Water carvers: Swan Lake man returns sleek cedar canoes to the waters that once fed the trees

Water carvers: Swan Lake man returns sleek cedar canoes to the waters that once fed the trees


"The hardest thing to build was the canoe. A man who could make a canoe was very happy because people depended on it so much."

- John Kawapit

SWAN LAKE - Her curves are gentle grace, smooth and inviting and fingertips are drawn without thought, tracing her warmth, caressing, even, and stroking supple heartwood.

"It's like a magnet," said Greg Morley, his own hand reaching out to follow the pure and lissome lines. "People just have to touch these canoes."

The red cedar is rich, alive in a way plastic and aluminum never can be, some might say sensual, each whorl of grain a tiny river's eddy. This wood drank these Swan Valley waters, knows this water, is this water, slips through these waters clean and fast, silent, sleek as an otter.

"My passion," Morley said, "is for shape and design, for a well-made canoe that really moves."

And that is precisely what he's been building these past

35 years.

Morley handcrafts his canoes the way he lives his life - with patience, care, an eye for detail. "Every one is different," he said, "because every tree is different."

The builder himself is quiet as a canoe, but penetrating, quick to the point, agile. When he travels long weeks on wilderness waters in the Arctic north, his goal is never the river's end.

"It's about the whole trip in between."

Which is exactly how Greg Morley builds.

"Everyone must believe in something. I believe I'll go canoeing."

- Henry David Thoreau

Greg Morley came to Montana in the mid-1960s, to forestry school on Missoula's campus, where he and wife Anne were looking, as so many were then, "for a niche outside the system."

Niches, though, can be hard to come by, and after graduating he found himself working for the state of Oregon, designing public parks.

Oregon, he said, is full of rivers full of canoeists, and it wasn't long before the siren song of rushing water called him into its service. Morley built his first boat out of plywood, using plans from books and magazines, simply because he needed a canoe on the cheap.

It was 1966, and he was hooked, line and sinker.

Morley would build a canoe, run it hard, find its flaws, sell it and use the cash to build a better boat. For years, he kept refining his craft this way, perfecting his canoes, experimenting with designs, and slowly his hobby became his niche.

The last big step into full-time professional boat making was "scary," Anne said, "just leaving the security of a steady job."

But in 1972, they packed up their two young sons and moved to Corvallis, not far south of Missoula, and hung a cedar shingle on Main Street. They stayed three years, before carving their way into the Swan Valley woods.

"Give me of your boughs, O Cedar!

Of your strong and pliant branches,

My canoe to make more steady,

Make more strong and firm beneath me!"

- H.W. Longfellow

Morley also makes paddles, in this case, a Kootenai-type paddle.

It was a time when traditional wooden boat building was at a crossroads, Morley said, when the famous Peterborough company was no longer crafting craft up in Ontario. Folk with Peterborough classics were left to themselves when it came time for repairs, and many started patching their canoes with fiberglass.

But the patches soon piled up, one atop another, and at some point someone had the bright idea to just rip out all the ribbing and line the whole thing with fiberglass, stern to bow.

It was, Morley said, "a method born by accident."

Today, Morley builds his cedar canoes upside down, on jigs resembling the skeleton of some ancient water beast, ribs curving down from a backbone of keel. He lays in strips of cedar, deliberate color and tone bleeding and blending together, and then layers the outside with fiberglass mesh.

By the time it's coated and polished and polished some more, the fiberglass disappears entirely, lending invisible strength to the warmth of the wood. Then Morley flips it, lays fiber mesh through the inside, polishes resins, sands and sands and sands some more, and again the fiberglass disappears.

Perhaps it is this constant laying on of hands that makes his canoes irresistible to the touch. The result, he said, is a boat stronger than fiberglass, stronger than cedar, light and powerful and shining, smooth as a fish and just as hydrodynamic.

"A lot of very good boats have been made of this wood for a very long time," Morley said. "If you want to really use it, it will take it. I only own one canoe - that I've abused for 25 years or more. They'll take tremendous abuse."

"There's nothing new to invent. You can go back to the old Indian designs and find everything you need right there."

- Greg Morley

Hanging from Morley's shop ceiling, over volumes of Robert Service poetry and over birch bark baskets and bamboo fly rods and an old copy of "The Indian Canoe" by Russell Smith, is a very strange looking craft.

