Scott Thybony's Grand Canyon Commentary: The Oar Maker

Feb 19, 2015

Making oars for whitewater boats is a functional art form that not many people know how to do. But, Flagstaff river guide Brad Dimock does. He's been making - and rowing - boats in the Grand Canyon for decades, and long ago, even trained KNAU commentator Scott Thybony when he was a fledgling river guide. In his latest Grand Canyon Commentary, Thybony takes us to Brad Dimock's boathouse to learn more about his quest to build the perfect oar.

River guide and boat builder Brad Dimock on the oars in the Grand Canyon
Credit Catherine Zuzii Ryan

The old oar makers are dying out, and Brad Dimock could no longer find a working oar that suited him. Having rowed thousands of miles on rivers, the veteran guide decided to start making his own. "I don't think anybody," he tells me, "is trying to build the ultimate wood oar for Grand Canyon except me."

We step inside his boathouse where his friends are building a wooden dory. Brad shows me the oars he has made, standing upright in a corner. "An oar has to be balanced and tapered and have dynamic flex," he says, running his hand down the smooth neck to where it flares into the blade. He lets his fingers pass lightly over the grain of wood rippling like water. "Ideally, it should have a nice, flat blade for whitewater because you're always getting spun around, pushing and pulling."

And when it comes to rowing, he speaks from a lifetime of experience. "Oars are hard on your shoulders," he says. "The impact of an oar getting hit by a big wave is hard. Just the repetitious motion wears on you. A bad oar doesn't have flex - it's like wearing an iron shoe. You need some flex and something to insulate you from the shock and abuse, especially in whitewater."

He then gives an example of how an oar must be strong enough to handle the powerful hydraulics of a rapid. On a run through Lava Falls, he had to throw his weight toward the high side of the boat to keep from flipping. At that moment, the force of the waves alone curved an oar backward until it suddenly splintered. And in the chaos of a rapid, a broken oar becomes dangerous.

Some years ago, Lowell Lundeen stopped by my office. He was a silversmith by trade, but loved the river and managed to row a couple of boats each season. He would remind his older passengers, "It's never too late to have a happy childhood," and he took his own advice. We talked awhile before he pulled his pant leg up to show me a scar on his calf.

"It happened in Hance Rapid," Lowell said. His 18-foot raft got sucked into a ferocious hole, where it was tossed about in the crash and surge of the river. As a huge wave swept him from the boat, his ankle caught in an oarlock, trapping him upside down. Then it got serious. The boat folded, snapping the spare oar, and the jagged end pierced his leg, impaling him. For 60 terrifying seconds he lived a boatman's nightmare until a passenger was able to pull him back onboard.

Brad Dimock continues to fill me in on the less-traumatic process of making an oar. "The goal," he says, "is to see how much wood you can get off the oar stock and still retain the strength and the stiffness you need. You get rid of the weight, scoop it out ounce by ounce until you have the spring and the flex you want."

"Do you take aesthetics into consideration when making an oar?" I ask.

"It's secondary," he answers. "But it's like a beautiful boat. A beautifully shaped dory will almost always row beautifully." The oar maker stands next to a fine set of oars with the blade tips painted sandstone red. "If it's a beautiful oar," he adds, "it will likely row well, too."

Next season Brad will continue to run the Colorado on his quest to find just the right oar for just the right canyon.

Flagstaff-based writer Scott Thybony
Credit Scott Thybony

Scott Thybony is a Flagstaff-based writer.