One of the great aquatic gimmicks is the folding boat - a canvas and wood kayak that breaks down into little sticks and fibers and can be stuffed in a bag, tossed in a closet and forgotten.

Sometimes it breaks down all by itself.

Folding boats are not so common now that fiberglass rules the whitewater. An excursion last weekend demonstrated why.

Ruff Fant had a folding boat tucked away in a closet which he dusted off for a big campout in the mountains. One of the planned activities was a run down a whitewater stream.

On Sunday morning in a building drizzle he disappeared from a meadow where a score of Washingtonians had pitched camp.

He made his way to the river bank with his boat bags. First he unfurled the instructions, a huge sheet about two feet square full of advice on how to get part A and part B to match.

After about an hour he had the frame together. A folding boat without its skin looks something like a discarded design for a drawbridge.

Fran had his foundation but he had doubts about the house going on it.*t"Lot of patches in this skin," he said, drawing a cumbersome pile of rubberized fabric from Bag 2. "I can't remember when I put them on."

He and the man he had chosen as his co-pilot, presidential press secretary Jody Powell, grunted and heaved in the rain until the skin snapped over the frame.

Then they pushed it all in and wonders, it floated.

For awhile.

There were seven boats in the excursion that host Luther Carter had put together. Six mundane, run-of-the-mill Grummans and Fant's elegant folding boat. Only six came back.

Fant's folly sat like a tiny yacht in the riffles. He and Powell were armed with lovely varnished-spruce double paddles. Powell sat in the stern and whenever Fant was not looking he set the paddle aside and fished the banks with a spinning rod.

They made it through the first set of rapids and the second.

"See," Fant said, gloating. "You didn't even think we'd be able to put it together."

Then came two-foot ledge.

There are no warning signs for two-foot ledge. You can tell something is up, though, if you know the old canoeists' adage - never go over anything if you cannot see water on the other side.

Fant plunged over with the look of a small child who just bumped into an elephant's leg - stnned, baffled, delighted.

Things got a little hectic when two-foot rock intruded into 17-foot boat. When it exited it left six-inch rip and Fant, Powell and folding boat made for the bottom.

With some frantic strokes they made the shoreline and hoisted the damaged craft onto the bank. The Grummnas converged mirthfully. Luther Carter, the host, did not stop laughing even as he passed up the duct tape for an emergency patch.

When applied, the tape lay on the wound fitfully, then puckered up. Fant picked it up by a corner as if it were riddled with poison.

Powell found a plastic trash bag and draped it over the hole. "I can't stand to look at it," he said.

It was determined that the sensible thing to do was to disassemble the folding boat and disperse it and its passengers among the remaining crew.

"It comes apart much faster than it goes together," said Fant.

That was done, and the folding boat stayed folded for the remainder of the expedition. Fant, ever the optimist, vows to be back next year with a new skin. "I have great plans for that boat," he said.

Fant got the folding boat five years ago as a Christmas present from his wife. "She thought it was cute," he said.

He recently read a canoeists' guide that listed the various types of whitewater boats. Folding boats came last with the following imprimatur: Only for people who live in apartments and can't store a real boat.

Nonetheless, Fant intends to resurrect the boat and use it again, if only on placid waters.

There are those who have had great success with folding boats. Ken Fassler, who lives on a houseboat in the Potomac, had his first whitewater experience in one. He had no car so it made sense for him. He could pack it on his bicycle, which he did, and pedal up to Great Falls.

There he assembled the boat, disassembled the bike, put the bike in the boat and set off downstream. Because the river was at flood stage he managed to go right over Little Falls, which is considered highly dangerous even for experts and suicide for novices.

He took out at Fletcher's Landing, folded up the boat, reassembled the bicycle and packed the boat back on bike for the ride home.

It couldn't have been more perfect. Except for one thing.

When all was in order he discovered he had punctured a bicycle tire. He ended up pushing the whole complicated package home. CAPTION: Picture, Ruff Fant, left and presidential press secretary Jody Powell disassemble their 17-foot folding wood-and-canvas kayak after a dunking in a whitewater stream. By Angus Phillips - The Washington Post