Monday, October 31, 2011

Mississippi Swans

On the spur of the moment, we decided to drive down to Alma, Wisconsin, on the east bank of the Mississippi, to see the swans that funnel through every year on their way from western Canada to Chesapeake Bay.

I booked a cheap motel in Winona and we set out Saturday morning. It was a brilliant day, blue sky, bright sun. A great day for a trip.

The swans evidently felt differently. Though Lake Pepin was beautiful and the bluffs above the road, from Maiden Rock to Chimney Bluff and beyond, were spectacular, there were no swans in Alma. We saw a shrike in a tree at one point during our drive down, but that was hardly a consolation. We followed some dirt roads north of the Chippewa River in an attempt to penetrate the Tiffany Wildlife Area, without success. There were a few widgeons intermixed with the coots and Canada geese at Reick’s Lake in Alma, where the swans normally congregate. From the heights of Buena Vista Park we could look down at the tiny fishermen in aluminum boats trying their luck below the dam.

The gentleman at the visitor’s center downtown told us the swans won’t come in until the weather turns bad. And in any case, he said, they don’t arrive in such great numbers as they used to. It seems the lake has been silting up.

Well, so it goes. On the plus side, the sloughs on the Mississippi look far less skanky than usual at this time of year, with golden leaves covering the forest floor and dappled autumn sunlight filtering down. And the remarkable Marine museum in Winona has added some choice new paintings since our last visit, including a very fine little Matisse. I wanted to take a picture of it but the docent wouldn’t allow it.

We explored the waterfront between Winona and Minnesota City as the sun was setting, and arrived at our motel feeling that we’d had a good day.

The next morning the sky was gray, the air was cold, and everything was wet, which gave a romantic sheen to the logos of the Target store and the Holiday Inn we could see across the highway from out our third-floor motel window. Yes, but what to do on a cold, rainy, pitch-black Sunday morning, 140 miles from home?

We decided to continue south along the river to Brownsville, near the Iowa border. The river fans out down there, with lots of shallow water and sand islands just stable enough from year to year to have been given names. You pass several houseboat villages along the shore. A few viewing platforms have been constructed along the highway.

Here, in the gray morning light, is where we began to see the swans, off in the distance to the right, almost out of sight. And hear them. Hundreds of them, honking. There were gadwalls and mallards, too. A few clumps of pelicans, drifting here and there as if in formation. Eight or nine egrets. Bald eagles sitting miserably on the ends of stubby deadheads a few feet off the water, off in the distance.

The rain was coming down in a light drizzle. There were very few cars passing on the highway. We stopped in several places, and finally found a good point from which to view the birds.

Had they blown in the with bad weather? I have no idea.

On the way back we took the backroads through the hilly country of Houston and Fillmore counties, stopping at Beaver Creek State Park for some watercress.


niceBrice said...

Just found your blog via Utne's 2007 Awards (congrats to you, only 4 years belated!). So it's funny you mention Minnesota City, where I live, of all places. Reminds me of a Jim Gaffigan joke: Anybody ever been to Utah... on purpose?

Macaroni said...

Greetings niceBrice,
Thanks for the note. We enjoyed visiting your fair city and plan to explore the watery landscape via canoe sometime next summer. And for another strange concidence, we also frequently visit the canyon country of Utah...on purpose!

niceBrice said...

Never been to New England, the west coast, or even our Marine Art Museum, but I've been to Utah--twice, haha. Zion National Park is gorgeous. Bryce Canyon would be nice to see as well. (Sorry, couldn't help myself.)