Story by Troy A Buzalsky
The McKenzie River
Named after explorer Donald McKenzie, who helped settle Astoria back in the fur-trading days of the early 1800s, Oregon’s McKenzie River is embraced by its emerald canopy as it winds and tumbles 90 miles through gravel, rocks and boulders from its headwaters which originate at the outflow of Clear Lake in the Cascade Range. The excellent quality of its water and habitat supports a variety of fish species including three native trout: rainbow, bull and cutthroat, as well as naturalized steelhead and Chinook salmon. It’s no wonder that back in 1941 Roderick Haig-Brown said, “Oregon’s McKenzie River is a perfect type of Pacific Northwest trout stream.” It’s also not surprising that early fishing pioneers put forth the effort to navigate this wild waterway for their piscatorial endeavors.
Although Don Hill is no longer with us, the Don Hill drift boat is available for ambitious folk wanting to build their own boats through a complete set of plans. © David Edwards
The McKenzie River Drift Boat
From my earliest days growing up on Oregon’s McKenzie River, I’ve always had a romantic relationship not only with the river, but with the boats that carved through history and still harken the name: The McKenzie River drift boat. Design-made as a river-taming fish-worthy vessel that dates back to the early 1900s, the heritage of the drift boat includes the legendary names of Cary Thomson, John and Roy West, Veltie Pruitt, Prince Helfrich, Torkel “Tom” Kaarhus, Woodie Hindman, and Keith Steele. Born and bred in Oregon’s scenically spectacular, whitewater-infested McKenzie River valley, the McKenzie River drift boat is one of Oregon’s flagship legacies, and the predecessor to the Grand Canyon dory thanks to Prince Helfrich and Keith Steele.
The drift boat that we know and love today has evolved much since its early days when they were called scows, square-enders, double-enders, and even bathtubs with oarlocks, as coined by Milo Thomson. Early drift boats were made of dimensionally sawed lumber. The development of laminated plywood literally changed the shape, style, and performance of the wood drift boat. As technologies evolved, so have materials for manufacturing drift boats, including the use of aluminum, fiberglass, and even technologically advanced polymers.
A contemporary McKenzie double-ender with transom at the McKenzie Wooden River Boat Festival. © Roger Fletcher
This Boats column is going to dive a little deeper into the origin of the McKenzie River drift boat, and for those thinking of a winter project, provide enough information for you to take the plunge, building your own hand-crafted masterpiece.
The Drift Boat Bible
In today’s world, research has quickly evolved into a quick Google search, or watching a YouTube video, or reading something on Reddit, but to dive deep into a subject, sometimes you have to find a true subject matter expert (SME) on the topic. Enter Roger Fletcher, a native Oregonian, historian, artist, and author of the book Drift Boats and River Dories: Their History, Design, Construction, and Use (Stackpole Books). The book, or as most refer to it as “The Drift Boat Bible,” emerged from over 12 years of immersed research, which included reconstructing the original boat’s line, creating 3D models, and ultimately building each researched model by hand, full sized, to help validate and tell the story.
A nice example of a modern-day square-ender. Note the raised stern with a motor cut-out to serve as a transom and the interesting adaption of the leg brace. The boat will descend square-end downstream. Shown at the McKenzie River Wooden Boat Festival. © Roger Fletcher McKenzie River guide Kevin Hawkins fishes two clients in comfort from his classic wooden Hayes McKenzie River drift boat. © Troy Buzalsky
Early McKenzie River settlers in the late 1800s used large, heavily timbered rowboats, often dubbed scows or old scows. Made from locally harvested Douglas fir, spruce, and Port Orford cedar, the low-sided old scow featured a narrow, mostly flat bottom which lacked maneuverability and took tremendous strength and stamina to operate.
The scows featured a pointed prow at one end and a flattened stern to provide more space and a standing platform for the angler. In those days the prow’s tall stem would face upriver and the flat-faced stern (or transom) oriented downstream; the oarsman was barely able to steer the boat, especially in heavy whitewater. Rowing upriver was a task considered impossible due to the size and weight of the boat, yet was needed to effectively fish the river. And the low sides, which saved weight, allowed water to easily enter the boat which led to constant bailing.
The Original Square-Ender
By the 1920s the old scow had served its purpose, but there was room for improvement, and form needed to follow function. River guide John West was a young buck at the time and knew all too well the old scow was too much boat for the mighty McKenzie, and the boat was miserable to navigate. West and his brother, Roy, built the first-generation square-ender McKenzie River drift boat with a bottom length less than 16 feet. Still made with plank-built construction, the boat featured a broad, flat stern and a pointed prow stem. It was lighter and more maneuverable than the old scow, and was much easier to transport on and off the river. This was the boat that earned the namesake “bathtub with oarlocks” by Milo Thomson, who used the boat when he guided his clients.
