SWAN LAKE — Makena Morley loves coming home.
The former Bigfork and current University of Colorado distance standout recently returned to Montana for a portion of her summer break, fresh off her sixth and seventh all-American accolades for the Buffaloes. Morley, who placed eighth at the NCAA Cross Country Championships, finished sixth in the 5,000-meter run and 11th in the 10,000 at the 2019 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Austin, Texas, then won a fourth Missoula Half Marathon title in as many years three weeks later.
Though Morley, who is currently on a road trip through the Pacific Northwest, runs each day, it’s enjoying the benefits of the family business she looks forward to the most.
Morley’s father, Steve, runs Morley Cedar Canoes, a custom boat-building business her grandfather, Greg, started in 1972. Greg built each of his grandchildren — Makena, Bryn and Logan — custom boats of their choosing, with Makena taking the kayak route. It’s there she finds serenity.
“Kayaking is much more, well running is therapeutic for me, too, but kayaking, I’m not competitive at it, so I’m not racing it. It’s more of something I do for fun to almost let the stress out that I get from running,” she said. “For me it’s just so peaceful. The running is very peaceful and therapeutic, too, but it is sometimes a little harder and a little more stressful.”
It was in that boat shop on Montana Highway 83, where Greg Morley, with the help of his son Steve, taught his grandchildren the craft of woodwork.
“I loved learning from grandpa, that was amazing. That is my stool over there. I did make that, I can do that. I can make stools,” she laughed, pointing at the stool that reads, “Made by Makena and Grandpa Morley, 2009.”
“It was just great to be able to work with the wood,” she continued. “We would go out into the woods and find, we called them the curly logs because they have vines around them, but it was so great to work on them with my grandpa, my brother and sister, and make something really cool. You have it forever, too, so that’s kind of nice. You look at it like, ‘I made that. Nice.’”
While the stool is impressive, its curly legs and seashell and turtle design appealing to the eye, it’s the watercraft in the shop that are truly majestic. Steve, who returned to Montana to continue his father’s work some 15 years ago, measures, cuts and places pieces for a new custom canoe, while others are displayed throughout the building, awaiting their refinishing.
It’s those pieces of art that make Makena beam with pride.
“I would always show everyone, ‘Here’s a picture of my dad’s boats,'” she said. “When I leave, you always realize what you missed out on, so when I come back I’m like, ‘Wow, this is so special,’ and when I show people they’re always amazed, ‘Oh my gosh, they build that stuff. That’s crazy.’”
“You go out on the lake and I’ll see a couple other wooden boats, but I can tell which one is a Morley and which one’s not a Morley,” she continued. “It’s just amazing to see it, to go see people actually using them and having them out there on the lake. They’re so beautiful, so it’s awesome to see other people using them and enjoying it.”
“There’s something special about the Swan Valley, the beautiful mountains, lakes, rivers, all right next to each other, so you can have whatever you want. It’s the smells and the scenery that seems to reset (Makena, Bryn and Logan’s) clock, they’re ready to go. It gets them fired up for running and racing,” said Steve.
For Makena, the Swan Valley and her custom kayak open other avenues, as well. Involved in creative writing at Colorado, Makena specializes in poetry and hopes to one day publish some of her work. Gliding across the water on peaceful summer days opens her mind’s creativity.
“Whenever I come home, summer, fall break when I come home, I always make sure dad takes me out on the river because it’s really therapeutic for me, takes out all my stresses. It smells amazing, it’s so beautiful and I really can get into my, it’s a different brain that you get into when I write poetry, so it’s nice to get into that really calm state of mind and stuff just comes to you,” she said.
“The fact that being on the river allows her to access that part of her mental process, I can totally see how that works. It allows you to go places mentally that you maybe can’t if you’re in the main stream or competing all the time, training all the time,” said Steve.
That training will ramp up again in the fall, as Morley returns to Colorado for her final seasons of indoor and outdoor track and field. She’s doing her part to make the Morley family arguably Montana’s greatest running family, with Bryn competing at Northern Arizona and Logan at Montana State. As the trio continues to make the family name notable in the running world, are the Morleys known more for their distance work or their custom canoes?
“I think they think both. Canoes have been here longer. Maybe both? I would assume. People would be in Sweet Peaks Ice Cream (where I work in the summers) and I would tell them my name and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, do you know Morley Canoes?’ I’m like, ‘That’s my dad and grandpa.’ It’s pretty fun to make the connection,” said Makena.
“It’s funny, for the longest time it was Morley Canoes, and now my folks will be out at a restaurant somewhere and people will find out they’re a Morley and they’ll say, ‘Are you related to Makena or Bryn or Logan?’ The conversation goes on from there,” said Steve. “But it used to always be, if someone met them and found out the family name, it was always Morley Canoes. Now they’re finding it’s about equal with the running and the boats.”
And why not? Each is its own form of art.