Category Archives: Journal

turtle crossing


Wabasha just gets better and better! I walked into the bookstore around noon and met Nancy, the proprietor, who greeted me like a friend and told me she had noticed me at the riverfront park yesterday afternoon and thought I had been dancing. (I was just talking on the phone with my friend Cori, but that’s a fine reason to dance, why not!) Nancy grew up in Cass Lake, and like Guy, the excellent man who sold me the now-slightly-famous 17 foot kayak, has a degree in anthropology. Guy, too, spent some time in Cass Lake, so I’m beginning to feel that Cass Lake anthropologists are one of the ongoing threads of this trip. Nancy’s father was an Episcopal priest, and her mother still lives there, and Nancy has paddled many segments of the river, and went to summer camp on that stretch of land between Lake Andrusia and Cass Lake, and we agreed that there are definitely ghosts there, both good and bad.

Nancy told me her father spoke Ojibwe but he didn’t teach her the language; and of course, I have the same relation to the Armenian language, I don’t even know 300 words and the present tense in Armenian despite the fact that it was my father’s native tongue. And I am thinking that the scars of exile can be subtle as well as obvious, and perhaps the former is more dangerously destructive: something you know you’ve lost can be mourned, memorialized, and perhaps even constructed anew, but something you don’t even know you’ve lost is obliterated forever.

Anyway. I asked Nancy where we should go to church Sunday, and she recommended the Episcopal Church because it has an especially excellent Tiffany window. And she invited us to come to rehearsal of the gospel choir she sings in on Sunday evenings. And then she told us that the turtles were being born and gave me very precise instructions about where to find them crossing the road. And by this time it was clear I was not going to paddle on Sunday, that we would take the day off to follow up on all these treasures.

(And check it out fellow Interlochen campers: the music that accompanied this whole conversation was Howard Hanson’s Second Symphony “the Romantic.” OMG! I don’t think I’ve heard that piece in twenty-five years, thirty-five even? but I bet anyone who went to that camp, no matter how many years ago, can sing every note of every voice of that theme. okay, laugh, if you like, corny, yes, but it really is pretty fabulous.)

So after I picked up Mac from his kayaking day, we all headed out to the turtle road. Nancy had said they are really small at this phase, no bigger than a 50 cent piece, so we walked down the road a while, and I actually found one! And then Mac found a bigger one, a Painted Turtle maybe?, and the walk itself, on this back road in the late afternoon light that is really special and gorgeous in Minnesota, was a really excellent end to an altogether wonderful day.


biking in the mist


This morning while Mac drove Mary Kay down to put in at Lake City, I biked down the hill from Frontenac State Park and over some back roads. The fog was fierce and beautiful, and it was the first time I have biked since Cass Lake, many weeks ago, since there isn’t really space for it when I’m kayaking every other day. But now that we’re three people again for at least a few days, I can get in a bike ride, and it’s such a great complement to paddling: paddling uses your legs sort of similarly to how biking uses your arms, and vice versa, so the combination feels like the ideal whole body exercise, as some trainer guru might say.

I’ve begun to try to invent solutions for how to continue this trip if I end up with gaps where I am alone. Mac has to leave in a couple of weeks, and while various other folks will be joining me, I can’t be sure I will have company every single day for the rest of the journey. My current idea for solo days is to leave the bike at my ending point on the river, drive north, put in the kayak, paddle down to the bike, and then bike back to the car and drive to camp for the night. The nice side effect is that I will both paddle and bike all the sections of the river I do by myself. And it’ll work fine with the one exception that I can’t load the kayak onto the car by myself: the rack is just too high off the ground and the kayak too unwieldy. So I guess I could just leave the kayak at the pullout point each evening and trust that it will be there in the morning. But if any of you have some better solution to this little problem, please let me know.

(The foggy morning cornfield is especially for Susan Sommer.)

highway 61 visited


Mac and I are now happily ensconced in the public library in Wabasha, which is another winner of a small town. We were marveling earlier at how you can never guess which of these towns is going to be a favorite: Red Wing was good, Lake City was blah, Wabasha is great. Population size, date of founding, none of these things tell you in advance where you are going to find a certain excellent mix of history and vibrancy, civic pride and personal warmth. But it’s totally obvious when you’ve found it, that’s for sure!