McKenzie River guide Kevin Hawkins fishes two clients in comfort from his classic wooden Hayes McKenzie River drift boat. © Troy Buzalsky
Veltie “The Preacher” Pruitt’s name turns up in McKenzie River lore often. Pruitt was not technically a boat builder, more a boat designer, and is well known for his contribution in the world of drift boating, claiming the right as being the mastermind behind the lightweight era for the McKenzie River drift boat. With his disdain for the heavy boats of the day, including West’s newer and smaller boats, Veltie wanted something smaller and lighter. His creation would be a 13-foot boat with a 3-foot mid-ship bottom made from Port Orford cedar ribs, planked with spruce or fir, and sealed with tar or pitch. The style featured more flare at the prow and a tall transom. To a large degree the boat was a scaled-down John West boat, but much lighter and even more maneuverable. His creation led to the era of whitewater drift boats.
Boats on the riverbank at the McKenzie River Wooden Boat Festival at the Eagle Rock Lodge. © Randy Dersham
When you hear the name Helfrich, it’s the name of a dynasty on Oregon’s McKenzie River, and today spans five generations and counting. The family patriarch, Prince Helfrich, was a river guide dating back to 1923, when he operated an old scow. When he saw Veltie’s miniature riverboat he took a second look, and Veltie let him take it for a ride. After the test-drive he was hooked like a big fat redside and asked Veltie to build him one of those little boats. This newfound friendship established between two northwest adventure seekers opened the door to exploring wild and untamed rivers never before navigated in a drift boat.
Activities at the McKenzie River Wooden Boat Festival. In the photo are double-enders with transoms (the classic McKenzie River drift boat), and a couple square-enders that have been modified for an engine. © Randy Dersham
From cabinet maker to drift-boat mastermind and craftsman, Torkel “Tom” Kaarhus built his first McKenzie River drift boat in the late 1920s. His first-generation boats were crafted with board-on-batten construction with spruce planks, cedar frames, oak chines, and bottom battens. Before long he was incorporating Philippine mahogany into his construction, which added beauty, strength, and longevity.
Improving Drift Boat Technology
With technological advancements like the development of cross-laminated marine-grade plywood, Kaarhus was the first in the industry to build a plywood McKenzie River drift boat, which simplified construction and cut the boat-building process in half. The boat largely followed West’s design and was dubbed the square-ender, however, to honor the original designer, Tom Kaarhus named this boat the John West. These boats were still designed to navigate with the pointed prow upriver, and the flat stern pointing downstream.
Twin Classic Wooden McKenzie River drift boats (double-enders with transoms), one with a varnished exterior, the other painted. © Kelsey Helfrich
Randy Dersham is the President of a nonprofit titled Oregonsboat.org and has been, for the last year, producing a documentary movie depicting the heritage of the McKenzie River drift boat titled Oregon’s Boat—McKenzie River Drift Boat. Dersham shares, “People think a drift boat is being rowed backwards. That is not true, but it does travel down the river stern first, which seems backward to many because the boat’s progress as it drifts downriver is in the direction of the stern. This is a critically important part of managing the boat on the river. A drift boat rower uses the chine edges of the boat to cut into the current causing sideways movement. The rower doesn’t row where they want to go, they push against the river, and the river takes them where they want to go.”
The early McKenzie River drift boats began a transition at the hands of guide and boat builder Woodie Hindman. Hindman’s boat-building career began in 1935 under the tutoring of Tom Kaarhus. By 1941 Woodie had built his own shop in Springfield, Oregon, and began building boats full time. As the story is told, Woodie and his wife, Ruthie, embarked on a drift-boat adventure down Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River, world renowned for its whitewater. During the trip, rowing a square-ender West boat, Woodie got himself turned around in some technical whitewater. To his amazement, rowing the boat with the pointed prow pointed downstream offered benefits in the torrent current with less bow shear and more control.
The “Double Ender” Drift Boat
Movie poster for the soon-to-be-released movie titled Oregon’s Boat—McKenzie River Drift Boat. In the picture, one of the Montgomery brothers is running a classic Woodie Hindman square-ender. Note the downstream flat stern and pointed bow prow. This boat features plywood sides and a plank stern. © Randy Dersham
Upon his return Woodie built a first-ever “double-ender” drift boat, which featured pointed prows on the bow and stern. The first boat was made from a single sheet of 14-foot marine plywood sideboard, thus measuring roughly 13 feet, bow to stern. This new design came with an added benefit: an accentuated rocker that would pivot on a dime. Woodie likened the fore-to-aft rocker to the crescent shape of a wave trough. Fletcher explains, “These are the elements that give the boat its maneuverability and make it the whitewater fishing platform it was shaped to be.” The double-ender was a game-changing design and was built as a 16-foot model once 16-foot sheets of plywood were available.
