Early Kayak Building in Oregon
WKCC Club History
The WKCC has been an important part of the paddling community in the Willamette Valley for over 4 decades.
The Beginnings of the Willamette Kayak and Canoe Club
Despite having some of the best white water in the country, Oregon was the last place in the United States to see the sport of white water kayaking. In the early 1960's there were no boaters, no clubs, and no modern kayaks in Oregon. White water boating was essentially limited to a cadre of drift boat oarsmen who were fisherman or fishing guides. They ran class 1, 2 and a little class 3 water on the lower sections of the same rivers that we see them on today. There were more drift boaters then because there were more fish.
In 1964 my wife and I acquired a 17-foot Folbot stick-and-canvas kayak and began paddling on lakes and the Willamette River. The next year Barbara and Arnold Adams, who were probably the first white water "kayakers" in the Valley, took us on our first "real" river trip, the lower Santiam. About halfway down our boat broached on a small log jam, instantly filled with water and folded. My wife, 9 year old son, and I could have been trapped, but fortunately were swept downstream and were able to land on shore in our soaking wet clothes.
About this time, Chuck Leach built a stick-and-canvas double kayak from a plan purchased in England. He and Jean began paddling the easy water. Chuck's endeavor inspired Louise Ferrell to build two boats like Chuck's from kits: one for her and husband Bill, and one for sons Tom and Steve. Later, Chuck and I each built a single, which were about 15 feet long. Our fleet now consisted of seven kayaks. The canvas was vinyl coated , and therefore superior to the earlier canvas that was waterproofed by rubbing in a clay-oil mixture and then painting. I had built one of those in 1945.
The next few years into the late 1960's saw our double and single kayaks on a number of class 1 and a few class 2 rivers, including the John Day, Lower Deschutes, NorthUmpqua, lower South Santiam and the McKenzie. My friend Larry Oden, an expert drift boater, sometimes led the way because he had better visibility and maneuverability. These rivers were at the limits of our ability. Any capsize became a near disaster because it meant not only getting very wet and cold but usually damaging the boat. The wooden ribs or stringers could break and the skin could be punctured. A repair kit with pieces of wood, screws, bolts, glue, fabric patches, etc. was standard gear. There were rewards for our troubles, nevertheless. Can you imagine not seeing another kayak or canoe on any river you ran in Oregon? When we passed people fishing they would often stare in disbelief and ask "How can you fish from that thing?".
Any section of river we ran for the first time, was probably a first descent by kayak. It may be hard to realize, but there was no information on these rivers -- nothing on put-ins, take-outs, hazards, or difficulty ratings. We often spent hours looking for access to the river, and sometimes got permission from local farmers to drive across their property to the river.
Equipment was equally difficult to find. There were no sources of equipment in the entire state of Oregon. We knew of the Old Town Canoe Co. in Maine, and they carried basic gear for canoeists. Dry bags didn't come on the market for another 15 years. Some WW II rubber coated bags were around, and to this day, a more durable waterproof bag has not been invented. Double garbage bags in a canvas bag also proved quite good for overnight trips. We improvised and made all sorts of gear, and even made kayak paddles from a length of closet rod with a piece of plywood on each end.
Rafting was not yet a sport here. Occasionally people tried going down a river in a WW2 surplus life raft or on a raft of inner tubes lashed together. But with no skill, no rowing frame, and very little maneuverability, it was mostly luck if they made it. I believe that the first to use rafts with rowing frames were the Rogue River guides with drift boat experience. Within a few years, however, frames were seen on private rafts.
Unknown to us, fiberglass single kayaks had been developed in Europe. The technology and the sport had spread to the east coast of the US, thence to Wisconsin, Seattle and the San Francisco area. In the late-sixties the Oregon Kayak and Canoe Club, OKCC, was founded in Portland. The organizers were Clark Stanley, from the Bay area Sierra Club and father of teenagers Bill and Chuck Stanley (Chuck, later a national racer and of California boating fame), Scott and Margie Arighi from Wisconsin (they later, 1974, published the fist white water guidebook for many rivers in Oregon and Idaho), and Rod Kiel from Germany. I learned about the Portland club, and saw my first hard-shell kayak on the Clackamas River. These fiberglass boats were all the same length, 4 meters, in order to level the field for slalom racing, which was popular in Europe. By today's standards, they looked more like touring kayaks. They were called slalom kayaks.
