Photo courtesy of A.J. Derosa Boats.

Once, rivers were the interstate highways of America. Great water arteries beyond the Mississippi, like the Columbia, the Colorado and the Snake, led explorers into the heart of the West. Today these  rivers have become amusement park-like attractions. In summer, giant inflatable rafts packed with life-jacketed tourists go bouncing down the Snake River in flocks. 

Outside Jackson, Wyo, A.J. DeRosa has a different idea. A riverman for 40 years, DeRosa and his crew build their own boats for his guided Snake River trips, making the experience less like a watery roller coaster and more like an authentic voyage. 

“We take people in hand-built McKenzie wooden river boats,” says DeRosa. “They’re exact replicas of the boats that began to be used on Oregon’s McKenzie River in the middle of the 20th century.” Often a boat is operated by the guide who built it and will have a bit of that guide’s personality in its custom finishing touches. 

The smaller, shallow-draft wooden boats aren’t floating bumper cars like rafts. They require skill to maneuver. “That maneuverability allows us to get out of the main river and explore side channels,” says DeRosa. “We can stop and get a closer look at life along the water.” 

DeRosa schedules mostly half-day trips, launching in the morning and again at 5:30, when the river is free of traffic. Trips end at a private camp, where guests enjoy a campfire dinner of grilled bison rib eye and salmon, appetizers and cocktails, or breakfast, depending on the time of day. Each boat holds six people, but DeRosa has taken groups as large as 24 by using several boats. In fact, the trip can be anything you want it to be. One of the luxuries of a DeRosa boat trip is the flexibility that can only come with years of experience. 

“We’re old guys,” says DeRosa. “A lot of us are 65 and still running the river. Our ‘newbie’ has been here ten years.”

A Stream of History

A.J. DeRosa’s hand-built McKenzie River boats are modeled after the drift boats that evolved from open water dories used on Oregon’s McKenzie River. They have a wide, flat bottom with flaring sides, a pointed stern and a continuous rocker– or arc from bow to stern that is responsible for the  drift boat’s maneuverability in white water. They are rowed “backwards;” that is, the oarsman faces downstream.

The Man

Schedule your drift details with the old riverman himself, A.J. DeRosa, who has hand-built his share of boats. woodboattours.com, 307-732-2628.

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