Make the McKenzie Connection!

From log drivers to river guides

“Young adventurers” laid groundwork for tourism

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VIDA: “About 1914 something kind of magical happened,” according to Randy Dersham, president of the McKenzie River Drift Boat Museum. The magic came about when log trucks replaced river drives as the most economical way of getting timber to sawmills combined with the creation of a graded road that drew recreationists up from Eugene who wanted to fish a pristine river.

“The young men that were log drivers in the homesteads around here at the time started to guide around 1920,” Randy told the gathering at last Saturday’s Eugene Symphony fundraiser.

The young entrepreneurs soon found the “Old Scow” design used to corral heavy logs wasn’t all that maneuverable when it came to avoiding rocks and rapids in fast water.

Credited with the first major advance in boat design was John West who opted for a wider craft that could seat two people side-by-side. Built out of fairly thick 3/4 inch boards and weighing around 500 lbs. It wasn’t a lightweight, except in comparison to the “Old Scows.”

Another of the “young adventurers” to step forward came up with something completely radical in comparison - deciding to construct a craft as light as possible.

His name was Veltie Pruitt. His solution was to start with clear Sitka spruce that he first resawed from 3/4 to 1/2” thick, then had planed to only 3/8’s of an inch.. Joints between the boards were covered up with batten boards and eleven ribs held the lightweight spruce together.

Veltie’s design was a success, although pretty his was pretty much a solo effort until he teamed up with another young adventurer - Prince Helfrich, who was 19 at the time.

Together the pair chalked up a number of “Firsts” - first to go top to bottom of the Rogue River, the John Day, the Crooked and the Deschutes - all over the course of the next ten years.

Luckily, many of their exploits can be relived because they were filmed.  “They would have a sponsor go with them and usually had an 8mm camera,” Randy explained.

The footage was combined into a  feature film, “Shooting the Deschutes,” that was shown at the 1939 San Francisco Golden Gate Exposition. That sort of exposure was given a big boost to the newly formed McKenzie River Guides Association which launched a heavy marketing campaign to draw tourists to the area.

Around the same time, advances in manufacturing brought the advent of waterproof plywood. It caught the eye of Tom Karhus, who originally planed the spruce for Veltie’s boat. The friends then built the McKenzie’s first marine plywood design that became a hit. “From the mid-30’s until the mid-40’s it was the only thing you’d see on the river,” Randy recalled.

It was up to Woody Hindman, who’d moved to the area from Oklahoma to come up with a fix for the early plywood boat’s weak spot - dealing with big rapids.

Woody’s solution - “putting a point on both ends” - resulted in a double-ender design that was widely adopted. Until Everett Spaulding arrived at Woody’s shop one day.

Having some experience on slow stretches of water along the Umpqua, he ordered a boat with the bow end cut square so he could attach a small motor. From then on, that’s pretty much the classic shape still being manufactured - whether in wood or aluminum.

Other tweaks have included things like Karhus’ addition of a rope seat to allow water to shed  through, an upholstered knee brace to steady anglers standing up in front  and a “rub rail” along the outside edges originally placed there because early trailers (built with Model A axles) didn’t have fenders.

 For more on the history of the McKenzie drift boat, go to:

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Top image: Designs that evolved into the classic McKenzie River drift boat were “essentially a community project,” Randy Dersham explained.

Image 2: It takes only a twist to change the way a boat design will perform, Dersham explained in a mini workshop that had people give it a try with some paper cutouts.


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