illustration by Mark Wilson

The making of a riverboat legend

Google “floating picnic table”
and it’s easy to fall into a rabbit hole, chasing one link after another to curiouser and curiouser contraptions. I stumbled onto one of those contraptions a couple of years ago as I noodled around on Pinterest.

“Hey, Derry, wouldn’t this be cool?” I asked my husband, thinking of our annual floats down a stretch of the Saranac River that runs from the Picketts Corners boat launch, in Saranac, to the Cadyville Beach.

He eyed the picture and quickly dismissed it. “That looks heavier than a dead minister,” he said. “And those industrial drums are expensive, you know.”

But I’ve never been one to let my husband’s opinions influence my decisions. So when I drew his name for our family’s homemade-gift exchange—which takes place the day after Thanksgiving, a tradition we’ve dubbed Thanksmas—I knew exactly what to do.

I just didn’t know exactly how to do it.

The original version I’d found was basic, a smallish tabletop balanced in the center of four 55-gallon drums equipped with seats. It seemed doable, though my brother was skeptical of the physics, suspecting that a misplaced step onto one of the drums might make the whole thing tip and flip.

But I’ve never been one to let physics influence my decisions. Rather, it was physical comfort that changed my direction. That simple design would have required riders to dangle their legs into the water for the duration of a trip—not only potentially chilly on an Adirondack outing, but also a good way to get your tootsies whacked in unreliable river channels.

So I sketched out a second version—an almost full-sized picnic table stretched between two mini-decks—then turned my attention to Derry’s initial reservations.

Craig’s List and a quick trip to a used-drum peddler in Vermont solved the expense problem, but there was still the matter of weight. I focused on materials, thinking that if I used mostly plywood, and two-by-twos instead of two-by-fours when possible, I’d shave off enough pounds to make the craft reasonably portable. My father, who I’d taken on as a consultant, had a better idea: make it in three sections that can be piled into the back of a pickup truck and then reassembled using eye bolts and crossbars.

That wasn’t his only genius idea—Dad is a master of pragmatic woodworking and the art of the shortcut. How do you get the specs for your picnic table? Measure the one outside. How do you find the angle for your braces? Guess. Then adjust with a miter saw until they fit. How do you ensure your decks fit two end-to-end drums snugly? Build them in place. Same goes for figuring up the space between decks. Without my father’s guidance, I never would have thought to bevel the edges of the plywood benches, but my splinter-free bottom is surely grateful.

We spit-balled solutions and add-ons in Dad’s cluttered workshop under the baleful gaze of a Leighton-Jones print (unfortunately, my father went through a sad clown phase in the 1970s and never fully recovered). Some brainstorms were simple—rails around the tabletop to allow for games of chance on the river, a tow-behind for a cooler—and some required trial and error. The rudder fell into the latter category, but Dad’s fond memories of Davy Crockett and the River Pirates led to an adjustable oar system on the stern. For propulsion, I settled on a Huck Finn–inspired pole; Dad suggested brackets along the length of one deck to hold it. For décor, I knew that only a jaunty red, white and blue would do, along with a hand-painted sign identifying The Derry Queen to fellow floaters. The moniker is a nod to one of my favorite movies, The African Queen, as well as the ice-cream joint, though my husband has pointed out that The Queen Derry would have been more regal.

After the big reveal at Thanksmas, we waited through months and months of winter to see if my magnum opus would actually float. The question was finally answered during an early-season test run at the Cadyville Beach—The Derry Queen acquitted herself admirably, with passengers standing, sitting, even rocking back and forth while hanging off the edge. We scheduled the maiden voyage for mid-July.

It was a howling good time for my husband and me and a birthday-celebrating mate, except for a couple of kinks that will require adjustments. One surfaced after I dove in for a swim and didn’t have the upper-body strength to get myself back on the vessel. Derry eventually hauled me aboard, but not before I banged myself off the sides a time or two (earning an epic bruise I showed off to anyone who would look). The other hiccup was my miscalculation of a midsummer current’s power. We’d have been on the river for days if Derry hadn’t spent some time pushing us along as he swam behind his namesake.

That’s all easily fixed. Derry found a boat ladder he’ll attach before we set off again. And I’m in the process of getting a hull number so we can register the craft and legally use a non-Derry-powered motor. There was some debate over whether getting square with the law violated the spirit of a makeshift floating picnic table. But The Derry Queen tends to attract a lot of attention, making it hard to sail under the radar. Derry argued that he and his Queen could outrun the cops, if it ever came down to it. “They’d never take me,” he said.

That would be a spectacle for the ages, but I’m still going to submit the paperwork.

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