Wednesday, May 4, 2016

McKenzie River Wood Boat Festival

When I was at Lees Ferry a couple months ago, one of the boatmen mentioned that the McKenzie River Wood Boat Festival would be held in Vida, Oregon while we were in the area for the Northern Oregon Gathering of fiberglass trailers. It was a bit of a tough decision, but I couldn't pass up a rare chance to see a whole bunch of wood dories, all in one place.

The Emma Dean replica was back from her recent Grand Canyon trip with a couple bruises showing. This boat was the only one at the Festival that was set up for the Grand Canyon with a decked cockpit and "waterproof" hatches. All of the others were set up for fishing on the local Oregon rivers. The fishing setups were nice because you could get clear access to the construction details.

There were a number of older boats at the show. McKenzie River wood boats were historically created from Douglas Fir plywood skins with Port Orford Cedar framing. Many of the boats were clear coated with varnish.

This boat was built by Keith Steele in 1989 and has been rebuilt a couple times since then. I really liked the green & grey color combination and the very clean lines. Keith is the man that built the hulls for the original Portola and Susie Too boats in 1962. Steele Boat & Trailer is now owned and operated by his son, Steve.

Details in these boats have been carefully considered. I liked the way the floorboards were shaped to provide a good purchase for the boatman's feet. The boatman's seat was typically made from rope while the clients seats had seat backs and sometimes a seat cushion. The forward (client's) seat structure was mounted on a slide so that the boat balance could be matched to the client's weight.

Some of the boats had some very interesting cosmetic details. On this one the outer gunnel was laminated from oak and walnut, creating a nice contrast. Many of the new boats are using Meranti for the skins since it is available as a much higher quality waterproof plywood than the Douglas Fir plywood that is now available.

The inner gunnel on the boat was oak, but they used walnut for the ends of the inner gunnel and for the spacers between the inner and outer gunnel down the sides of the boat. They even inset some walnut detail into the bow stem.

About the time I'd made my rounds of the boats that were sitting or parked on the lawn, a bunch more began arriving, drifting down the river.

I was looking forward to seeing Rob, who had taken his personal boat on the Grand Canyon trip, but was surprised to see Tony as well. Tony and I worked together with Helen to build her Susie Too dory a couple years ago, It was fun to chat with them about their recent trip - what worked and what didn't.

Oregon folks are prepared for the weather. It drizzled some, but didn't rain hard while we were at the show. I was impressed to see how quickly they got the tarp up and rigged OVER the hot barbeque.

One of my hopes was that I would find a source for some Port Orford Cedar while I was in the Northwest. We stopped in the town of Port Orford and got the name of a mill that might have some, but the wood is quite hard to find. All of my strip boats as well as Kathy's Knot Too Shabby, have some Port Orford featured, but I'm totally out of stock.

Even the new drift boats are still commonly using Port Orford Cedar for the ribs, seats, floorboards, etc. It's lightweight, stiffer than Western Red Cedar, and strong. Just what you want when building boats.

Rob introduced me to the right guy - more on that next time.


  1. Lots of craftsmanship on display there.

    1. There sure is! Even on the simplest boats, the fit and finish was very impressive. Made me want to come up with a good excuse for building a dory!