When I dialed his number, I’ll admit I was nervous. The phone started ringing, and I waited, my heart thumping a little harder each time. I was about to interview Michael “Louie” Lewis for a story, and all I could think of was how was he going to talk to me? Would it be like the stories I’ve heard or the videos I’ve seen on GDI Facebook? The man has an opinion or 100 and a mouth to whip them at anyone’s face. So when I finally heard a hello on the other side of the phone, I almost forgot how to say hi back.
“Hello, Louie, it’s Charli.”
“Charli, we were planning on an interview today?”
“Oh yeah, I remember, sorry, I thought you were gonna be a boy.”
And with that our interview started.
What got you into boating? I’ve lived in Tennessee my whole life, and I guess it’s just we had so many rivers around here so many had canoes it was just the natural progression of 14-year-olds wanting to drink beer and the only place you could be sure of not getting caught was going down the river.
You do more than canoe; you network and work on developing the canoeing community. What inspired that? About six or seven years ago, canoeing was probably at the lowest point. Dagger had quit making canoes at that point, and Steve was just starting so we were without a good manufacture. Clay Wright had also gone to work for Jackson, and he was one of those kids whose dad put him in a kayak because he didn’t want to take the time to teach him to canoe. For a while, Clay wrote all these articles for AW about canoeing ending as the fossils were dying out. I wanted to see just how many fossils existed.
Is that how ALF got started? Basically. When I turned 50, a bunch a people from boatertalk.com had a big party on the Ocoee for my birthday. After a while, it was getting big, and people were trying to come up with a name for it. Someone threw out Louie Fest, and I said, “Damn it, call it what you want, but it ain’t Louie Fest.” The name stuck.
So tell me about some mentally/physically challenging rivers you’ve paddled. I guess Henderson is probably and North Pole is the hardest river I’ve ever done. The gauley in the mid-80s was the cutting edge back then. The Green, too, because back then the Green used to run with twice what it runs now. Henderson, Morgan Creek, then any first descents you do are somewhat mentally challenging. Basin Creek, that’s where I did my first waterfall, and we did it by mistake. We knew there was one on there but we didn’t know where it was. I came around the bend being the only canoe on the trip. There was a kayak in each eddy, and I asked where Andy Bridge and Boon were. One of the kayakers said they went off to the left, but they must be okay because they didn’t hear them scream. So I went to the left, and low and behold it was damn high. It was a 45-foot drop.
You’ve also traveled, correct? I’ve been to Canada, north of the Maxon Dixon–which is foreign country (I’ll vouch for that), Mexico and Costa Rica. Got a first open boat descent Rio de Oro (river of gold). On that same volcano got two first descents period, and I’m basing that on Rocky Collier’s A Gringo’s Guide to Mexico. We couldn’t find the river we were looking for so we were running out of time and happened to drive across a river that had a hell of a waterfall so we got some first descents purely by accident.
What do you think you’ve added most to canoeing? What I take the most pride in is some of the people that I think that I was a little bit instrumental in getting into the sport like Jim Little and Dooley Tombras. We found Dooley and his dad looking for someone to run rivers with and once they hooked up with us we couldn’t get rid of Dooley. Those are some of the only paddlers I claim. Jim Little was very hot in the 80s, and a lot of the GDI members of east Tennessee started from him. When I was working at Dagger, I’d buy second boats and turn around and sell them cheap or give them away just to get people into the sport. That’s what I take pride in.
When I got off the phone, I realized I was smiling and at ease. During our conversation, I turned from journalist interviewer into active listener as Louie related countless stories of history, youthful stupidity, adventure and camaraderie–all related to a sport he loved.