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When Life Gives You Sausage Pontoons…

Paul Thevinin models a leftover “sausage pontoon” for sale in front of the “rubber room” – the basement of an old candy factory where the J-Rig was invented, glued, and literally first took shape in Sugar House, Utah. (circa 1970)

The surplus of sausage pontoons came from two boxcar loads of rubber leftover from WWII and the Korean conflict. Jack Currey, founder and former owner of Western River Expeditions had ordered the boxcars in hopes of finding some valuable oval pontoons from which to make the basic oar-rigs – like they had been using for almost a decade on first descents down the Rio Grijalva and El Sumidero in Mexico, down the rivers of Idaho, and several “experimental” and “exploratory” runs through Grand Canyon since 1961.

When the boxcars arrived late that night in Salt Lake City, Paul Thevinin was there with Jack, ready to help unload.

First Problem: Jack ordered the boxcars of rubber to Salt Lake at bargain-basement cost, mere hundreds of dollars. Jack soon learned that was just the cost to get them to Salt Lake City by rail. His cut-rate plan was derailed when they were told to pay nearly ten grand to unload their order of rubber sausage. Jack scrambled. He had a trip scheduled that required this new shipment of rubber. He paid the men at the rail station what they required.

Second Problem: The rubber pontoons had been loaded carelessly into old coal bin boxcars with open tops, but no doors to make unloading easy. They jumped into the bin, a smell of coal dust and neoprene rubber wafted into the chill night air of early spring. Like jumping into a bowl of spaghetti noodles and trying to find the one spaghetti-“O”, they began tugging on one end after another. These rubber noodles didn’t slither out easily, according to Paul. It was the beginning of an exhausting night.

Third Problem: There were no spaghetti-“O’s” only spaghetti – or sausage pontoons. Anyone hungry? I bet Paul and Jack were hungry for a break in the early morning hours after emptying the two coal boxcars of rubber pontoons! They found two ovals – all for about $10,000 more than they had expected it to cost.

The Solution: Make some kind of raft out of what they had, and sell the rest.

The Result: They sold none. No one, not even the military had very strong needs for old bridge pontoons. But down in that “rubber room” basement of the old candy factory in Sugar House, Utah, Paul got busy with scissors and glue. He and Jack turned each pontoon back to back, cut and glued a middle “joint” section, and then lashed three, then five of these upturned snouts together and viola! the J-Rig was born. Of course that makes it sound easy. Paul confessed to falling asleep several times lying inside the cutout tubes with glue fumes knocking him out more than once – hence the name “rubber room”.

Paul and Jack were no strangers to innovating and deriving brilliant solutions from whatever they were given – years before, they had cut the floors out of the ovals they had and replaced them with plywood floors, chained in place – the first ever self bailing boats. The new sausage pontoon frankenstein J-Rig boats they now saw before them were self bailing by design, accidental or not. The split frame system, the butterfly transom for motors, and nesting of each frame into the other evolved quickly thereafter with the welding skills and innovations by Jake Luck, also a former guide for Western River.

Learn More About Western’s Unique Raft

Kam Wixom

Kam began guiding in the Grand Canyon in 1991, met & guided with his wife in 2000, and is the proud daddy of 5 kids. He now works as the Marketing Director for Western River Expeditions.

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