Certain of life’s finer pleasures—custom footwear and tailored suits among them—refuse to lend themselves to mass production. A man knows he’s made when he can parade in finery built just for him. (I suspect women tend to be less sentimental about these sorts of things.) Thus my maternal grandfather, though not a particularly successful man by traditional standards, walked tall in the knowledge that the leather of his cowboy boots was hand-tooled to the contours of his own damn foot.
Few things say you’ve made it in Montana like a handmade boat. Thus Missoula billionaire Dennis Washington, a swimming success by anyone’s measure, spends tens of millions retrofitting successive iterations of his yacht(s) Attessa. He’s reportedly working on IV at the moment, re-imagining and rebuilding it from the hull up to his exacting personal specifications. Off the rack won’t do.
Neither, for most Montanans, will a yacht longer than the average alley. And most of us can probably live without the status boost that roars into play with Attessa III’s 4,000 horsepower worth of Caterpillar diesels. We use our boats to get out on the water, not pretend we can walk on it.
But walking tall isn’t always bragging. Sometimes it’s just a matter of knowing how to appreciate finer pleasures. One of the finest of which is a boat of one’s own.
Big Sky Inflatables
For a company whose core product is a chamber that holds air, Big Sky Inflatables’ backyard factory in the hills above Stevensville is a bit drafty in early January. This is the home of the Water Master Raft, and employee Jeremie Lobell and the shop woodstove are both hard at work in the dead of winter. He just shipped a flagship Grizzly model on New Year’s Day. Two more rafts are plopped on plywood platforms just to confirm that they’ll hold air for a few days—part and parcel of the Water Master’s lifetime warranty. They’ll ship out soon.
The Grizzly ($1,395) is a dual-chamber inflatable ring raft designed to sit in, shins dangling, and propel with fins and aluminum oars. It’s specially well suited to fishermen, though BSI owner Rich Stuber, the University of Montana marketing grad who bought the company five years ago, says he’s found a notably appreciative niche among wildlife photographers who like his boat’s stability, stowing options, and a nifty optional drop-down seat that lets shooters sit closer to the waterline.
The boat’s not wildly different in concept from the inflatable pontoon fishers sold by everyone from Walmart to Cabela’s, but in execution, the Grizzly is a different beast entirely, built around a patented seat-mounting system that obviates the need for an external frame.
The 7-foot-10-inch boat folds down into a self-contained 38-pound waterproof backpack that will check as baggage on a plane or fit nicely in the back hatch of a Subaru. The pointy-nosed Kodiak model, a foot longer, is four pounds heavier and carries 750 pounds.
Lobell and Stuber build the boats by hand in the Stevensville shop. They used to cut the 30-ounce 1100 Denier PVC fabric themselves; the aluminum patterns they used are still stacked in the rafters. But today the material is shipped here pre-shaped from a factory in Korea.
The two men join the pieces with a heat-welding machine, assemble and install the seat, and cement on a neat array of straps and D-rings. They customize the crafts with foot straps, floor wraps, cargo nets, rod holders, stripping aprons, anchors, motor mounts, or heavy-duty dry bags made in-house (and also sold at Grizzly Hackle–one of just a few retail components to Stuber’s mostly word-of-mouth business). For a nominal charge they’ll probably glue a nylon badge on the stern announcing the coming of Attessa V. That’ll show those trout who’s who.
Jason Cajune, owner of Montana Boatbuilders in Livingston, arrived at his trade along a traditional route, but tailors his wares to a more contemporary market. “If you’re gonna make wooden boats in Montana,” he says, “you’ve got to kind of target the audience, you know?” In fish-happy Montana, that means driftboats.
Growing up near Flathead Lake, Cajune’s parents ran the boat concession at Glacier National Park, so he “just kind of ended up working on old wooden boats as a kid.” After stints studying architecture at Montana State University, working for a boat builder in Washington state, and guiding fly fishermen in Montana, Cajune finally figured he could build a better boat. He gave it a shot in his garage, and someone bought it from him. A few rounds of that and Cajune quit guiding and went into the business.