By 1948, the Hindman’s double-ender had some success with limited production numbers over an eight-year span, but again, there was room for improvement. McKenzie River guide Everett Spaulding asked Woodie to build him a double-ender with one caveat: He wanted a flat-styled transom to affix a small outboard motor. Remember, boats of the past, the scow and the West-styled boats, had flat sterns designed to face downstream. Spalding was asking for a flat transom added to the boat’s bow, somewhat of a tombstone style, that would still allow easy rowing, but could also handle a small outboard motor. “The double-ender was a transformational design; however, the double-ender with a transom became the gold standard,” shares Dersham. And that, my friends, is how today’s McKenzie River drift boat came to be.
Oregon’s Keith Steele on the oars with a flycaster giving demonstrations at the Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C. © Randy Dersham
Pamphlet with Keith Steele standing in a boat he made specifically for the nation’s bicentennial celebration, sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute and the National Parks Service. In other words, yes, the McKenzie River drift boat is a big deal. © Randy Dersham
The name Keith Steele is synonymous in the history of the McKenzie River drift boat. Not only did Keith build a beautiful boat; he was the most prolific wooden drift-boat builder in the day with more than 3,000 boats under his belt. Keith hailed from Springfield, Oregon, and built his boats at the former McKenzie Hatchery which was established in 1907. Now the location serves as the McKenzie River Discovery Center.
Not only was the Keith Steele McKenzie River drift boat abundant, he has been a symbolic representation of the McKenzie River drift boat’s history and heritage. In 1976, as part of America’s bicentennial celebrations, Keith Steele built a boat for the Smithsonian Institution and National Parks Service’s Festival of American Folklife celebration, where it was a virtual floating display on the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. His boats, which were later built by his son, Steve Steele, are also on a permanent wrap-around display at the Springfield Cabela’s as well as at the City of Springfield.
Exciting Improvements in 2024
Today, the McKenzie River Discovery Center is going through a metamorphosis, like a nymph changing to a beautiful mayfly. Big things will start to happen in 2024 with the construction of the new and improved McKenzie River Discovery Center, which will be a world-class interpretive center highlighting the McKenzie River’s fish and ecology, cultural history, geology, and hydrology. The Center will feature evolving content central to its three keynote themes and will feature a dedicated section to the McKenzie River drift boat, complete with a historical video that is currently under production, titled Oregon’s Boat—McKenzie River Drift Boat by Eddyline Entertainment. Go to oregonsboat.org to learn more about this production.
Twin McKenzie River drift boats taking a lunch break. © Kelsey Helfrich
Hayes Custom Boats
Connecting the dots between Keith Steele and the McKenzie River Discovery Center is McKenzie River fishing guide and wooden-boat builder, Jayson Hayes, of Hayes Custom Boats. In Jayson’s free time, he also teaches wooden-boat-building classes at the McKenzie River Discovery Center once annually, which is nicely aligned with the McKenzie River Wooden Boat Festival. This 40-plus-hour, full-contact workshop allows the class of ten students to build two boats during their weeklong learning experience. Upon completion, the students will have all the skills and knowledge necessary to build a classic McKenzie River wooden drift boat. Go to mckenziediscoverycenter.org to learn more.
Not only does Hayes build completed drift boats which are standard-issue with Helfrich Outfitters, he also provides McKenzie River drift-boat kits. With four models available, in either standard or high-side, there is literally a kit for every river or every oarsman’s needs. The kits are 100% complete, and all parts and pieces are pre-cut except for the boat’s bottom, which is traced and cut once the hull is fully pulled together and formed. Go to hayescustomboats.com for kit information and pricing.
A Drift Boat Project
A classic McKenzie River drift boat doing what they do best. Note the pointed prow stem and transom, making this a classic double-ender with transom. © Kelsey Helfrich
As I pull together the final pieces of this McKenzie River drift boat Boats column, I want to share a few additional resources that might be worthy of a winter project, or fulfilling a lifelong dream of building your own drift boat. Roger Fletcher’s book Drift Boats and River Dories has a dedicated section in it with boat plans; go to riverstouch.com to learn more. In addition, Don Hill Custom Drift Boat plans are available at driftboatplans.com. Don was a longtime fishing guide and boat builder on the McKenzie River, and his plans are a part of the homebuilding history of wooden McKenzie River drift boats. Next time you are riding a wave-train down your favorite river in a drift boat, you can thank its founding fathers, a legacy worth preserving.
Troy Buzalsky is the Boats columnist for Fish Alaska magazine, and when not writing about boats he can likely be found chasing fish in the Pacific Northwest and the 49th state and writing about those adventures. Troy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.