The night of the sixth day was the eve of our proposed launch date. As we finished framing the cabin and night fell, so did the rain. Nico and I opened up the roll-up door to my dad’s shop and backed our vessel inside to finish work, and as it turned out, a delayed day of intermittent rain was just what we needed to make some final adjustments.
After a delicious homemade and home-grown organic and gluten free dinner at Boone’s house with friends (pompous I know, but I swear that’s what it was), we convinced our gracious hosts to drive up the road and check out the progress. I pulled the giant door to the shop up once more and left the lights off. In their place, I lit one of my mom’s old kerosene lamps we were to bring with us and hung it on a nail I had pounded into the ceiling of the cabin. As our guests fumbled through the darkness of the shop, Nico and I helped them up the ladder onto the deck and we all sat on the bunks in the cabin marveling at the orange glow that danced off of the wood, sipping beer and laughing. It seemed to me as though we could be anywhere in time at that moment. Everything but our clothes was the same as any ship’s cabin must have looked up until the turn of the last century, and I just knew that we were communing with some ancient creative drive that has been with man since he first put his hands to tools. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my friends look more beautiful. I laughed and shook my head in disbelief as we sat and drank and talked about nothing in particular.
It’s been almost a year now since we began this odyssey, so my memory is a little fuzzy on what, in fact, took place on the seventh day. Like I said, it was raining, and I know we were inside tying up a few loose ends but I can’t really remember the particulars. I think we installed the mast which was an old pipe used to string a length of telephone wire from a power pole, and probably installed the fire pit - simply a rectangular frame of 2x4’s at the very front edge of the bow that was nailed in place and filled with gravel to support an old barbecue that we would burn our wood in.
While The seventh day may be a bit unclear, it all snaps back into focus on the eighth. The sun was out, and hot, and the wind was blowing gently. We were set on launching for our three day tour, from the mouth of the Flathead River, across Flathead Lake, and as far south as we could get.
Flathead Lake is the largest freshwater body west of the Mississippi, and I have eagerly divulged a much more detailed version of this information to any poor soul that has ever had the misfortune of asking me where I’m from. Coincidentally, it was also claimed to be one of the cleanest bodies of water in the world by the Flathead Lake Biological Station (http://www.umt.edu/flbs/AboutFLBS/FlatheadLake.aspx). According to local legend, it houses one of the worlds oldest and perhaps largest ancient creatures, the Flathead Lake Monster. Some say it’s a forgotten relic of the Mesozoic Era, while others believe it’s just a large Sturgeon. Either way, many wakeboarding sessions have culminated in wiping out on that great body of water, over 350 feet deep in the middle, and bobbing around in a life preserver wondering how many minutes it would be before my leg was grabbed by something huge and unseen as I anxiously waited for the boat to circle around and pluck me from the abyss…
But I digress. The point is, everything about this lake is huge. The waves are huge, the monsters are huge, and even on the fairest of days, the distance is admirable. This is why we wanted to see how far we could go. Many ships that were actually built to withstand the physics of maritime weather have sunk on this lake, and I sometimes wonder what that boneyard would look like if the lake were drained. But the eighth day was not going to claim the Naysayer. We had already decided it so. We loaded her up with fishing gear, coolers of meat, firewood, and of course, precious Canadian beer. On ice.
Nico and I had initially intended to float the length of the Flathead river, yearning for a true Huck Finn experience, but after a little scouting and talking to a few locals who had tried it in canoes and failed, we opted to put in at deeper waters. We loaded up in Boone’s truck and headed down to the boat launch with many honks and thumbs up on the highway. At one point I screamed at Boone to slow to a crawl, sure that we were about to take out a power line with our mast. I think we were just shy by about four feet.
It was late in the afternoon when we were finally in the water, and the sun was setting by the time we pushed off. We promised some friends that we would head for the local dockside bar to try and catch some cocktails and wild praise before 2am, and we waived our farewells. As the sun went down, and Nico began rowing, everything in the landscape lit up with this brilliant yellow color that is trademark to the end of summer in Montana. The water was as still as glass and we dropped a silent battery powered trolling motor we had brought into the hatch so we could prepare dinner over an open fire as we made our way towards the mouth of the river.
