It's fitting that Michael Lewis is a field engineer at a nuclear facility, because most of what he says is explosive. You may know him as "Louie," his handle on the online paddling forum Boatertalk, where he is as famous for his raw, kayak-bashing posts—now numbering more than 15,000—as he is for running steep creeks. But at 54, the Tennessee native is still charging the gnarl, and has brought his son Chad, 20, into the rarefied world of Class V open canoeing. Lewis has moonlighted as a whitewater guide since the mid-1970s, made seven whitewater documentaries and even owned a small rafting company, but his life's passion is canoeing the narrow, technical creeks that flow off the Cumberland Plateau. Lewis claims five first descents and nine open-boat firsts, all of them within an hour and a half of his front door in Lenior City, Tennessee. "My last first descent was a little-bitty thing called Rock Branch," he says. "When we put the video up, Milt Akins got on Boatertalk and said, 'Hellfire Louie, my downspout comin' off my house has more water than that.' I wrote back, 'Great Milt, next time your downspout shows up on a topo map with a name, you should run it.'" —Words and photograph by Nathan Sparks
Low-Water Louie is sort of a misnomer.
I have done some ri-diculously low runs, but by the same token I have some high-water records too. We ran the Obed in '86 or so at 40,000 cfs. The rescue squad got involved, we made the newspaper, and stuff like that.
My first nickname was Big-Drop Louie, 'cause I didn't know how to catch eddies and I ended up running a lot of waterfalls, by mistake.
These people that get on the Internet and post pictures of themselves, I swear to God, I just don't understand how you could be that vain.
The kayakers on Boatertalk used to give the canoers hell.
Some of them said 'Louie, you're a smartass. Why don't you get online and help defend us.' As soon as I started posting the kayakers were jumping my shit with both feet and I knew I'd found a home.
If you take anything that's said on Boatertalk serious you've got a problem. It's a forum for people who are bored at work.
In the beginning, canoeing was a beer run up to Calderwood Dam. No helmets, no life jackets, aluminum canoes and Falstaff beer, because that's all the bootlegger would sell us.
The one thing that'll kill your paddling quicker than anything is a girlfriend. You want a girl who goes to Victoria's Secret on Saturday while you go to the river. When you get home, you show her your new scars and she shows you what she bought.
When my son Chad was six years old, he didn't want to paddle tandem no more. I put him in a Perception Gyro-Max and we went down Tellico. His third flip on Tellico, he cut his eye and he wound up getting seven stitches on his eyebrow. He's never been hurt since.
I've only had one student who I finally had to tell, 'Hey, let's forget about me teaching you boating.'
Chad was on the U.S. Junior Slalom Team. He's a racer-head, but he went to college instead of going to the Olympics.
I can't name a favorite river because, just like every woman I've ever been with, I've loved them all.
The Tellico is so close that I can tell my wife I'm going out for a pack of cigarettes, and if my hair is dry when I get back, I'm all good. But if anybody asks, Overflow is my favorite.
I worked as a pipe fitter for so long at the nuclear plant that they finally decided to make me an engineer in 2005 just because I knew how the place worked so well.
If you swim on a creek you're 15 or 20 feet from the bank. You go to the Obed at 40,000 and hell, you can't even see the bank.
My wife's uncle was paddling my first boat on that trip, and it never made it home. That boat is now a water trough for some cows.
I took my old Taureau on the Green, and before I put on I used half a roll of duct tape to keep it together. And after my third swim, it went over Sunshine by itself and broke into two pieces. And I used the rest of the roll of duct tape to put it back together.
The craziest run I ever saw was a raft going off the 160-foot vertical drop of the big dam at Ocoee. One of the guys was married to a girl who was a Playboy bunny. I had come back late off a trip and couldn't get on the raft, so I'm down at the bottom with his wife and a video camera. I couldn't help but think what's the appropriate time to wait to ask his wife out after he dies.
This article is featured in the December 2008 issue of Canoe and Kayak magazine–the Gear Guide.