Back in 2017 Kate Aitchison came up with the bizarre idea of making woodcut prints throughout both entire sides of a McKenzie boat. Being a sucker for a crazy idea, I aided and abetted the plan. Kate spent a couple months carving and printing before we assembled the Katie Lee.

Here’s an earlier blogpost telling the story:

Some Assembly Required

Well, seven years passed, the Katie Lee got several river adventures under her belt, and Kate decided to up the ante. Why not offer it as a course at Colorado College? Have students spend a couple weeks designing, carving, and making prints from the panels. Then the Fretwater team would show up and lead a six-day boatbuilding course to assemble the boat. No, two boats–one just wouldn’t be enough of a challenge. On day six we’d launch the boats for a three-day San Juan river trip. Insane. Impossible.

Hell yeah.

Kate named the course The Art of the Boat. Perfect.

I had to start a month or two early, scarfing up the side panels. Here they are layed up and glued, with waxed paper everywhere but the joint.

Crushed and kicking.

Dang, look at that joint. Just look at it!

I cut out four panels and sent them up to Kate in beautiful Bluff, Utah. Kate corralled nine students and set up shop on the Design/Build Bluff campus, and the students got to work designing for a week, then carving for a week.


We showed up at the beginning of week three and WOW! The panels were carved and drop-dead gorgeous.

They made many small section prints, and a spectacular set of full end-to-end prints.

Because things weren’t complicated and overwhelming enough, we decided to try and have the students make little 1/6 scale models. I bent up some underlayment plywood in the hopes it would make the process easier. But it didn’t. You can see Olive and Anna aren’t really sold on this. Neither am I.

But the boatlets came together, sort of. And the students decorated them with the rubber stamps they were carving each day.

Cricket and Glade arrived the next day and led the lofting and frame assembly. Meanwhile we laid out screw patterns 0n the panels and drilled and countersunk them.

By midafternoon on the second day of boatbuilding we were assembling the hulls.

Such amazing artwork.

Day three the floors were on, Day four the gunwales were on. Cricket and Glade had to leave for a Grand Canyon trip mid day, but we’d gotten most of the hard work done by then.

Day five we finished all the exterior trim and began making seats and floorboards.

Testing the branding iron to see if it’s hot enough.

The biggest issue we faced was the weather–each afternoon the temperature soared well over 100. We were mighty thankful for this giant tree. By midafternoon motivation usually collapsed, however.

But by golly, by mid-morning of day six we were basically done. Done enough. We took a break, then reconvened at 2 to load and head down to the river.

Kate brought the Katie Lee, so we had three carved boats. We each tried towing a string of tiny boats with varying success.

The condiment tabletop exploded at the first camp so Kate grabbed a floorboard from one of the new boats andset it on the table legs. We might be on to something.

The evening art show.

The Butler Panel–one of the more amazing petroglyph panels around.

After we built the Katie Lee, I impregnated her exterior with penetrating epoxy to help stabilize the carved outer skin of the plywood. It has served her well, and we hoped to do the same to the new boats. Boat the oil-based printing ink was very slow to dry, and a test piece smeared badly. So we ran the boats raw and plan to impregnate them at a later date (Katie Lee’s ink had already been drying a month or more when we built the boat). Instead we pulled the new boats out of the water each night.

Cody Little, who runs Tse Kooh Outfitters, set our trip up and rowed Boxcar, a Nevills San Juan Punt we build several years ago.

We all said WOW an awful lot this trip. I mean, just… wow.

Into the gorge:

My favorite part of the adventure was the Ledge Rapid Massacre: Kit and I launched all nine tiny boats and every one went in the hole.


What a ridiculous concept: design, carve and print four 16-foot woodcut panels. Turn them into beautiful boats. Then run them down a river. But it worked. Splendidly. Perhaps we’ll do it again. Maybe with Colorado College again, maybe with the general public. Interested?

Sunset on Katie Lee. Wooden boats just love to glow.