Yellow turned to orange, then to red and finally a deep purple glow and I think I stopped breathing for a little while. The picture was just too perfect - almost manufactured- and I felt dizzy, swelling with pride and love for my friends and for life and the unfathomable truth of the beauty that it sometimes shows us. It just didn’t seem real. But all of this was trumped when the fattest, goldenrod full moon I’d ever seen began to rise from behind the Mission Mountains. I tell you now, we did not plan this, and if it hadn’t been for the delayed day of rain we would surely have seen a large moon, but not a full one. This was the night. Somewhere far away the tides were being pulled hard, and we felt that gravity there on our little raft bobbing in our own ocean. We were the only vessel in sight as far as we could see, and as the mouth of the river gave way to the threshold of the lake, the stars came out and that big yellow moon made it look like we had some kind of weird light turned on, casting blue shadows everywhere around us. It was all too much. I doubled over with laughter and tears on the deck. We all did. It was like we were having a collective nervous fit and we couldn’t breathe from the pangs of hyperventilation that crippled our sides. It was one of the purest moments of my life, and I tried to hold on to it as long as I could, knowing that this was one of those rare moments that would later become a memory that could never be reproduced. The only thing that dwarfed it was the birth of my beautiful boy.
When the laughter finally subsided, and the tears dried, we dropped our wooden keel and raised our plastic tarp of a sail and glided silently through the moonlight twinkling off the water. The wind was blowing steady and after several tries of tacking against it to head to the proposed dockside bar in the distance, it was apparent that it just was not meant to be. We did not feel slighted in the least.
I broke the sound of the waves with a tinny speaker from my phone and played The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen” while Boone poured whiskey and ice into coffee mugs and Nico tended the fire. We tied down the keel, set our course, and raised our mugs in effigy to our friends: that twinkling light far across the water where they were amassed, drinking and laughing themselves, perhaps wondering if that small bobbing light in the distance was the kerosene lamp of some unearthly three-headed vessel they had thought to arrive. We turned our attention to the fire and the moon, and wore huge smiles as that light eventually disappeared behind the horizon; the stars left in its place.
Despite our let-down with the never-present “locals” on the island, we were all hopped up on Canadian beer and fresh air by the time we got back to the boat launch. I backed the trailer down into the water, and with one hand, Nico gracefully guided the raft in place above the 2x4 rails and gave me the “thumbs up”. We were out of the water in thirty seconds. Pats on the back and huge smiles went all around as the sun set behind the Rockies on a perfect Montana summer evening, and we strapped the raft down and headed back to the shop, already itching to start the framing of the cabin. The sky turned a dark purple color and the peaks of the Mission Mountains lit up like signal flares as we lumbered north on Highway 93.
The next morning, my entire body felt as if it had been beaten with a hammer in my sleep. Muscles I didn’t even knew I had were suddenly tensed up and burning, and my hands could barely clasp themselves shut. The constant hammering, lifting, drilling, and the recent rowing had taken their toll. I called Nico and said it would be a while before I could get to the shop. He said he felt the same way.
When I finally did arrive, it was already 3:30 in the afternoon, and it looked like rain was headed our way. We began framing the cabin towards the stern of the deck - two feet from the rear edge, and centered with a 1’ walkabout on either side. Roughly 6’ wide, 7’ long, and 6’ tall. We wanted the roof of the cabin to be as sturdy as possible, because we intended to use it as a lookout deck as well as a platform for hoisting the sail we would later fabricate. I made two benches for our bunks, and using a handsaw of all things, I roughly “routed” out the corners to make room for the mast that would eventually divide the front entrance in two. Nico had a bunch of siding from a shed he tore apart, as well as a couple of 100+ year old windows from the local opera house, which we were eager to utilize.
The funniest part about putting those windows in was the ease in which we decided upon the best height to frame them at. I sat down on my bunk and propped my elbow at what I thought would be the perfect height for hanging my arm out of the side with a beer, and asked Nico if he thought it seemed right. He agreed and an hour later, those babies were in.
Once the siding was screwed in to the exterior, and the roof was clad with 3/4” plywood, the cabin was rigid as stone. The walls were framed by overlapping chunks of 2x4’s together, and placing them 16” apart, and the roof was framed with 2x6’s laid on their flat sides, also 16” apart (off center). We screwed through the floorplate of the walls with a couple of massive lag screws we purchased especially for the job, making sure to hit the joists below the deck.