In 1969 I purchased a used fiberglass slalom kayak from Chuck Stanley that he and his father had built by copying an Italian design. This was the first hard shell kayak in the Valley. It seemed awfully tipsy at first, but seemed a little better after paddling on lakes for about a year. I tried many times to do an Eskimo roll, but with no one to give instruction or help, it was futile.
MARYS KAYAK CLUB
In the summer of 1970, Martin Osborne, who was a paddler with experience in OKCC, moved to Corvallis. We were excited because he could do the ESKIMO ROLL! He gave a couple of us a lesson in the Willamette River, but after much thrashing of water and getting very cold, none of us achieved a roll.
About 1971, Arden Cory moved to Corvallis from Seattle. He had learned to boat with the Washington Kayak Club, and was glad to help us. He told us that in Seattle they learned to roll in a swimming pool. So we set up the first pool session in the area at the YMCA in Corvallis. About a dozen people and a half dozen kayaks made up the class. No one but Arden had ever done a roll. He showed us how to do the extended paddle roll, which is the Eskimo roll or Pawlata roll. It was the only form of the roll used by kayakers in Oregon at that time. To do it, one shifted the paddle, while upside-down, and grasped the end of one blade with one hand and the middle of the shaft with the other hand. This provided a lot of leverage, which meant that body motion and hip snap were not necessary, and in fact were unheard of. Somehow I rolled on my first attempt and was so surprised that it's still one of my best memories of kayaking accomplishments. I believe Chuck Leach and a few others also rolled that night, and after the four pool sessions, everyone had rolled.
In late 1971, Chuck Leach and I tried to organize a kayak and canoe club as an affiliate of the Marys Peak Group of the Sierra Club. We called it the Marys Kayak Club. The organizational meeting was held November 30, 1971 at the Unitarian Fellowship in Corvallis. A few interested non-kayakers showed up, as well as a number of open canoers with very little or no white water experience who wanted to learn to kayak. As a result of this meeting, a number of us who were interested in single hard-shell kayaking became the nucleus of the club. I put together trip schedules and other information and mailed them in an effort to keep the group alive.
Finding equipment was still very difficult because none of the river equipment outfitters we know today existed. One small fiberglass shop in Portland, that built fiberglass tanks, began making kayaks from molds pirated from two kayaks that some OKCC members had obtained from Europe - one Italian and one French design. Cost was $150 -- not cheap but these became the most common kayaks in Oregon in the early '70s. About this time the superior Mark IV appeared from the east, and Easy Rider started making the German Augsburg kayak. The first roto-molded plastic boat, the Hollowform, appeared in the early1970's, but it's poor performance and susceptibility to cracking soon gave it a bad reputation. It was nicknamed the "slug". At first we had to make our own spray skirts -- from coated nylon. Flotation we hadn't heard about yet, but later when we did, we used old inner tubes and beach balls. Most paddles were of wood and were 86 to 92 inches long, although Clark Stanley and Scott Arighi were making shorter paddles with large flat fiberglass blades on aluminum shafts. Hot stuff. By 1975 Bob Collmer of the OKCC began making good quality paddles with fiberglass blades on aluminum shafts in his garage. The business became Lightning Paddles of today.
In Spring of 1972, Arden Cory became the instructor for our first kayaking course After initial instruction in the pool, we joined the OKCC in Portland which had scheduled a series of beginners river trips. But when they said that we must have wet suits and helmets we were dismayed. More expenses --and equipment was not easy to find. Wet suits could be obtained from a dive shop. We purchased a few hockey helmets and even some bicycle helmets. When eight of us showed up for the first class on the lower Sandy River, the instructors were rather overwhelmed. But under the excellent instruction of Scott and Margie Arighi, Rod Kiel, Bob Collmer, and Lloyd Likens, we were soon making eddy turns. Every capsize meant a certain swim because none of us could roll on the river. For the next two or three years, Chuck Leach and I, and a few others, did most of our kayaking with the OKCC.
