Down the river

I didn't know him well.

But when I heard the news last week of Derald Stewart's death, it struck a deep, sorrowful chord.

It was hard to believe it had been nearly three years since a gaggle of seven chatty and excited women six in poppy sundresses, one in white ambled down the steep river bank and into the waiting boat. As we juggled hemlines, flowers and open cans of Bud, a stoic Derald held the oars of the dory.

A bright turquoise beauty with red trim, there was no question the Nechako River had seen more exciting missions. Named for a once-free flowing river in Canada, the Nechako had spent the better part of her life as a workhorse in the Grand Canyon Dories fleet. However, after 35 storied years of service on the Grand, she was retired to a pond on Stewart's property, where she took an occasional voyage down the far tamer waters of the Animas.

I was first introduced to Derald, a master dory builder, and the Nechako, in 1999 while working on a story. Little did I know that both would play a limited but vital role in what many see as the most important day in their lives.

A few years after I first met Derald, Sean and I decided to tie the knot. Seeing as how we had taken up kayaking at the same time, and somehow managed to survive not only the sport itself but the pitfalls that go with learning a frustrating pastime with a loved one, we figured the river would be an apt locale for our union. Not only had it brought us together, but it tested us repeatedly, and save for a few minor scuffles and skirmishes we had emerged victorious. With the blessing of the property owner, we chose a fairly isolated spot along the meandering oxbows of the river north of town. It was a traditional to-do, or about as traditional as one could get out in the middle of a field. We somehow worked out the details with the limited and primitive resources we had, but there was one question that remained unanswered: the delivery of the bride.

We decided floating down from a spot upstream would be the way to go. Several ideas on how this would occur were tossed out, from the preposterous (tubes) to the impossible (swimming). The idea of kayaks was scratched due to the inexperience of two-thirds of the bridal party and likely swim that would result. And while a raft would be safer, there was really no way to gracefully depart from slippery Hypalon tubes while sporting a tight dress and a bouquet of flowers. A dory, with its elegant lines, enclosed floor and ample room, would be ideal. Fortunately, Sean had developed a good working relationship with Derald, who lived just a couple hundred yards upstream of the site. I'm not sure what he said, but somehow, he got Derald to accept the mission.

We arrived at the "wedding put-in" on what had to be the hottest day of the year. Taking the heat off what already was a nerve racking situation, Derald and his wife, Jan, graciously welcomed their flowered flotsam. Jan offered up the powder room and refreshemnts while Derald oversaw the tactical details. Sipping beers under the shade of a grove of cottonwoods, we got the go ahead to board. Jan snapped a few last pictures (using a camera we would later laugh to learn had no film). One by one, we filed onto the boat, found our seats and set out for my destiny.

Sporting a wide-brimmed straw hat and tropical-print shirt, Derald looked every part the unflappable river guide that he was. Silently he rowed, politely turning down our offers of beer but cracking a smile when the bottle of Hot Damn, a pre-wedding ritual among my friends, made the rounds.

A few moments later, we alighted on the beach. We stepped down from the Nechako barefoot, walked across wet sand and found our shoes, which had been stashed in the bushes. One by one, we slipped into proper footwear and made our way up the aisle while Derald patiently waited aboard the Nechako. Once the ceremony was over, Sean and I returned to the boat, where we bid adieu to our well-wishers to take a short cruise farther downstream. Back on board and peacefully floating along, we basked in the only quiet time we had experienced in days, if not weeks. We popped champagne and toasted the beautiful day, the serenity of the river, and Derald, for helping make it that way. The cruise was over all too soon, and we approached the take-out where a car was waiting to return us to the reception. We got out, thanked Derald and extended an invitation to him to join the festivities. A man of few words, he tipped his hat and smiled, and we somehow knew he wouldn't take us up on it. We then drove the dusty road back to the reception site where our guests awaited us.

Meanwhile, Derald pushed out into the current, swung the boat around and began pulling her home. And as he rowed the Nechako back upstream with smooth, strong strokes, he once again flowed by the wedding site. From the shore, we watched him pass and waved good-bye.

Missy Votel




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