WINONA, Minn. — There are no aluminum boats among the displays at the Art of the Canoe exhibit, which opened last week at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum here on the banks of the Mississippi River.
And why should there be? It would be like looking at an exhibit of aircraft wings, only less interesting.
Instead, the visitor gets a hands-on experience amid 14 canoes, ranging from the historically significant to the modern, as well as paddles, videos, historic postcards, Betsy Bowen prints, photographs and posters. Curator Jon Swanson said his aim was to celebrate Minnesota builders; to a canoe lover, it’s a success.
But it’s not without a sense of nostalgia that you look, and touch, these boats. With recent word of the end-of-the-season closing of Ketter Canoeing in Brooklyn Park after 45 years, an era is concluding.
Kenn Ketter loaned a canoe to the exhibit; most all the historic names in Minnesota canoeing are also here: Jensen, Seliga, Cichanowski, Hafeman. Nostalgia is held in check by Alex Comb, Jeanne Bourquin, and paddle-maker Danny Brown, all represented in the show. Hey, there are artists still hard at work on these designs.
Three highlights stood out for me. One is a big white cedar birch-bark canoe from the late Bill Hafeman’s shop near Bigfork. The white cedar, native to Minnesota, is a particular Hafeman touch, as well as the spruce bindings on the gunwales. His use of local materials honored the traditions of the native Americans that lived in the north woods; legend has it he also built his canoes in native fashion of right-side up and outside-in, rather than the modern upside-down and inside-out. The only non-traditional touch on the Hafeman are the seams, which look like spruce gum but are actually asphalt. In a nice juxtaposition, a 13-foot Bob Duncanson birch-bark from 2006 sits above the Hafeman.
The second highlight is possibly the world’s first fiberglass canoe. The boat Ketter loaned, it’s from the late Gene Jensen, circa 1939. Jensen, a racer, boat designer and innovator of the first order, bought wooden parts for this boat from Canada and applied the fiberglass himself. His first bent-shaft paddle is also on display.
Another boat I enjoyed seeing was from Mike Cichanowski. He’s the owner of We-no-nah Canoes (and a sponsor of the exhibit), and the first boat he ever built — in high school, in the mid-60s — is here. It was oddly satisfying for me to try and lift it and figure out that the man whose company builds 18-foot boats that are less than 40 pounds started with one that weighs a ton.
Perhaps there’s hope for the rest of us shade-tree builders. The exhibit is up through Aug. 22.