Where the Cataraft Came From: A Brief history of Cataraft Development
Jack Curry (Western Rivers) thought that he had made a real deal when he purchased two boxcars full of surplus rubber. The year was 1965, and the surplus rubber he had just purchased was a mountain of new style bridge pontoons that were used in the Korean War. What Jack thought he was getting was a large pile of the round or raft style pontoons that were commonly used for running large Western rivers. He thought he was getting surplus 33-ft bridge pontoons used during World War II. These New pontoons were straight tubes (Snouts) 22 ft long and 36 inches in diameter.
Paul Thevenin (who still works for Western Rivers) was dispatched to unload the rubber in Salt Lake City. He just kept digging through the pile looking for the round 33-ft pontoons, but there simply were not any there. Paul Started to Experiment by gluing the tubes end to end, and by attaching them side to side. Jake Luck built the first frame to go across 5 of the longer tubes that Paul had made. Together they invented the J rig. The J rig came to stand for the Jack Curry rig, but it was really Paul and Jake that put it together originally.
The J rig has changed little since those days. However at first there were a whole bunch of tubes around, and Jack Curry did not know what to do with them, so he put them up for sale.
In 1969, Dick McCallum (Grand Canyon Youth Expeditions) spread these big tubes apart with a frame that had 2 oar stations, and a sweep oar on the back for steering. One person per oar rowed it down stream, and Dick steered with the sweep oar. One boat carried up to 8 people and gear for a 22-day trip in the Grand Canyon.
Dicks Creation inspired Allen Wilson, of ARTA. He produced a one-station craft, and made his first rowing trip down the Grand without mishap. Within a very short time, ARTA had a fleet of Snout Rigs, as their primary rowing craft. I saw my first Arta snout boat on my first Grand Canyon Trip in 1972. It was nicknamed Moms Apple Turnover.
Western took the idea of the J rig and miniaturized it into a rowing platform. It was still a monster, 28 ft long and 12 ft wide it was four 36-inch diameter tubes side by side. As late as 1979 this boat was still on the grand being rowed without a motor. It was often on a one boat trip. The huge gear hauling catarafts were born.
In the mid 80's Scott Fasken (Idaho Afloat) took two Snouts and used them for a sweep oar rig down the Main Salmon River. Scott believed that a little help was needed in the slow water below the South Fork, and so he added a 7-hp motor to help him along. A sweep oar rig is a craft that has huge blades on very long shafts that stick out the front and the back of the boat. The sweeps oarsman tries to keep the boat in the current with the large blades by moving the boat sideways across the river. The boat almost always points straight up and down stream in the current.
There were some boatmen that claimed that these huge craft (by today’s rowing standards) were unflipable. It is true that they were hard to flip over, and because they carried a lot of gear, they were equally hard to flip right side up. There was a lot of skill needed to operate one of these craft. Boatmen who operated these heavy oar boats down the Grand understood the meaning of inertia and momentum. I know. I was one of them.
Since those days there has been a lot of changes in Cataraft design. Catarafts have evolved from huge gear hauling rigs to a variety of designs for just about every type of river activity. Today they are smaller, lighter, and more maneuverable.
The boating community has come to understand that it is not necessary to have a floor on a raft, and in some ways a floor is a disadvantage. With the absence of floors, Catarafts can glide over exposed rocks. A river channel may not be wide enough for a conventional raft, but a single tube on each side of a rock will slip on by. Catarafts do not expose a large amount of surface area to the river as conventional rafts do. They blast through holes and waves that stop and flip conventional rafts. Therefore they have become the craft of choice for big water, and small technical streams.
As cats became smaller the number of uses for the cat quickly expanded. Cats were no longer looked at as strictly an expedition craft. It is now possible to find them on many rivers across the country surfing waves with kayaks, fishing on tiny streams, and doing expeditions down streams that were thought too small to boat. The increased stability that is found in catarafts, has helped adventurers push the limits of the oar rig. It is now common to find cats running steep technical rivers that were previously considered unrunnable by a raft.
With the evolution of the mini cats came the boom in the personal fishing craft. These cats are smaller 5-10 foot tubes and can be rowed, paddled, or propelled with kick fins, or a trolling motor . This versatility has allowed fisherman to run streams and small rivers and lakes that were previously to small or remote for a raft.
All Catarafts possess commonalties, they are more maneuverable, they do not require any bailing, they perform better in shallow streams, they punch big hydraulics with ease, they can carry large loads in comparison to their weight, and they all have a fast learning curve. Because they are easy to transport on aircraft, pack animals, or on ones back, passage down lesser known rivers, or remote locations has become easier.
Cataraft Frames are in a constant state of change and evolution. Today there are a number of break down frames that will allow rafters to load their catarafts on small aircraft for trips to the most remote places on earth. Russians chop down Alder trees to make cat frames with bailing twine. In the US, high tec aluminum alloy fittings, premanufactured ends corners and t fittings for steel tubing, or CNC machined fittings are available. Numerous combinations can be created for any application or need. With unique frame designs, cats have become the safety boats of choice on the most serious whitewater rivers in the world. Search and Rescue personnel utilize the cataraft and frame designs to aid in the rescue of people in flood waters, low head dams, and in whitewater situations.
The cataraft has not yet reached its evolutionary plateau. There are still plenty of people out there experimenting. They may wish get down the river on just a little less water, make it between those two rocks that have stopped them in the past, or they know that there are some nice fishing holes on that section of the river where no one ever goes. We like to think that we contribute to the evolution by providing so many different kinds of tubes. We try to give our customers many different kinds of frame options. Catarafts by their nature should not be limited to a certain design criteria. Because they are composed of so many different components, they lend themselves to experimentation. These boats are for those customers who like to try new and unique experiences, for those who believe that there is still something out there to be discovered, and those who are willing to risk their days off on the 50-50 chance that it could be a wonderful trip. If you ever dreamed of building a raft and floating the river just for the fun of it, catarafts are your style of boat.
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