Paddling with the Current

Patten’s Dri-Ki Woodworking

Above: Rick Keim sands down a paddle-in-progress as visiting canoeist Jordan Guenther looks on.

Patten’s Dri-Ki Woodworking may well have made part of your favorite canoe — and if you’re lucky, easygoing owner Rick Keim made your paddle.

By Joel Crabtree
Photographed by Little Outdoor Giants
[N]o sign heralds your arrival at Dri-Ki Woodworking, a Lincoln Log bungalow of a shop nestled off Route 159 in Patten, about a mile from the Lumbermen’s Museum. But the whirring and grinding of various saws, planers, and other machinery — not to mention the mini-Katahdin of sawdust piled up outside — will reassure you that you’ve come to the right place.

Step inside to find an industrious crew of three, all decked out in Dickies and trucker caps, intent on cutting, gluing, and sanding boards of Maine white ash to fill orders for canoe yokes, seats, and thwarts — the bulk of which come from Maine’s Old Town Canoes and Kayaks. The room is filled with empty gold cans of Caffeine-Free Diet Pepsi, plus dozens of 5-gallon Rust-Oleum polyurethane buckets, some stacked six or seven high, holding wood bits and various tools of the trade. A boom box tied to the wall with fishing line cranks out a mix of ’70s rock, country, and contemporary pop — it’s the only thing you can hear above the industrial racket of saws and power tools.

Dri-Ki is a family-run paddle and parts manufacturer headed up by Rick Keim, who founded the business some eight years ago. For years, he’d done similar work in Patten for Porter’s Woodworking Co., but after that business suffered a fire in 2005, it relocated to East Millinocket (and has since closed). Keim salvaged some equipment from the wreckage of the old shop — it’s much more reliable than anything currently on the market, he notes — and decided to strike out on his own. He named the business for an old northern Maine slang term (possibly with Wabanaki roots) for flood-killed timber or driftwood (it was also the name of an old family dog).

“Nothing I did was a planned thing,” Keim says, strolling through his log yard, a small clearing a few hundred yards from the shop with bundles of lumber stacked high. “I was just lucky to get Old Town’s business, that’s all. They’re the ones who keep everything running, pretty much.”

Keim’s a coolly reserved guy — he’s been described as “camera shy” — the kind of man who’d much rather do his work than talk about it, so he isn’t likely to volunteer that his made-to-order paddles have cultivated something of a cult following among canoe nuts. At paddler meet-ups and on canoeist message boards, Dri-Ki’s fans praise the paddles’ graceful design, the strength and durability of white ash, and the value — Keim sells his paddles for $30–$50, depending on the design (a basswood paddle from L.L.Bean, for comparison’s sake, can run $80–$100). “You’ll not find a better one-piece paddle anywhere,” gushes one online enthusiast. “These paddles are the best buy in the USA.”

Although crafting thwarts and other parts for Old Town has become Dri-Ki’s bread and butter, Keim still makes paddles throughout the season, and he’s the only one in the shop with the skill set to do so. Watching Keim make one from a formless piece of wood is a bit like seeing former Celtics star Ray Allen warm up from the three-point line
— impressive to an outsider, but he’s done it so much now that it’s simply second nature. Keim starts by whipping a board around a bandsaw, his movements so fluid that you might suspect he was showing off. In the zone, he carves away, and the plank takes the recognizable shape of a paddle.

As Keim moves from one station to another — planer, shaper, jointer — he’s pelted by wood chips nearly every step of the way. Despite the ducts that line the shop’s walls — a labyrinth that sucks up dust and chips and deposits them onto the mountain outside — wood particles scatter across the floor. Watching Keim fine-hone the paddle on a series of sanders, it’s hard not to think of Michelangelo’s line about the sculpture being inside the stone and the sculptor simply having to discover it. As the paddle nears completion, Keim bends it against the concrete floor, in part to test it for sturdiness, but mostly just to get a feel for it before it’s dipped in varnish and hung to dry. Start to finish, the whole process only takes about 20 minutes.

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Keim’s toying with the idea of making furniture this year, but if he does, he’ll likely launch the project with a similar lack of roadmap or expectations. “I’ve got a bunch of maple sitting out there,” he muses, gesturing toward the log yard. “Oh, I don’t know, I might start by making some five-drawer dressers or something.” He pauses and seems to make a decision on the spot. “If it slows down this year, I think that’s what I’m gonna do.”

In the meantime, Keim has plenty to keep him busy: running the shop (Dri-Ki only took a month offline last year), keeping up with his 12- and 9-year-old kids, and trying to preserve enough free time to enjoy everything the Katahdin region has to offer outdoors. Keim confesses, though, that he hasn’t been canoeing in a couple of years. Nothing against mixing business and pleasure, he says. “I’d just as soon crank up the motor and go fishing.”

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