Today is Mary Kay’s first time kayaking on her own, and Mac and I sat down with her last night after dinner to pass on all the pointers and tidbits we could think of that she might not have internalized in her days of paddling with one of us. It made me realize that after nearly 600 miles of paddling between us, Mac and I really do know some stuff about this undertaking. Somehow having Heather and Mary Kay here is causing Mac and me to look at our relationship to the river in a new way. Talking about it this morning, Mac said it’s sort of like after you’ve been in a new relationship for a little while and you sit down to talk through what’s going on. Phase One is definitely over. Probably has been since we reached St. Paul.

And along with the limestone bluffs lining the river, a new thread has entered the journey: Highway 61! You know that Highway 61, with the famous crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for being able to play the blues, starts in Duluth, of all places? The birthplace of the unrecognizable Bob Dylan?! Cool, no? (We watched Pennebaker’s brilliant Don’t Look Back in the tent last night in his (or its) honor.) Highway 61 joins the river for real at Hastings, and will be with us to the very end.

Point No Point


Today’s paddling was one of the harder days I’ve had. Most of it was in Lake Pepin, which swallows any current the river might have at this point, and the wind is not your friend: it comes from the south, and I was paddling mostly east, which makes for a choppy journey. And it got really sunny and hot as the day went on: I thought I was about as tan as I get, but I got some more color today. I was expecting lots of drunken powerboaters and waterskiers (waterskiing was invented on Lake Pepin, who knew?), but thankfully there were hardly any until right before Lake City, where I finished up. There was one guy who had moored his boat in a bit of a cove and was draped asleep, buck naked, across the stern. I definitely had a twinge of jealousy at the sight. I can’t drape myself (naked or clothed) over the back of my kayak, a definite drawback on a beautiful late summer day like today.

The bluff at Frontenac State Park is called Point No Point, and it really is well-named: you see it from a distance as a well-developed point that seems about a mile off, and you paddle for probably more than three miles, and suddenly you’re at the town of Frontenac, and the point never actually materializes as a point. It’s a very curious optical illusion, and it pleases me to be tricked by it just as it has tricked riverboat pilots and fur traders (and pleasure boaters, too, no doubt) for generations.

RVs and the people who drive them


I was on driver/campsite duty today, so after taking Mac down to put in for his day of paddling, I came back to St. Croix Bluffs to see off dear Heather, who is heading back to NYC. I showed Mary Kay how to pack the camp into the car, and then drove her down to Hastings and dropped off her and the bike so she could set off on a biking adventure. I felt a bit like a suburban mom taking all the kids to their various soccer matches and dance classes. Once everyone was launched, I headed over to Frontenac State Park on a back road that reminds me a bit of Birch Hill Road, my road in Vermont. It climbs up to a beautiful high bluff that has the most amazing view of the river (well, it’s officially Lake Pepin right now) we’ve had. And the campsite is set up so that there is a whole segregated wing just for tent campers, yay!, which was almost totally empty. The RVs have their own wings, and those were pretty full of hulking behemoths set up cheek by jowl.

In the evening, I brought Mac and Mary Kay up to the overlook, and we came upon a very kind couple there who we chatted with for a while. They are from the Twin Cities, and were finishing up a vacation that took them around the Upper Midwest, and as we were talking I suddenly had this realization that I need to let go of my reflexive prejudice against RVs and the people who drive them. (The only RVers I know are my great-aunt and uncle Rete and Jan, whom I love vastly, but that hasn’t altered my prejudice against RVs.) But suddenly it was completely clear to me that these people we were talking to love love love their experience of wandering this country just as much as I do, and perhaps they wouldn’t do it if they had to sleep in a tent. Perhaps they really can’t sleep in a tent, for whatever reason. I remember Keith Butler, the man we met at Wanagan’s Landing the first night of this journey, looking very specifically at me, the oldest of our group that night, and saying “Keep camping out and sleeping in a tent, or you’ll lose the ability to do it.” He told me that he and his wife, who I imagine must be in their 70s, still tent camp every summer. And I suppose it is a skill, or at least a habit, although I can’t really imagine losing it!

Anyway, I’m pledging here not to be snotty about RVs anymore. It’s my step towards openmindedness about Red State culture: so now can I have affordable health insurance in return? Please?!

arteries of industry


Mary Kay and I started out this morning in some little channels by St. Paul Park (that’s the name of the town), which were a sudden arrival of nature after the industrial river of St. Paul. But lots of work gets done on this river, even with the herons and geese and hawks looking on: there are beautiful piles of sand and gravel, sorted according to color and size (sort of like the honey at the state fair, right Yvan?!), being loaded by giant bulldozers onto barges and sent up and down the river. And there are grain mills and other factories doing all sorts of mysterious industrial things, and in addition to the barges, a whole railway network parallels the river mile after mile, and it’s very easy to imagine this river, my river, that little three foot mass of reeds and cattails I started out in, as an artery of productivity carrying all this stuff from place to place. Because the industry is not spewing visible gunk into the river, because the wildlife seems to be flourishing nearly as much as it was at the headwaters, I end up with this very 19th century Whitmanesque affection for all this human productivity. I was half expecting the Mississippi to look like a garbage dump and smell like raw sewage, and it’s not like that at all, at least not so far.

