpool formed about thirty feet in front of Pat, Susie, and Joe. Pat figured it was thirty feet wide,
ringed into the middle, and about ten feet deep. A nine-inch diameter log Pat estimated at twenty feet in length stood
up on end and rotated about the center of the whirlpool like a swizzle stick in a drink (149).
Just doing the research and interviews for the book must have been a daunting task, but thanks to the quality of the writing, the result is an engaging read rather than a tedious just-the-facts
accounting. Like the best history writing, the story is always present.
Another feature that really brings this book to life is the wealth of historical photos it contains, spanning from the 1940s through the 1960s—most of them in full color. The originals were high
quality slide photos, and the copies are cleanly reproduced, set into the text in a logical and attractive layout. The book’s format—an 8 x 10 landscape layout—works well, too. Looking at these
photos is like watching a slide show about the early river trips (lots of boat pictures), with all of the magic and nostalgia of the pre-digital world brought to life for readers. The photos in
Big Water Little Boats provide a welcome window into a golden age of adventure, and will be the only chance most of us ever have to see what Grand Canyon was like before Glen Canyon Dam.
Also of interest are Martin’s digressions into various other historic moments in the history of Grand Canyon whitewater: early power boat trips by Dock Marston, the first appearance of rubber
rafts, a 1938 kayak expedition, and more. Martin’s obsession for comprehensive research shows clearly here—he can’t let a good story or a new development pass by without comment, though the
center of the story remains Moulty Fulmer and his fellow boat designers and boat builders. Readers may be left wanting more—but that’s no tragedy. If anything, Big Water Little Boats will simply
inspire further reading about Canyon history.
For obvious reasons—boats, adventure, do-it-yourself experimentation - Big Water Little Boats is a good book for Duckworks readers. The evolution of whitewater boats and the techniques used to
run big rapids documented here are an interesting reminder of the power of just trying something out and seeing what happens. Dragging heavy chains to slow boats down, positioning watchers on
shore to signal a safe line through a rapid, continuous rocker and full flotation for whitewater hulls, even the seemingly obvious breakthrough to position the rower facing downstream—all these
tactics (some still used, and some not) we owe to river runners who were not afraid to teach themselves through hard-won experience. It’s an important reminder in today’s world where we all too
often reach for the latest gadget, the detailed guidebook, the careful instructions from someone who’s already done it.
The book ends with a chapter of Martin’s own involvement in the Moulty Fulmer story: in 2009, Martin built a replica of Fulmer’s Gem, taking measurements from the original hull (preserved in
Grand Canyon National Park’s historic boat collection) and paying close attention to historic photographs. Martin has taken his replica Gem on four Canyon runs so far, with no plans to stop.
Duckworks readers might appreciate more detail in this brief section (there are only a few construction photos provided, and no offsets or plans for would-be builders), but Martin’s vivid
account of his run through Lava Falls in his Gem replica (the first time Fulmer’s design had attempted to run Lava) takes readers into a you-are-there description that alleviates any
disappointment over a lack of building details:
Lava Falls. Vulcan. Whatever you call it. Water gone mad. Water rolling back on itself, curling together, shooting in the air and pounding
over boulders, making an unavoidable severe drop stretching bank to bank across the river. The sound hits you first, long before you actually see the river
disappear in a horizon line only a few hundred yards away. A horizon line punctuated with the occasional froth of white water dancing for the sky. The sound of
a low roar, seeping through your very bones, is unavoidable. It is Vulcan taking a drink after making thunderbolts on his anvil (211).
Having rowed Lava Falls myself—most of it, anyway, before being thrown from my raft—Martin’s description rings all too true. Reading it is the next best thing to taking a place at the oars
for your own run.
from Dale Van Valkenburg, Bend, Oregon
Sent: July 2012
I just wanted to let you know that I finished Tom Martin’s book a while back, and wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading it. I love the connection he uncovered with the McKenzie River drift boats – being from Oregon, and having run the Grand Canyon, I always thought I saw a striking resemblance.
