November / December 2022

A Cult of Personality

Connecting the Grand Canyon’s past and future at Fretwater Boatworks
Brad , Cricket, and Justin

JUSTIN GALLEN

Just before launching JOSHUA TREE and RAINDOG, Justin stopped by Fretwater, where Cricket helped paint the boats’ lettering and finishing touches. Brad said that seeing Justin and the boats was like having his grandkids come to visit.

Even though this section of the Gunnison River was nearly flat calm, I found myself white-knuckling the oars of the river-running dory JOSHUA TREE as I held them for the first time. It’s not that I feared for my life. What made this run through an otherwise mellow stretch of water in Colorado so daunting was the pressure of guiding this boatshop’s showpiece through a low-water minefield of rocks just days before her designer and builder, Justin Gallen, was scheduled to take her on the road as a display. But Justin, sitting in the bow of his creation, placed nearly blind trust in me—a coastal sailor transplanted into the Rocky Mountains—offering only occasional encouragement and coaching.

After a few oar strokes, we were through the first riffles of the river, and after a few more my shoulders relaxed. And then, just as I started to admire the confidence Justin had in the resilience of his craft, I remembered this was river-running. It’s a philosophy among guides and boatbuilders that boats are built to be run—and after taking a hit, they’re meant to be fixed and run again. It’s something that Justin, like so many of today’s young river-runners, learned at Fretwater Boatworks.

Fretwater Boatworks in Flagstaff, Arizona, is a shop born out of a man’s house that has somehow managed to attract all the odd souls that run the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and the people who have never touched an oar but dream of adventure. When you enter the shop, you’re greeted by a technicolor sign that says, “You can’t beat this place for fun,” a phrase that, if you spend even a few hours there, you’ll be hard-pressed to deny. Then you’re greeted by Brad Dimock, Fretwater’s founder, and Cricket Rust, an absolute stick of dynamite and Brad’s “right-hand man,” and then by the citronella scent coming from the shavings of the Port Orford cedar that these builders favor for frames. The shop is set up in a way that’s somehow both eccentric and ergonomic. A drawer for pliers and Vise-Grips is labeled “Squeeze”; the drawer for hammers and mallets is labeled “Whack.” There are the signs on the tablesaw and bandsaw that declare, “Do not dumb here” and “Any machine is a smoke machine if you operate it wrong enough.”

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