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Wood on the water

Springfield driftboat builder goes back to wood for his watercrafts
Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneJayson Hayes rows in December on the McKenzie River in a wood drift boat that he built.
Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneJayson Hayes rows in December on the McKenzie River in a wood drift boat that he built.

SPRINGFIELD — Millwright Jayson Hayes was about to embark on a lifelong ambition of a side-hustle as an Oregon fishing guide and naturally he needed to build a driftboat to make that happen.

Like virtually everyone looking at driftboats 20 years ago, Hayes thought aluminum was the medium of choice. Then he saw some wooden driftboat models online that harkened to simpler times a century ago on Oregon wild rivers like the McKenzie and Rogue.

Hayes dumped metal for mettle, and he’s never looked back.

“I thought, gosh, this is what I belong in,” Hayes says. “A wood boat.”

Two decades later, Hayes is one of a cadre of boat-builders who are conjuring up the materials and mentalities of the past by keeping alive Oregon’s wooden driftboat history.

He builds his boats in a small shop behind his rural Springfield home a good stone’s throw from the McKenzie River, where these boats got their start nearly 100 years ago.

They are a composition of art and life, composites of functional crafts made to navigate some of Oregon’s toughest whitewater coastal rivers while simultaneously exuding the natural beauty of Douglas fir molded into forms with a rare function in the rainy North Woods.

Most driftboats throughout the Pacific Northwest are made from aluminum or Fiberglas — considered stronger than wood and without the upkeep. But wood versions that reigned supreme when Oregon streams were first conquered by keen oarsmen are still alive and well like the originals from the McKenzie and Rogue rivers.

“I like the traditional look, the traditional lines of a McKenzie River driftboat made of Douglas fir,” Hayes says.

People here in the Pacific Northwest always have had a loving relationship with their whitewater rivers, whether it’s for fishing or just floating. The raw excitement of exerting your will on nature by rowing through a wild rapid is unmatched.

Early models were based on the old East Coast dory, with the high point in the back and a blocky front. Over time, the design has flipped, with the pointy end in front to cut through large whitewater.

The concept of rowing a driftboat is almost a study in dyslexia.

To operate a traditional powerboat or sailboat, the boat needs to go faster than the current, and that allows for steering. In driftboats, the oarsman rows against the current so the boat goes slower than the water.

That allows for steering. Also, driftboaters point their boats toward the rocks or other obstacles they wish to avoid and pull away from them, instead of powering past them.

It’s a theory that early boaters in the 1920s used to conquer rivers like the McKenzie and Rogue.

Wooden boats thrived for decades, but they were a bit too easy to sink and needed new finishing every few years to keep from leaking.

After the aluminum driftboat was launched in Medford in 1970 by guide Willie Illingworth, wooden boats fell out of fashion. But aficionados like Hayes keep them alive.

It takes about three weeks for him to craft a boat from raw plywood. He also teaches classes on how to build boats from kits purchased from various online options.

First step is to get the proper materials, and that includes the truest grained Douglas fir plywood he can find. The wood is most malleable and easier to bend, he says.

Hayes fashions the sides, front and transom and forges them together with glue and screws. Last is the bottom, which galvanizes the craft.

“I just love doing this,” Hayes says.

Wooden driftboats are a bit lighter than their aluminum cousins, and well-honed ones pivot just as well or better than aluminum boats.

But still the wood and metal camps remain somewhat segregated.

In Oregon, it’s more common to change one’s religious affiliation than driftboat preference, but there remains a healthy acceptance of each other’s spiritual directions.

“There’s plenty of room for all of us to get along,” Hayes laughs.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.