I had the pleasure to sit down with the guys behind Midwestern Gentleman awhile back and this is what it sounded like. These guys are doing some fantastic things to promote some incredible people in the midwest. Look for some of the upcoming projects they are working on and be sure to follow some of the other makers, craftsman, artists and just plain good guys they are featuring.
PADDLEGRAPHER: JAMIE COOPER
“Life is good to those who know how to live. I do not ever hope to accumulate great funds of worldly wealth, but I shall accumulate something far more valuable, a store of wonderful memories.” – Sigurd F Olson
There’s the old adage that if you put in 10,000 hours to be good at something, you will have become an expert. In reality, it may be more or less, but who’s really counting? What matters is that in the end, that time spent makes us better men. Otherwise, why waste time. In a world that pressures us to follow the 9-5 ritual of work life, our newest MWG is a rebel with a cause, to give people the power to go places they never imagined.
Last month I stumbled upon not just a paddle maker, but a man who would make any canoe enthusiast gush. His name is Jamie Cooper and he hides away just off the Mississippi River in the old fur trading town of La Crosse, WI. If he’s not wandering around the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, or padding down the La Crosse River, you can find him hunkered away in his wood shop, otherwise known as Sigurd Canoe Company.
Like any paddle maker, he views a paddle as one of the most underrated tools of our time. It represents a means of getting from point A to point B and allows us to see the beauty in C, D, F and Z. A tool that controls where and how we chart new routes on water. It’s the eco-friendly engine to power our own adrenaline fueled adventure and in a way, may just be the best unconditional loving friend we have.
MWG: HOW DO YOU RESPOND WHEN PEOPLE ASK, “WHAT DO YOU DO?”
Jamie: I was once deemed a paddlegrapher because I am a canoe paddle craftsman and photographer. I liked the way it sounded so I just kept going with it.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE MIDWEST THAT HELPED DEFINE YOU?
Growing up and spending all of my years in the Midwest has really made me cherish and take pride in the rich history that is the Midwest and people are proud to be from the Midwest There is such an awesome network of artisans and craftsman that are so supportive of everyone. It really helped inspire me with Sigurd Canoe Co by making the paddles by hand. The way that would make my grandparents proud instead of just throwing it into a machine and having a perfect paddle pop out. It has helped me appreciate the simpler things in life. I’ll take the rolling hills of the driftless and the cool Wisconsin water any day.
HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE A MIDWESTERN GENTLEMAN?
A Midwestern Gentleman is a man who does everything with pride and purpose. If something is broken, he fixes it instead of going out and buying a new one. A man who would give the shirt off his back to a stranger if they asked and will do anything for his loved ones. A man who prefers to get his hands dirty but isn’t afraid to rock a suit on occasion. A man who stays true to his beliefs is a Midwestern Gentleman.
WHAT SPARKED YOUR INTEREST IN PADDLE MAKING?
Well it all started with the need to make a cedar strip canoe, but lacking the space to do so, I settled with a canoe paddle. After being super happy with how the first paddle turned out, I just kept on going. Trying different woods and blade designs. Next thing you know I had a whole bunch of paddles. A little while later you have Sigurd Canoe Co.
TO MAKE US ALL JEALOUS, WALK US THROUGH A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A PADDLE MAKER…
Each day is a little different. I start each morning with a cup of coffee (Usually a Kickapoo Roaster variety, gotta love the local roasters) to sit down and go over what my goals and plans are for the day. Set up my schedule. From there I will start ripping down the boards to begin glueing together the shafts. Once I glued the shafts together, I’ll glue on the grips and blades and let them sit and cure before I begin the carving.
At this point I technically have a paddle, but it would be super impractical and uncomfortable. But this is where my paddles really become works of art and the hand of a craftsman comes in. After they are all glued I begin to shape the paddle with a variety of block planes, spokeshaves, and sanders to get to the finished product. Once the paddle is finished being shaped they will be fiberglassed and coated with expoy to help strengthen and really seal the wood. From there they will get a few coats of varnish for the added production and lastly the grips get oiled for that smooth silky feel in your hand when you are out paddling.
It’s always hard to have to send off a finished paddle because I become attached to them while I’m working. But that is what makes a Sigurd Canoe Co. paddle so unique. I take a lot of time and effort to sort through different boards and different species of wood (Basswood, Walnut, Cherry, Cedar, Cyprus, Mahogany, to random exotic hardwoods) to make lightweight and strong paddles that will last. To make a product that I am proud of. And that is one of the greatest feelings of all, truly being proud of your work.
