Riverboat builders continue Crawford tradition
Written by Crawford County Avalanche   
Thursday, 06 January 2005 09:20

They are most commonly seen during the summer months, those graceful wooden boats that for more than a century have been poled down the AuSable and Manistee Rivers.

Known as riverboats, long boats and even stick boats, they are as unique as the river culture that uses them and the rivers that necessitated their development.

"It's a unique craft to this area. It's silent and looks good," said riverboat builder Lacey Stephan, whose family has been building boats since the early 1900's.

While there are a large number of riverboats in Crawford County, there are not many builders. Stephan guessed that only five or six people consistently build riverboats. The time, materials and know-how involved are significant. Builder Dave Wyss points out that the increased popularity of the McKenzie style drift boats -- a short but wide craft that has center oars like a rowboat, and is usually mass produced -- might discourage younger fishers from learning how to drive and build riverboats.

"Riverboats are quieter, and position better," Wyss said.

Stephan said that another advantage that the riverboat has is that it is easily moved upstream.

"If you have good balance you can pole upstream faster than two people can paddle," Stephan said.

Stephan recalls that guides used to put in at Stephan bridge and pole up to the railroad tracks in town to pick up their clients. They then floated back to the bridge while fishing. Stephan said that it was important to always pole upstream before fishing, so the guide knew exactly when the trip would end.

"You didn't want to end up in a spot you couldn't get back from," Stephan said.

Because they are hand built, no two long boats look exactly alike. There was once an attempt at mass production by Chris-Craft, but that endeavor failed, ironically, because of the riverboat's uniqueness. Stephan said the riverboat was simply too long to make mass production feasible. It is this length, Wyss said, that helps the boat track so well. The average boat is usually between 22' and 24' long, and variations on this theme often result in a poor running boat.

"What is unique is that all the lengths are within two feet of each other, and all the angles within five or ten degrees...and any attempts to stray from these small parameters usually results in an inferior boat," Wyss said.

One of the most productive modern builders is Steve Schultes. He made his first riverboat in 1989, using a Bob Howe boat as a model. Since then, Schultes has completed "around thirty-five" boats. In addition, he refinishes thirty or forty a year, for everyone from rare users to professional guides who log over a hundred days on the river.

"The guides really teach you how to build a boat. If it's guide proof, it's everybody proof," Schultes said.

Schultes, working out of his heated garage, used to build two boats at once when he was "really cranking them out." He said that most of the building time logged is spent waiting for the epoxy to dry. His fastest boat took him six weeks to make, some much longer, depending on the wood used and any special features desired.

They can get quite fancy. Stephan's last boat -- the first he's built in thirteen years -- used Michigan white pine planks, black walnut and sitka spruce.

"That's the best handling, best boat I've built," he said.

Each builder has their own preferences for how the boat is designed. Stephan puts a three foot bow cover on his boats, which translates into more storage space than conventional boats. He also puts a flat back on his boat, which can be used as a motor mount. Wyss, whose favorite design is by Walter Miksell, uses a more gradual taper. A variety of different woods may be used, but each wood requires special treatment and care.

The riverboat is a flat-water boat, and so their usage is limited to gentle rivers. The Mad River, outside of Columbus, OH, is one of the few rivers where the boats have been adopted. River guide and owner of Mad River Outfitters, Brian Fleschig, has used the boats since 1994, when he got them from former riverboat builder Roger Wisniewski.

"AuSable boats are great for the Mad River for the same reasons they are up there [Crawford]," Fleschig said.

The development of the riverboat -- from a craft of utility to a craft of leisure -- took place in the late 1800's. The original riverboats were flat at both ends, and were called flat-boats. They were used to haul supplies, move the cook shanty downstream or to take fishermen and hunters down the river. Rube Babbit Sr. is usually considered the developer of the modern riverboat. He wanted a boat that could be pushed upstream and downstream, so that the guide could return to a starting point after the trip was done, or push up to pick up clients and float and fish down to camp. Ed Auger, a Grayling area carpenter, built so many boats that some modern boat builders believe he invented the longboat. Most consider the birth date of the riverboat to have occurred sometime in the 1870's.

By the early 1900's, Arthur Wakeley was building boats in two days, and selling them for $20. These old boats were built of pine-plank boards, weighed up to 450 pounds when dry, and more when wet. An example of a Wakeley boat, built in 1915, can be seen in the Crawford County Historical Museum.

Modern boats are made primarily of marine plywood and usually weigh between 130 and 150 pounds. This lighter wood, coupled with the liberal use of epoxy, make it far less likely to take water. Modern boats take far longer than two days, and cost far more to make (and buy) then the originals.

"You have about a hundred hours in it, depending on how fancy you want to get. Then you figure $2,000 to get started. Epoxy, fiberglass: it isn't cheap," Stephan said.

But it is important, says Dave Wyss, that we keep the tradition alive. Wyss and Lacey Stephan's cousin Jay Stephan traveled to The Smithsonian in Washington D.C. to build a boat there.

"It's considered a national treasure. It shouldn't be taken for granted. It's an important part of our history," Wyss said.

None of the builders knew of anyone under thirty years old building riverboats, and this, says Wyss, is cause for concern.

"They won't stay alive on their own," he said.

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