Tag Archives: farming

free-range ruminating


Today I finally started down the river again, with David as my companion and helper. We crossed the river over to Arkansas, the eighth of the ten states on the river, and I started out biking along the levee. The Army Corp leases the land surrounding the levee to farmers, so I encountered many cows and some horses grazing below me, and long long vistas of farmland, mostly cotton fields. About every half mile there were fences to demarcate the different fields, so I would lindy the bike under the fence each time. At one point, there was a man in a pickup truck waiting as I rode up to the fence. I was afraid he was going to yell at me and order me off the levee, but instead he asked me how I was planning to get the bike past the fence. I looked, and indeed it was lower to the ground than any of the previous ones had been, too low for me to get the bike through. So he got out of his truck and told me to lift the bike up to him and hefted it over the fence for me, and after asking how far I was going, and wishing me luck, he drove off into the endless delta. As I began biking again, I really began to wonder if he had been an apparition. I mean, it’s pretty unpeopled out here. I hadn’t seen anyone for miles, and suddenly at the moment I was going to need help even though I didn’t know it yet, there was someone waiting to help me.

Eventually the road was close enough to the levee that I decided it would be okay to bike along the road and skip the drill with the fences. This country is flat! I don’t think I’ve ever ridden so far with so little elevation change. I really enjoyed the ride, there’s something delightful to me about where my mind gets to go when I do long stints of not-very-hard exercise. On more varied terrain, biking is hard enough work that I don’t usually have a chance to get into that meditative state, but here you can ride for miles and miles without really working very hard physically, so your mind is free to range. After a while I rode past a tidy resort community called Horseshoe Lake, where virtually every other house was for sale (clearly the economic crisis is hitting hard here), and down very close to the river, where I stopped to meet up with David. As we were hanging out there on the levee, two women drove up and asked us about the kayak and the trip: it turns out one of the women is the mayor of Horseshoe Lake, gotta love it!

After about five hours of biking, I put the bike up on the rack and we drove on this wacky back road to Helena and across the bridge and back up on the Mississippi side, and up to Tunica for excellent fried green tomatoes and fried okra and fried chicken, and back to Memphis and my comfortable bed with Fred the cat. I want to bike that back road for the next leg of the journey, for sure!

high-fiving Asian carp


We had a really fun night at Bob and Wita’s in Alton. Their house is on a bluff with a great view the river, and they were amazingly warm and generous to us: we had dinner with them and their neighbor Barb, and heard lots of stories about Alton and growing up in Calhoun County (Bob grew up on a farm there that didn’t have electricity until 1955!!!), and it was also great to sleep indoors after these days of dealing with the rain, that’s for sure!

We headed back up river this morning to Pere Marquette State Park, where Mary put in on the Illinois River (just for a bit of variety) and paddled down to Grafton, which is the confluence with the Mississippi, and I took over from there. It’s a gorgeous run through this whole area: beautiful limestone bluffs line the river on the Illinois side with just enough room for a road with a great bike path that goes all the way from Pere Marquette to Alton.

Two days of rain caused the river to rise twenty feet! The river looks fat and happy, it’s carrying lots of stuff down the river, mostly tree branches it grabs off the shore, and I certainly don’t have to worry about the water being too low to be able to get through the back sloughs. There’s just more river everywhere, and it’s moving faster even here in the Alton pool (the last lock and dam is just below Alton.)

About halfway through my trip, I got ambushed by several schools of Asian carp. (It’s an invasive species that’s been a problem ever since the 1993 flood, when they escaped the pens they’d been kept in before that.) There must have been about 100 crazy fish jumping out of the water, hitting the boat — one even hit my paddle. They get stirred up by any movement in the water and just jump straight out and up in the air, and they are big! It’s as if they’re all on crack or something. You can hear them jumping behind you, which is bad enough, but when they jump in front I’m really glad to be wearing a spray skirt. I definitely wouldn’t want one landing in the boat with me. It’s like something out of Guindon, or perhaps Tobit.


I arrived in Alton at a launch directly under this beautiful cable bridge, and Bob and Wita took Mary and me on a drive to view the sights of Alton: we stopped for a beer at Fast Eddie’s, a huge bar downtown, very fun; looked at a lifesize sculpture of the gentle giant, a resident of Alton who was 8’11”; drove around the campus of the community college and the town park, visited the site of the final Lincoln-Douglas debate, and then had a really excellent dinner downtown. A very fine time in Alton, which is doing a great job of maintaining its own unique identity even with St. Louis looming just a few miles downriver.

counting stuff works

Last night, Lori and I stopped off at the River Music Experience, where Terry Dame happened to be setting up for a show, an unexpected pleasure, and we caught a few songs, but couldn’t stay to say hi, because we had to head back north to Bellevue, where we had left Lori’s car these last days, and we wanted to set up camp before dark. We camped right by the river, haven’t done that in a while: it’s a real pleasure to wake up and watch the dawn come up right over the water. I said goodbye to Lori, who’s been a great fellow-traveler these last days, and then headed down to Le Claire and caught a service at the Presbyterian Church before driving down to meet Susan and Jim in Davenport. I’ve known Susan for a couple of years now on Walker Tracker, a site for counting pedometer steps (totally nerdy, I grant you, but a really fun community.) We’d never actually met in person until today, and I was really happy they drove all the way from Tremont to spend the afternoon with me. Susan is part of my inspiration for doing this trip: I really respect and enjoy her whole approach to life, and love all the very deep commonalities we share despite our ostensible differences. And Jim is great: a tall, handsome, laconic Republican pacifist. (But still not much of a TV watcher(!)) After a leisurely brunch, we went to the Figge Art Museum, which has a pretty great collection, augmented by work that was displaced from the University of Iowa collection by last year’s flood, including a really fine Jackson Pollack that captures something amazing about the river and the farmland, and an Odilon Redon pastel woman on cardboard, which I think Despina would love a lot (and I’m really happy because I just found an online photo of it.)

