On Tuesday morning, Jim Hosmer, of Eugene, milled around the boat launch at Hosmer Lake along with his wife and several friends and family members.
The group was preparing to head out on a canoe trek for the day, and Jim, 84, was nervous: He was about to get back in the vintage Willits Brothers canoe he'd inherited from his father, Paul, after his death in 1962.
It would be his first paddle in the boat since Steve Skelton, his son-in-law, completed a thorough restoration that took him five years and about 400 man-hours.
“I'm scared to death because I have to get in the thing,” Jim said. “I'm going to be the first guy to put a scratch in it.”
Unlikely. Jim grew up in Bend, where he graduated from Bend High in 1943 and spent much of his childhood on this and other area lakes, where his outdoorsman father taught him to paddle and sail.
“I've been paddling a canoe since I was 6 years old,” he says. “Our family used to live up here at the lake all summer long, back during the Depression.”
After World War II, Jim attended Oregon State University on the G.I. Bill, according to daughter Leslie Skelton. He then went on to a career in professional photography.
An avid mountaineer who's climbed every mountain in the state, Jim never moved back to Bend but did make frequent trips to the family cabin at Elk Lake. “The Elk Lake connection has always been there,” Leslie says.
When Jim and his family paddled here during his childhood, this lake, known for the Atlantic salmon living in its clear water, was ironically known as Mud Lake.
It was later renamed Hosmer Lake in honor of Jim's father. In 1962, Steve explains, the Oregon Board on Geographic Names were renaming “streams and mountains in the Cascades that had been misnamed, a lot of them with ethnically questionable names.”
Jim says the goal was “to clean up some of the more colorful terms used to identify various lakes and gulches and stuff around the state — things like ‘Whorehouse Flats' and things like that.”
“Mud Lake” was a misnomer, and friends such as Bend writer and geologist Phil Brogan suggested that the board change its name to honor Paul Hosmer, “since it was his favorite lake. He was one of the original proponents of using the Cascades as a recreational resource,” Steve says.
It was put to a vote and approved. Since the lake's name change occurred posthumously, Paul “never knew anything about it,” Jim says. “Although I can imagine him saying, ‘Mud Lake's bad enough, but Hosmer?'”
Paul was also instrumental in establishing 10-mile-per-hour limits on certain lakes in the state to protect waters for canoeists, kayakers and fishermen, according to Leslie.
“Dad was from Minnesota,” Jim says. “He wasn't any kind of a student, but he was an athletic, outdoor guy, and he'd take his friends out in Northern Minnesota. They'd go and paddle on all those flat lakes that had those reeds. And these reeds here reminded him of Minnesota.”
In 1958, Jim's brother, Paul Jr., bought the family two Willits Brothers canoes.
The Willits brothers, Floyd and Earl, built just 956 of the lightweight boats between 1908 and 1962, according to author and canoe expert Patrick F. Chapman, of McFarland Lake Boat Co. in Olympia, who provided his expertise to Steve during the restoration. When the brothers died, so did their business.
At the time, the canoes the Hosmers owned cost about $250 apiece, explains Steve.
“What (is) unique about the Willits is that it's a steam-molded cedar hull, where each piece of it was individually molded by the two brothers who did this. The hull is only about a quarter of an inch thick, so the canoes are ultralight.”
The family's other canoe was kept in pristine condition — it's still at now-deceased Paul Jr.'s home — but at some point, “They got tired of varnishing this (one), so Paul Hosmer Sr., had somebody put fiberglass on this canoe,” Steve says. “That was sort of the beginning of its demise.”
For starters, fiberglass caused it to absorb heat. It also added weight and thickness to the canoe.
“The weight of the canoe went from 74 pounds to 312,” says Jim.
“That's hyperbole,” Steve explains to a gullible reporter.
Nevertheless, it was heavier after the addition of the fiberglass. At some point after his dad died and he took possession of the canoe, Jim decided to grind off the fiberglass using a sander.
“I got it off,” Jim says. “And then painted it. I used acrylic paint.” The photographer in him picked red and yellow, “colors that were photogenic.”
“This canoe was heavily used by the family after Jim inherited it,” Steve says. “He used it to teach Leslie to canoe, and me to canoe, and the rest of the family. And over time, it sustained bottom damage and started leaking terribly.”
Various marine compounds were used to try to plug the leaks and waterproof the boat. “But with the hull being flexible and thin, all of those compounds break out almost immediately,” he says. The canoe deteriorated almost to the point where it was no longer usable.
Five years ago, Jim asked Steve to take a look at the canoe and see what he might do to fix it. Steve had learned carpentry from his father, who made cabinets as a hobby.
“I decided that since Jim's dad had taught him what he knew about canoeing, and then Jim had passed all of that knowledge on to his children, he deserved to have that canoe back in original condition, or as close as I could get it,” Steve says.
The restoration process
In his research on Willits Brothers canoes, he eventually concluded that to repair it, he'd have to take it back to its original condition.
That meant cleaning out all the seams completely.
“The best tool was suggested by a friend of ours, just by chance,” says Leslie. “A dental pick. He used a dental pick to scrape down every seam on this canoe and get all the old (stuff) out.”
After that, Steve ground cedar into sawdust and mixed it with thinner and a varnish that cost more than $100 a gallon to reseal the seams, says Leslie. He also put on “coat after coat” of varnish.
In all, Steve, estimates he spent about 400 hours on the project, one that Leslie says would have been almost impossible without the Internet. “You can interact with people who've done this work.”
Steve also repaired one of Paul Sr.'s broken paddles for Jim.
“He's going to use that today,” Steve says. “His health is deteriorating some. He's 84 years old. I just shut down all of my projects earlier this summer, and I just focused on getting this done so I could get him on his dad's lake this summer.”
Today, the boats are rare and highly valued. Steve has seen a damaged one for sale that was listed in the neighborhood of $6,000. He estimates Jim's restored boat is worth about $7,500.
After carefully easing himself back onto the rear seat of his recently restored canoe, Jim declared, “I'm home!”
At the end of the trip, daughter Leslie later told The Bulletin, “My dad, who's very understated, said, ‘This has been a good day.' It was very sweet.”
“Paddling that canoe is a real joy. It just glides through the water with no effort, no noise,” Jim says. “That has to be the finest thing ever put on water.”