Chapter 2: a bateau is a boat

Well, it was simple enough when you saw it go together: from its oak deck, ribs, and rowing benches to the elegant sweep of its clinker-built thirty-foot cedar hull. It had a high pointed front, (“bow” I learned to say, like the Duke bows to the King), curved sides, (“clinker-built” I learned), square end, (the “stern”). Simple enough, but I secretly thought it beautiful. And Mr. Jeff never built an ugly or slapdash thing in his life.

The bateau came together, and these were all words I learned that winter down at the boat-shed, which was a shake roof and one wall to break the wind, just above where the dark winter Santiam swelled and rushed; where I spent my days auguring holes in cedar planking for the oak pegs that held it all together, and hours and hours tapping strands of pitchy oakum into every seam. Or up in the mill itself, working the treadle for the whirring lathe, knocking out the bushel or so of pegs we finally used. Today I know you’d use store-bought nails or screws of course, but it never occurred to us back then; our whole house was pegs, our furniture and cabinets and beds, our cow barn, the mill itself, it was all oak pegs. John and I spent hours knocking them out, taking turns with the froe, chopping out blanks, and on the lathe with the calipers, because of course they have to be just right. I know all about oak pegs, ask me anything about them.

Now I know all about bateaux too, and you can ask me anything about them; a bateau’s nothing but a big open boat. We built our first one right above the ways, where we’d finally slide it down into the Santiam, but there was nothin’ there either at first, of course, no ways until we built them; and that was ordinary because there was never anything on our homestead until we built it. That’s where we used the oxen, and wasn’t that just a Mr. Jeff trick. We did overbuild it though, I think.

First, Kalapuya John’s nephew Jimbob took the canoe upstream, paying out a roll of half-inch twine as he went, and fifteen yards upstream he rigged a big snatch-block up on a cottonwood, and ran the twine through, then canoed back down to us. We tied the twine off to our big hawser and pulled it all around and through the block. (Pa had bartered that hawser from somewhere, I think, to use for logging off our homesite; I believe the story is that it came off of a ship originally, and that a man in Oregon City was paid cash money, and honestly, I’m surprised we didn’t have to twist up the dang rope, too.)

Anyway it all ended up with that heavy ship’s line running up the river to the anchor block in the tree and back down to our oxen yoked up on this side, and we hooked the other end up to a couple of debarked fir trunks, one at a time, and gee’d the oxen up the bank, and yarded those tree-trunks straight out into the Santiam twenty feet or so, one at a time, laid out next to each other, each with one end on the bank and the other out in the shallows, weighted down there with rocks and angled down just right. Once in position, with that big hawser tied off around a stump holding it all in place against the current pretty as you please, the two logs made a nice stable ramp to slide our big heavy boat down into the river, which was the point of the whole exercise. When it was done, all of us breathing pretty hard, and Mr. Pickering a bright pink, Mr. Jeff said, “And that, boys, is how you get the wagon over the pass through the snow without losing too many chickens to the wolves.” “But Pa,” I would say, “What wolves?!?” And watch his face to see if he’d smile. I still think it was a little overbuilt - the ramp that is, Pa's face was fine - but we should have just pushed the boat off the bank into the water. “You’ll appreciate this more when we need it, Danny,” said Pa. (Shoot. I hadn’t seen a wolf in over a year.)

Mr. Jeff sort of made a song of it sometime, only it was more grunting than singing; just something that sort of snuck out of him when he got tired of things being in his way. “Dig the damn clay,” he’d say, “Dig the damn clay, make the damn pot, melt the iron in the pot, forge the iron into a hammer, pound out the damn tools, use the damn tools to build the damn boat, all the live-long day, maryanne! Great Caesar’s ghost, Danny! Isn’t it time to quit for the day?! Let’s get these damn tools in out of the wet!”

We wouldn’t quit for the day, of course, we just quit working on that boat for the day, and then we got the tools out of the wet, but after that we did everything else too: milk the cow, feed the pig and the chickens, carry stovewood in, and water, and then it was dark, it was winter and got dark early, but we all split the chores. Mother would bring a tin lantern, and put on boots and oilcloth, and Kalapuya John, and me, we’d all work. It was raining of course, which doesn't really signify; it just rained heavy all winter. Pa couldn’t sit while others were working. Ma would try and get him to go into the house. “Go get washed for supper,” she’d say, but he’d always answer her, “Katherine, we’re almost done,” and we’d all go in together, and eat in the kitchen, and Kalapuya John ate with us most nights. That was good then, and our dinner was on the stove, and it was good, usually meat baked with carrots and spuds, and I’d eat too much and fall asleep in the chair by the fire. “Wake up, Daniel, and go to bed,” my father would say, and I’d climb the peg ladder to the loft and drag off my clothes and be asleep just like that.

And everytime Stan Pickering would come to work on the boat he’d be riding a mule and he’d be leading a mule packed with three big kegs of double-distilled two year-old corn whiskey, and I’d help him stack those kegs inside the mill and the stack of kegs growing up higher against one wall all that winter, and the stack of cedar planks going down.

Well one day the bateau was done, and we looked around and it was spring. There were yellow and white lilies on the banks of the creeks, and the plums father had bought the year before in Oregon City were a perfumed haze of white blossoms behind the barn, and the snow was melting fast in the mountains and the Santiam was as high as it would be all year, and it was time to go.

NEXT: Ch.3 The Santiam