Growing up on a farm in the heart of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, my family lived on 110 acres with about 10 acres of pastureland that ran next to Sidney Ditch, an irrigation canal that linked the Santiam and Willamette Rivers. During heavy winter rains the “ditch” would overflow flooding the pasture. As a 10-year-old this was the most amazing thing. While the irrigation canal was a man-made convenience for farmers, I saw the lake as magical body of water. I thought it would be cool to have a canoe or a rowboat to traverse the lake in the winter and spring when the pasture flooded.
But my family never had a boat when I was a kid, and it wasn’t until I had a family of my own that we borrowed a 15-foot Coleman canoe from a friend. I was smitten by the freedom that having greater access to all the bodies of water in our area. We took that canoe to Hagg Lake in Yamhill County, to Sturgeon Lake on Sauvie Island, down the Willamette, Molalla, and Tualatin Rivers. There was something very exciting about paddling so near the city yet places that seemed remote because they could not be accessed without a boat.
Soon my interest in boats developed into a passion for building boats. I started with a Pygmy Boats kayak kit. Then I built a Greenland kayak using Christopher Cunningham’s book as a guide. I bought Robert Morris’s book “Building the Skin-on-Frame Boat,” which included several different boat designs. One fascinating boat in the Morris book is the coracle. This is a very basic skin boat made from willow or hazel rods or from lath. In Scotland and Wales coracles were made from lath; in Ireland they were more often made from round rods. Because of my Irish heritage, and the fact that grew up eating hazelnuts, I was drawn to the Irish style of boat making.
In spring 2008 I began making coracles and currachs using mostly hazel rods because they are so plentiful in the Willamette Valley. They are found on farmland throughout the valley, but rogue plants can be found almost anywhere in the north Willamette Valley. Coracles are fascinating small craft because they are so buoyant and durable. Used as fishing boats, these almost round boats are paddled off the front using a figure eight stroke. Any other stroke and the boat spins in circles. Coracles are not fast boats in flat water, but they are surprisingly effective on moderate moving water having some of the qualities of a rubber raft or a skin-on-frame kayak. One drawback is they can be unstable, and if you fall out they are difficult to climb back into without swimming to shore.
After several coracles, I built a couple of currachs, which are larger versions of coracles. One of my sons, Joe, and I built a 16-foot-long modern currach with three sets of oars. By modern I mean it is constructed with milled wood, covered with canvas and painted rather than waterproofed with tar. Recently I built a skin-on-frame canoe and helped a friend build another.
This Hazelwood Boats website documents some of my experiences with building small boats. Building boats may not be in my blood—at least not through any direct lineage I know of, but I cannot help but wonder if some of my Irish ancestors fished the rivers in Ireland in search of salmon. I am not a fisherman, and I could probably recall every fish I have caught, but I do plan to return to the water with a variety of watercraft that I will make with my own hands.