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Garden of the Gods - Southern Illinois

Crafted with Character

Mar 05, 2018

Canoe boat with paddles

About six years ago, Bruce and Sue Peterson were ready for their next act.

As a hospital administrator and teacher, respectively, the couple spent their days separated by 30 miles and two towns—something they were eager to change. “We decided life was too short to live like that,” Bruce says.

Then the Internet intervened. One day while browsing businesses for sale on Craigslist, the couple noticed a listing for Navarro Canoe Company. Started in the late 1970s in California, it made canoes from fiberglass cloth, resin and inlaid wood. The company, relocated to Minneapolis, was defunct, its molds and machinery in storage. All that remained were its history and the good graces of previous Navarro owners.  

Bruce had no connection to canoes or Navarro, but

We saw pictures and have always liked being on the water, he says. 

So they bought and relocated the company—including the name, molds and methods—to Rock Island. Six years later, it’s fair to say Bruce has mastered the process: He spends his days in a 4,000-square-foot brick workshop and storefront in Rock Island. Sue tends to the social media and Internet side of the business.

The side of a boat Two people in a canoe Man crafting a boat

A Navarro canoe, made of fiberglass and wood or a hybrid of fiberglass and Kevlar, takes four to six weeks to build start to finish. 

Before discussing canoe types with a customer, Bruce talks about potential uses. For example, will the buyer spend weekends fly-fishing or paddling a network of small rivers? Will grandkids be in the boat, or will the expeditions be more adventure-driven? As Bruce shepherds customers through the selection process, he deftly discusses the attributes of seven models.

“Every canoe performs differently and has different advantages,” he says.

Behind a garage door that separates the workshop from the storefront, Bruce surrounds himself with molds, drills and brushes in a shop that’s all mechanical whirs and sawdusted floor.

His customers come from all over—every age, every pursuit, every state: “You get a little bit of story with every canoe.” He also spends a fair amount of time with current Navarro owners, whether that’s helping with replacement parts or giving advice about a restoration. 

A woman in Lake Tahoe just christened hers after I talked her through the restoration. For her, it was an accomplishment to be able to say that she rebuilt this canoe.

Man Canoeing down river

Bruce’s Favorite Outdoor Adventures

Working six blocks from the Mississippi River gives the Petersons an easy escape from the office.

If it’s a nice day, we can take our canoe over and paddle, Bruce says. 

Here are a few of his other top outdoor stops.

Trekking Palisades State Park 
Find hardwood forest, bluffs and hiking trails at the 2,500-acre Mississippi Palisades State Park, which overlooks the Mississippi River. Try the 1.2-mile hike to Sentinel Rock, a popular scramble for climbers.

Paddling the Rivers
Rock Island sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Rock rivers. Bruce has a nostalgic appreciation of the Rock. “This is our second time living next to it,” he says. “When we were first married, we lived in Janesville, Wisconsin, which is on the Rock.”

Touring Lock and Dam No. 15
At the largest roller dam in the world, gates lower into the water to block the Mississippi’s flow. “The engineering is fascinating,” Bruce says. While at the dam, visit the Mississippi River Visitor Center. 

When you go
Swoon over the finished canoes at the shop, located at 2219 Third Ave. Also on Third, find other craftspeople, including a sculptor and a potter. 

If it’s a nice day, we can take our canoe over and paddle

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