“The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing,” wrote wilderness lover John Muir in the 1870s, decades before his fight to establish the first national parks in the U.S.
The Sierra Club founder spent 11 years of his early life in Wisconsin, where a complex network of waterways still entices paddlers today. These include almost 50 miles of the Namekagon River, a northern tributary of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, in Washburn County.
Seven miles south of the river, in Spooner — population 2,700, the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum preserves some of the more significant vessels to navigate North America’s rivers and lakes. Dugout, birchbark and canvas canoes — as old as 1871 — document the boat’s evolution and diversity.
Long before railroads and autos, “waterways were our highways and canoes were the way to travel,” notes Mike Bartz, a volunteer guide at the museum, which opened in 2010.
At the core of museum holdings are the antique canoes of Jeff and Jill Weber Dean of Madison, who sought a facility to accept their collection in its entirety. Available, at the right price to Spooner canoe enthusiasts, was a 1912 feed mill about to be razed.
Now the revamped building is home to the fine works of J. Henry Rushton, B.N. Morris, Tom MacKenzie, Henri Vaillancourt and others whose canoes are considered significant in design, workmanship and quality.
The museum exists “to preserve these historically important boats,” many of which are works of art as well as practical and efficient, says Mike, who also is a warden with the state Department of Natural Resources.
He points to a 1909 B.N. Morris canoe that was a favorite of Aldo Leopold and owned by the University of Wisconsin until 1952. Awaiting display is the well-cared canoe of the conservationist’s daughter, Nina Leopold Bradley, who died in 2011.
On temporary exhibit this year is 130 years of Rushton canoes, including a Rushton Vesper, one of three such sailing canoes known to remain. “You’d hire somebody to race your canoe for you back then,” Mike says, “like hiring a jockey to race your horse.”
He’ll also explain differences between “courting canoes” and those designed for fishing guides, and go into as much detail as you’d like about the museum’s re-creation of a wilderness tent site at Camp Widjiwagan, founded in 1929 in northern Minnesota.
You’ll see Nessmuk models from “the Stradivarius of canoe building,” small, light and easy for one person to portage. Elsewhere are much heavier versions of the canoe, and modern-day interpretations of Native American designs.
Next to the museum is a workshop where classes in paddle making to canoe building are taught. Museum members also use the space to build a canoe for a fundraiser raffle. This year a 16-foot Chestnut Prospector replica will be raffled. A maximum of 500 tickets, each $20, will be sold.
Visitors from other countries find their way to the new museum in little Spooner. In 2011, a man from Paris flew to Minneapolis, then rented a car to visit before and after heading to a wooden boat show in Grand Marais, Minn.
“We were one of his two big stops,” says Mike Johnson, museum president, with a slight shake of his head.
For more about the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum, 312 Front St., Spooner: wisconsincanoeheritagemuseum.com, 715-635-5002. Admission is $4. For more about canoeing the Namekagon, consult washburncounty.org, 715-635-8346.
The canoe museum is among the hundreds of destinations in 13 counties described in a new guidebook, “The Wisconsin Passage: An Adventure in the Handmade, Homegrown and Historical Offerings of Wisconsin from the Mississippi River to Lake Superior.”
This is a project of the nonprofit Northwest Heritage Passage, which promotes the area’s artisans and attractions. Book cost is $18.95, plus shipping; order at heritagepassage.com or call 715-635-9303.
In Wisconsin are more than 2,000 public places to put a boat into water. The state Department of Natural Resources maps the inventory online and also lists state-owned entry points, including those accessible to the handicapped. For details, go to http://dnr.wi.gov/org/land/facilities/boataccess.
For whitewater challenges in Wisconsin, consult the nonprofit American Whitewater, americanwhitewater.org, which updates the status of many waterways. A lack of rain this summer has compromised water flow in some areas.
Want to float your boat with a group? Here is a sample of unusual possibilities; bring your own canoe (or rent one locally) and preregister.
Aug. 2 — Milky Moonlight in Milwaukee, $25 includes a light meal and group paddle, organized by the River Alliance of Wisconsin, from 7-9:30 p.m. on the Milwaukee River to Lake Michigan and back, “in the shadow of skyscrapers and under the light of the full moon.” wisconsinrivers.org, 608-257-2424
Aug. 10 — Moonlight Paddle on the Fox River from De Pere to Green Bay, 6:30-9:30 p.m., tends to attract 100-plus watercraft. It’s $10 per paddler (age 16 or older), $5 per canoe launch; donations for shuttle service appreciated. wisconsinpaddlers.org, 920-707-2965
Aug. 11-12 — The daylong PaddleQuest 2012: New Order, Canoe Adventure Weekend weaves fantasy games and competition for solo to three-team canoeists, who also remove trash from the Wisconsin River while seeking prizes and glory. Free camping is allowed at Lakeside Bar, Stevens Point. Similar events happen July 28 on Waupaca’s Chain of Lakes and Sept. 15 on Lake DuBay, Stevens Point. Cost to participate is $10-$70, depending upon the level of play and location. paddlequest.org, 715-295-0393
Sept. 15 — Annual Peshtigo River Paddle, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., is a guided history and nature tour. Marinette County Land & Water Conservation staff lead this free event, which includes shuttle service. therealnorth.com, 715-732-7780