After Susan and Jim left, I drove down to Muscatine and realized I’m tired enough that a motel and a day off are the answer, so I found a fabulous Econolodge and gratefully settled in. There is absolutely nothing interesting to look at or take in or experience in this motel room, and I have running water and a hot shower and free wifi at my fingertips, and it feels absolutely luxurious to be able to take a day to clean up, take stock, and get ready for the next leg of this journey.

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.)

10,000 lakes; 1000 pictures

I’m sitting in a snack bar overlooking Lake Calhoun in the city of Minneapolis, and of course it has free wi-fi and power outlets wherever you might need them: the Twin Cities being one of those places that seems to regard wi-fi as a public good, very handy. It’s been a delightful and very full few days in the Twin Cities: but totally out of the rhythm Mac and I had developed over the last ten days or so, so I’m WAY behind on blogging. Suffice it to say that Mac paddled from Anoka to NE Minneapolis, a neighborhood I had never spent time in before now, which has a very cool new library in an old brewery; I paddled through the entire city of Minneapolis and to the border of St. Paul on Friday, which required me to go through THREE locks (I was very scared beforehand, but it was actually very cool and manageable, and the lock wardens or tenders or whatever they are called were very kind and friendly and didn’t seem to mind using all this huge technology just for me and my tiny kayak.)

Phillip and Preston, our incredibly generous and unflappable hosts for all these days at their very cool place, which has its own blog, took us on an amazing walk after my kayaking day to a new park in St. Paul that has been reclaimed from being a railway yard. It had previously been an encampment for the Ojibwe and there’s a magic cave there. And the walk continued up into a place called Swede Hollow, a sort of camp where immigrant workers in the nearby brewery lived up until the 50’s or something.

Friday night we all had dinner at Maura and Jeff’s, Saturday we said goodbye to Richard and welcomed Heather and Mary Kay as new fellow-travelers, and celebrated by going to the State Fair, oh my oh my oh my!!! this totally fascinating conflation of rural agricultural stuff right in the MIDDLE of the city of St. Paul, very very cool.

anyway, I could write for days about all these excellent adventures, but I think I’m just going to post some pictures and leave it at that for the moment. I’m pretty fried and today is a day of rest, right?!?

here are a few photos from friday, the day I paddled from NE Minneapolis to St. Paul

cow cow boogie

this song showed up in my iPod rotation this morning, and I feel I should share it with you:

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Ella Fitzgerald: Cow Cow Boogie

Mac posted about cows here, which made me laugh til I cried…

and Richard is posting great stuff here, the beginnings of fruits from his research at the Minnesota Historical Society.

cows and corn


Today I paddled to the Aitkin Campground from about 18 river miles north of town. Aitkin County is mostly farmland, and it was interesting, to say the least, to hear cattle lowing for a good 45 minutes before I rounded a bend and saw a good-sized herd hanging out by the river. At another point, I saw corn growing right up to the edge of the river, replacing the cattails and reeds that have lined the banks up to now. The huge distance between agriculture and nature has never been clearer to me, and I understand in a new way how strange it must have been for the Ojibwe to have had their lands divided up into 160 acre parcels, which were then bestowed on them with the idea that each nuclear family group would become farmers.

I managed to take a photograph of the cows, but I didn’t get out my camera for the corn, and I’m sorry for that. It raises a funny issue that Richard and Mac and I have been talking about since almost the beginning of our travels. It’s very difficult to overcome the urge to take pictures only of picturesque or iconic sights: the growing corn doesn’t make a particularly compelling photograph, so I’m too lazy to take my iPhone out of its waterproof container. But since I am interested in trying to communicate the river as it is, not as I would like it to be, I feel like I am failing in an important way if I neglect to photograph the corn.

I keep thinking about Mary Ellen Carroll‘s artwork where she strapped a camera to her back and walked down Broadway from the top to the bottom of Manhattan, snapping a photograph at each intersection. Because she didn’t frame the photographs, choose any particular feature, but just clicked a remote, the photographs are a random sample of Broadway as it radically changes character on its journey through Manhattan. It’s a fascinating trove of images of the city at a particular time (mid-90’s if I remember properly), and the ”bad“ photographs are precisely what makes it such a compelling piece of work.

I started out doing audio recordings inspired by this idea of random samples, but I found it less interesting than I had imagined. As I think about it, though, perhaps I should be patient and try doing at least one recording each day and see what unfolds over the whole journey. It isn’t about emulating the elegance and beauty of Annea Lockwood’s sound maps of the Hudson River and the Danube: it’s perhaps a more Cage-ian idea, one that requires me to embrace the process and let go of the results, as they say…

I did take some other photographs, and you can see what I mean about capturing the picturesque and the iconic: a nice farmhouse with trees, and one I really like of a living tree and a dead tree intertwined. I think very often these days about how the natural world is half-living and half-dead all the time. One set of stuff is fallen and decayed and another set of stuff is growing out of that decay, and the living is completely dependent on the dead. The muddy, organic river intensifies that sense of death-in-life, I think. I don’t really like the river water, it’s murky and scary even here at the early part of the river; and while it’s of course a river of life, the rich and varied wildlife are proof of that, it also seems to carry a daunting amount of death in it.

And of course, we are in late high summer, the trees are fully deep green, no new life is left in them, they are at the fullest flower of their maturity.