Oregon’s rivers and streams are home to some of the finest outdoor adventures in the country and there is unique history in a watercraft design that some call the “All Oregon Boat.”
As Grant McOmie explains in this week’s “Grant’s Getaway,” it is a boat that made history because it made the whitewater adventures safe and easy.
When you sit between the oars of an Oregon classic called the “Driftboat,” you slide across rapids, slip past boulders and leave all of your troubles behind.
For local boat builder Ray Heater, you also touch Oregon history.
“Oh, the drift boat is really a special type of boat the represents the state of Oregon.
That has always attracted me – why don’t I build something else? Because I’m a fisherman and I love to float rivers and I’ve never seen a craft that can perform as well as this simple boat.”
Heater builds wooden drift boats in his Welches, Oregon shop; a business called Ray’s River Dories. He’s the last to make a living by cutting, drilling and hammering doug fir and cedar into boats that take people down rivers.
Heater’s career spans more than four decades and it has been built upon a boat design that’s all Oregon.
As he and I recently stood admiring a pair of boats currently under construction in his shop he told me: “These are steelhead drift boats that can go in the back of a pickup and they really are a part of a tradition that began a century ago.”
Drift boats were spawned on the McKenzie and Rogue Rivers in the early 20th century and at first, the boats hauled supplies.
By the 1940’s anglers paid big money to fishing guides like Woodie Hindman who would take fishermen, called “Dudes,” down rivers to catch fish.
Heater noted, “It’s really a floating platform for your camping and fishing gear – that’s really what it’s all about.” Heater added that the all Oregon boat was distinct because it safely rode atop the waves.
“Oh man, they can provide a piece of ballet – water ballet! Those guys between the oars would just dance across those waves with the oars – it’s a rush – a real rush…I mean I like to fish, but I like to run that whitewater.”
Ray Heater is not alone in his quest to protect and preserve the “All Oregon Boat.”
He explained: “People will say, 'you should write something down about this.' And I say, 'Oh boy, that's going to be a tough one for me, I’d rather build a boat than write about one. Well, then along came Roger Fletcher, who walks into my shop one day and says, ‘I’m writing a book about the river boat. I thought, 'You are the man.”
Roger Fletcher never thought of himself as the man to save a chapter of Oregon history – he just likes the shape and feel and history of wooden drift boats.
He builds them too – models - that are scaled down versions.
“They basically require the same technique of a person building a traditional drift boat – just smaller. There isn’t anything fancy about it, but when you look at the lines of a Mckenzie River drift boat, there isn’t a prettier set of lines
Fletcher has had a love affair with drift boats since a boy. Today, he is the author of a new book called “Drift Boats and River Dories,” that tells the story of the earliest boats that were developed for Oregon rivers.
He calls the drift boat design a “unique contribution to the boating world” and adds that few people know about them although they’ve likely seen them and perhaps been lucky enough to even fish in one.
“It’s the crescent shape and a fellows like Hindman, Veltie Pruitt and Prince Helfrich who designed and originally built them. They all fell in love with the design because it assumed the crescent shape of the waves. Plus, people fell in love with the ride.”
And who wouldn’t? Today, drift boating’s popularity has spread across the country. The “All Oregon Boat” can be seen on rivers across the country, wherever there are rivers waiting for adventure.
Now, thanks to Roger Fletcher, more people will know of the boat’s important past.
“My hope,” he added, “is that more people will see more of these traditional and highly functional and beautiful boats out on the rivers. It’s tough not to fall in love with this boat. If a person hasn’t been in one – gets in one, has a day’s experience in one – he’ll be back.”
Each spring, there is an annual gathering of wooden drift boats and their builders on the banks of the McKenzie River. It is held at Eagle Rock Lodge and offers newcomers a chance to learn more about the boats and their lasting place in Oregon boating history.