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KÜHL chats with Jason, owner of Cajune Boatbuilding, to learn more about the craft.
Written by Sam Brown. All photos by Mak Crist.
A drift boat is a tool – built to easily navigate rivers, float whitewater, and drift slack water, all in the pursuit of fish. Blending this tool with luxury and elegance elevates the humble working man’s boat to a piece of functional art. It still serves the same purpose, but it does so with grace and awe that’s magnetic at the boat ramp.
How many fiberglass drift boats are stopped at the launch so they can be admired?
Jason Cajune of Cajune Boatbuilding doesn’t just build drift boats. He takes the craft of boat building beyond what many of us thought possible, or honestly, even necessary. But when you row one of the lightest, most nimble, and functional drift boats ever made, it all makes sense.
Jason works out of Paradise Valley, where the Yellowstone River curls and winds through some of the most scenic country in the nation. How does a humble Montanan learn to build wooden boats? It began with family.
Jason grew up around boats in Glacier National Park in northern Montana. His dad worked in the park from 1970 to 2001 for Glacier Park Boat Company. The Glacier Park Boat Company has been running boat tours in the park since 1938.
The plank-on-frame wooden boats haven’t changed at all since they were first built. They are constantly being replanked and repaired in the original plank on frame fashion. Sinopah, the boat that Jason grew up around, was built in 1924 by the Great Northern Railway for excursion boat service on Two Medicine Lake.
The boathouse in Glacier National Park was Jason’s second classroom. There, in the sawdust laden light of the boathouse, he learned the methods and techniques that would help him become one of the best wooden drift boat makers in the United States, probably the world.
His dad taught him everything he knew about maintaining these historic wooden boats. Scraping, caulking, planking, sanding, painting, and varnishing – Jason learned how to do it all at a young age. His mom took care of everything else a growing boy needed.
He’d eventually become captain of the Sinopah, guiding passengers and tourists across Two Medicine Lake in the shadow of Sinopah and Rising Wolf Mountains until he was 25.
Growing up, his plan was to take over the family business. But he got tired of waiting for that to happen, so he headed off to school at Colorado University in Boulder to study architecture and engineering. He eventually finished his degree at Montana State University.
After college he settled in Whitefish. He became a fishing guide. While rowing clients down rivers and telling them where and when to huck a bug, he thought the boats he rowed were sluggish, and that he could build something better.
So that’s what he did. He built a simple, open floorplan drift boat with the skills and techniques he learned in the wooden boathouse. After a few boats that he made generated some local interest, he built his own website to market the boats.
This was in the 90s on a desktop computer with 1/5th the memory of your iPhone. He put some color photos on the website with descriptions of each type of boat and the hull designs. The boats sold. Before he knew it, he had a waiting list.
Although Jason never took any traditional boat building classes, his experience in the boathouse instilled an intuitive relationship with wood – how it behaves, breathes, and moves. Combined with his propensity for tinkering and resourcefulness, Jason’s boat building career had a solid foundation. What he didn’t know, he learned or taught himself. What he thought might improve a boat’s drift performance, layout, or comfort – he tried, failed, tweaked and tried again until it was perfect.
In 1992 Jason went to Seattle to work for a boat builder. In the Emerald City, he learned all about composite materials and how to use them in boat building. Although there are some perks to composite materials in drift boats, Jason still wasn’t convinced they could replace wood without sacrificing durability, beauty, and performance.
This inspired him to blend his wood boat building techniques with modern materials. To the untrained eye, his wood boats look like wood. Yet beneath the paint and varnish on the hull is a blend of fiberglass, Kevlar, and carbon fiber which are laminated onto a honeycomb-composite core.
This isn’t a plywood rowboat. It’s the culmination of years of trial, error, and testing to build the best damn drift boats out there with the best possible materials available. Boats of this caliber demand a broad skill set: welding, woodwork, carbon fiber, epoxy, auto CAD, and bronze casting are just a few of the skill sets required to build these boats. Jason and his employees thoughtfully embrace every task with diligence. No corners are cut. Ever.