But interest in kayaking was increasing. We now had a nucleus of about 6 or 8 active boaters and a total membership of 20. In order to get a few more local boaters interested, I offered a beginning kayak class through the OSU Experimental College in January and February of 1973. The turn-out was amazing--exactly 20 people signed up and most completed the pool sessions. We scrounged a total of about 10 boats for the class. Our pool session at the Corvallis YMCA in February of 1973 made a full page article with photos in the Corvallis Gazette Times. John Blickensderfer, Chuck Leach, Lynn Sandberg, and I had become fairly good instructors by then even though John B. was the only one with a really consistent roll. Our rolling instruction used the extended paddle (Pawlata) roll with a sweep and later worked up to the screw roll. Marta Pagle amazed us all when she did a screw roll the first night. Typical of many later students, she couldn't roll the following week. We completed six pool sessions and three lake sessions. As usual, most of the students were never seen again, but the names of three who continued may be familiar: Bill Hogsett, Chet Koblinsky and Bruce Frey.
Although we were still operating as the Marys Kayak Club within the Sierra Club, very few Sierra Club members became interested in kayaking. Our number of active boaters was so small that about half of the scheduled trips didn't go. During March 1974 we tried again to stimulate interest in kayaking with a class of rolling sessions in the Corvallis YMCA pool, followed by some river trips. A newcomer, George Ice, volunteered to help, and we quickly recognized that he knew more than any of us.
WILLAMETTE KAYAK AND CANOE CLUB
The time was ripe and George and Gene Ice had arrived on the scene. They paddled C-2 together and also paddled separately in C-1 and kayaks. A few other kayakers materialized in the area during 1974, so Chuck Leach and I decided to try to organize a real kayak club. Chuck publicized the meeting with flyers around the OSU campus and downtown Corvallis, and I placed flyers in Albany and sent mailings to all the 34 people in the area known to have even the slightest interest in boating. The organizational meeting and program at the Consumers Power Company Auditorium in Corvallis, February 5, 1975, was a great success. Enthusiasm ran high. The club was formed and named the Willamette Kayak and Canoe Club, WKCC. Fortunately for the club and for all of us, George Ice was elected president. With his knowledge and interest in kayaking and his ability to get others involved, the club prospered and became strong within its first year. The early success of the Club was helped by the kayak building classes taught by George. The club purchased a fiberglass mold, and after George purchased several barrels of resin and many yards of glass cloth, members could build a kayak for $60. From his experience as a National racer, George was also able to give us much advice on paddling technique.
During the next few years the WKCC continued to grow. Among the members who joined WKCC during the early years and boated for many years are: 1977 Jerry Davis, Phil Larsen, Chris Mathews, Rick Starr, Torgy Torgersen, Karen Wilt; 1978 Dan Valens, Carl Landsness Bill & Sarah Ostrand, Dick & Dottie Miller, Don & Ellen Oliver, Doug Tooley; 1979 Lance Stein, Bo Shelby, John Van Sickel; 1980 Russ Anderson, Rich Lague, Curt Peterson, 1981 Gary Adams & Laurie Pavey (they weren't married yet); 1982 Larry Halford, Kathy Sercu, John Westall.
During these early years, club members made many runs that were previously thought too difficult or too isolated. George and Gene Ice, and Bob Porter were the best paddlers in the area. They and Ron Mattson, who taught people how simple it was to roll, and Chet Koblinsky made a number of first descents, including Quartzville Creek, South Fork McKenzie, Blue River, upper South Santiam including the Monster, and the Middle Santiam as part of its preservation effort by Bill Ostrand. Ron Mattson started Cascade Outfitters and later participated in the first American expedition of the upper Yangtse River. Other members "discovered" the Little North Santiam, although it had been explored much earlier by Scott and Margie Arighi. Chuck Leach, my son John and I, along with rafter Ed Trione, were the first to explore and run the now popular Silache section of the Siletz. However, it should be remembered that drift boaters were the first to make all the other more common runs in this area. The McKenzie River drift boat, developed from the New England ocean dory, was used by fishing guides to take people, including Hollywood stars and President Herbert Hoover, on fishing trips. An old time guide on the McKenzie River, Prince Helfrich, was famous, and was the first to run many of the more difficult rivers in Oregon, including the Three Forks section and the lower section of the Owyhee.
