The McKenzie River Drift Boat is iconic in Oregon. Over the past century, Lane County boat makers have honed and adjusted the design, and now the boats can be found on rivers all over the Northwest.
But the influence of the McKenzie River can also be seen further south, on the most famous whitewater river in the country.
Two Eugene-area boat builders are dedicated to keeping that link alive.
Our story begins in 1962 with this: The Grand Canyon.
“The sound you just heard was 24 1/2 mile rapid recorded from the bank sitting in the boat where it was tied up.”
That’s part of the audio diary of a man named Brick Mortenson. He was one of three Californians, along with Pat Riley and Sunset Magazine editor Martin Litton, who went down the Colorado River with their families and friends.
Consider that now, 30,000 people float the river every year, mostly in resilient rubber rafts. But 1962, wooden boats were king, and fewer than 2000 people had ever run the Canyon. They were still trying to figure out what boats worked best.
“Pat and Martin’s were of similar design, in that they used the same basic design for the hull used by the men who run the McKenzie River.”
And that is what is so interesting about this particular trip. Litton and Riley approached a Springfield, Oregon boat builder named Keith Steele. Steele was the man who had cemented the design of the McKenzie River Drift Boat, and Litton and Riley thought a McKenzie style boat - wider with high sides - could have definite advantages on the Colorado.
“It’s the first time you see this kind of a boat, which is really the McKenzie-style drift boat, on the Colorado River. So it’s significant in the life of running the Grand Canyon.”
This captured the imagination of Greg Hatten, who’s just a little bit obsessed with McKenzie boats - and the historical links between boat designs, rivers and the people who run them. Enthusiasts still use these wooden boats on the Grand Canyon.
“If you look at the boats today, they look very similar, almost identical to this boat. That’s pretty amazing that they built a boat that they haven’t been able to improve for 50 years.”
Greg and another Eugene-area boat builder named Randy Dersham have teamed up with Brick Mortenson’s son Dave - who was on the original 1962 run down the Grand Canyon. In March 2012 the three will recreate that trip in celebration of its half-century anniversary. But before they do Randy and Gregg are recreating two of the boats.
Working in his garage shop, Greg Hatten is getting very close to finishing his replica of Martin Litton’s boat called the Portola. The 16 foot hull is solid and smooth, and the golden yellow hatches are all cut, but not yet mounted.
“I’m building this boat from pictures because it doesn’t exist.”
While the second boat, the Suzie Too is still around, the original Portola disappeared long ago. The hulls on the two boats are identical, but the configuration of the hatches and other features inside are very different.
“Trying to get dimensions and do my best trying to figure out what these guys were thinking when they built it, and then looking at the picture for how it finished out. It’s really challenging because this boat had so many crazy angles to it.”
And actually the Grand Canyon Dory and McKenzie Drift Boat have some significant differences. The McKenzie River is considered a “technical river” - long strings of small obstacles and rapids that have to be negotiated in the moment. Consequently, McKenzie boats are lighter with a continuously curved hull or “rocker” that allows them to be pivoted on a dime.
But the Grand Canyon has a powerful current and is full of huge waves and big drops. Keith Steele kept part of the Rocker, but added a flat section to the hull, so it rides higher. The boat is also almost fully enclosed to keep the water out - Greg’s Portola looks like a stream-lined tank.
“When they picked these boats up, they were a little bit nervous about it being so heavy because of all the wood and all the decking. And they actually had a nickname for the boats, they called them monsters.”
Greg has never run the Grand Canyon and wooden boats don’t bounce off rocks like rubber ones do.
“And so the question we’ve got, that we constantly face on these things is how true do we want to be in replicating these boats and still be safe.”
He’s planning several test-runs in his Portola on Oregon rivers before March. Randy Dersham will do the same thing in the new Suzie Too. But think about this: the flow of the Willamette at its highest volume, is just an average day on the Colorado.
“These are real big waves, some of the biggest I’ve seen on the trip. We’re gonna get real wet. I sure hope this recorder is working. Man this is water that I like. Yoo-hoo!”