The History and Types of Whitewater Dories and Inflatables

By Peter Winn

I selected all but three of these images from a 2010 presentation about global whitewater boating that I made for the Grand Junction W.A.T.E.R. Club (Western Association to Enjoy Rivers).  Many of them are of flips or wraps, but in reality it’s safer to float the rapids than to drive the shuttle (and a lot more fun).

Yak skin “corcas” on the headwaters of the Bramaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) in Tibet have been used for crossing rivers for many centuries—much longer than the river boats used in the US.1

Goatskin bladder raft on the Yangtze in SW China, also used for crossing rivers for centuries.1

“Modern” boat used to ferry people and firewood across the Salween in SW China.  Note the oar arrangement—one to maintain orientation, one for power.1

“Green River” boat used by John Wesley Powell (ruddering with one arm).2  The technique of rowing facing backward is called “Powelling.”  Today, we mostly face forward using “ferrying,” where the oarsperson faces downstream and maneuvers by rowing upstream at an angle to the current.

Mexican Hat Expeditions was started by Norm Nevills.  This image is on the Green in Dinosaur National Monument at the mouth of Split Mountain Gorge.3  Nevills also ran trips on the San Juan and through Glen and Grand Canyons.  Katie Lee wrote a number of songs about him and his river trips.  He died in a 1947 plane crash taking off from the Bluff Airport.

Aluminum dory wrapped on the right side of Deubendorf Rapids in the Grand Canyon.4  It was recovered by helicopter and repaired.  If it had been wood, fiberglass or tupperware, it would have been destroyed.

This was a plywood Grand Canyon Dories boat originally built by Martin Litton and fixed up by three of his guides.5  It’s the subject of a book, “The Emerald Mile” by Kevin Fedarko (2014), about a speed trip through the Grand Canyon during the 1983 flood.  It’s a great story.

Typical Grand Canyon Dory boatman.1

In 1955, before Glen Canyon Dam (so the water was warm), Beer and Daggett swam the Grand Canyon using army surplus waterproof bags for gear, food and flotation.6

These Japanese four-man rafts were really cheap and light, so they were often brought on raft trips by river guides for fun.  They’re a little too small for Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon, especially in January.  Fortunately, it’s a short swim.1

We used army surplus rafts, food boxes and dry bags from the 1960s to mid 1970s.  The raft in the foreground was only six feet wide and had an inflatable floor so it flipped a lot and was used mostly for gear.  The rafts to the right and in the background were “ten man assault rafts,” used in the D-Day invasion in WWII.  They were made of cotton fabric infused with neoprene, had watertight floors, weighed about two hundred pounds and sometimes turned into submarines in big rapids.  The one in the middle was a very light life raft with super-flexible tubes (we called it a “basket boat”), so passengers often fell off, just part of the experience.  Photo at Cadillac Charlie Rapid on the Stanislaus River in the California Sierras.7

In the mid 1970s, inflatable raft manufacturers began to make light-weight rafts using ripstop nylon infused with hypalon, which held much higher air pressure than the military surplus rafts and were nearly puncture proof.  This is my parents on a Rios Tropicales trip on the Rio Pasquales in Costa Rica in the 1990s.  Their granddaughter Carmen was one of their paddle captains in 2007.1

By the 1990s, rafting was so popular that there were half a dozen raft manufacturers, hundreds of commercial outfitters and ten thousand private boaters.  Crowds like this forced river managing agencies to limit use.  Photo at Rose Creek on the Stanislaus River in the California Sierras8.

The “Creature Craft” was designed to be self-righting, so it is bought by boaters who enjoy going over midsized waterfalls.9  You’re strapped in, so don’t get stuck in a strainer!

Lots of rafts flip at Quarzite Falls on the Salt River in eastern AZ.10  It’s a Class IV mountain stream flowing through a saguaro cactus desert.  Nowadays, most rafts are self-bailers with inflatable floors, like this one.

In general, you should use a larger raft on rivers with large waves, such as in Cataract Canyon of the Colorado in Canyonlands National Park.  However, they’re much heavier when you have to carry one out of a frozen Lake Powell.1

Sixteen-foot catarafts are a good choice for carrying gear and just a couple of people, plus they’re easy to derig and portage when you come to a rapid called “No Exit,” such as this one on the Mekong in SW China.11  The oarsman, after meditating for a while, decided to go for it.

Note the pipe frame with wood floors holding the tubes in place.

The Colorado River in the Grand Canyon has quite a few really big rapids like Hermit, so the American River Touring Association (ARTA, now called AzRA) used twenty-two-foot army surplus bridge pontoons to make catarafts when it decided to run commercial oar trips in the early 1970s.  The oarswoman, Cindy Appel (5’5”, 125 lb.) is at the lower right, and note the passenger riding the “snout” at the upper left of the two-thousand-pound raft.12

Sweepboat on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, usually used to carry gear.13  In the late 1930s, Civilian Conservation Corps arranged for a bulldozer to be brought from Lees Ferry to Phantom Ranch (87 miles) on a large metal sweepboat to build a swimming pool.  The dozer was buried in the pool thirty years later.  In the late 1960s, Don Smith River Expeditions of Salmon Idaho carried a VW bus on a thirty-three foot army surplus bridge pontoon with two sweepsmen to the Middle Fork Ranch.

Because the Grand Canyon is so long (280 miles) and has such big rapids, many commercial outfitters use large (up to forty feet long by fifteen feet wide motorized rafts with three-foot diameter tubes).  In the 1950’s to mid-1970s, they used Korean War surplus bridge pontoons with huge hinged metal frames.  In 1983, the river flooded (over 90,000 cubic feet per second).  This picture from a helicopter shows a forty-foot Western boat wrapped on a rock in Crystal Rapid’s rock island, with an eighteen foot O.A.R.S. oar rig wrapped on it.4

This is a thirty-three foot army surplus bridge pontoon Tour West motor rig with side pontoons

flipping in the big hole at the top of Crystal Rapids during the 1983 flood.14

GCNPS closed the canyon after these accidents.

Wooden standup paddleboards have been around for centuries but inflatable SUPs only became popular in 2007. This image shows Chinese parents teaching their kids to paddleboard in Hainan, China.15

An expert hot air boater running the Taos Box of the Rio Grande River in New Mexico.16

My son Travis demonstrates a one person inflatable on the headwaters of the Indus in far western Tibet (without scuba gear).1

Remember:  Always Wear A Life Jacket!17

Notes – all images are either public domain or used with permission:

  1. Author
  2. USPS
  3. University of Utah Marriott Library Special Collections
  4. Grand Canyon National Park Service
  5. Grand Canyon Dories
  6. Provided to Don Briggs for his 1996 film “River Runners of the Grand Canyon,” then to the author
  7. “Down the Stanislaus River” (2021,
  8. “Down the Stanislaus River” (2021,
  9. Creature Craft
  10.  Bill Stoner
  11.  David Hettig
  12.  George Bain.
  13.  USFS
  14.  Drifter Smith
  15.  Hainan Surf Co.
  16.  Taos Ballooning