He built his first canoe at the age of 10. It was fashioned from barrel hoops and canvas, nailed to a laundry pole and covered with tar. Jack Hazzard can still remember that "starved dog canoe" and the amount of water it leaked every time it was launched.
"I used to wring a lot of creek water from my britches after paddling that thing," says Hazzard, bright-eyed with the memory of a boat built a decade before the start of World War I. "I was just interested in anything that floated."
Jack Hazzard, at 91, is buoyant as cork, rich with tales both tall and true and still making canoes. The ones he builds these days don't leak. But they are no more traditional than his first.
Hazzard's canoes are made of paper.
"I guess you could call this a Hazzardous affair," he says, leading a visitor down wooden steps to the basement of his Northwest Washington home where his latest creation, a 16-footer made from spruce, glue, cheese cloth and brown wrapping paper, awaits his finishing touch. "I don't think it's going to be a bad canoe."
Hazzard is not the first person to build a paper canoe. In 1874, Nathaniel Bishop commissioned a New York boat shop to construct one. He paddled that boat more than 2,000 miles down the East Coast and across Florida.
Hazzard had heard about Bishop's boat, but never saw any description of its construction. So he built his first paper canoe using common sense and native intuition. Since the launching of the Missy Laneous on the C&O Canal in 1980, Hazzard has not logged enough miles to challenge Bishop's record. But what he lacks in distance he makes up for in speed.
"Nobody can catch him when he takes off in that canoe," says Gail Bradshaw, a local canoeist who has paddled with Hazzard on two-day camping trips in West Virginia each of the last two years. "He goes down river, waits until everybody catches up and then takes off again."
Spend an afternoon with Hazzard and you will hear stories that reveal almost as much about Washington and its rivers as the man who tells them. And for almost every story, Hazzard has a picture in some album to illustrate. Here is a photograph of the Colonial Canoe Club that once sat on the Virginia side of the Potomac, across from Georgetown, on land now occupied by the George Washington Parkway. Another photo shows a boyhood Indian friend dressed in Iroquois war feathers on the Onondaga Reservation that was just three miles from Hazzard's New York home.
"Every time I could get out of school, I went to the Indian land," says Hazzard, who is part Indian. "My father finally sent me to military school because he thought I was doing too much monkeying around."
Hazzard came to Washington in 1914 to take a civilian job with the Navy. His affection for water found a worthy object on his very first day in the nation's capital after he climbed the Washington Monument.
"I saw that great, big Potomac River spread out below me and in no time at all I was on it," says Hazzard, standing over his work in progress, the "Water Sprite," while wearing a blue knit cap, wool pants and moccasins. On the walls around him are tools that belonged to his grandfather, who worked as a wagon maker, and some Indian tomahawks that Hazzard crafted. "That's quite a good argument if it's on your side," he says, hefting one in a muscular grip.
When Hazzard took to the Potomac, there were more than a dozen canoe clubs on its shores, each with a racing team. Hazzard has one wall covered with medals he won paddling and coaching. He was also one of the originators of a sport in the 1920s -- canoe sailing.
His competitive career was interrupted by a tour of duty in the Army ("I got kind of fed up with the Navy"), a job with the Census Bureau on a Navaho reservation and the demands of family. But he, his wife Trudy and their two children were never off the water for long. And pictures of the family, growing old together in a variety of canoes, are proof of that.
His wife died in 1976. She was helping him build the first paper canoe at the time. Hazzard left the boat in his basement, untouched, for almost four years. Finally his son John cajoled him into finishing it.
"By God, she was quite a gal," says Hazzard, opening an album to a picture of his wife paddling in the bow of a canoe. "She's gone, but I'm well equipped with grandchildren and trouble."
It is hard to believe that Hazzard is nine decades old. He looks fairly robust and either his memory or his imagination is astonishing. When he tells stories of paddling across some river at night, he can recall if the moon was full or new, who shared the boat and who waited on shore.
"You know, all my friends from those days are dead. It makes me think maybe I'm getting old," says Hazzard, rubbing his hands across the smooth sides of the paper canoe. "I don't much like it."