A MODERN "TALE OF THE ELK" - Smith And Morris Float Down The River


From The Sunday Gazette-Mail www.wvgazette.com

Men Build Boat, Float Down Elk

Sunday August 18, 2002

By Rick Steelhammer
Staff Writer

STRANGE CREEK "Tale of the Elk," W.E.R. Byrne's classic account of life and nature along the 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 from Burnsville, in the home of Smith's grandfather, Oren Lee Morris. The Morris home was accessible only by 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, building the sturdy, rectangular, low-drafted vessels for area residents to use for ferrying people and supplies and for fishing.

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 floated, poled, 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 from yellow 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 thwart benches.

"It's 101.4 river miles from Sutton to Charleston," Smith said by way of explanation.

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 right."

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 got enough 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 considering a 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.