Wooden Boats: A Brief History of Life On Cascadia’s Waters

One of the joys of the outdoor community is the cultural differences you find while traveling. The people and traditions are inspired by the surrounding landscape and every custom has a group of spirited disciples, serving as a vanguard for their respective passion.

In this edition of Therm-a-Rest Explore, contributor Greg Hatten introduces us to an icon of the Pacific Northwest rivers and the freedom they provide.  

Drift Boats

They are more than a historic icon of the Pacific Northwest, these little McKenzie style drift boats, they are a symbol of the great outdoors and a magic carpet ride to fantastic river adventures that can only be experienced by boat. Most everyone familiar with the big water rivers of the Northwest, recognizes the unique shape and elegant lines of this river craft. By it’s familiar name – the “drift boat” does exactly that…. it “drifts” with the current and is designed for maximum maneuverability with minimal effort from the oarsman – who holds the key to navigation in both hands – a set of 9’oars.

Drift Boats

These boats evolved gradually over the years – starting out as something better suited to still water lakes and slack water rivers in the valley.  The white water rapids of the Mckenzie River required something “different” for safe and stable transportation so the fishermen and river runners tinkered with different applications and modifications over the years.  The present day shape of the “drift boat” was pretty much “fully formed” by the early 1950’s and the boats today look very much like they did back then regardless of the construction material – aluminum, fiberglass, or wood.

Drift Boats

The distinctive features that allow them to move with such agility through raging rapids while dodging jagged boulders and navigating shifting currents are a continuous “rocker”, flared sides, flat bottoms, and high bow.

Drift Boats

Briefly, the rocker (picture the curved shape of rocking horse rails) allows the boat to spin in response to the slightest touch from the oarsman – very handy when a quick turn is needed to avoid a collision with an immovable river object.  The flared sides keep water from lapping over the rails when the boat is moving laterally through a rapid.  A flat bottom with no keel and no rudder makes it possible to make quick lateral moves midstream to avoid disaster.  And my favorite, and most distinctive feature, is the high bow which allows us to execute an 8’ vertical drop and come roaring up the side of the next wave without plowing the nose into the bottom of the hole.

Drift Boats

We build these boats out of ¼” plywood and the wood of preference is old growth Douglas Fir (the kind with few if any blemishes or patches) but it’s getting harder and harder to source. The bottom of the boat is typically ½” fir and the open frames that form the shape of the hull and hold the hole thing together are made from a sturdy, rot resistant cedar – Alaskan Yellow or Port Orford. Most rowers of wood boats prefer a traditional “rope” seat which allows water to drain right through to the floor boards and is surprising comfortable.

The first time I saw a McKenzie Style Drift Boat made of wood, I was fly fishing in the icy spring water of the McKenzie River when a wooden drift boat came cruising around the bend in the river just upstream from me. I had seen a thousand drift boats prior to that encounter but they never caught my eye the way the wooden boat did that day on the river. I was dumb struck and smitten… immediately. That was almost fifteen years ago and wood drift boats on the water still have that affect on me.

Drift Boats

I became obsessed with the boats and their history and got to know the few guys left in the river community who knew how to build them out of wood. With the assurance from a few experienced boat builders that even someone like me – with few woodworking skills and fewer proper tools could, with some help, build my own boat. So I went at it…. with the goal of building a beautiful wood boat that would have the same impact on anyone who saw her on the water as that boat had on me so many years ago. I wanted the boat to be breathtaking in detail and craftsmanship and I wanted to run it like a race-car – in the highest, hardest, fastest parts of the rivers of the Northwest.

Drift Boats How To

It took me several hundred more hours to build than a normal boat builder takes due to my obsession with detail and my complete lack of boat building experience… but when it was finally finished… I was pleased. When the guys who helped me came over to my “garage-shop” to inspect the finished product – they were pleased and proud… it was truly a community-built boat and that is one of the most special things about it to me.

It is a floating testament to “passion trumping skills”.

Once I started to row it and gained confidence and experience, my passion for building evolved into a passion for river running.  The more time I spent on the oars, the more time I wanted to spend on the oars and on the water. What I love most about rowing a hand-crafted wood boat is the deep connection it gives me to the river I’m running and the overall experience. I’ve rowed every kind of craft on the water but I get the most satisfaction from rowing the boat I built – with the help of a bunch of “throw-back” guys who wouldn’t row anything but wood.

Drift Boats

If you go there……  to the “wood-boat” side of the equation – there are still a few guides that run wood boats on their trips – Steve Shaeffer for one and the whole Helfrich clan for another.  I would highly recommend a wood boat excursion for a closer connection to the river, to the history of river running, and because it somehow seems like a more “authentic” way of experiencing a river.  And if you hire a guide – the best part is – no experience or special gear is required….. the rower does all the work – including a great lunch.

Drift Boats

We like to eat on our river trips and when we do multi day trips on the river, we form cook teams that often turn into contests to see which team can outcook the others.

My favorites on the river include an appetizer of bacon-bombs, an entrée of cedar planked salmon or steelhead, a side of asparagus and home fries, and a dutch-oven cobbler with fresh berries from Dr. Scott Halpert’s garden.

Cot Sleeping Drift Boats

In the spirit of “throwback” that comes with wood boats, I started camping with simple gear many years ago….. preferring a cot under the open sky to a tent. When bad weather hits – I throw up a tent or a tarp – but for the most part…. I sleep simple.

Running rivers is a unique experience. Running rivers in a traditional wooden boat makes those experiences even richer, to me. I like for the guests in my boat to get a feel for the oars and the river and how the boat responds to their touch – so I invite everyone who is up for it to sit in the rowers seat, pull on the oars, and get a feel for how the boat works with the river in this delicate dance. Most are surprised at how responsive the boat is and how powerful the river current is – and pretty much every one of them has a better appreciation for the boat design that allows us to do what we do.

Drift Boats

My boat, appropriately named “Obsession” has taken me through some of the most treacherous rapids and to some of the most beautiful places in North America. Anyone who loves water adventures with a touch of nostalgia – should have a float in a wooden drift boat at least once in a lifetime.

Author: Greg Hatten is an expert in consumer products and a master at launching new products at retail. He is also a freelance writer, public speaker, river runner, woodenboat builder, outfitter and fly fishing guide in the state of Oregon. In 2014 he was part of an international team of river runners who replicated the famous Grand Canyon trip of 1964 which was instrumental in saving the Grand Canyon from two proposed dams that would’ve buried it under water. He built and rowed the replica “Portola” on that trip which was Martin Litton’s first Grand Canyon dory.

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