Subscribe for 33¢ / day
Drift Boats
Steve Steele is carrying on the drift boat tradition started by his father. Rob Romig / Eugene Register-Guard

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.

Steele also helped spread the boat's fame - including by going to the nation's capitol during the American Bicentennial Celebration to build a McKenzie River boat for display in the Smithsonian Institution.

Keith Steele died the day before trout season opened in 1995, but the story of his boats continues to unfold.

Using his father's tools, patterns, wood — and even some parts crafted by his father before his death — Steve Steele, Keith's eldest son, is again building wooden McKenzie boats in his shop south of Lebanon.

The latest examples of Steve Steele's craftsmanship will be in the public eye for years to come, thanks to a national sporting goods chain that decided make them a focal point of its new store in Springfield.

Cabela's commissioned Steve Steele to build three wooden drift boats — each representing a different era in the design's evolution — for a permanent display intended to pay tribute to the McKenzie River.

When the Cabela's outlet at Springfield's Gateway Mall opens May 5, customers will see Steele's trio of wooden drift boats mounted on a blue acrylic "water shelf," according Jeff Montgomery, who is in charge of the taxidermy and other displays for Cabela's stores.

"It's going to be quite special, actually," Montgomery said. "There will be a little story board on each particular boat."

One of the 14-foot display boats (which had to be scaled down from the standard 16 feet to fit in the space available) is a "square-ender," also known as a Rapid Robert. It represents the early days of McKenzie fishing, when guides would back their boats downstream at an angle, using one corner of the flat back end to cut into the waves.

The second display boat is a "double-ender," with pointed bow and stern. It was popular during the 1940s and into the early 1950s.

The third design is the one in use today, with a small transom on the stern. The transom allows an outboard motor to be attached.

The story of Steele boats begins in the early 1950s, when Keith Steele decided to supplement his hatchery wages by working as a fishing guide. His brother, Bob, was already guiding, running a "double-ender" built by Woodie Hindman, another key figure in McKenzie boating history.

"Dad took Bob's boat and copied it," Steve Steele said. "Somebody saw the one he made and wanted one, too. Over the years, he became much more active in boat building, and it just took off. He eventually quit the hatchery and went to full-time boats ... ."

By the time he died, Keith Steele had built nearly 3,000 wooden boats - most of them drift boats of the modern "double-ender with transom" design. But Steele also built several Colorado River dories, five wooden "sled" boats, and a large fleet of rowboats still in use at Clear Lake Resort at the headwaters of the McKenzie River.

"Keith Steele was, without question, the most prolific McKenzie drift boat builder of the last century," says Roger Fletcher, whose book "Drift Boats and River Dories: Their History, Design, Construction and Use" is the definitive work on the subject.

"Keith's boats are revered by their users," Fletcher said.

One of those users is Steve Schaefers, past president of the McKenzie Guides Association.

"I bought my first Steele boat in '72 and I've had one, or two, ever since," he said. "I betcha I've owned 20 or 30 of 'em."

Schaefers much prefers wooden boats over the now more-popular aluminum version.

"Customers like 'em. They're quiet. Most of them are lighter."

Plus, Schaefers said, wooden drift boats "are classics, you know.

They've been around this river since the turn of the century ... well, two turns of the century."

Steve Steele and his younger brother, Stan (a retired Oregon State Police game officer who now works as a guide) learned the trade at their father's knee.

"I can remember having to stand on an apple box to put screws in the bottom of a boat," Steve Steele said. "As we started a boat on a Saturday morning, mom had her job, I had mine, Stan had his and dad just cracked the whip and everything came together."

Boats by Steele became so popular that he usually had a huge waiting list, Steve recalls.

"He used to drive us nuts. With 50 to 60 boats on order, he'd shut down production for two or three weeks and do nothing but make parts.

You know, how many seats can you build?"

Having sufficient pre-cut parts on hand, however, enabled Steele to assemble a boat every day, which became the focus of a Sunset Magazine article on his craft. It was titled "A Dory A Day."

Keith Steele did other things to help spread public awareness of the McKenzie River boat. In 1976, he was invited to Washington D.C. for the Bicentennial's American Folklore Festival, where he built a boat for the Smithsonian on the steps of one of the monuments. A photo of Steele casting from the boat as it floated on the reflecting pond in front of the Washington Monument was distributed nationwide.

His clients included Bill Harrah, of the Reno casino. Harrah bought a 16-foot highside version of Steele's boat, and liked it so well he called the next year to ask if Steele could make him another one - one that would fit inside an airplane. Seems Harrah wanted to fly a boat to a remote and roadless section of the Salmon River.

Steve Steele said his father used a circular saw to cut a boat in half lengthwise, then worked out a series of attachments that held the two halves together in watertight fashion.

"It added about 50 pounds to the weight of the boat, but I guess it handled OK," Steele said.

Demand for wooden drift boats waned as the more-easily maintained aluminum boats grew in popularity during the 1970s and thereafter. By the time he died, Keith Steele was building only about 12 boats a year and relying on cabinet work to make a living.

"A few months before he died, I remember him telling me, "Some day this thing's going to be yours, but I want you to understand, you can't make a living building boats.' And I had no interest in cabinets," Steele said.

When his father died, Steve Steele was 45 years old and in the midst of his career as a high school welding teacher. He built boat trailers on the side.

After completing a couple of boats his father had already started, Steve decided to store Keith's tools, patterns and large inventory of top-quality boat building material until he had the time and inclination to take up boat building again himself.

That came after he retired from teaching in 2004. Steele has been making about eight boats a year.

"Believe it or not, I am still working off some parts Dad made," he said.

Today's buyers often want boats that are larger than the 16-foot by 48-inch size that was standard for Keith, so there's not much demand for some of the smaller parts. The changes have led to a few challenges over the years.

"Every once in a while, I get myself in a spot," Steele said, "and I have to start laughing because I know he's up there saying, ‘See. See.

I told you to pay attention.'"

Meanwhile, Steele is carefully husbanding his dwindling supply of clear old growth marine plywood, which is no longer available at any price. He's not sure what he'll do when the last 30 sheets of that are gone.

"Dad would just roll over in his grave if I were to build something that was not of this quality wood," Steele said. He says he hasn't decided whether to try building boats out of other types of wood, such as mahogany.

When Cabela's called last year to see if he'd be interested in bidding on boats for a McKenzie River display, Steele had no qualms about using some of his inherited wood for that purpose.

"I thought, ‘If they want a drift boat for a McKenzie River display, it should probably be a Steele boat," he said. "So I made sure I got the bid."


Load comments