The Ultimate Compliment

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Sure, Budweiser just named EJ an ambassador for its Budweiser American Ale. But does he have a beer named after him?

The late Ed Lewis, a mild-mannered canoeist from the Midwest, has even EJ the Olympian beat. His moniker’s on a malted beverage.

As a boater, there’s no better honor you could have bestowed upon you after moving onto that great gunwale in the sky. But that’s the accolade heaped upon Benton Harbor, Mich.’s Lewis, a canoeist to the core who will be remembered every time suds touch pursed lips.

“Canoeing was his life,” says his widow, Lois, 80. “He lived and breathed it.”

While Lewis passed away in December 2008 at age 79, he took his gunwales to his grave. The funeral home walls were plastered with pictures of him paddling from age four on. Alongside the urn holding his cremated remains, which will be spread into his beloved Pine, Pere Marquette, St. Joe and Manistee rivers, faithfully rested his homemade red lapstrake canoe, one of nearly 25 canoes he built over his lifetime. He built canoes shorter than 13 feet, like the last lapstrake he built for his grandson, Parker, in his basement, often hoisting them through the window once complete. The bigger ones he had to build in his garage.

Next to the red canoe at the service were several of more than 50 ash paddles he’d made, which had propelled him in his ball cap and khaki pants and shirts (“He looked like a conservation worker,” says Lois) down more than 30 waterways in Michigan, Canada and beyond. He did so with family, including daughter, Anne, now 48, and with such longtime friends and paddling partners as biology teacher Joe Collins and physician Dr. Tony Salvagione.

It was one such ash and red cedar paddle that helped cement him in lager lore. He built it for paddling partner Steve Berthel, owner of the local Livery Brewery. But instead of being used to ply waterways like the Manistee, Berthel used it to stir the grain and mash for his beer. “He put just as much care and attention into it as his regular paddles,” says Berthel. “And it performed perfectly.”

Once Lewis passed on, Berthel celebrated his canoeing partner by naming a beer after the design of Lewis’s Red Canoe, a stitch-and-glue that could be built over a single weekend. The gesture immortalized him in hops forever. The pub’s Red Lager, Berthel says, is similarly deep red in color, with “a nice maltiness balanced with an English hop bitterness.”

That’s not to say Ed was bitter. He was as happy as paddlers come, which is how the brewer hopes paddlers will feel after drinking it. “Beer’s a great commodity for paddling trips,” says Berthel. “It makes friends and breaks ice, just like Ed did.”

Berthel brews his concoctions in a horse-livery-turned 6,000-square-foot pub in downtown Benton Harbor. This year he’ll churn out more than 18,000 gallons. But none are as dear to his heart as the red lager named after his friend’s canoe. While he’s named beers after his own equipment, from telemark skis to bicycles, this is the first time he’s named one after a friend. “Brewing’s an art form, just like canoeing,” he says. “It’s all about finding the right balance. Ed had that in life and helped spread the gospel of canoeing.”

The story makes me think of my own contributions to paddling, and if they might ever warrant such an accolade. Unfortunately, there’s nothing named after me or my gear, in paddling or any other pursuit. No Eugeweizen beer, town in Oregon, stroke like the Duffek, or river like the Mackenzie. John Sweet has his rapid on the Upper Gauley. John Wesley Powell, to his likely chagrin, a lake in Utah. Nolan Whitesell an entire canoe brand.

Me? Nada. I’ve named a rapid or two, on rivers so obscure no one would likely ever notice, but there’s nothing carrying my legacy on. Not even after pinning a raft on that rock in Alaska (Gene’s Granite?). But I guess it’s never too late to try to live a life worthy of attribution.

So that’s my resolution this year: Live up to Lewis’s way of living. Unless it’s derogatory, having something named after you is an honor. A beer, well that’s downright utopian.

Lewis kept right on paddling up until his final days, often by himself, despite his pacemaker and hearing aid. “I loved that he did it, but told him not to go overnight alone anymore,” says Lois. “He just never seemed to grow older. And I think canoeing helped with that.” He aged, you might say, as perfectly as the ale now bearing his legacy.
–In memory of Ed Lewis, Jan. 17 1929 – Dec. 2, 2008.