That was 1996, and since then Cajune has more or less perfected a hybrid wood-and-composite driftboat that’s as much fun to ogle as it is to row. His modified dories have lightweight bottoms built of Kevlar, fiberglass, carbon fiber and extruded polypropylene, glassed-and-painted Okoume marine plywood hulls, and strategically applied hard polyurethane bed-liner coatings. Aboard, it’s all white oak, mahogany and ash hardwoods finished to a spar varnished shine with hand-built accents like the bronze anchor pulleys Cajune casts himself.
Cajune produces just a few of his flagship handmade driftboats annually (the wait for a new one is several years out, which will give you plenty of time to take out the second mortgage you’ll need to buy one of his top-of-the-line models). His Kingfisher driftboats start at $12,595.
But he floats the better part of his business on a line of build-it-yourself driftboat kits, computer-cut to his design and shipped from his shop in the Paradise Valley. There are four models, mimicking his most popular hand-built boats, starting at $1,775, and how fast you can put one together depends on how far you want to go with the finish work. There’s a slideshow and options chart at montanaboatbuilders.com/kitsplans that’s so sexy you probably shouldn’t watch it at work.
In addition to his five driftboat models, one duckboat, and the kits, Cajune seems willing to take on just about anything. There’s an old stripped-down canvas canoe hanging from his shop rafter awaiting repair, a mold in the back shop for the custom-ordered strip-built rowboat he’s working on, and the carcass of a brand-new Kawasaki Jet Ski in the yard; Cajune recently liberated the engine from it for an 18-foot jet version of his driftboat aimed at steelheaders. Oh, and he’s building a 20-foot sailboat for a client in the Flathead.
“I’ll make anything, but I can only do so much. It’s a handmade item,” he says.
Like anything handmade, Cajune’s boats are inherently rare. He estimates he’s built not many more than a hundred of his high-end driftboats, spending close to 300 hours on each of them, and his clientele is correspondingly rarefied. “I used to sell a lot to guides, but I’ve kind of priced myself out of that,” he says. “It’s sort of like having a really nice sports car.”
Montana Cabinet & Canoe
Jim Zielanski won’t mar his boats with ego. He says he’s already butted heads with the Coast Guard over a requirement that he affix serial numbers to his hand-built wood and canvas canoes, and he didn’t budge. The Coast Guard wanted the number stamped on the fore hull. Zielanski etched it on a little metal plaque attached to the underside of the bow deck.
It’s not that Zielanski is inflexible, it’s just that he’s not going to be the one to uglify an otherwise beautiful boat. Aesthetics is his thing, and the more traditional the better.
Zielanski runs Montana Cabinet & Canoe, a shop near Bigfork that dovetails nicely with his lifetime passion for canoeing—an avocation born of juvenile inundation in the lore of George Washington Sears and Daniel Boone. Brought up in semi-rurality outside of Philadelphia, Zielanski went west to explore the then-undesignated Boundary Waters of Minnesota right after high school, saw his first canvas canoe there, and never forgot it.
He built his own first boat from a kit in the 1970s, moved to Plains, Montana, following “the lure of no people,” spent 13 years working in Idaho, and landed in Kalispell 10 years ago, where he found his high-end carpentry skills well rewarded and in boomtown demand. He spent the last couple of years building his family home in the woods and the expansive, well-lit shop where he works.
He’s only just started making canoes again, and in any case he only makes a few every year, on a mold of his own design and construction. Occasionally somebody will bring a battered old canvas canoe to his shop; he does repairs, too.
Zielanski’s canoes are 16-foot, half-ribbed, wood and canvas, with shallow-arch hulls and moderate rocker for moving water, suitable for paddling tandem or solo from the center—good all-purpose boats that Bill Mason would have been proud to paddle. They take about 140 hours of labor and cost $4,500.
Part of the price involves paying top dollar for the boat’s 16-foot-2-inch gunnels—a few inches over standard length, and available only at specialty shops. Zielanski says he could easily build a two-piece gunnel and save the hassle, but he doesn’t.
“I can’t break tradition, because to me that’s giving in.”