At a bend along the highway near Swan Lake, there’s a small wooden cabin sitting close to the road.
Two gleaming red cedar stand-up boards are posted as sentinels at the door. If it were on a beach in California, it would be a surf shack.
But here in remote, wooded Swan Lake, the squat cabin is home to Morley Canoes where Greg and Steve Morley create handcrafted red cedar-fiberglass canoes, kayaks, stand-up boards, small skiffs and other custom watercraft.
Greg Morley began the legendary business in 1972 as a way to buck traditional employment.
“A lot of people were thinking that way in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” he said.
Morley holds a degree in forestry from the University of Montana. He spent some time working as a park planner in Oregon before he began fiddling with canoe-making.
The work doesn’t bring in much money, but he says it’s well worth it for the satisfaction of creating something from scratch.
His son Steve came on board about six years ago.
The father and son team create roughly 24 boats a year, each one working on their own projects. The waiting list for a Morley canoe stretches nearly as long.
“Growing up, I never really thought about doing this,” Steve said. After pursuing a degree in finance in Bozeman, he married a girl from Great Falls, moved to Hawaii and had three children. At some point, he realized he wanted to raise his children in the same environment where he had grown up.
“Over time, I figured out this type of lifestyle is what I prefer,” he said.
So Steve moved his family to back to Montana. His wife took a job teaching in Bigfork and he joined what is now the family business.
Already his children are starting to get involved. All three have their own boats and tinker a bit in the shop.
“It’s nice for them to be able to create things and work with their hands,” Steve said.
The boats themselves are a work of art. Each one takes nearly a month to create and everything from the design to the planing of the wood is done by hand in the tiny shop.
Over its nearly 40 years in existence, the shop has kicked out some 700 boats, and each one is better than the last, Greg says.
The Morleys begin with a rough board of western red cedar, which is then trimmed into flexible 1/4 inch-thin strips. The boats are built upside down over custom-made molds. The cedar strips are curved across the molds to build the boat’s shell.
Once all the strips are in place and sanded down, the Morleys add two paper-thin layers of six-ounce fiberglass cloth to the outside of the boat and one layer to the inside. This process adds strength and durability not attainable by using wood alone.
“The whole material becomes something different,” Greg said. “They look all wood, but actually it’s a composite material.”
After the fiberglass is added, the boat is sanded smooth again and prepared for varnishing. The fiberglass disappears under the varnish, creating the illusion that the boat is made purely of cedar.
Greg was still living in Oregon when he made his first canoe. It was 100 percent plywood and came from an article in Popular Science. It worked, but it wasn’t quite what Greg had wanted. So he went to the library and began researching hydrodynamics. He built another boat, sold it and used the money to make a better one. Thus the chain began.
“I pretty much taught myself,” he said. “I realized if I built something well enough, it would take care of me.”
The business caught on so well, he was able to support his wife and two boys. His other son is an electrical engineer now and builds microchips.
Greg admits he was a little nervous about bringing Steve into the business.
“I wondered about it at first, because it’s a small shop,” he said, but the two have figured a staggered system for constructing their boats and spend a lot of time bouncing new ideas off each other, striving to improve the process with each new watercraft.
“We’ve worked out good methods that work, but we’re always refining,” Steve said.
The two are students of design. They’ve replicated old Kootenai canoes and developed other boats that are thoroughly modern.
Their newest product is the stand-up board. Modeled something like a surf board, it was developed in California to give surfers a workout when waves were down. Here in the Flathead, it can be used to run the rivers, lakes and occasional waterfall. The hollow boards weigh between 35 and 38 pounds. The Morleys fiberglass both the interior and exterior of their boards, making them stronger than most commercial wood boards which rely on interior framework that isn’t actually waterproof.
The boats run anywhere from $4,200 to about $5,000 and every boat is tested before it’s turned over to its new owner.
“We get charged up about it,” Greg said. “We want to get that boat in the water.”
Steve said the test runs make all the difference in how the next boat gets built.
“It really helps when building because you have real-time feedback,” he said. “When you use the boats you get a real good idea of how to improve them.”
Greg and Steve are paddlers themselves, so know the needs of people who want to be on the water.
“It’s a whole lifestyle,” Greg said. He’s been all over the world in his boats, sometimes for six-week stretches, but his favorite spot remains the upper Swan.
“It’s wild and primitive,” he said. It also offers challenges even for experienced paddlers like himself. Sometimes those challenges come in the form of rapids, sometimes it’s a bull moose blocking the way. Regardless, it’s always an adventure.
“Dad’s always been into paddling and that’s definitely what’s driven this business and why it’s been so successful,” Steve said.