Adventures of two men on the Yampa River in 1941

Noelle Leavitt Riley
The canvas boat is now on display at the Wyman Living History Museum in Craig. Ruby Irick, left, stands next to her husband's canvas boat along with Al Shepherd, Lou Wyman and Richard Estey. Shepherd is in awe of the small boat that took two men 52.5 miles down the Yampa River in 1941, because Shepherd has been floating the Yampa for years on large, sturdy rafts. He said even those rafts are difficult to navigate at times.
Noelle Leavitt Riley

— Nearly 74 years ago, two Moffat County residents set off on a seven-day fishing and floating adventure down the Yampa River on a boat made of canvas.

Conway Irick was only 20 years old when he and friend Ed Jackson braved rapids along the Yampa on a small canvas boat, only 12 to 14 inches high, stretched across wooden planks. Conway’s father sold canvas for art, which is how they had the material for the makeshift boat. Conway and Ed both wrote journals, chronicling their journey that will forever be remembered as thrill of a lifetime for the two young men.

“Boy was the water we just came through fast,” Ed wrote on the first day of their trek. “My guess is a 35 foot drop in the last mile. But it is a narrow channel and we really zipped along.”

The men started their expedition on Aug. 3, 1941, from Swinging Bridge in Lily Park, floating all the way to what’s now called Echo Park where the famous Steamboat Rock protrudes hundreds of yards into the sky.

Their in-depth accounts of fishing along the river and eating freshly hunted meat from the Mantle family — homesteaders near Browns Park — will now go down in history at the Wyman Living History Museum in Craig.

Conway’s third wife, Ruby Irick, donated the canvas boat to museum owner Lou Wyman in May.

A history buff himself, Lou was delighted to take the boat off Ruby’s hands to showcase it for museum patrons.

Ironically, Ed Jackson is the uncle of Richard Estey who works for Lou at the Wyman Museum, so preservation of the canvas boat is equally important to Richard. In fact, Richard found his uncle’s diary of the expedition not long ago, helping to bring Ed’s story to life again after several decades of gathering dust on the shelves.

The adventure penned by both men is a fascinating tale. Each day, the men logged the triumphs and tribulations brought on by the Yampa.

“This is work,” Conway said of day three. “The river is getting steep. Lots of fast riffles with some rocks. We had to get out and lead the boat for about 200 yards.”

On several occasions, the river was impassable and the men had to labor the boat into smooth waters. They camped on sandbars, toured old log cabins and ate eggs, biscuits, beans, corned beef, catfish and salmon throughout the trip.

The afternoon of day five, which was Aug. 7, brought them to Hells Canyon where the Mantle family lived.

“When we arrived at Hells Canyon, we talked to Mrs. Mantle for a while,” Conway wrote. “Charley and several kids were down the river making a horseback trail and we would see them.”

Charley and Evelyn Mantle homesteaded the Mantle Ranch in 1926, according to the book “The Last Ranch in Hells Canyon: Further Adventures of the Mantle family,” which is sold at the Museum of Northwest Colorado.

“She (Evelyn) gave us some apricots that they grew there. They sure were good,” Conway said.

As they continued their adventure, Conway went on to write about how they didn’t have bait for fishing so they ended up using “a piece of cloth … so we can catch a sucker for bait,” Conway explained.

While fishing on day six, they unexpectedly ran into Charley again.

“We discovered a camp nearby and found out it was Charley Mantle again and a U.S. Ranger and other fellows. We fished until Charley came up the river with a deer over his saddle, then we talked to him until the other two came. We had 14 catfish,” Conway wrote.

The men ate with their new friends, outlining Charley’s exceptional culinary skills. Later that day, Ed and Conway caught 10 catfish and five squawfish in the river.

The next day, at 7 a.m. Aug. 9, Charley woke up Ed and Conway to a breakfast of biscuits and wild meat.

On the last day of their journey, they reached Pats Hole at 9 a.m., traveling a total of 52.5 miles down the Yampa. They arrived by car back in Craig at 4 p.m.

Lou will forever treasure the boat that proudly hangs at the Wyman Museum, and he welcomes fishers, hunters, tourists — heck — everybody to stop by and see the small canvas boat that carried two men down the Yampa in 1941.

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