Steele again building traditional wooden river boats his father made famous

The McKenzie River’s place in history is anchored by the fabulous redside trout fishing that once lured anglers from afar.
But a case can be made that the McKenzie is actually better-known as the birthplace of the uniquely-shaped fishing boat that bears its name.
Over several decades, many fishing guides and boat builders played roles in the evolution of the drift boat now seen on rivers throughout the West — and beyond.
One of the biggest chapters in the story of the McKenzie drift boat, however, was written by Keith Steele, a Leaburg Fish Hatchery employee who went on to become the area’s busiest builder of wooden drift boats.

Read the entire article by Mike Stahlberg of the Eugene Register-Guard on this link.

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2011 Wooden Boat Festival this weekend

Again this Saturday April 23rd at Eagle Rock Lodge on the banks of the McKenzie River. The address is 49198 McKenzie Hwy, Vida, OR. and the sign on the highway is between mile marker 34 and 35. The show is free to anyone that wants to come and the time is from 11:00am to 5:00pm. If you are bringing a boat please show up between 8:00am and 10:30am so we can get you moved to the lawns by the river. Lunch will be offered by the McKenzie River Guides Association as a fund raiser so come hungry!

2011 McKenzie River Wooden Boat Festival poster


The History of the McKenzie Drift Boat can be traced to the very river that bears its name. As early as 1910, Fishing Guides began running the
McKenzie River and they found the need for a more durable boat than the 20′ scows used at the time. By the 1920’s the first light board (spruce) and batten riverboat was being plied in Oregon Rivers such as the Rogue and McKenzie. These boats were smaller and lighter than traditional boats and proved more maneuverable.

Torkel Gudmund ‘Tom’ Kaarhus, an early Eugene, Oregon resident had developed skills necessary to make fine furniture and boats. His love of fishing drew him to the McKenzie River and ultimately to boat building. In fact, as a planer, at a Eugene lumber mill it was he who milled the spruce planks for some of the first light board and batten boats. It was soon after World War I that a new building material became available that revolutionized the boat building process, plywood.

In the 1940’s ‘Tom’ Kaarhus built and sold the first square ended style McKenzie Drift Boat. The early McKenzie River Drift Boats began a transition at the hands of guide and boat builder Woodie Hindman. Woodie became interested in the McKenzie, its fishery and the boats. Woodie’s boat building career began in 1935 under the tutoring of Kaarhus. By 1941 Woodie had built his own shop in Springfield, Oregon and began building boats full time.

It is believed Woodie’s 1939 trip to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River led to a new design, the ‘double-ender.’ This design became Woodie’s boat of choice. The boat’s popularity was tied to its functionality. It was a charm to row due to the accentuated rocker. It would pivot on a dime. This boat sports the most extreme rocker of the early McKenzie’s. Its crescent lines are lovely. As Woodie noted in one of his diaries, the lines had a purpose: “…to resemble the crescent shapes of the waves …” This boat became the choice of many Oregon River Guides in the 1940’s.

In 1946 Woodie modified the double-ender. He removed the up river bow and replaced it with a small tombstone type rear transom. Oregon River Guides at this time, being tired of rowing the lower stretches of the Rogue and Umpqua rivers asked Woodie built a double-ender with a small transom so they could hang a motor off the transom to move more quickly through the slow tide waters. It was this boat that set the standard for all subsequent McKenzie Style Drift Boats. It also resolved questions and debates about which end of the boat was the bow and which end was the stern.

Legendary McKenzie drift boat builder, Keith Steele built several thousand drift boats over the course of his career, a career that began in the mid to late 1950s and ended with his untimely death in 1995. As with most of the McKenzie River boat builders he was self taught but had the advantage, as a young man, to rub shoulders and work with people like John West, Veltie Pruitt, Tom Kaarhus and Woodie Hindman.

Steve Steele, Keith’s son continues to build these boats in his shop in Albany, Oregon and in the town of Nimrod, McKenzie River Oregon, the Greg TatmanMcKenzie driftboat is also being built full time.

Today the McKenzie Drift Boat is made out of many different materials, Wood, Fiberglass and Aluminum. Wood, its beautiful lines, glides quietly through the water, yet requires yearly maintenance. Fiberglass, though durable and quiet, is heavy, which can help keep the boat from swaying and yaw in windy weather. Aluminum, though noisy, requires little maintenance and proves very maneuverable in rough water.

The maneuverability and durability of this boat is remarkable. Able to maneuver through rocky rapids and cut through high river waves, the
McKenzie Drift Boat is the standard for all Oregon River Fishing Boats.

Some information provided in part from
Thanks to Roger Fletcher

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Success at the Rodeo and Cook-off

The 2nd Annual McKenzie River Boat Rodeo was an outstanding success! Last year Marc Boyd from Oregon State Police issued 17 boat safety inspections. This year he issued 29! “Fantastic” Marc was quoted of saying in referring to the enthusiasm of the inspections. The rain poured all day and the boats kept pouring into the park! One person was heard saying “If we don’t do things in the Rain, we won’t do anything at all!”

The event held every year on the weekend before Opening Day of Fishing Season at Hendricks Bridge Park also featured The McKenzie River Guides Cook-Off! Last year Billy Pruitt’s Hot Tamales narrowly beat Jon Payne’s Grilled Spicy Chicken. This year Jon and Billy had matching final scores. The tie-breaker was decided by the single score card with the highest total… And the winner is…. Jon Payne’s “Perfectly Spiced” Chicken w/ Saffron Rice and Fresh Pineapple. Billy’s Rockin’ P Ranch Cheeseburger Pie was fantastic as was his Sweet Potato Chili and Pecan bites.

Chris Olsen “Oly” took down the “Best Desert” with his Dutch Oven Biscuits and Strawberries! George Recker and Steve Schaefers matched wits with Fried Chicken and they are still debating who’s was best. This friendly competition will continue next year.

Next years event planners are already working on making this another great day to promote river safety, tell fishing stories, compare McKenzie Driftboat styles and eat great homemade food!

Special thanks to Oregon State Police, Lane County Parks, Oregon State Marine Board, The McKenzie Guides Association members of Northwest Steelheaders and all that attended this great event.

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