When Did Inflatable Boating Begin in the West?

Most of us have heard that boating in inflatables began after World War II using surplus military rafts. Actually, the first whitewater runs occurred almost 100 years earlier. This rubber baptism took place in 1842-43 in modern-day Wyoming.

John C. Fremont, military officer, explorer, politician and mapmaker, roamed over much of the western U.S. on both sides of the Rockies, earning his nickname as "The Pathfinder." His maps guided many of the settlers who spread westward looking for homesteads and the prospectors who swarmed to the California gold fields.

Caption: John C. Fremont: The Pathfinder
Caption: John C. Fremont: The Pathfinder

But Fremont was first and foremost an adventurer. Variously described as brilliant, controversial, impetuous and contradictory, many of his endeavors brought him fame, while others led to disaster, scorn and courts martial.

The 1842 expedition was early in his explorations. He had the innovative idea of using a rubber raft to explore the swift rocky reaches of the western river basins he was mapping. He purchased "one air army boat or floater" from a New Jersey inventor for $150. He also purchased a repair kit consisting of "two pieces India rubber cloth" for $19.99 each and "two pots rubber composition" for 50 cents each. (Editor's Note: $150 was a princely sum in 1842. In comparison, when NRS brought out the first Otter rafts in 1983, the least expensive model was $160!")

Details of the raft are sketchy. It was rectangular in shape at 5′ wide and 20′ long, and it had four air chambers. According to Fremont's journal, it was made of rubberized linen; and it may have had some type of wooden frame.

The first tryout for the raft was actually in Kansas, as they moved west, and provided an omen for the future. They were successfully ferrying gear across a rain-swollen river when it began to get dark. Fremont doubled the load they had been carrying, and the boat promptly flipped, spilling the crew and cargo into the water. The major losses were a quarter of their sugar and most of the coffee; no small event for a party moving beyond other sources of supply.

The next use of the raft was on the Sweetwater River, a tributary of the North Platte in Wyoming. In what was probably unwarranted optimism, Fremont loaded the raft with most of his surveying equipment, irreplaceable specimens and the expedition's journals, and challenged an unscouted river canyon. They soon found themselves in their first major rapids, with rocky passages so narrow the boat barely squeezed through. Fremont said a wooden boat would have been bashed to pieces, but the raft "seemed fairly to leap over the falls… We were so delighted with the performance of our boat, and so confident in her powers, that we would not have hesitated to leap a fall of 10 feet with her."

That confidence seems to have been misplaced; in the next canyon, the raft hit a rock and dumptrucked the crew and cargo into the water. Their attempt to secure the gear was unsuccessful. "The current was covered with floating books and boxes, bales of blankets, and scattered articles of clothing," Fremont wrote. Their precious chronometer, vital for measuring longitude, was ruined, journals and biological specimens were missing, and instruments were at the bottom of the river.

The boat survived the spill, and two of the men got back in and paddled off to try to salvage some of the equipment. Alas, in the next set of rapids, at least one of the air chambers blew, ending this first use of an inflatable raft to challenge the West's whitewater. No living rafter has seen Fremont's rapids. In 1909, they were submerged under the waters of Pathfinder Reservoir.

Fremont was ahead of his time, and rubber rafts were relegated to ferry duty until the mid-20th century, when improved materials and construction techniques produced more whitewater-worthy boats.

Fremont went on to explore and map much of the West, assisted most notably by the scout, Kit Carson. He had a checkered record in the Mexican-American and Civil Wars and become one of the first U.S. senators from the new state of California. He was the first presidential candidate of the new Republican Party, losing to James Buchanan in 1856. He died in 1890, the same year Wyoming became a state.

Some of the details of the raft and its journey were found in the November 27, 2004 issue of New Scientist Magazine. Thanks to customer Dan Phillips for passing the article along to us!