|From The Sunday Gazette-Mail www.wvgazette.com|
Men Build Boat, Float Down Elk
Sunday August 18, 2002
By Rick Steelhammer
STRANGE CREEK — "Tale of the Elk," W.E.R. Byrne's classic account of life and nature
Elk River in the early 20th century, held more than a passing interest for Steve Smith
of Sutton and his
uncle, David Morris of McWhorter.
Smith and Morris grew up together along the shore of the Little Kanawha River not far
in the home of Smith's grandfather, Oren Lee Morris. The Morris home was accessible
johnboat, the vessel of choice for Byrne and rivermen of his time.
Oren Lee Morris was a johnboat builder of some renown on the upper Little Kanawha,
sturdy, rectangular, low-drafted vessels for area residents to use for ferrying people
and supplies and for
Early last summer, after Smith, 55, and Morris, 65, read and discussed "Tale of the
Elk," they decided
to try an adventure along the lines experienced by Byrne, a lawyer-fisherman who
paddled or waded every inch of the Elk.
"We were shooting the breeze after reading the book, when we got the idea to build a
johnboat and float
the Elk ourselves, from below Sutton Dam to Charleston," Smith said.
In Smith's driveway, they built from memory a 16-foot-long, 4- foot-wide boat mainly
poplar, the wood used by Smith's grandfather. The deck was constructed of spruce
planks, spaced a
nickel's width apart, to accommodate swelling upon immersion in water.
"We kind of had the design imprinted in our minds," Morris said. "You know, it doesn't
really cost a lot
to build one. We've got $300, tops, in it."
Smith and Morris rigged a canopy to keep the sun and rain at bay, and in a lone
concession to modern
times, installed a pair of well-padded bass boat seats atop the traditional wooden
"It's 101.4 river miles from Sutton to Charleston," Smith said by way of
The two men spent a number of hours familiarizing themselves with the boat in a
calm stretch of the Elk
below Sutton Dam. "Those were our sea trials," said Morris, a former Navy man.
On Thursday morning, Morris and Smith pushed away from a riverbank near the
Sutton water plant to
begin their downriver journey.
"Within 500 feet, we managed to break our flagpole on some overhanging limbs,"
Smith said. "Other
than that, and a little trouble when we got hung up in some shoals near Frametown,
we've done all
Unusually low river conditions have slowed the current and brought shoals closer to
the surface, reducing
the pace the team hoped to maintain.
"It's been slow, but the river's so clear you can see everything," Smith said. "The
river's just beautiful.
We've seen some huge bass, several otters and a mink, not to mention a lot of deer.
But we've also been
disappointed at the amount of trash there is."
After covering about 15 miles in Thursday's sweltering heat, the two camped on a
sandbar a short
distance below Frametown, hitting the river again shortly after 7 a.m.
"It's going to take us longer to get to Charleston than we thought," Smith said. "We've
nonperishable food — Beanie Wienies, Vienna sausages, water and pop — to last us.
But it will be good
to get to Clay, where there's a Gino's and a Go-Mart right on the riverbank."
The Elk "is obviously vastly different than it was at the turn of the century, when
Byrne traveled it,"
Smith said. "It's been dammed, and I don't think you can travel more than a few
hundred yards without
seeing a home or a camp. It's still beautiful and still an adventure for us, but I'd love
to have seen it in
Byrne's time and traveled it with him."
The two men, both retired "and old enough to know better," according to Morris, are
similar trip down the length of the Little Kanawha, from Burnsville to Parkersburg.
"It may depend on how we feel at the end of this trip," he said.