Doris Green admits to some hesitation. A communications specialist for the UW-Madison School of Human Ecology, she's also the author of two previous volumes for local publisher Trails Books - guides to caves, mines and tunnels in and around Minnesota and Wisconsin - so Green was familiar with the rigors of researching and writing. But when managing editor Mark Knickelbine pitched the idea of a guide to Wisconsin's rivers, she couldn't say no. Green grew up on the Root River, and now lives in a log house overlooking the Wisconsin River.
Explore Wisconsin Rivers places 17 of the state's most significant rivers in the context of the cultural, geographical and historical landscapes through which they flow. Green and her husband, Michael Knight, devoted two years to the project. Logging countless hours of research - and then canoeing, hiking and driving thousands of miles - Green took exhaustive notes while Knight took the photographs that appear in the book.
In the course of their ground-truthing expeditions, Green saw that many rivers were enjoying a renaissance: Dams were being removed, fisheries restored, riverways improved, friends groups established. "Back in the 19th century, rivers were the real workhorses, and then people turned their backs on those rivers because they were ugly," says Green. But now that manufacturing has diminished, there's been much riverside redevelopment "and many parkways" established along even urban stretches of rivers.
Green's book is organized into three sections: rivers flowing into Lake Superior (the Bad, Bois Brule, Montreal and St. Louis), those emptying into Lake Michigan (the Brule, Fox, Menominee, Milwaukee, Peshtigo and Wolf), and those that run into the Mississippi en route to the Gulf of Mexico (the Black, Chippewa, the Mississippi itself, Namekagon, Rock, St. Croix and the Wisconsin). The state's namesake river merits three chapters devoted to its upper, middle and lower sections.
Green included the state's border rivers - part of the Mississippi and (despite the fact that it's mostly a Minnesota flowage) the last 23 miles of the St. Louis - on grounds that they helped define the state and how it has evolved.
The criteria for selecting the book's other rivers included size and significance. If these standards meant that her beloved Root River would not make the cut, at least she gets to wax rhapsodic about it in her introduction, which extols the emotional, metaphorical and restorative virtues of the state's rivers. "I suppose other states have rivers as intimate as the Root and as defining as the Wisconsin," she writes. "But these are the waters I know and treasure, the ones that are kin to me and my people."
While researching and writing the book, she envisioned it not as "a hard-core outdoorsy paddling guide" but rather something "that would appeal to a wide audience - people with children, or people who were older who wanted to do a short hike or be able to drive to some of the locations and still enjoy and learn about the rivers without actually being in Iron Man physical shape." So the guide includes info on nearby trails, recreation and natural areas, places to rent a raft or canoe, campgrounds, lodges and restaurants as well as other points of interest - natural and manmade - for those making trips.
That's not to say hard-core outdoorsy paddling types won't find value in Explore Wisconsin Rivers. But the value of rivers is as broad as it is personal.
"It's very similar, I think, to the value of forests," Green observes. "Who can say what the value is in terms of personal renewal? But beyond that, I think rivers speak to the health of the state and the quality of life in Wisconsin."