Tuesday, June 30, 2009

from the Wisconsin River: paddling toward the Mississippi

We’re a country that believes in the automobile. I understand that. Me, I worship technology in the form of the washing machine (I’ve lived in too many places without one).

I’m less in awe of the car. America's big love affair with the automobile means (among many other things) that if you want to paddle down a river from point A to point B, you better leave a car at point B, so that you can retrieve your stuff where you put in, at Point A. There’s no speedy little train or local bus to take you there.

And so we drive down toward where the Wisconsin meets the Mississippi (our endpoint).

It’s not a heavy use road. And it is quite pretty in a cornfields and barns sort of way. And forward looking.


And there it is – the Mississippi, the river of all rivers, not at all like what you see in that quick dart of an eye as you cross the bridge to the Twin Cities or Dubuque, but here, near Prairie du Chien, it's a wide body of water flowing past vast areas of countryside, with county parks offering boat landings and strips of beach to bring families to on a warm sunny day.


It’s not a warm, sunny day, but it’s not too bad. So far, the rain has been only a threat. We leave a car at the shore and drive back east toward Prairie du Sac.

The road tracks the river, more or less. I’m surprised that there isn’t much of a river life here though. The villages are sleepy things. True, we’re coming through on a work day, but even so, each place looks like we’ve hit the siesta hour big time.

But as we approach our put in point, we join a major road that offers more of Wisconsin commerce. Including our infamous custard place – Culver’s. There’s ice cream and there’s frozen custard. If you have never tried custard, imagine it in this way: ice cream with more of everything – milk, eggs, more milk, more eggs – the glory of a dairy state, with a near butter consistency.

We stop for a cone. Smallest, please. The special of the day!


Chocolate covered strawberry. Heavenly. We share it, wondering how anyone could manage the whole thing, let alone anything larger.

By the time we reach the boat landing, it is late afternoon. We unload. We have an inflatable to assemble. (Ed: I wonder where I put the instructions… must have left them behind) We lay it out. It’s been a while... (Ed: there was a pump for this, wasn’t there?) We make do. We blow and tinker and seal it up and by 4:30, we’re ready to launch.

(the hat belongs to Ed)

A man comes over with his dog. The pooch has been playing in the river and he is full of exuberance. His mud is now my mud as he shakes and romps in and out of the boat.

He just loves boating! How far’re you goin'?
To the Mississippi.
I envy you. My wife, she wont camp more than a night.
I understand her. What is it with men?!
We don’t mind goin’ dirty.
I sure know that…
Just watch out for the sand banks. My friends, they didn’t know about the damn and they woke up to their kayak being on the next island.

We know what he’s telling us – the power plant releases water through the damn irregularly and when it does this, the water level in the river goes up by several feet. If you’re camping on a sandy bank, you may well wind up underwater in the middle of the night. We imagine the power company dudes having a good laugh. Okay – let her flow! Wonder how many innocents we’ll sweep off their beach this time! He he!

The river is deep, the river is wide, heron – lead the way!


Well, not always deep. It’s easy to hit an underwater sandbank and get stuck. Pull me out! – I shout to Ed. Get out yourself, I have my own issues.

At the shore, the herons are laughing. Or dancing. Or mating. Or all the above.


But mostly, the river is easy. True, we have a strong head wind and if we stop paddling, oftentimes we appear to be going against current, but mostly, it is a gentle ride. And a beautiful one.


By 7:30, we’re on the lookout for a camp spot. The requirements? Low to pull in, but with higher ground (in case the river level rises). We pick an island – one of the many on the river.


We haul the boats out and settle in. I’m grateful that the rain held off. And the wind has dispersed the bugs. We sit on the beach and eat our baguette with cheese and tomato. Okay, the bread is made by a Frenchman (from la Baguette!), but the cheese is Hook’s Bloomin' Idiot and the tomatoes are homegrown.