The Bark River flows for 67 miles across southern Wisconsin, heading southwest toward its confluence with the Rock River. Neither waterway was considered worthy of inclusion in the River of America series (1937-1974) perhaps being aced out by the Yazoo, the Santee, or the Chagres. But the Bark does have a story to tell, and in Milton J. Bates it’s found a chronicler more than worthy of telling it. Bates and his wife, Puck, have been canoeing various stretches of the river for years; they’ve participated in clean-up drives and visited the nearby mills and museums. Beyond that, the author has delved deeply into the archives of the Wisconsin DNR to track the fate of this or that marsh, millpond, or dam-site across time. What emerges is a picture of the changing role played by the Bark as an avenue of exploration, a source of waterpower, and a recreational resource.
The “chronicle” in the title refers to the attempt Bates and Puck make to canoe the entire river in the course of a single summer. But anyone expecting a whitewater adventure ought to steer clear. There are more fallen trees than horsetails, more marshy bends than windswept expanses. Bates’s progress downstream is far less memorable than the associations he drums up along the way, which provide him with opportunities to dilate at length on such topics as ice harvesting, the circus industry, the changing technology of milling, the issues associated with dam-removal, Indian mounds, objectivist poetry, the growing threat of invasive species such as carp and zebra mussels, and the Blackhawk War of 1832.
In one of Bates’s more interesting digressions, we find him acting on the request of one Joanne Cushman to locate an aluminum pot that has sunk somewhere in the river downstream from her house. A few pages earlier we learned the story of “Reverend” Robert Cushman, who, eight generations back, arrived in Massachusetts in 1621. This Pilgrim Cushman delivered the earliest sermon in the New World of which we have any record. It’s not so famous as the one John Winthrop gave nine years later, but in Bates’s opinion, “ …it may nevertheless have the better claim to being the keynote address for New World civil and economic order.” And he tells us why this might be.
But Bates doesn’t merely rely on far-flung associations to make the Bark River seem interesting; he shows how various levels and eras of history are in evidence, even today, along the river’s banks and in its communities and environs. In Cushman’s sermon—to take the current example—he emphasized the need to balance entrepreneurialism and neighborliness, which is precisely the issue facing those today who own private dams along the Bark River that they can neither afford to fix nor to remove.
The book has an easy pace and it’s very well written. Bates is equally at ease whether he's describing Indian (and white) scalping methods or the poetry of Lorine Niedecker, a writer previously unknown to me who was raised on the banks of the Bark River. The conversations that take place from time between the author and his wife seldom really come alive. Rather, they seem like yet one more vehicle for presenting information to the reader. But that’s a minor blemish on an otherwise well-paced and engaging riverine portrait.