Friday, July 03, 2009

from the Wisconsin River: paddling toward the Mississippi, day 4

You and I know that there are only two types out there: those who love to camp and those who will have none of it (okay, with some reluctant go-alongs thrown into the camping bunch). Which type am I?

I don't know. In Poland, I camped a lot – mostly on long kayak trips, with heavy cotton tents that allowed bugs in, never with family, always with friends. We didn’t have motels or even much of a hotel culture. If you wanted to get away from home with people your own age, you camped.

Like so many women I know (and a not a small number of men), I’ve always had issues with living in the wild. The bugs, yes that, the animals that like your food, the absence of easy cleaning options, the weather vicissitudes – at the end of the day they can crush your spirit.

But here I am, the fourth night under a tent on yet another island on the Wisconsin River.

Am I a go-along? Well, I do like to see the joy in Ed’s face as we set camp. But I’d by lying if I didn’t admit that there are hugely wonderful moments for me as well. When do they come about?

When you can pitch tents randomly, on sandy banks of a river island, any island. Any shore, for that matter.

When the weather is perfect – not too hot, not too cold. With no chance of storms.

When you don’t have to hang up your food to keep it away from bears.

When you have a fantastic (and cheap, Ed would add!) REI tent that has four huge mesh screens to keep the bugs out and the views there, at the turn of your head.

Perhaps those are the obvious. Let me add some special ones: when you wake up in the morning and you look outside to see a misty dawn…


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…And you know you don’t have to get up yet. You doze on and off to the music of birds. Sometimes the loud squawk of the crane, the chirp of a swallow or something completely unknown. It’s quiet out there. The morning is cool, but your bag is warm. The breeze travels from one corner of the tent to the next. The rain flap is up – no rain in sight. You look out and watch the morning progress.


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So, now you know about our last morning on the Wisconsin River. And all mornings were like that. Camping-wise, this trip scored on the upper end of the continuum of pleasurable outdoor living experiences.

But the day leading up to this: day four of our river life -- was it a good one? Yes, I’d say so. Sure, my river bath that starts the morning was cold and the water was, well, colorful. But it was at this most splendid island (see previous post). Who could complain.


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And the paddle downstream continues to be bucolic and beautiful. The clouds help keep us cool (it would be so sweaty hot without them!).


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Our paddling stretch on this day is in two parts – fifteen miles down to Boscobel, navigating sandbanks and fallen timbers, passing the occasional fishing boat… having a good morning? Yep. How many? Twenty five so far. What kind? (The list is so long that I lose track. I do hear river bass and blue gill and walleye and a half dozen others.)


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But mostly, the river is empty. Okay, not really empty. We see numerous cranes and when we get closer to the fallen timber that lines the shore, we hear the constant plop of turtles retreating into the water.


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On a railway track I watch three raccoons mess with each other and toward the late afternoon, I watch a deer trot away from the river as we approach. But these are the only disturbances. The shore is a place of tranquility. Rarely do I see evidence that we, humans, have trotted through this landscape as well.


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Boscobel is our stop for the day. We leave our boats at the landing and hike into town for food, water and WiFi.

Boscobel is closer in my mind to a town than a village. The demographics are town-like – a little over 3,000. But more importantly, Boscobel has a spirit to it. It’s opening up rather than putting up shutters on empty storefronts. (And it can’t be for the success of its logo: The Wild Turkey Hunting Capital of Wisconsin.)

I shouldn’t be surprised that we find an espresso cafĂ© on the main street. No, it doesn’t define a boom mentality, I know that, but it does tell me that the town aspires to reach a broader client base. And there appears to be a thriving canoe rental business. And (I'm told this many times) a Chinese Restaurant. And a well tended museum at the old depot.


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After 4 days of instant coffee (yes, there you have another downside to camping), I cannot resist an espresso. We settle in with our computers and chat to the owner’s husband. Open just two weeks. So far so good, he tells us.


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There are a number of bars that offer food (if you noted the offerings at Bob’s in an earlier post, you will have recognized the menu of every single bar we’ve come across, plus minus an item or two), but we pick a coffee shop/diner type place for a meal – the Vale Inn.


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Homemade pies and homemade soups, says the menu. But I want substance and so I have a quarter roasted chicken dinner (lookin’ awfully fried to me, but hey, it’s what’s underneath the skin that counts and the meat is quite moist and tasty), with the largest portion of fries this side of the Mississippi and choice of salad (iceberg, cole slaw or jell-o), $6 for the lot. Good deal. (But good greif, who forgot to tell our small town bars and diners that vegetables are super cool?)


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It’s early evening and we have to hustle along. We have more than a third of the river before us and we want to end the paddling on the next day (Friday).

The sky is clearing. That’s good, in theory. I’ve noted here times of being wet and cold. But sun on the water is a tricky story. Especially if you’re heading west and the sun is heading in the same direction. We squint and try to pick out spots with a strong current. And we try to do it quickly, with a strong push to add another 8 or 9 miles to our day.


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The light is fading now. It’s after 8 and we haven’t found a good spot to land. Spoiled, yes, after last night on the most perfect island. But, too, the sand islands are less frequent. Some of the islands here are densely wooded and marshy at the edges (though cranes appear to love this stuff).


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But, our luck holds: as we round the corner, we see a diamond shaped sand bar, right in the middle of the river. It’s high enough, and its position at the bend offers wonderful views in all directions.

We pull in. The air is still and the bugs are coming out of wherever they went to rest for the past few windy days, but it hardly matters. Our tent keeps them out. Even as the occasional puff of wind refreshingly enters in, to make this yet again a beautiful camping moment.