You can see it again in that Charlie Russell painting there on the wall, and in that sketch from 1845, and in that photograph from the same era.

It's a Kootenai canoe, a boat as native to these waters as the cedar it's made from.

"I always wanted to paddle one, here in its home range," Morley said.

Problem was, all the remaining Kootenai canoes were in museums.

So Morley went to the Smithsonian Institution, dug up the details and the measurements, called the tribe, shared what he learned. Tribal leaders, in turn, came to visit his Swan Lake shop, shared what they knew.

"Their culture was strongly developed on the rivers," Morley said. "They were known as a canoe culture, especially before the horse arrived."

What began as boat building quickly became cultural exchange, he said, and for Morley a newfound appreciation of his canoe-builder roots.

That was six years ago, and today Morley still lists the Kootenai canoe among his offerings. He makes four other canoes, four touring kayaks, even a broad-bottomed skiff that can be sailed.

Prices range upward of $4,500, but the boats are both beautiful and burly, art and function designed to last lifetimes.

"They span generations," Morley said of his boats. "We've made maybe 800 boats since we moved up here in '75. They're all over the rivers and lakes."

"If there's a place, canoe there."

- Brent Kelly

Not a few of Morley's boats still live here in western Montana, working native waters and dropping by his shop every now and again, sometimes to be reconditioned, sometimes just for a visit.

"A lot of people still consider these to be my canoes," Morley said, "even though they're bought and paid for."

He takes a picture of each one before it goes, as if it were one of the family.

Morley often sees his canoes while on his own favorite floats, on the nearby Swan River, or up on the Canadian Milk, north of the Sweetgrass Hills, or down the Marias, even the Flathead below Buffalo rapids.

Sometimes, when he's paddling the flat-water of Glacier Park's lakes, tourists take home-video of him and his old wooden canoe.

"I don't mind," Morley said. "It's a compliment, really."

But Greg Morley's not one much for tourists and display, in the end, which is why he takes those long wilderness paddles in the far, far north.

"That's what it's all about," he said. "Those incredibly remote waters, a fast canoe - I just love that. These canoes will go anywhere."

"Thus the Birch Canoe was builded

In the valley, by the river,

In the bosom of the forest;

And the forest's life was in it,

All its mystery and its magic,

All the lightness of the birch-tree,

All the toughness of the cedar,

All the larch's supple sinews;

And it floated on the river

Like a yellow leaf in Autumn,

Like a yellow water-lily."

- H.W. Longfellow

Steve Morley took his boyhood naps in dad's canoes, in this shop where he and his brother learned how to build a boat and, finally, how to live

a life.

He later left for a faster lane, became a stock broker, made some money, burned out, moved to Hawaii, bought a surfboard, had a couple kids of his own.

"I learned what's important in life," Steve said. "I got a totally different outlook on my goals in life."

Four years ago, Steve moved his own family back to his childhood home in the Swan and joined his father in the shop. At the time, customers waited upward of three years for a Greg Morley canoe. Now, they wait maybe a year, thanks to Steve's family partnership.

Anne and Greg, it turns out, had been building more than canoes all those years.

Today, the family works together, blending the old and the new, still looking for that perfect design, still operating the business entirely on word of mouth.

Greg builds the old styles. So does Steve. Together, they make maybe 20 boats each year.

But Steve also just built a cedar surfboard for a friend, a hollow-core work of art that carves a clean line through waves, an empty track healed and sealed even as it passes.

It is a future.

And Anne, she's looking to yet another generation, hoping to design a rowing boat for Bigfork Bay. She imagines a high school rowing team there, or maybe a canoe racing team, a niche sport that would get kids into hand-powered boats.

All they need now, Anne said, is a good rowing teacher to step up.

But Greg Morley, in that quiet canoe way of his, has his sights set somewhat closer to home. He remembers his own kids rowing on Swan Lake, and those were good days.

"They had freedom, that way, out on the water."

And so today he's building cedar kayaks for his grandkids, imagining a fleet of Morleys in their Morleys out on the Missouri.

"That would be just perfect," he said, hands still running absent-mindedly across a short cedar kayak. "That would really be something, to know you had accomplished a trip like that."

Morley's canoes are functional works of art.

Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at mjamison@missoulian.com. Photographer Tom Bauer can be reached at (406) 523-5270 or by e-mail at tbauer@missoulian.com.

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