Mary Kay traded with Heather at the half-way point of the day, and it was delightful to spend some time on the river with Heather: definitely a change from our bike trips! We portaged into a small lake (Rebecca) that parallels the Mississippi and avoids having to lock through Lock and Dam #2, which I thought would be a bit much for her third day kayaking. But the portage was its own adventure: finding a pullout point, hefting the kayaks over the levee and into the lake, which had no easy entry point on the north end, and then doing the whole thing again to get back into the river was its own excellent adventure.

Heather was a game and delightful companion, and I hope she can sneak away for another few days of paddling before I reach New Orleans.


Leaving the Cities, and the kindness of Philip and Preston, is sort of slow going this morning. On one hand, I’m really eager to be back to the river and small-town America and the rhythm of life we have created on this journey; on the other hand, I could easily spend another week here visiting friends and colleagues, mulling over the implications of the trip so far, and maybe even making some music, now that Mary Kay has brought my DP install disk, so that I can get it running on my replacement computer.

One thing Philip said seemingly almost offhandedly the other day is really helping me think through this whole undertaking. He mentioned something about how the point of the journey is for me to have my own take on the river: not so much to gather other people’s takes as an (ethno)musicologist might. I’ve been feeling sort of guilty and inadequate that I have little or no interest in going to hear music at the State Fair, for example; I would much rather look at the hundreds of species of rabbits, listen to the auctioneers sell off cows, and study the crop art (did you catch the crop art iPhone I posted the other day?!) Philip and Preston seemed to immediately understand this, and even though they certainly know about lots of interesting music in Minnesota, including their own, they didn’t push me to explore that now. The fact is, other than at church each Sunday, I have heard no live music at all on this trip. Unless you count birds and wind and train whistles and industrial sounds. Which I definitely do.

I feel like I am emptying myself of other people’s music. And it’s a bit scary, actually, since lots of the music I have written is in one way or another a response to music that already exists. I’m not sure what music I will be moved to write. I’m (mostly) okay with this emptying even though it creates a certain amount of mild anxiety in me. It’s sort of like a large-scale version of the emptying that comes before any new piece. But Philip’s comment somehow gave me permission to be squarely in this state, not to try to escape it, and I am really grateful to him for saying it.

It’s Mac’s paddling day today, and because we have a second kayak, Heather and Mary Kay can each get a half-day of paddling with his company, which seems like an excellent way to get them started on the river. Heather started out with Mac in the morning, so Mary Kay and I wandered around Mendota a bit, which was a curious experience. Mendota barely exists now, but it was a town long before St. Paul or Minneapolis came into being, and there are a few exquisitely maintained stone structures: St. Peter’s Church, Governor Sibley’s house, etc. right near where the Minnesota RIver joins the Mississippi, not far from Fort Snelling. They are made of the limestone that creates the bluffs we have just now started seeing, and there’s something great about how local these structures are. Makes me definitely want to build my Vermont house out of stone and wood gathered from my own land.

The trade-off point for Heather and Mary Kay was a boat launch just down from the US 494 bridge: maybe one of the biggest bridges we’ve seen yet over the Mississippi, and it’s under huge construction to double the lanes. An old man was sitting on a bench there: Ken has been coming out to watch the construction every day for months now. He had worked for years in the stockyards of South St. Paul; born in 1920, he grew up here the youngest of eleven children of parents and grandparents who grew up here, and most of his four children live nearby as well. I got to thinking about how some families have one person who did the big move of emigrating and then everyone settles in the new place for generations to come; while other folks seem to have immigration in their blood and they themselves and many of their offspring end up moving repeatedly all over the country or the world. I feel like I have both sides in me: my father was a wanderer by nature (or was it an adaptation to his circumstances?), and my mother always claimed she would have been happy to live in Farmington or Plymouth (Michigan) her whole life. But of course she didn’t, and I don’t know that she could have, despite all her voiced longing for that alternate settled life she never lived.