By the end of the fifth day, the cabin was framed, and on the sixth day we moved it indoors to avoid the rain while we clad and framed the windows. I found an old mix tape I made in high school and we listened to it on repeat. It was an eclectic mix of “The Crash Test Dummies”, “Nirvana”, “Aerosmith”, and “Butthole Surfers”, with a clip from an episode of “This American Life” on side two. It felt great to be back in the 90’s for a couple of hours.
That night, we were invited over to our friend Boone’s place for dinner. Boone is someone I had gone to high school with, and although we knew all of the same people, and went to all of the same parties, we never really spent much time together. It’s safe to say he was a closer friend to Nico. Nonetheless, Boone was always a guy who peaked my interest as someone you’d want to have on your side - a real tough grizzly of a man with a vice for a handshake and a whole-hearted gruff voice that shook his whole body when he laughed. Throughout our building experience thus far, Boone had stopped in every night to check on the progress and give us cold beer. I could see something stirring inside of him with each visit, and it was only a matter of time before he put his grizzly hands on his hips and declared, “Shit boys, I gotta get in on this!”
We welcomed his presence and enjoyed his company thoroughly.
I wish I had taken a picture of the scene I am about to describe. We had ten people aboard the raft, and two small oars with no oarlocks to hold them in place, which meant that we had to take turns putting ALL of our body weight into cutting through the water with those things. Ten people at an average of let’s say 150 lbs. each = 1500 lbs., + 1500 lbs. estimated weight of raft thus far = heavy. So there we were, slowly cutting our way through the water, headed for a small island about a mile out that had a house and a diving board jutting off of a granite steep, and all we could think about for motivation was jumping off that diving board into the cool green water. Someone brought along a battery powered radio and we must’ve looked like some delinquent alcoholic version of Washington crossing the Delaware as we blasted Guns N Roses through crackling tinny speakers, yelling “Heave!” in unison as a trail of cigarette smoke wafted lazily behind us - evidence of invisible smokestacks for the tourists laughing and taking pictures from the shore.
Growing up on Flathead Lake, I had been to the aforementioned island many times over many years, and even as a young boy I can clearly recall doing cannonballs off of that diving board. In all those visits to the island I have never seen people in the house that sits upon it. Suffice to say, we were puzzled when a middle aged party moored a few yards away from the island and sat silently drinking beer and watching us with strange concern. We waved and laughed and hooted and hollered and they said nothing. Just sat with wry smiles watching us.
As we drew near, the boat started it’s motor, slowly drove into the dock on the island, and the crew began to tie off. Still, we thought they were fellow visitors to the island, anchoring to explore as so many others have over the years. It wasn’t until we were just a few feet away from them, exhausted after our rowing efforts but elated to finally arrive at our destination, that they made their presence verbal. In a high nasal whine, one of the women sang a taunting song: “Keep Goooing!” The emphasis was on the “go” in the word, and her tone went up and then back down on the “ing”. She was smirking as she said it. What had been a mystery before was suddenly crystal clear: These were the unknown owners of the island, finally come to reclaim their territory, and they had known all along that we desired nothing more than to jump off of that diving board, so they waited until it was just out of reach to deny us of our want. They got a real kick out of our disappointment.
The dawn of the fourth day found us with much to do, albeit a seemingly simple order of monotonous operations. We had to lay the joists perpendicular to the 2x8 spans that ran parallel to the barrels, and we had to secure them to the spans in a rigid manner that would ensure no buckling, should the deck somehow come torn loose. Any structure is only as strong as it’s foundation. This task was accomplished by laying out eight foot lengths of 2x4’s across the spans, every sixteen inches apart along the length of the frame, and then cutting sixteen lengths of 9” long 4x4’ blocks. The 4x4 blocks were rationed eight to the bow and eight to the stern, through bolted first to the spans, and then to the 2x4 floor joists, in all four corners of the first two barrel cells on each side and each end of the raft. Got it? Why I didn’t take a picture to illustrate this method is beyond my reasoning, and truly, a picture is worth a thousand words.