Many members contributed to the early and continued success of WKCC. Lance Stein and Dan Valens contributed a great deal to the club during the late 1970s and the 1980's. Bill Ostrand, an expert C-1 paddler, arrived from the east and helped many with paddling technique and river safety. He taught the first river safety class to the club in 1979. Bo Shelby, with his great kayaking ability, led some difficult runs. Kim Hummer and Rich Brainerd, from New England, convinced a few of us that the paddling season did not end in the fall because winter paddling in Oregon was warmer than the spring paddling they had done. Torgy Torgerson and Curt Peterson also participated in many club activities. All of the past presidents, board members, and newsletter editors who put in many selfless hours for the benefit of the club are also responsible for the club's success.
The interest of the Ice brothers in white water racing resulted in the Club hosting several slalom and downriver races on the Willamette and Mckenzie Rivers. Outstanding paddlers included Eric Evans (National Champion), Werner Fuhrer, Jed and Jay Langly, Doug and Brian Tooley, and Daryl O'brien. Several club members raced in regional and national events. The Ice brothers raced in the US Nationals in white water C-2 and at the Canadian Nationals in 1977 they won second place.
The idea of putting together a simple guide book from the river notes that many of us had been collecting over the years occurred in 1978. When Bill Ostrand instigated this venture, none of us realized the amount of work and commitment it would take. We spent many meetings working out the format of the book and the details of the descriptions. We each wrote up the runs that we were most familiar with, and Rich Hand compiled them on his computer. All of its 64 kb of memory was used. Lance Stein was a stalwart in the layout and printing of this and the second edition. The first printing of 1000 copies was sold out by mid-1981 so a second printing of 2100 copies was made. It retailed for $5.00. Many new runs were being made in the 1980's therefore the club decided in March 1984 to publish a second edition. The much improved book, with photos and new maps was printed in 1986, price of $9.00. By the early '90s we realized that many more runs were known and an enlarged third edition was necessary. We decided to let the Mountaineers Publishers of Seattle handle the editing, printing, and distribution. The third edition came out in March of 1994 and two printings were sold. In 2001 the club began working on a fourth edition. This entails not only adding new runs but verifying all published runs, which may take a year or more. The Club can be proud of Soggy Sneakers Guide to Oregon Rivers and the help it has provided to many boaters. Profits from the many thousands of copies sold have gone toward conservation and safety.
The Fourth edition was released in 2004 with 80 additional runs.
By 1979 the kayaking class had been developed into the format of one classroom session, four pool sessions, one lake paddling session, and then four river trips of increasing difficulty. With the help of club members and their generous loan of boats, I continued through the 1980's to put on the kayaking class annually through Linn Benton Community College. The class was offered through LBCC because they covered us with liability insurance, they did the administrative work, they subsidized the pool rental, their class flyers provided some publicity, and they paid a stipend of about $100. Rich Brainerd, Steve Holland, and later Rich Lague were some of the most conscientious teachers who helped many students learn to kayak. Many club members volunteered and sometimes we had almost as many instructors as students. After the last river trip, the Finn Rock run on the McKenzie, I used the stipend to buy beer and pizza for the students and instructors. Having just run Marten Rapids, everyone's spirits were very high and those times are some of my fondest memories.
