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Midwest Lit: Paddling Through Midwest In Books

Some Great Midwest Reads On Paddling Our Waterways

Paddling at night

Human history in the Midwest happened first in our river valleys and lakes. These waterways provided easy transportation, rich soils for growing food and diverse habitats for game animals and birds. Water is how European explorers, traders and then settlers came to the Midwest. Alongside water is where we built our houses, towns and businesses. And on the water is how many of us continue to experience the Midwest despite a host of other means of exploration and travel.

The paddling epic may not be unique to the Midwest but it’s surely a rich vein of Midwestern lore, from Sigurd Olson’s “The Singing Wilderness” to Eric Severeid’s “Canoeing With the Cree.”

Here are some more recent paddling epics to get you in the mood for an adventure of your own.

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“Paddling to Winter,” by Julie Buckles

Want to test the strength of your marriage? Then do what Julie Buckles did and go on a year-long canoe honeymoon from their backyard on Lake Superior to Wollaston Lake in Saskatchewan. It’s a remarkable story told with humor and beauty. (They are still married, in case you wondered.)

“The Bark River Chronicles: Stories from a Wisconsin Watershed,” by Milton J. Bates

The Bark isn’t a big or famous river. It starts in Richfield and ends in Fort Atkinson, and is a tributary of a tributary. But this book proves that big stories can come from small places you may have never heard of, as the Bark shows itself to be a microcosm of Wisconsin history and the complex relationship between modern life and the natural world. Unlike the other paddling stories, this isn’t one journey but many journeys Bates and his wife have taken over the past three decades.

“Crossing the Driftless: A Canoe Trip Through a Midwestern Landscape,” by Lynne Diebel

Diebel is no paddling novice. She’s canoed since childhood and authored two guidebooks to the rivers of Minnesota. “Crossing the Driftless” is not a guide (though it may inspire you to follow her route) but the story of her trip home from a beloved childhood lake in Minnesota to her current home in Wisconsin with detours into the history, ecology, and geology of the Driftless landscape they pass through.

Why she paddles could likely apply to all these books: “We have traveled home by river [and] … experienced the connectedness that the rivers offer, the physical reality of the riverine network that our ancestors used by necessity, a way to travel from one place to another that keeps us immersed in the natural world rather than detached from it, participants rather than observers at the window of a train or car.”

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