My big takeaway from the book was how Moulty and his river running partners always made their river trips a priority, taking unpaid time off in the summer to pursue their passion while they still could. I’m sure they never regretted those missed dollars. They are my heroes and inspiration for always making more time for rivers and the other things I love. Thanks for producing such a well researched and well written book.
from Bob Rigg, veteran river guide
Sent: June 2012
Your book is just great! Stupendous., maybe?
Seems as if we did the speed run the last of May, like May 25th. We went to Pierce's Ferry, not stopping at Diamond Creek. We did pass Diamond about 8:30 or so the second evening, but that was not a possible take-out at all. We thought we had enough light to get past Separation, but I assure you we were in the dark shortly after passing Diamond Creek. It was running rapids by listening to the roar and sound of the water! Seems as though we always considerded Diamond in passing and for the Royal Order fun. We went past there at about 36 hours out of Lee's Ferry. Eithert way, the record stands.
Dock left the day before... we passed them at Soap Creek and waved... said we would see them later on.
The Nevills 1949 trip left about July 3rd or so. I was there and flew Nevills PA-12 to GJT for maintenance the morning they departed from Marble Canyon. I flew over them at Lee's Ferry as they were embarking. I need to check my Log Books, but seems as though it was the 3rd or 4th.
We were at Marble Canyon, saw Bert Loper there... talked or listened to all the river folks talking about all the river history and such. Pretty impressive!
Yes, Jim talked with Norm about be becoming a boatman the next year. Norm had wanted boatmen who were 21 years old... so I had heard. Might have happened, who knows?
I was also there when Ed Hudson and Dock departed in 1950. Willie and all were such fun to be around. Ed had a recorder... siting on the Esmarelda... while talking with Jim's wife... "There is Barabara Jane Rigg, Jim's wife" and on and on.
Yes, Pat seemed to run his own way and course. He ran number two behind Frank, then Jim, then me last. Tad was usually on my boat... best for pics, or go ahead and shoot pics upstream.
Lots of names from the past! Paul Wright was on my boat... took lots of pictures. Great fellow!
Thank you so very very much! I thought is was one of the most accurate of writings that has come out about the river history and that era. As I may have mentioned, Nevills knew our folks, stayed at our home in 1940 - 41 and showed his movies. I had to report on the river movies in school for the fifth grade! I recall that one very well! We had traveled to Ganado and the reservation and Mexican Hat in the late 1930's when Dad did some medical work at the Ganado Hospital. He knew the director there, Dr. Clarence Salisbury. It was and may still be a Presbyterian run hospital on the reservation. Horrible roads then and through the 1950's.
Jim was working at the airport after the war... knew Nevills, as he learned to fly in GJT, Eddie Drapela owned the flight service, Jim bought it about 1947 or so, and Nevills came here for his pilot's medical exam, service on his airplane, etc. When Norm landed in the desert and dinged the prop, it was Drapela who was called by Doris to come look for Norm. Took a day to find him, but that is another interesting and funny story!
Great book! Might need to buy enough for my eight children... plus 26 grandchildren and more expected and eight plus great grandchildren... and counting.
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
from Wayne Ranney, geologist and veteran river guide
Sent: January 2012
WELL WRITTEN, FABULOUSLY RESEARCHED, AND BEAUTIFULLY ILLUSTRATED. CONGRATULATIONS!
I am not normally drawn to stories of "who did what, when" regarding the Colorado River or the canyon. Hpwever I found this book and the writing it contained quite excellent and easy on the eyes.
This was a great read! But beyond that, it is a great contribution to the history of the river and the canyon.
I learned things in here that I never knew before and they were placed within a larger story that kept my attention.
I think anyone who reads this book will like it immensely and those who love the Colorado River or the Grand Canyon will want it as part of their personal library.
There is a lot of good, detailed history here that I do not believe has ever been assembled in this way.
As an example, I liked reading about headstands on a cottonwood log in Glen Canyon at 79,000 cfs. That's fun.
I never knew how Keyhole Arch was discovered and that was great to read how it all happened.
Things like this need to be in print and fortunately will now be.
Your level of research is astounding and combined with the literary talent make it a first rate book.
Additionally the photographs are another one of the book's strengths. The story comes alive when read in tandem with the many photos.
Most modern river runners will be unfamiliar with a lot of these and they add to the captivating story.