Although only a few students from each class continued as active kayakers, some stayed and became club members who contributed much to the club. Some of these and the year they "graduated" are: 1979 Rich Lague, Russ Anderson, Bruce Miller, Rufus Knapp; 1980 Randy Selig; 1981 Mark Hower and Dale Mosby; 1982 Kathy Sercu, Carolyn Bohm, Naomi Weidner, Carolyn Peterson, and Marshall Tate; 1984 Ronald DeYoung and Carol Gaffney met in the class and later got married; 1985 Carroll DeKock; 1986 Al Grapel, Susan Brown and son Eric (Eric Brown is now an international kayaker); 1987 Todd Brown, Jack Doyle, Ian Lague, Tami Davis, and Janice Rosenberg; and so on. After 1989 I retired from teaching the class and Jack Doyle, who had already been an invaluable assisstant, assumed responsibility. Jack did a tremendous job. He improved the course and got more club involvement. By 1995 however, the kayak classes were deferred to Whitewater Warehouse of Corvallis because they furnished boats and other equipment for the course.
The first kayak surfer in Oregon, as far as I know, was Rod Kiel of the OKCC, around 1972. He often paddled along the coast alone, his main objective being to explore coves, arches, and caves. He also organized surfing trips for OKCC. In 1979 Curt Petetson, who was a surf boarder from California, moved to Corvallis. Chuck Leach gave him a few kayak lessons, and Curt became both a river runner and a kayak surfer. He and member Rick Starr, who had moved to Newport, explored the many surfing possibilities along the Oregon Coast. I believe that kayak surfing occurred on the northern half of the Oregon coast, if not the entire Oregon coast, before surfboarding.
By the early 1980's, WKCC was a strong club with 88 members, and this membership held quite constant during the decade. During the 1990's the membership grew to over 200. The number of boaters in Oregon, including rafters, was rapidly increasing. The good old days when we had the rivers to ourselves were disappearing. Some of the other old timers and I began wondering why we were still teaching the kayaking class because it inevitably put more and more paddlers on the rivers. The answer is twofold: 1) to preserve rivers for boating. More boaters means more voices for conservation of rivers and for river access rights. 2) to keep kayaking safe, There are people out there who want to try kayaking, and if no class is available they will try it and eventually get into trouble. Drowning of a few kayakers could result in rules and regulations that would limit the rest of us. Our club and the classes have always emphasized safety.
No kayaker has drowned on a WKCC organized trip. An early enthusiastic club member and canoer Bob Bostick, who taught resource recreation at OSU, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1976. A young member of WKCC, John Linscott, drowned about 1983 in the winter ocean surf while on a non-club outing with one other kayaker from WKCC. He was wearing only a shortie wet suit because he had a "bombproof" roll. Ron Mattson met his death in a bicycle accident -- ironically along the N. Fork of the Middle Fork Willamette. Bob Porter, who explored many of the best white water runs in Oregon, drowned on the upper King's River in California. Bob was a highly skilled boater and very safety conscious, but made a mistake on a difficult class 5 rapids. A number of us have had some close calls. The river doesn't care whether we are on it or not, it flows along without feelings. Close calls result from our own errors in judgment, acts of carelessness, or over-confidence. So, let's all boat with care and try to keep up the good safety record.
White water kayaking today has the same elements of fun and excitement as 25 years ago, but equipment, techniques, and the abilities of boaters are vastly improved. Rivers considered too dangerous to attempt 25 years ago are now run regularly. Holes that were totally avoided 25 years ago are now played in gleefully. On our early runs on the Clackamas, we thought we were doing well if we could just blast through Bob's Hole. The rivers are basically the same and the psychology of boating is the same. The apprehension and excitement of a class 2 boater on class 3 water is no different from that of a class 4 boater on class 5 water.
The club will exist as long as the rivers flow and boaters are willing to contribute their efforts to the club. The most important club activity is the river trip. Trips allow paddlers to get together and do what they like to do. A published trip schedule provides the opportunity, and trip participation provides the dynamics that hold the club together. Club trips also provide the opportunity for us to meet new boaters and for boaters with differing skills and knowledge to mingle. As a club, we have much more influence on river conservation and protection. WKCC will soon reach its 40th anniversary. Good luck and safe boating.