Paddling Purists

Greg Morley established a human-powered ethos that keeps his business, Morley Canoes, and his family running strong, with his son now by his side in the workshop

By Clare Menzel | Photography by Mandy Mohler

As Greg Morley spoke, he slid his palm down the blade of an unfinished canoe paddle resting on his workbench near Swan Lake. It seemed already smooth as silk, but that afternoon, he was hand-sanding the wood beyond polished. He paused to explain the value in working with one’s hands, not just on canoe paddles, but in everything.

“My philosophy has always been ‘hand-powered,’” he said. “It’s the way.”

It’s the way he builds world-famous cedar strip canoes, by hand and with an 1876 foot-powered jigsaw pedal. It’s the way he runs his business, Morley Canoes, which he established in 1972. For decades, he has resisted growth beyond a capacity of about 15 fine boats per year, which he now crafts with his son, Steve, in their workshop along Montana Highway 83. It’s the way he approaches wilderness and family, and life, really. Working with one’s hands, and paddling a canoe, are small analogies for immersion in the process — whatever the process — and committing to the time and care needed to make, or experience, something sincere.

“It’s real satisfying, a better way to explore the world,” Greg said. “[With a canoe], you can experience an area really well. You can really be there. There’s a feeling of accomplishment.”

“You see so much more … ” Steve said.

“ … if you take the time,” Greg continued. “That’s why we live up here.”

“And you feel better,” Steve added. “It’s hard work, but you feel better.”

If canoe building were the type of industry to have celebrities, the Morley family would be a rock-star dynasty. The Morleys are respected in their trade across North America, and their canoes, which start at just under $5,000, ship to the far corners of the world. Their wait list is six months to a year, depending on the season. The father-and-son duo offers a number of hand-hewn canoe styles, including the solo, fast and graceful for one; the prospector, which is highly maneuverable in rough water; and the pack, a minimal and lightweight boat. They also make a number of kayaks and rowboats, well as stand-up paddleboards, which Steve, a windsurfer, introduced to their roster.

Morley boats are crafted for durability, longevity and performance, but they’re also immediately identifiable for their craftsmanship and intricate inlay designs. They’re made with recovered old-growth wood, which, as an engineering material, strikes a balance between light weight and workhorse strength. It’s pleasing, in look, feel, sound, and even smell. Boat building is an ancient art, and reinvention doesn’t trend toward progression. Canoeists have tried to build “funky shapes,” as Greg says, but “clean lines tend to perform the best.” Though Morley designs are drawn from classics, they’re evolved. They’re the product of decades spent feeling how the boat moves in the water.

“Craftsmen like Greg and Steve, they don’t do it for the money,” said Frank Yannotti, of Somers, who bought his first Morley canoe when he was 19, with pennies scrounged from a U.S. Forest Service job. “When you do something like they do, it’s love. You can look around the shop and see the love.”

Greg, who has a background in forestry, began canoeing in the 1960s. Soon after, he became preoccupied with the shape of a canoe, and how that shape can propel a dedicated paddler deep into the wilderness, with the supplies they need to stay awhile. A longtime woodworker, he got ahold of books explaining classic canoe designs. He studied hydrodynamics, or, in this context, how to design a boat so that the bow interrupts the water as quietly as possible, and so that the rest of the boat skims across the surface without being grabbed by surface friction or suction.

He soon began making his first strip canoes in a garage in Salem, Oregon, where he was living. The process — deeply simplified — entails wrapping strips of wood 1/4-inch thick and one-inch wide around forms, which are like cross-sections of the hull. To fashion the forms, he took cues from tried-and-true “lines,” as canoe blueprints are called. He’d take the boat on his next trip, paddle thoughtfully, notice performance, and consider how to improve the glide or sturdiness. Then he’d sell the boat and make a better version. Again and again and again. Greg’s boats were a “luxury product,” as Steve said, by the time he joined his father. The Morley canoe is refined, but it’s never finished. As long as Steve and Greg keep paddling, their product line will adapt.

“Paddling day after day, you come back with ideas,” Greg said.

“We paddle a ton,” Steve said. “And you see, if we put it together this way, it’d be stronger. You see areas where [the boats] wear faster, get stressed. You figure out ways to cut weight. If you’re using it, you understand. You build from the performance side.”

Greg has handed the reins over to Steve, “letting him do most of the work” these days. Steve isn’t sure if his kids will want to follow in their path, nor is Steve’s brother, Chuck, who lives with his family in Portland. Greg hadn’t been sure about his kids, either — after graduating college, Steve moved to Maui to windsurf, then started a family and lived in Hawaii for 10 years.

Steve remembers his decision to move home to Montana and apprentice with his father in 2004. He had grown up in the workshop, making trinkets on the pedal jigsaw, which he now uses to make intricate cuts for the boats. Though early adult life had taken him far from home, he realized, “Somebody needs to learn this while Dad’s vibrant, so he can transfer all that knowledge.”

That urge wasn’t born from pressure or ego, and it’s not something that Steve is projecting onto the next generation. Neither he nor his father is anxious about the future of Morley Canoes — not because they’re confident it will last forever, but because that’s not the goal. The goal is to make good a canoe for the next person who walks into the shop; it’s to get on the water and paddle, to move deliberately where they are and with whatever they’re working on.

“We’ve always done things that take a little more effort,” Steve said. “That’s all part of the reward.”

All of Greg’s grandchildren have learned to work with wood — to work with their hands. The real Morley inheritance is the human-powered ethos, which is an end in itself, a success even if none of the youngsters circle back to learn the trade. With that kind of upbringing, what matters is that “you learn,” as Steve said, “that you can do something with your hands.”

Read more of our best long-form journalism in Flathead Living. Pick up the fall edition for free on newsstands across the valley. Or check it out online at flatheadliving.com.

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