This story featured in the 2012 June issue.
By Eugene Buchanan
If Jim Lochhead’s stainless steel Sierra cup could talk, it could hold court—and coffee—among canoeists anywhere. Etched onto it are the names of Arctic runs like the Great Slave/Burnside, Yellowknife/Coppermine and South Nahanni. His homemade, 6-foot, mahogany camp table contains the burned-in names of more than 350 canoeing companions from over the years. “Just from overnight trips,” says Lochhead, 81. “I started running out of room.”
A consummate tinkerer, he’s made belt buckles out of melted silverware, wooden wannigan boxes for his entire family, and metal “blowpokes” for stoking campfires. And if his blowpoke rekindles fires, his entire demeanor has rekindled my passion for canoes. Living in Colorado river country, my canoeing time has been upstaged lately by rafts and kayaks more suited to Rocky Mountain whitewater. While I’ve done canoe trips everywhere from the Boundary Waters to the Arctic, my own canoes have rested against the garage for too long, used only for the occasional lake foray.
But every once in a while you stumble upon someone who restores your faith in a particular craft. Mine came this summer on a six-day canoe trip down Stillwater Canyon of the Green River with my friend George and his family, which included his dad Jim and mom Ramona. At 81, Jim’s unwavering exuberance for canoes is infectious, and from the moment we meet I am happily swept up in it.
Jim arrived at our rendezvous in Moab with a 20-foot aluminum canoe strapped to his pickup. He found the boat stuck in a tree after a 1968 flood on Missouri’s Jack’s Fork, and has been using it ever since. Born in St. Louis, Jim quickly fell in love with canoeing on Missouri’s rivers, taking his first trip at age 14 on the Meramec. Canoeing was the source of Jim’s lifelong mantra: AWDIWO (Anything Worth Doing Is Worth Overdoing).
Racing canoes with his wife throughout the ‘50s, hot-waxing the aluminum bottoms in his basement to gain an edge, he soon began overdoing the Buffalo River region in the Arkansas Ozarks, buying a riverfront farm.
He eventually uprooted his family of six from St. Louis to live off the grid, along the river. “We were three miles from the nearest electricity and had to ford the river to get to our cabin,” George reminisces. “The first time my brother saw a swimming pool he pointed at it and said, ‘River.’”
A vanilla magnate by trade, Jim soon opened a side-business canoe shop named—yep, you guessed it—AWDIWO. “The locals couldn’t pronounce it,” he says. “I told them it was the Indian word for canoe.” Soon the well-marketed logo was everywhere, from wooden boxes, chairs and tables to paddle blades, rain flies and canoe trailers.
He followed AWDIWO adage by pioneering such runs as Upper Hailstone and Richland creeks, and making pilgrimages to such Southeast classics as the Ocoee, Nantahala and Chattooga. Then came his bigger trips. His float log, which he’s kept since 1970, details accounts of his Sierra cup trips north, en route to racking up 650,000 miles on a 1969 VW camper van, complete with a porta-potty for the kids. Over the course of five summers, he dragged his family along the entire international border of the Boundary Waters, from International Falls to Grand Portage. “I got a lot of heat from the family about that car,” he says, adding that it went through seven engines. “I’m not a hippy, but the hippies did admire that bus.”
All this experience shines through on our Stillwater trip. Eyes peering from behind round, wire-frame glasses, with tufts of gray matching his eyebrows and whiskers, he’s better dressed than everyone, a walking L.L. Bean ad with a gray, ear-flapped sun hat and matching vented sun shirt and quick-dry pants. I, meanwhile, wallow in cotton. When we first set out, he effortlessly pulls ahead, clearly accustomed to making miles.
I find the coffee pot from a well-worn canvas gunny sack harboring perfectly stackable cookware. He stokes the fire with his homemade blowpoke, whose copper tubing narrows to an ember-fueling focal point. His nickname Pyro no doubt derives from it.
All four sons and daughters have personalized blowpokes as well, which they all keep in their AWDIWO-adorned wannigans. It’s as quintessential a canoeing family as you’ll find anywhere, and they owe it all to their patriarch. At 81, he even still takes his turn shopping and cooking for the group—no easy task considering there are 20 of us.
“See?” I tell my own girls when we’re back on the water. “That’s the beauty of canoeing. It’s something you can do until you’re Jim’s age.” I’m not sure if the concept sinks in, but they sink their blades into the water with new energy. And I find myself harboring that same renewed vigor about canoeing, a craft that lets you pack the whole family— heck, your whole life—and go anywhere, just like Jim has, be it the Coppermine or Canyonlands.
Perhaps Jim puts it best when I interrupt his ceaseless blowpoking later that night to see if he has any additional wisdom to share with a relative young ‘un. Embers reflecting off his glasses and weathered cheeks, his reply is as unwavering as the plume of air fueling the fire: “Well, it’s certainly worth doing,” he says, gazing into the fire. “It takes you to some pretty amazing places and is a great way to raise a family.”
And if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.