The Tom Sawyer Express

    “The Tom Sawyer Express,” New Era, July 1985, 33

    The Tom Sawyer Express

    The Green’s a mighty river, but men and boys can tame it with logs, lashings, inner tubes, and faith.

    “The first time I catched Tom private I asked him what was his idea. … And he said, what he had planned in his head from the start … was for us to run him down the river on the raft, and have adventures plumb to the mouth of the river” (Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Norwalk Connecticut: Easton Press, 1981, p. 844).

    It’s a dream every boy has when he first sees a mighty river, the dream of building a raft and floating all the way to the sea. It’s a dream of travel, a dream of adventure, a dream of becoming part of the force of nature. The river is a highway to other people and other times, to high adventure and sights unseen. The bigness of the water lends you strength. The fastness of the current thrills you with its power. But when the river is calm it can almost tame you. It’s easy to spend hours watching water move, observing ripples and flows, counting twigs as they float by and wondering where they had their origin. For a boy on a raft the river is a place to lie in the sun while the waves lap at his feet, while the water slowly bobs him up and down until he drifts to sleep.

    But boys become men and dreams give way to reality. Rivers change into blue lines on maps—shipping lanes for interstate commerce, flood dangers to be leveed, diked, and channeled. For most men, the fascination with rivers dwindles to dormancy, then finally disappears.

    Ray Ivie, however, still loves rivers.

    Brother Ivie is a spry little man, wiry and elfish, an electrical engineer by trade. Mention a river to him, and his eyes come alive. His already animated face becomes even more eager. His pulse picks up so fast that yours races with it. Listen to him speak, and the fascination for rivers is rekindled in you once again.

    Ray Ivie is also the Scoutmaster of Troop 477 chartered to the 77th Ward of the Orem Utah South Stake. A couple of years ago he and his Scouts had built some pioneering projects, lashing poles together with rope to form furniture, camp equipment, even towers.

    “We had poles and ropes,” he said. “And we’d been talking about a river trip, but we didn’t have any canoes. One of the projects mentioned in the pioneering merit badge book is to build a raft. I don’t think they had anything elaborate in mind, but it started me thinking, hey, we could do that; it wouldn’t cost much.”

    That’s what happens when an engineer gets loose. Soon the boys in Brother Ivie’s troop were fashioning willow sticks into model rafts.

    “We did some calculating of flotation needed for the weight we planned to carry, what we’d need to do in terms of water displacement,” Brother Ivie said. “We figured out that inner tubes would give adequate flotation, and we found some businesses where tubes with holes in them were just throw-aways. For the cost of patching materials and the time spent a couple of Saturdays fixing the tubes, we had the materials we would need.” The two-level rafts were designed with inner tubes lashed together underneath a log framework.

    “The whole principle of pioneering is to use what’s available,” Brother Ivie added. “Teaching the boys about that is much more valuable than hiring some commercial company to ferry them down the river. And when you know you’re going to be floating on your own raft, you make sure it’s well built. It’s not like some tower you sit on for a minute. If a raft falls apart, you’re in the drink.”

    After reviewing safety procedures and checking with Green River (Utah) State Park officials, Troop 477 set sail in the summer of 1983. The trip was so memorable that Brother Ivie and his boys automatically talked with friends and family about what they had done, inviting others to go with them the next year. Brother Ivie gave them copies of his assembly and instruction manual, “The PT-13 (Patrol Transport, 13-tube, 13-foot pole, Live-aboard Ship).” By the following summer, two more troops (from the Orem 15th and 27th Wards) manning a total of five rafts were scheduled for the second flotilla.

    They would test a stretch of the Green originally explored by another river lover, John Wesley Powell, at identically the same time of year that the Powell expedition came through the area in July 1869.

    “The Indians called it a river of no return. They told Powell that around a bend in the river there were mighty falls,” Michael Weatherred, 13, explained. “So every time his explorers went around a bend, they’d get nervous. I bet they took time to pray they’d be all right. They were glad when they got through that they’d never met up with the supposed falls.”

    The Scouts and their leaders arrived in the town of Green River on a Monday morning and started building the rafts at a state park where a boat ramp provides easy access to the river. It took a little longer than expected to assemble everything. In fact, launching was delayed until the following morning. But once underway it didn’t take long for the fun to begin.

    “It was like a moving summer camp,” said Brother Ivie’s 13-year-old son, Brian. “You didn’t have to worry about getting bored. The scenery was always changing.”

    The Green River Canyon is a place where the earth gets down to basics. Rock and water, water and sand, sometimes some red rock to add brightness to the land. The Missouri-wide water twists through curve after wandering curve, past side canyons where Indian petroglyphs and explorer’s signatures are etched in the stone of thousand-foot cliffs reaching to a cloudless blue sky.

    “It’s such a big place,” said Adam Pitcher, 13. “A massive river, massive canyons, huge rocks. How could there ever be so much rock in one place? It’s strange to imagine a place so big, but so empty.”

