Tom Martin explores the wild Colorado River in new book

Local author documents well-known river runners' adventures through the Grand Canyon

Tom Martin, author of “Big Water, Little Boats,” steers a replica of the dory Gem Moulty Fulmer built in the 50s specifically to navigate the “big water” of the Colorado River. Submitted photo

Tom Martin, author of “Big Water, Little Boats,” steers a replica of the dory Gem Moulty Fulmer built in the 50s specifically to navigate the “big water” of the Colorado River. Submitted photo

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - From the Kolb Brothers renowned river running film to the grand paintings of Thomas Moran, the rushing rapids of the Colorado River have inspired many to capture its uniqueness through different mediums.

In "Big Water, Little Boats," the joy of life on the Colorado River is encapsulated through a collection of stories. River runner Tom Martin chronicles the adventures of Moulty Fulmer, Brick Mortenson, P.T. Reilly, Dock Marston, and their friends on river trips on some of the highest water ever run in the Grand Canyon.

The book also recounts many stories of other trips during the 1940s through the 1960s, including the expansion of recreational river running and boat structure on the Colorado River in a time when river runners built their own boats and rowed the Colorado River through Grand Canyon on free-flowing water. Rafting permits were non-existent; neither were back-up or cell phones. It was only the adventurers and their boats, on a trip into the unknown.

"This is the book for anyone interested in Grand Canyon river history, and river runners who want to match historic river photos with what the Canyon looks like today," Martin said.

Martin aspired to write a biography on Fulmer after he discovered the explorer built Grand Canyon's first dory.

Fascinated, Martin said he found out Fulmer's whitewater exploits covered the transition from exploratory river running in Grand Canyon to the industrialized recreation it is today.

After a chance meeting with a McKenzie River dory builder, Fulmer constructed his first dory and rowed the San Juan in 1947. Traveling through Grand Canyon in 1948 on a Norm Nevills expedition, Fulmer met Colorado River historian, Otis "Dock" Marston, and they went on to run rivers together and correspond for the next thirty years.

The boatman navigated the river both before and after Glen Canyon dam, and as it turned out, he boated with a number of well-known river runners.

Joining forces with Pat Reilly in 1954, they ran the Grand Canyon five times in home-built boats. Their adventures included rowing the wild Colorado River in 1957 on 126,000 cubic feet per second, one of the highest flows in the last century according to Martin's book.

Martin, whose interest in river rafting was sparked by his father's own adventures in the Canyon, recounts the voyages of a number of unsung river runners during the transformation from Grand Canyon expeditionary river running into today's whitewater recreation. "Big Water, Little Boats" chronicles the start of the park's river running permit system in 1955, the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, and the explosion of river running that occurred after the completion of the dam in 1963.

Not only has Martin penned several books about the Grand Canyon and river rafting, he built a replica of Grand Canyon's first dory, a fully decked McKenzie River dory, from photographs, notes, and the original wreck still housed in the Grand Canyon National Park Special Collections.

The book, which took Martin a decade to comprehensively research and complete, has stirred the souls of many river runners, both past and present.

"The comments we have received were most heartwarming," he said, adding the majority of the praise came from runners from the 50s and 60s. "This is their story after all, and meeting them and talking river with them was a real pleasure."

Martin had to track down a number of the river runners or their children, drove from Indiana to California interviewing these folks, and visited a half dozen special collections to tie this story all together.

In doing so, he amassed quite a number of historic photographs. Choosing which ones to use and which ones to leave out was the biggest challenge Martin said he faced.

"The Grand Canyon represents the best wilderness anywhere in the lower 48 states," Martin said. "The Canyon is a place where we are small in a big world, where we may travel with humility, relying on our co-travelers as a team, where the elders can teach the juniors among us, and we must work on our do-it-yourself skills. The Canyon is a place where we can have enough time to ponder geologic time and our place in it."

"Big Water, Little Boats" is available online at


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