Saturday, July 04, 2009

from the Wisconsin River: paddling toward the Mississippi, day 5

The morning river fog lifts. A few clouds drift in. The sand is warm, the tent is warm. Even the river bathing routine today is not unpleasant. The sand island is like a stage, but there is no one watching as I scrub my scalp with a combination of soap, water and whatever else the river bed throws in. (True, at night we had visitors – we see fresh deer tracks come up from the river and then retreat back again. But now, there are only birds and most are hiding in trees across the water.)

A summer shadow on the beach is like a Matisse sketch of a person with strong limbs. Or at least made stronger this year by so much carrying, climbing and rowing. Bird tracks cross the sand (and the shadow) in all directions.


We head out for a day of nonstop paddling. The Mississippi is still almost 20 miles away and after that, we have to navigate the great American river to get to the take out landing.

It’s a warm day. The thermometer would probably show 70s, but it feels warmer than that. Initially, there is plenty of sun and we’re careful to avoid burning. I study Ed in his former girlfriend’s father’s shirt and an old hat he found on the roadside. From one angle he looks to me like a Sicilian padrone – a good soul, kind to animals and dragonflies…


From another, he is Huck Finn with years added (though not to his soul – Ed is so very much a Huck, at least if we read Huck to be the compassionate adventure-seeking runaway, the kid who would like the river more than what town life had to offer).


And here we are, still on the Wisconsin River, still watching turtles plop and herons take flight…



And, maybe because it’s America’s holiday, we get treated to a return of the bald headed eagle…


As for people? No, not really. We pass only the occasional Alumacraft Jon boat with two, maybe three fishing men and women (everyone in these parts uses the Alumacraft).


Good catch today? Nah. Three nibbles. But we’re having such fun.

And we are too. More relaxed now, even as I’m paddling nonstop – dip one end, dip the other. My vest is loosely on a shoulder (for an idle moment of sinful pleasure… well, not too sinful: my inflatable is one hell of a steady tub and the current here is laboriously slow), my feet are dangling in the water. Ed asks for a song and I oblige with some Simon and Garfunkel. Life on the river can be very slow and beautiful.


The sand bars still trap us occasionally, but Ed can heave his way out with his powerful arms. Mine can’t reach that low. Nor are they nearly as strong. (For instance – I count that he paddles once for my four strokes and still he is faster.) I climb out, pushing the boat to deeper waters, picking up the current again.

And finally, we come to the last road bridge over the Wisconsin. High up, spanning the river. A tribute to the automobile traffic that roars across it.


…while the railcars stand to the side, waiting for their moment. With a half hope that they, too, are part of our American way of life.


And three miles later, we are on the Mississippi.

They say that approaching the joining of the two rivers is a grand event. I’m expecting a choking moment of accomplishment, with a twinge of wonder at the splendidness of it all.

I get, instead, a slap in the face. Or, rather, on the side, with waves. One after another. Rolling from the river to the shore.

We are on the first day of a long holiday week-end and America has taken to the river. We’re not talking paddles and canoes. We’re talking power boats. And picnics and cold cases of beer. And children jumping into the water and young adults pushing the bikini line way low and older adults too, having that I don’t care, I’m here to have fun attitude that makes this indeed one big party scene.


The Mississippi, festooned with Americans celebrating freedom in a big way.


I find the land celebrations to be loud, but rather endearing. The power boats are another matter. Let me put it mildly: I don’t much care for the motor boats, nor their effect on the river.

Noise, there’s the motor noise. Echoing across the waters, it is tenfold louder than what you hear on the highway.

Then there are the waves. Ed and I are fighting to keep our boats on course. We are mere smudges of dirt on this speed track. There are times when I am sure they are coming straight at us, even as we hug the shore line.


It is a dreadful way to experience the Mississippi.

(Lest you think it's all on the Wisconsin side -- no indeed. Iowa has its own contingency lined up on the shore.)


I shout out to Ed – why don’t they just go down the river once and come back when the trip’s over? Why this back and forth stuff?

Why indeed. Because it’s fun to race crazily between point A and B and back again. And to be faster than your buddy in the other boat. (I’m guessing here; it all seems a bit insane to me.)

Once we are a couple of miles away from the initial batch of boat fiends, we experience, briefly, a true Mississippi moment: a tug is pushing barges – two across and five deep. The front ones are empty, Ed tells me. See how they rise above the water?


We watch, mesmerized by the enormousness of this transport method. The barges command the river. All else (even the power boats) falls by the wayside.

And now, finally, we pull up to the county park beach. The car is there, waiting for the boats, for us. Ed folds up my inflatable as I watch the beach scene. Unlike the river noise, I find this more intimate and welcoming. Groups of young men, groups of children, banding together to have fun on this warm holiday afternoon.


If I want to think back fondly to the Mississippi, I’ll bring up these images – of families unloading the cooler, of friends cooling off in her waters, soda (or beer) in hand, of children dashing in to get the sand off.



I’m grinning as we head back east. Happy Fourth of July week-end indeed.

As we approach our starting point, where we left the other car, we pause at Culver’s. What’s your special today? Mint explosion. Hmmm. Like a fireworks of mint. No, forget that. We’ll share a vanilla. Small please.


And so on the Fourth of July we are not on the Wisconsin, and not even on the Mississippi. We’re back home, in Madison – doing what one does here on this day: going to my local and very endearing Westside Community Market…




…Picking up vegetables and flowers (yes, lovely flowers this week!) with notes of red and white and purple – will you settle for purple?



We’ll throw charcoal on the new grill out on the balcony (cheapest one on the market!) and roast and toast and maybe, if I haven’t fallen asleep by then, I’ll go out on the roof and watch the fireworks all around town.