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McKenzie River Drift Boat Becomes Symbol Of Lane County's Heritage

Lane County's visitor's bureau recently released a new logo they hope highlights the quintessential natural and recreational attractions of the county.

At the very center of that new logo is the silhouette of two men in a boat - one seated, one standing, mid-cast with a fly rod. The boat they're sitting in is the McKenzie River Drift Boat - a rapid-running fishing boat.

Jes Burns recently caught up with some riverboat enthusiasts, and has this history.

It's 9:15 on a mild and overcast Saturday morning and a peculiar congregation has formed at Finn Rock Landing on the McKenzie River. Fifteen McKenzie River Drift Boats are hugging the riverbank in small groups, roped to rocks and trees and each other — waiting….

McKenzie RiverGreg Hatten: "We're going to start launching in about 15 minutes…."

The boats are gathered for the 4th annual wooden boat festival parade down the McKenzie. And although today's drift is only supposed to be a parade, nearly every boat has at least one fishing rod in it - just in case.

The owners of the boats are hugging the riverbank in small groups as well - drinking steaming cups of strong, black coffee served on a collapsible table fashioned from an old boat floorboard. As the caffeine begins to flow, so does the banter.

Greg Hatten: "His name is really the watchmaker. That's what I call him "the watchmaker." Have you looked at the quality of his boat? Look at the quality of what you do…' /He's too kind/ No I'm very honest with you, you're astounding. / I'll show you all the flaws going down the river."

The modest watchmaker's name is actually Greg Hatten. He's a retired business executive who assembled his first boat from a pre-manufactured kit - and he continues to tack time onto the 800 hours of labor he's already invested.

Greg Hatten: "It's named appropriately… Obsession"

Out on the McKenzie, a line of glossy wooden boats, including the Obsession, begin the drift. Like most others, Hatten came to the McKenzie River drift boat out of a healthy love of fishing.

Greg Hatten: "I mean it was really born on this river to run class 2, class 3, class 4 rapids. So you could run the river as well as stop and fish."

Flat-bottomed, high-sided, maneuverable… the boats allow fishermen to reach water impossible to get to on land.

Probably no one knows more about the life and evolution of the McKenzie River Drift Boat than Roger Fletcher. He wrote what is widely considered the drift boat bible - a book called "Drift Boats & River Dories: Their History, Design, Construction and Use."

Fletcher says the earliest boats used on the McKenzie river were traditional rowboats:   In the early 1920s a river guide named John West became the first to shorten the traditional rowboat to 14 feet and widen the bottom to offer greater stability. But just a few years later, Fletcher says an Arkansas preacher named Veltie Pruitt had a revelation.

Roger Fletcher: "About 1925 — 26, built a very light board and batten boat out of spruce and Port Orford cedar. That was basically used by Veltie and Prince Helfrich to navigate Oregon's wild rivers for the first time. They proved the notion that for boat building, form follows function."

Greg Hatten: "It's awesome. There's absolutely nothing like 'em. And the design fits so perfectly the way you use 'em."

Back on the McKenzie River, Greg Hatten shows off the Obsession in action.

Greg Hatten: "It's almost like a dance. Almost like an un-choreographed lovely river dance…"

Throughout the entire rapid neither one of us got wet - Hatten attributes this to the high plywood sides of the drift boat - one of its unique features.

It wasn't until the late 1930s that the plywood became good enough to be used on the water. And the man responsible for first using it in the boats was a Norwegian transplant to Eugene named Torkel Gudmund "Tom" Kaarhus.

Tom's granddaughter Maurya Kaarhus used to play in his Eugene shop as a child.

Maurya Kaarhus: "It was at 13th and Moss, which is where Williams Bakery used to be and where the new arena's going to go up - the basketball arena. It was an amazing building. It was made with old growth timbers. Hugely heavy construction, big plank floors and square nails. On the front it said, 'Skis, Boats and Cabinets.'"

Tom Kaarhus was a popular man and respected widely for his craftsmanship. He was known for building a boat referred to as a "square ender." 

People were always stopping by the shop to talk and get advice on another Kaarhus innovation - boat kits. he created assemble-it-yourself patterns that he would ship to clients all over the West. Again drift boat historian Roger Fletcher.

Roger Fletcher: "He was able to design a system whereby the guides could begin to build their own boats much more efficiently. And it was people like Kaarhus who basically helped open up the river to people like myself, who are not professional guides, but love the river."

The final major step in the evolution came in the early 1940s from a man who learned the craft of boat building from Tom Kaarhus.

Woodie Hindman opened his shop in Springfield. He realized the wide flat downriver end of the square ender posed a problem in whitewater - it didn't handle waves.

Maurya Kaarhus: "What he did was take the front part of the boat and mirrored it exactly and made the back exactly like the front. He made the first double-ender."

Seen from above, the double ender took the shape of a cat-eye. But Maurya Kaarhus says there was one more modification to come.

Maurya Kaarhus: "And then later, people wanted the motor and so they modified it. It was kind of like halfway my grandpa's design and halfway the double-ender    My dad used to say it floated like a leaf on the water: you could turn it on a dime."

From this point in the 1940s, the basic form - or lines - of the McKenzie River Drift Boat hasn't changed much. But every boat builder makes his or her own little adjustments. Greg Hatten's modifications include a foot bar, beautifully crafted oarlocks and storage compartments to hold his fishing tackle.

At Tatman Boats located in the small McKenzie river community of Nimrod, owner Randy Dersham leans over an up-ended drift-boat - not yet polished to the common golden brown finish.

Randy Dersham: "Most of boat building is sanding"

Dersham says a lot has changed with wooden boat construction and materials. For one thing, the native wood used to make the plywood sides just isn't as pretty anymore.

Randy Dersham: "It takes old growth Douglas Fir to make AA-side marine fir. And old growth fir is very expensive and very difficult to get."

Tatman boats is leaving its mark on the McKenzie River Drift Boat - using computer controlled saws to incorporate an old school boat building method called scribe fitting.

Randy Dersham: "I don't want to pretend I built the boat-building method. But this is certainly a very new thing applied to McKenzie River Drift Boats. It's definitely what we right here today are adding to the whole story."

The McKenzie River Drift Boat has helped create a vibrant fishing and guiding economy, attracting people from all over the world to Oregon. But Roger Fletcher sees the boat through a different lens.

Roger Fletcher: "Its biggest impact has been on the lives of the people who access the river in a drift boat. It's far more personal and spiritual I guess I would say."

The boat is a glossy-golden-brown emblem of Lane County's natural and cultural heritage.

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