The Great Thumb was born the Betty Boop around 1967. She was built by Keith Steele in Leaburg, Oregon for actor Ronn Hayes. Steele built her as a classic undecked McKenzie drift boat, 14 feet 9 inches long.
Hayes was a television regular from the late ’50s to the 1980s on shows ranging from Gunsmoke to Bonanza, to Lassie, to Dallas, and starred as Lincoln Vail in all 38 episodes of “The Everglades.” He was also an avid environmentalist, helping found Earth Day. The river got hold of him early, however, and in the 1970s he joined with Vladimir Kovalik to found and run Wilderness World, running trips on the Rogue and Grand Canyon. But before Wilderness World, he ran the Betty Boop on trips with Martin Litton. “She was a 14-foot McKenzie,” wrote Ronn, “that turned like an aerobatic Pitts Special.”
|Ronn Hayes, 1966|
“Unfortunately,” writes his daughter Heidi, “after leaving Oregon with the boat strapped atop his ’54 pickup, Dad miscalculated the height of vehicle plus boat. He crushed the bow when he pulled into a gas station. Needless to say, it made completing the hull compartments and getting the boat river ready for its first trip down the Grand Canyon a herculean effort.”
“Just about every evening for 3 years Dad would be out in the garage working on the Betty Boop,” adds son Peter. “She is named after Dad’s second wife, Betty Endicott, who was a “Bonanza Girl” (she did all the barmaid work for many years, was Parnell Roberts “Stand In” for many years.) When she was upset with dad she’d order him out to the garage so he could ‘screw his boat!’ We must have put a thousand brass screws into that hull, and many of them were twisted in under duress! We crafted every one of the little curved angles by hand. There were no power tools used to make the Betty Boop: Files, chisels, hand saws, brace & bit…that was it.
“I do not know how many runs Dad did with her, but he loved the Betty Boop, and he rowed it all summer long in 1970, working for Martin Litton.”
Ronn once wrote of a legendary day on a Martin Litton trip at Crystal Rapid in 1970, when the rapid was still rather new and no one really knew how to get through it. It bore little resemblance to the Crystal of today. Rather, it was an accelerating chaos, sweeping left, culminating in a giant hole on the lower left, just above what was then and still remains the Rock Island, albeit rearranged somewhat. Martin Litton flipped the first dory, swam it ashore, walked back up, flipped the second dory, walked back up and flipped the third. Curt Chang ran the fourth dory and flipped as well. So did the raft. Hayes ran last. He writes:
“The current was fierce and once set up I pulled desperately on the sticks to miss the Big One. Arthur and Tim had stuck to their agreement [to run every rapid] and their extra weight made a perfect Catch-22. The dory’s draft was deeper, making it hard to cheat the hole, but extra bow weight made cresting easier. Thank God they were there, because as we shot up the right hand corner of the Maw and stood on end, I began to slide out of the stern with a death grip on the oars. Arthur and Tim lunged around, grabbed my ankles and hauled me back into the cockpit. Slamming the oars back into the locks, I was up and rowing, missing the rock pile by a burble. Pure luck. The Betty Boop had made it right side up and uninjured on the Dog Day at Crystal.”
“Dad never flipped the Betty Boop,” writes Peter Hayes, “and he was considered a little crazy for some of the lines he ran routinely, like the left run at House Rock, the right run at Hance, and I think he never ran anything other than the right side of Lava. He was ejected from the ‘V Wave’ when the Betty Boop did a tail stand and he flew out the back with an oar in each hand. He carried the photo of that moment in his wallet until his death. I suppose it was sort of a spiritual moment for him. Dad, the Boop and the Canyon had a love affair that lasted his entire life.”
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