Monday, August 14, 2017

River Rambles

Casting decades of tradition into the dust heap, Hilary and I cancelled our BWCA reservation, which would have entailed a six-hour drive north into three days of likely rain, and headed south at a leisurely pace along the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi—no plans, no reservations, just maps, a trunk full of camping gear, and a back seat full of cheese, nuts, Oreos, and freeze-dried meals.

The little towns that cling to the hillsides below the bluffs can have a quaint, nostalgic feel, but they look suspiciously like junky, dying villages sustaining themselves on motorcyclists, a few weekends of summer tourists, and the more reliable custom of well-healed exurbanites with summer homes nearby. Stockholm has perhaps succeeded as well as any of its neighbors in elevating itself to the level of genuine charm, and we turned inland onto its prominent side street to get a few sweet rolls at the bakery. 

I rang the bell on the counter and a few minutes later a young woman came rushing in the screen door from the café across the garden courtyard. There were maybe twelve loaves of very attractive bread sitting on a counter, with a hand-written sign nearby that said Please Don't Touch the Bread.

As we sat in the car eating our mid-morning snack we watched two elderly ladies wandering very slowly from one side of the street to the other, taking pictures of the art gallery, the pie shop, a local museum, and a few of the private homes. 

Back on main street, we stopped into a used book store that I'd never seen before. The door was open but the front room was illuminated only by the dim light coming in through the window. A few of the shelves were lined with old books sitting at oblique angles, but the room was so dank I felt no desire to examine the collection carefully. Many of the shelves contained old paint brushes, light bulbs, and other pieces of junk.

"Have you seen enough?" Hilary said almost immediately, eager to escape the miasma. I had.

Back on the sidewalk, we looked across the street at the beautiful stone facade of J. Ingebretsen, where sparkling Swedish imports were no doubt artfully arranged along the shelves. But we pushed on, lured by the wildflowers along the roadsides—Queen Anne's lace, knapweed, sunflowers of several stripes, and wild chicory. The highway rises and falls, narrow but largely free of traffic, with Lake Pepin often in full view down below to the west. Gray skies moving in from the northwest. That's the weather we're trying to escape from.

In Alma we stopped for lunch at Pier 4, which has a screened-in porch overlooking the lock and dam and also, right under the terrace, the railroad tracks. Four trains went by while we were eating. Very LOUD.

I felt obliged to order the specialty of the house—a sandwich called the Horseshoe ($7.95). They put a piece of grilled toast on a plate and load it with pulled pork, then a heap of french fries smothered in good ole Wisconsin cheese mixed with Spotted Cow beer.

By this time you can be sure that piece of toast is as flat and soggy as an antique insert in a tennis shoe.

"I'll have the Horseshoe," I said when the waitress arrived. "But can I have the french fries on the side?"

She gave me a friendly smirk. "Well, you could...but that would defeat the purpose." (Which was what?)

"Don't worry. I'll mix a few of them back in."

"Well, in that case, I guess it's O.K."

Hilary ordered the lunch platter that included ribs, pulled pork, and three sides ($8.95).

The baked beans weren't bad, but the meat was chewy, to say the least. (So much for regional cuisine!)

We stopped at a folk art park on Prairie Mood Road south of Cochrane, but I was more impressed by the shape of the hills behind the farm across the highway. It's gorgeous countryside. 

Birding is unlikely to be exciting in early August, though we'd seen a raft of a hundred-odd pelicans floating just off shore from the landing in Maiden Rock. Yet when we arrived at Trempealeau National Wildlife Sanctuary, we were rewarded with the sight of a bird I'd never seen before: four or five common gallinules were frolicking amid the lily pads twenty yards out from the dock at the visitor's center.  

At nearby Perrot State Park I rigged up a tarp at our favorite campsite (#25) just before the drizzle set in. 

I say "our favorite" because we camped in the same spot in May, and were entertained by a cardinal who battled his image in the side-view mirrors of our car all day long. He was still there. But now that mating season was over, he was content merely to look at the mysterious intruders rather than attacking them. He also hopped across the campsite a few times, perhaps looking for a handout.

"Remember me?" I said.

The next morning it was bright, clear, and cool. We rented a canoe and took a two-hour paddle up one branch of the Trempealeau River and down the other, which allowed us to get out into the midst of the bluffs without exposing ourselves to the breadth or force of the Mississippi itself.

In search of the opposite effect, we then climbed Perrot Peak. The view from the top was superb but it had been a steep scramble and we didn't want to return the way we'd come, so we continued along the ridge, not quite sure where we were headed. As luck would have it, the trail eventually wound its way back to the path we'd arrived on.

The nature center by the canoe landing has a fine little museum chronicling the history of human habitation in the vicinity going back to the paleolithic. Indian mounds are scattered throughout the park. Nicholas Perrot built a fort here in 1685--the first such European outpost in the region.

Later that afternoon we came upon the Mississippi's largest paddlewheeler, the American Queen, in Prairie Du Chien. There's nothing like a river boat to evoke the colorful history of the region. The boat had been docked there all day, and a few elderly couples were sitting on their balconies reading magazines.

One member of the crew, a young black man, was leaning over the rail looking bored, and I asked him where their next stop would be. He didn't know. But when he answered, I noticed that all of his lower teeth were capped with gold.  

We got to chatting with a man from San Antonio who was reboarding the vessel.

"I've been a "black powder" expert since 1984," he told us. He and his wife had been on similar trips up the Columbia River and on the Mississippi north of New Orleans. "Down there the levees are so high, you can't see the countryside."

He told us how wonderful the accommodations were, and quite reasonable! He and his wife were paying $3 thousand apiece for the seven-day trip from Minneapolis down to Keokuk and back. Entertainment every night.

"And the food is outstanding," he added.

I told him we had been canoeing out in the river that morning ($15) and had flushed six kingfishers, one sandhill crane, and quite a few bald eagles. Then we'd climbed to the top of the bluffs. It was 4:30 in the afternoon, and we had no idea where we were going to spent the night. 

I wasn't bragging. But we were swapping stories, weren't we?

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