By Will Grandbois
Sopris Sun Staff
If you took woodshop in high school, you may have made a cutting board or candle holder or maybe a blanket chest — but probably not a river worthy boat.
That’s precisely the challenge Roaring Fork High Schoolers Wes Engstrom and Nick Penzel took on more than a year ago. The pair have been river buddies since freshmen year, when they took their first unsupervised excursion down the Crystal together.
“I lived by a river most of my life and so has Wes. It was kind of a playground for us. As I got older, I learned more about the issues facing rivers in the west,” Penzel explained. “We love the river, and this whole project feels like that next step in that relationship with it. I think we’re just trying to show the beauty of the river and the implications it has for people.”
The idea started a year and a half ago with a set of canoe plans Wes’s dad had laying around, but after a discussion with woodshop teacher Ben Kelly, they decided a dory big enough to accommodate both of them was more their speed. They obtained plans from a designer in Oregon, purchased some marine plywood, and started to realize what they were getting themselves into.
“We’d done a lot of woodworking and knew how to use the tools, but the scope of the project and the process itself were something new to comprehend,” Penzel said.
They started by cutting the ribs — a tricky process that involved some complex, precise cuts and in the end still resulted in one piece that just wouldn’t fit — then joined the plywood. Before they knew it, the school year was almost over and the project moved to the shop at the Engstrom residence. There, they cut the sides, bottom and transom and begin putting the boat together.
“A lot of the time it didn’t look like we were making any progress,” Engstrom said. “Once we had everything made, though, it was just assembly. That was a lot more exciting.”
The boys also gained some momentum when Chuck and Meredith Ogilby offered to help pay for the endeavor.
“It definitely kind of fit into what they love and they decided to help us out,” Penzel said. “It’s one of the most generous things anyone’s ever done for me.”
They also got a lot of support from material suppliers.
“As high schoolers, we got a lot of really good deals,” Engstrom observed.
By the time the boat was fully put together, hung from the ceiling to help it find its natural shape and coated in fiberglass, it was May of their senior year. They took the opportunity to show off their work at the art show, and then doubled down in hopes of finishing it time to take advantage of a June 14 permit on the San Juan. That meant sanding, building the interior and painting, which was completed with about three days to spare.
“All of the finish work we cranked out in about a week and a half,” Penzel recalled.
They took it on a test run in Beaver Lake, christened it the Crystal and prepared for a five day river trip from Mexican Hat to Clay Hills. Luckily, water levels kept the rapids to class two, and the trip also included more than a dozen experienced rafters with more standard equipment. For the most part, though, the boys got to learn on their own.
“Neither of us had been in a dory before,” Engstrom noted. “The consequences are much higher, so you’re a lot more cautious.”
“It gives you respect for the water you’re on,” Penzel added. “If you do it right, it’s going to be a great run. Get just a little sideways and you get slammed.”
It got him thinking about John Wesley Powell’s first exploration of the Colorado River in wooden dories, and he’d like to try the Grand Canyon in such a boat some day — though not in this one.
As for whether any more boatbuilding projects are on the horizon, it will probably be a while.
“I can totally see being older and getting super into it, but I don’t have the time right now,” Engstrom said.
For now, the Crystal has proved up to the tasks before it.
“It’s kind of terrifying to take it out, but it’s also really rewarding,” Engstrom said. ‘It got more damage on the road than in the river, but the thing about a wooden boat is that, as long as we don’t sink it, we can almost always fix it.”
Other than a trip or two on the Roaring Fork, the boat hasn’t seen a lot of action since June. Penzel waits tables at Phat Thai and Engstrom is interning at Roaring Fork Engineering, so their schedules don’t often align. Still, they hope to take it out a few times before Penzel heads off to Colorado College in Colorado Springs and Engstrom to Fort Lewis College in Durango.