WHO MOTIVATES YOU?
I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for my parents and family. They have always been there for me. My parents put up with me over taking their basement, backyard, office and any other spare space I would dump some stuff in to try and start making paddles.They are some of the hardest working people I know and are always pushing me to be the best I can be at any career path I go down. But I am also motivated by the likes of great people who have come before me. Obviously Sigurd Olson has played a huge influence for me, as well as Aldo Leopold. Also, behind every man there is a strong woman, luckily I have been blessed with a girl who supports me more than I thought possible. She probably knows more about canoe paddles now than she ever would have thought she would unwillingly be taught about 2 years ago.
WHAT, IF ANYTHING, IS THE WILDEST STORY THAT SOMEONE EXPERIENCED WITH A SIGURD PADDLE?
I haven’t heard of anything super wild and crazy yet. But hopefully this summer will be one for the history books. I’m working with a few guides to try and develop a paddle for them while thy try and log over 1000 miles in the Boundary Waters this year. Now if something wild and crazy doesn’t happen in 1000 miles of paddling, I would be pretty shocked.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE PLACE TO EXPLORE IN THE MIDWEST?
Well the Driftless Region is my stomping ground, but I love the North Shore. I try to get up there every Spring to do some Steelhead fishing on the fly. Otherwise you’ll catch me out in the 7 Rivers Region taking advantage of all the rolling bluffs and running water.
WHAT CANOE BRAND KEEPS YOU FLOATING?
One would think that having a canoe paddle company I would be rocking some awesome cedar strip canoe or something along the line. But I’m floating down the river in an old Alumnacraft canoe that I picked up a few years back for nothing. Pretty sure it had fallen off a truck a few different times, but it hasn’t failed me yet. Sometimes the old beaten ugly canoes are the most beautiful. Mine definitely has more character to it than any other canoe out there on the water!
DO YOU HAVE ANY FAVORITE BOOK, AUTHOR OR PODCASTS YOU LISTEN TO?
That’s a hard one. I always have a stack of books on my desk that I’m reading. Right now that stack consists of :
“Reflections From The North Country” by Sigurd Olson
“Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor E Frankl
“The Last River Rat” A Kenny Salway Chronicle
“A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson
“The Wild Trees” by Richard Preston
“A John Graves Reader” by John Graves
“The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien
Don’t worry, I’m not reading them all at one time. I’m not crazy. But I love a book that I can read sections of at time and pick up later to continue it. I also love reading Hemingway and Mark Twain. Can’t ever go wrong with some of the classics. But if a book makes me want to get outside and go do something, I’m gonna read it. But I also love cookbooks. I was always the quiet kid growing up (Middle child of 5, hard to get a word in) so I would always spend time in the kitchen with my mom.
WHAT ABOUT MUSIC? ANY GO TO ALBUMS OR BANDS?
Oh man, where to begin… I have a pretty sporadic list of bands I’ve been groovin’ to in the shop. The Alabama Shakes, Shaky Graves, The Local Natives, Bon Iver, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Leon Bridges, Passion Pit, Drive By Truckers, Blue Scholars, Brother Ali, Bhi Bhiman, Dr. Dog, The Avett Brothers, Broken Bells, Van Morrison, just to name a few. Nothing better than throwing on a good album to fill the shop while carving away by hand the wood paddles.
AFTER A HARD DAYS WORK, ANY PREFERRED SPIRIT OR DRINK TO FINISH A DAY WITH?
That one changes with the seasons. But I can’t ever turn down a great IPA. Right now my go to beer has been Pseudo Sue by Toppling Goliath out of Decorah, Iowa. Those guys are on a quest to make some awesome beer, and I’m on a quest to drink whatever they are pumping out. But when I need to mix it up a little bit, I love Bourbon and any cocktail that includes it. Cant ever go wrong with a Brandy Old Fashion, a Manhattan or a Maple Bourbon Sour.
LASTLY, ANYTHING NEXT ON THE HORIZON FOR YOU?
I’ve been dabbling around with some fishing stuff. Might be launching a line of trout nets in the near future. But when I’m not in the shop, I am a photographer. So I have some projects I have been working on that are still a ways out from completion, but I’ll be getting a some pretty awesome stuff out soon.