Thursday, July 02, 2009

from the Wisconsin River: paddling toward the Mississippi, day 3

I’ve seen the Wisconsin River referred to as the river of a thousand isles. I’ll add my own tourism promo phrase – the river that never sleeps.

We wake up and the sand bank where we landed the previous night is gone. The damn must have let some water out because this morning, we have a different river before us. Deeper, stronger looking.

I watch a man with his young boy stand and fish on a very thin strip of remaining sand.


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But the weather hasn’t changed. Cloudy, very cool for the first day of July. It takes me more than a minute, more than many minutes to get going.

The river washing routine is enough to stall me for a good while. The water isn’t exactly murky, but it’s no mountain stream either. Ed pours as I pretend to get one set of grime out, to be replaced, most likely, with whatever the waters offer up this morning.

Still, I feel clean, or clean enough. Refreshed. We set out.

The wind remains a challenge. We hug the shore to minimize its force.

It’s entirely different here, just west of Lone Rock. Bluffs along a riverbank add a sense of mystery to the place. They create a certain echo, a cavernous aura that makes you want to not splash too loudly.


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Not that it’s quiet here. This is swallow central – their market, their cafĂ©, their territory! We look at the mud nests in the bluffs and we watch the birds fly in zigzags, with some internal anticrash radar that would make airplanes envious.


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They’re not the only birds that we see on the river. Cranes (Donna's comment is correct, of course), but herons too – blue, always flying just ahead of us, as if they need to show us where to go before abandoning us. And an eagle. Stunning -- is it the bald headed? -- crossing the river just ahead and then watching our progress as we continue.

We’re better at navigating the sandbars. Most often, we find the stronger current and we avoid the sand traps. But at one point, I get stuck. And it’s my fault – I lead us exactly to where we should not go. I tell Ed to stay put – I’ll drag you out! I hurry toward him and of course, I stumble. With a big splash.


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(log commemorating place of tumble)


That’s unfortunate. Getting wet on a summer day isn’t a big deal, but this is no ordinary summer day. It’s barely 60 outside. A drizzle comes and goes. Ed insists I wring at least my pants out – they’ll have a better chance of drying. For a while, I contemplate unpacking the boat and getting my spare clothes, but I don’t want to waste time.

I stand there in the middle of the river, patting myself down with a dry cloth while Ed wrings out my lower garments (how the winds are laughing...).

The man has a mighty wring in his wrist and I feel okay about continuing. By 4, we reach our next village destination – Muscoda. The good thing about this village is that it grew fairly close to the river. (The hub is up about half a mile up the road, but that’s fine by us – our legs need a stretch.)

I’m cold now that we’re out of the boat. I have no choice but to dig out dry duds. Nothing feels better than a dry outfit (following a wet one, well wrung, but still very very damp) on a cool evening.


Muscoda is one hell of a mix. Along the banks leading up to it, we see some pretty significant houses. We speculate that they may be homes of the Chicago wealthy. Stunningly gorgeous, with windows out onto the water – they’re the first riverside wealth that we’ve come across so far.

But the village itself seems to have had the fate of so many others – a sad main street, with as many shops closed as open.


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Muscoda calls itself the Morel Mushroom Capital of Wisconsin which in itself is curious – it’s a delicacy that somehow doesn’t fit into the heart of this Midwestern village.

What Muscoda offers us though is a wonderful respite – the library on this day is open late and the WiFi is functional and fast. Across the street, at Ernie’s, no, excuse me, not Ernie’s, you’ve not kept pace Ms Librarian, they changed hands and now it’s Amo’s – okay, at Amo’s, we settle in for a wonderful homemakde pizza with the works. And the works include every vegetable ever thrown on a pizza. With cold beer on tap. Heaven.


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Amo’s fills up over the course of the evening. And that, too is fun to watch. If you give ‘em (us) a place to hang out with good, cheap food, they’ll (we’ll) come. We need to congregate, to watch each other eat and drink. It’s better that way.

Satiated, we head back to the river. It’s 7 and I don’t mind paddling a bit longer, though I get nervous about pushing our kayaking into the evening. Sometimes, the landing spots just do not materialize when you need them. I suggest one – too weird. No growth on it. Then another island – too close to shore… you can practically hear the noises from the back yard of the house there…

Sometimes such fussiness ends in a miserable resolution. Not this time. We turn the corner and come across the most perfect island, sure to be the premier camping site of this trip, no, probably any of camping trip I’ve been on.

The island is small, but it has a nice stretch of sand, up on a slight bank, out of harm’s way (not to be covered by a sudden rise in the river). It curves at the tip, creating a nice arch, just to give you a visually stunning piece to gaze at as you settle in for the night.


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We take a walk in the now dry sand and watch the water brush against the edge. I tell Ed that I am reminded here of the river I grew up by in Poland, at my grandparents’ village home. I spent the first years of my life there and all the summers of my childhood too. In those times, the water was clean and we’d find shallow parts where we’d lie down and let the ripples cool us down as made their way over our small bodies.


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I’d never seen a river like that until now, here in Wisconsin. The riverbanks are nearly identical here as well – green, bushy trees, sandy inclines, an occasional meadow. With swallows and herons. In Poland, we had the occasional stork. But really, cranes look awfully similar from a distance.