    “It’s kind of nice to watch the world’s history book open up as you go down the different layers,” said Brother Ivie’s other son, 14-year-old Richard. “Those rocks must be some of the oldest rocks in the world. It makes you think back to the creation. You look from the beginning back up to the tops of the cliffs.”

    And then there was always the water. If you got hot or bored you just jumped in the river.

    “My dad, my brother Richard, and I would all go floating at the same time,” said Chris Higbee, 12. “At night, Dad and I would sleep next to each other on the deck and Richard would sleep up on the second level. We’d just lie there and talk to each other. It was neat. I’ll tell my kids about it some day.”

    “I couldn’t believe it when I saw my Scoutmaster dive off the second deck,” said Andrew Owens, 12. “I didn’t know he could be crazy like that. But he got right in there and did the same things we did. He likes to have fun, too.”

    Jim Oldroyd, 12, told of running across flat places on the bank where silt had accumulated.

    “At first it was solid, but then we’d keep running on it and it turned into mud,” he said.

    “The mud’s buoyant, so you can’t sink, and it’s a lot warmer than the water, because it’s been out in the sun. A warm mud bath was just the thing to get rid of mosquitoes,” Richard Ivie said. “Of course, when you got out you looked like a chocolate statue.”

    Mosquitoes were a constant plague to the adventurers. “They were the worst where there were plants and bushes,” said Scott Hafen, 14. “When we tried to pull in to shore and tie up, they’d mob us. And they’d buzz and bite all night long while we were trying to sleep.”

    But despite the whining attacks of buzzbombing mosquitoes, everyone who floated the Green would return home enchanted. They’d tell of visiting Geyser Springs and Anvil Bottom, of renaming Trinity Alcove “Cobra Swamp,” in honor of the shape of a nearby rock formation. They’d brag of their climb up the steep sides of Bowknot Bend, where fast winds snatched some of their hats and tossed them thousands of feet down the canyon. And they’d tell how the river makes a nine-mile elbow to come back within 600 yards of where it started.

    Jason Von Zomeren, 16, would remember how he cooled off watermelons by floating them next to him in the river. Scott Hanson, assistant adviser to the teachers quorum in the 27th Ward, would remember demonstrating his black powder rifle, teaching the young men how to load and shoot it. Months later he would still be talking about how the river trip had taught everyone to reach out to others.

    “It’s a lot easier to get your boat to shore if there’s someone there to throw a line to,” he said.

    Even though the Green River seems to meander, the current at the center is an express lane. At the end of four days, the rafts had traveled 68 miles. It was time for the Friday night campfire, the closing ceremony of the trip.

    Each boy’s parents had sent a letter for him to read.

    “We read the letters and then just thought for a few minutes. Then we bore our testimonies to each other and said how much we’d grown closer by working together,” said Jeff Barrett, 14. “People don’t always tell you how they feel right at the time, but we all did. You told everybody how you felt.”

    He remembered one special incident from the trip:

    “When we were coming in the last night, there was a storm and it was blowing. We all tried to row against the current and the wind. Our two leaders, the Scoutmaster and my dad, were wearing themselves out trying to get the boat in. We had to take everything down that would prevent us from getting to shore. If we missed the landing, we’d be gone down river for 70 miles more. So we said a prayer for help. After that, the wind died down for a minute and the rain stopped. We made it in before it started up again.”

    The next morning, as tubes were deflated and lashings untied, as rafts became mere piles of poles to be loaded onto trucks, Brother Ivie said the journey down the Green could not have been better.

    “To do a Tom Sawyer float is something every man dreams about some time in his life,” he said. “The reason I put in the hours I did was because I decided years ago that when my sons were in Scouting we’d do things together. Next year we’re going bicycling. But I can see a few years from now that I might get my daughters to build some rafts. Maybe we can take them down to Lake Powell and float next to the big houseboats.”

    Isn’t that just the way Tom and Huck would discuss it?

    Photos by Marty Mayo

    You don’t build a boat just by wishin’ it were done. Before you can float in the sunshine, you’ve got to work for hours in the heat. There’s poles to fetch and lash together, inner tubes to pump up, and whole tons o’ gear and supplies to carry on board. You might not think you’d need to bring water on a river trip, but you’ve got to fill drinking bottles, too. It takes a whole day, and then some, to get everything exact. But when the rafts are finished, you’ll be just as earnest as Tom or Huck to ride on ’em clear to the sea.

    On the river banks, the best way to escape the ‘skeeters is to take a plunge in the mud. It’s warm, sticky, and thick so they can’t bite through it. You look like a chocolate statue when you’re done, but no harm. Just hop in the water and you come clean, good as new. With all the maps on board, you can easy chart a course. Not that you need to much—the river takes you along. But you can figure out what’s goin’ by. Sometimes quarters get a bit cramped, but it’s nice not to have to find a camp every night. Just tie up and start cooking.

    Green River canyon is gorgeous as can be. God couldn’t have made a sky any bluer, and the giant cliffs make you feel like a tiny speck in a world of rock. Spend all day just lookin’ and thinkin’. Unless you get hot. Then hop in the drink and cool off.