FOR THE LOVE OF WOOD ~ Jamie Cooper & Sigurd Canoe Co. by Mike Toughill

Dirtbags love their paddles. Both subjectively and objectively, they call to our hands to be held, to our eyes to be beheld. A true dirtbag will confess she or he loves paddles, especially the one(s) we depend on for safe passage down The River. It is the primary means for propulsion and direction, our tool, our salvation. A well crafted paddle is a work of art, a thing of beauty. 

I’m drawn to them, particularly in retail settings. So when I saw a booth full of hand crafted wood paddles at Canoecopia in Madison a few weekends ago, I immediately went over and enjoyed them, and their maker, Jamie Cooper of LaCrosse, WI. The sleepy city, located on the banks of the Mississippi where it is joined by the LaCrosse River, has the heart of a true river town, and is located within a few hours drive to some amazing whitewater. I spent a few minutes talking with him about his art and our shared passion. 

“I first started making paddles the summer after I graduated college,” Jamie began. “My goal was to build a cedar strip canoe. I had bought the plans and countless books on the process, and when I approached my parents saying I was going to do so, asking if I could build it in our garage, I was told no to the boat. Start with something smaller. Hence the canoe paddle.” 

“After building the first one I found ways to improve and speed up the process,” Cooper continued. “I wanted to try something different and just got hooked. Next thing you know, I had a garbage can full of paddles and people started asking to buy them. Never thinking anything would come from it, I just kept on building and getting better, researching more and more on different styles, woods variations, lamination techniques and the whole nine yards. Before you know it Sigurd Canoe Co. was born.”  

“I got the name for Sigurd Canoe Co because of the famous environmentalist Sigurd Olson. That Spring before I made my first paddle a buddy and I were up north of Duluth fly fishing for steelhead, and started talking about Sigurd Olson. Once we got back I read a few of his books and became so inspired by his writings. So when I was first asked what I called my canoe paddles it was the first thing that came to mind and it has stuck. I couldn’t think of a better person to honor than Sigurd Olson for naming a Canoe Company after.”

“As you were able to see at Canoecopia, I have a pretty wide variety of blade styles and wood choices. I’ve been doing a lot of research on ancient blade profiles and what native peoples of different parts of the world have used, taking a lot of inspiration from that while combining it with the modern twists for enhanced efficiency and feel in your hand while paddling. I do everything from Polynesian outrigger style paddles to your traditional beaver tail and voyageur paddles with everything in between. Some of my styles aren’t going to be your typical paddle; I’ve been playing around with some fun designs, throwing straight edgy lines on a beaver tail, putting it to a point and tossing that on a 14 degree bend for the added reach. Super awesome paddle that is definitely a head turner and fun paddle to use. 
I use a variety of different woods. I started out with Basswood, Walnut, Ash and Cedar so I tend to use a lot of those still today because they are a pleasure to work with. But I have used everything from Mahogany, Birds Eye Maple, Blood Wood, African Cherry, North American Cherry, Zebrawood, Black Ash, and Narra, to a variety of different burls. You never know what different woods will work until you try them out, so I try out as many as I can get my hands on. Which makes all of my paddles that much more unique. Throw in the fact that I make them all by hand just makes it that much better. Then each paddle I throw on a rock guard, and fiberglass both sides of the blades, so you can really take the paddle with you anywhere you need it.”

They are indeed beautiful. If you love paddles like Jamie and I do, are in the market for a good wood paddle, and want to support an up and coming dirtbag artisan… Well now you know! 
Sigurd Canoe Co-
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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve run a few other stories on top rank wood paddle makers.
Vince Zappia-
Keith Backlund-
Look for the article on Canoecopia 2016 in the near future. Here’s last year’s review-

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