Above the hull, Jason skillfully weaves a luxury yacht aesthetic into the humble workboat to bring his customers a boat that doubles as a work of art. Yet, it’s built to withstand the abuse of rowing boney rapids, chasing elusive trout, or multi-day river floats with the family. And it does it all with elegance and function.
Jason pours decades of boat building and rowing experience into every hull that leaves his shop. He’s a student of older wooden boat history and takes inspiration from the designers that came out of Maine and the Northeast.
Since he’s not working with fiberglass molds, he has the freedom to tweak each and every boat for his client’s needs. He personalizes features, layouts, and options depending on how his clients want to use the boat whether it’s winter steel heading, summer trout fishing, or just lazy river-floatin’.
The boats are built and improved on the success of their predecessors and they’re getting more complicated, durable, sexy.
Jason keeps almost every aspect of the boat building process under two 3,500 square foot workshops. He out-sources the bronze casting to a local business in Livingston, but only after he’s casted a few prototypes himself to ensure the design will work. For the oars, he relies on straight grain wood oars from Sawyer Oars, a company that’s been around as long as the wooden boats he first learned to work on.
Perhaps the most admiring thing about Jason and the boats he builds is his intentional pursuit to maintain a lifestyle he loves. In the peak of his boat building days, Jason was turning out 20 boats a year. But he didn’t like the work/life balance, or lack thereof, so he scaled back.
Now, Jason builds 2-3 boats a year with the help of two employees. The demand is there, his waitlists right now are anywhere 3-6 years long. Yet, Jason isn’t covered in sawdust or hunched over a table saw so he can get rich. He’s here to do what he loves, build boats, pursue his hobbies, and find the time he needs to do what he wants, when he wants.
It began with family and they continue to be his guiding compass to how he runs his business. He loves spending time with his two daughters, who also occasionally find themselves in the shop to help out and learn the craft.
In a world that constantly demands more – money, products, time, energy, employees – this is a refreshing take and a humble reminder that we need to work for ourselves. Everyone has different business goals, and when Jason wants to take the day off to ski or spend time with his daughters, he does it. This is worth so much more than money in the bank, but unfortunately it takes decades for many of us to realize this.
Luxury wooden drift boats weren’t always the end-all be-all for Jason. When the economy crashed, Jason pivoted. Who was going to buy a wooden boat that costs as much as a nice car? He went back to school to become a critical care paramedic/firefighter. He served for 14 years as a flight paramedic for several fire and rescue agencies. Fire seasons kept him busy.
He enjoyed the challenge and personal care aspect of his job. His work schedule allowed him to spend time in the boat shop on his days off.
Several injuries that resulted in a fused pelvis and lower back forced him to say goodbye to his time in the field. Fortunately, Cajune Boatbuilders was humming along nicely in the background, so he decided to dedicate himself to his boat shop.
This summer, Jason will donate a boat he built for the Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead Reservation, where his father grew up. The young men and women on this reservation started a campaign, The Warrior Movement, to raise awareness for mental health and suicide. It takes courage to speak out about these issues and Jason wanted to help.
He knows the healing power of time on the water. His hope is the boat donation will kickstart an outdoor program to get more kids on the water and help spread the Warrior Movement’s message.
Jason will continue to build boats, honing his craft and elevating everyone’s expectations on just what a drift boat is supposed to be. He also runs Old Montana Boat Company, a scenic float business that takes clients down local rivers to absorb the knowledge and peace of mind the water has provided him all his life. In addition, he also repairs about 15-20 boats a year from different manufacturers.
He loves Paradise Valley, but craves the peace that brought him there that is slowly disappearing. He sees himself retiring up on the Northeast side of the state in Missouri River country where the arid hills and sparse landscapes leave plenty of room to roam, fish, float, and explore.
Meanwhile, he’ll keep building boats, but just a few every year, so if you want one, you better reach out to him sooner than later.