The remaining floor joists were secured to the frame in the same manner, but we used 9” lengths of 2x4’s instead of 4x4’s, and screws instead of through-bolts, figuring that any torque not already held fast by the sixteen through bolted sections would square true once the 3/4” plywood decking was fastened to the floor joists (which was also done using an array of different sized and different headed screws we found in a bucket).
We left an opening in the deck near the stern where we would later build and drop the keel. We also figured that if we had to resort to using an outboard motor, the opening would be hidden by the cabin that was to be erected around it, and we could evade the obvious appearance of the dreaded “Motor Vehicle” from anyone who wanted to label the craft as such.
Late in the afternoon we had the decking installed and we wrapped the barrels with steel banding we found in the barge builder’s field and nylon strapping material that my dad gave us. I never doubted that the barrels wouldn’t “wedge” successfully into their chambers, but I wanted to ensure they wouldn’t float away while we launched and loaded the raft from the trailer. The only thing I wasn’t sure of at this point was whether or not the weight of the raft would be slight enough to lift off of the trailer once we had it in the water. It all depended on the angle of the boat launch ramp we used and the buoyancy of the barrels. We were so excited to test the raft out that we opted to simply drive it down into the water and see whether or not it lifted easily. If it did, we knew we would float, and if it didn’t, we would simply head back to the shop and try to locate a wench or a come-along.
Perhaps one of the most enjoyable and unexpected results of building this raft was the organic nature in which my dad’s shop became the unofficial “clubhouse” for curious friends and passersby. Every day people would drop by to watch the progress, lend a hand for an hour or two, or share a couple of much needed cold beers. Such were the conditions towards the end of the fourth day of construction, and we found ourselves basked in the company of a few enthusiastic friends, anxious as we were to see how our vessel would take to water. We all agreed that we ought to head down to the lake immediately for a swim with the raft. By the time we got to the boat launch, nearly a dozen of our friends were there, and we had a regular crowd of sympathizers to cheer us on as I backed the trailer into the water.
As soon as the front of the trailer was submerged, the raft lifted gracefully off of it’s rails. Men with more classically manufactured boats stared in awe as they struggled with wenches and frustrated hand motions trying to get their boats in or out of the water. We were launched in thirty seconds flat. The Naysayer was seaworthy.
By the end of the third day of construction, we had all of the barrels set in place on the 2x4 rails, framed into individual chambers held together by long spans of 2x8’s and lag bolts. My idea was to space the 2x8’s far enough apart so that the height of the boards would clear the apex of the circumference of the barrel (so as to leave room for decking joists above the boxed individual barrel chambers), but not so wide as to let the barrel push through their respective chambers once buoyant. I figured that the weight of the deck and the cabin would be substantial enough to push down on the barrels, and the buoyancy of the barrels would be substantial enough to push up into their slightly “too narrow” chambers, effectively wedging the barrels in place before they had a chance to touch the decking joists from underneath.
The weight of the raft was figured by using simple math and common sense: the amount of weight required to submerge a volume of air is equal to the weight of the volume of material that the air is displacing. In other words, if a gallon of water weighs 8.35 pounds, and a barrel holds 55 gallons of volume, 55 x 8.35 = 459.25 pounds of weight needed to submerge 55 gallons of air in water. Of course, there is the weight of the barrel itself, but I figured that was negligible enough not to worry about. Since I never wanted any barrel to be submerged more than half-way underwater, I simply divided the submersible weight by two for each barrel, and multiplied that by twelve because we were using twelve barrels to float the raft. 459.25 pounds per barrel / 2 = 229.62 (x12) = 2755.5 pounds max weight limit.
The 2x8’s were lap-jointed together at least six feet on either end, roughly along the middle of the raft, or wherever the boards that matched the closest in length ended. We tacked everything in place with nails first just to hold our distances, and then drilled a half-inch hole through the laps and put our found lag bolts through them. We had to break down and buy a few nuts for these, along with some screws and caps we needed for the barrels.
Once the 2x8 spans were positioned on either side of both rows of barrels, 2x8 studs were framed in to keep the barrels from moving forward or backwards, and finally, the ends of the spans were tied together along the bow and stern of the frame, holding it all together square and level.