Plenty of CEOs buy boats after retirement. Bruce Peterson bought a company that builds them—canoes, specifically—to feed his love of water and woodworking.

By Lauren Sieben
June 22, 2020
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Blaine Moats

Bruce Peterson spent years as a hospital CEO. Then in 2011, his wife, Sue, spotted a canoe business for sale on Craigslist. The couple jumped at the chance to move Navarro Canoe Company from Minnesota to Rock Island, Illinois, just a few blocks from the Mississippi River. Bruce has now committed nearly a decade to continuing Navarro’s legacy of handcrafting canoes, each one built to order. Interview with Lauren Sieben.

Bruce Peterson
Blaine Moats

LS Going from hospital admin to canoe building sounds like a big shift. Have you always been a paddler?

BP I grew up in southeast Wisconsin with a lot of lakes. I spent my summers in the water. Canoes are just amazingly beautiful pieces of workmanship, so that had a lot of appeal to me.

LS And you just decided to build them?

BP I’ve done things with my hands all my life. I built two houses; I’ve done woodworking—so wood wasn’t new. But working with composites was new to me.

LS Is being close to the Mississippi a source of inspiration for your work?

BP It’s inspiration and fun. One of our favorite encounters was a group of guys paddling from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. A brief stop ended up being two hours of warming up, eating and talking. You meet really cool people.

LS What kind of buyer is in the market for a handmade canoe?

BP I don’t think there’s a typical customer. The first person we sold a canoe to was a single mom here in Rock Island. The other extreme is the guy who lived in Napa Valley on an estate and wanted a canoe for his pond.

LS Are people more drawn to Navarro for the performance or the aesthetics? BP Each of our different models has a different advantage. The Loon cuts through the water really well. It tracks well; it handles waves well. But when we go to shows, even people who have absolutely no interest in buying a canoe walk by our displays and mouth “Beautiful!” With cherrywood, the patina darkens, and the canoes just look richer and richer as time goes on.

LS The company started in the ’70s. Do you ever come across Navarro canoes from that era?

BP We had a fella out in California who wanted to fix up his canoe from the ’80s so he could pass it down to his daughter. It’s that heirloom approach. We’re not selling just a piece of wood and resin. We want it to create a memory.

LS There are lots of ways to get on the water. What makes canoeing unique?

BP You can see things and hear things that you can’t in any other way. At different times of day, you get different views of the river. Different times of year, the view changes. One of my favorite things is all the birds you get to see. You’ll get a lot closer to them in a canoe than any other way to experience the water.

Conversation edited for length.