Tag Archives: kayak

hudson paddle

The night before heading out on our little mini-tour back to the Mississippi, I took Mary out for a sunset paddle on the Hudson River. I figured since we won’t be kayaking or biking on tour, we could at least start out with a paddle just to get off on the right foot or something.

Here are a few pictures from the paddle, which was just great. If you’re in NYC and are into paddling at all, this is an excellent little excursion, highly recommended!

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catching up

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The transition from being on the river to being here at Montalvo, and the various adventures that happened in between the two places, has definitely broken my posting rhythm, and I MISS being here with you! Funny how this blog feels like an actual place to me, different from email or phone or Facebook or whatever other forms of communication we might use together. I want to see if we can continue the conversation here, although my guess is that it will be different now that I’m in one place for a while and writing music again.

Before I do anything else, I want to just give you a short picture of where I’ve been for the last several weeks.

Mac and I had a few more days in New Orleans after my previous post, and we heard lots of wonderful music on Frenchman Street and at the weekend Gumbo Festival in a converted funeral parlor, we went to St. Augustine’s Catholic Church (with Linda Norton) and heard the Treme Brass Band again at the parish Christmas party, visited the African-American Museum and the Port of New Orleans and Brad Pitt’s new houses in the Ninth Ward, hung out with Scotty Heron, who generously sheltered us from the rain for a few nights, cheered for the Saints in R Bar, ate incredible meals and more beignets and coffee than should be legal, and altogether had an excellent time. Here are a very few photos.

On the 14th, I dropped Mac off at the airport and headed back north to Vicksburg, where I stayed with excellent Chris Porter for a couple of days while waiting for the M/V Charles F. Detmar, Jr. to arrive. My friend David Greer had arranged for me to ride this towboat with Captain Richard “Bear” Gettelfinger. It was totally amazing, a completely different way to experience the river than a kayak, that’s for sure! I want to write more about this experience later, but for now, here are a few pictures, along with a million thanks to Bear and his crew, and to David for setting the trip up for me.

I got off the towboat Saturday night back in Vicksburg (we had gone down to just above Baton Rouge and back in four days), watched the Saints lose, went to Episcopal Church in Vicksburg Sunday morning and met the fabulous and inimitable Ms. Ike, and then a whole crew of us went sailing Sunday afternoon on a lake just north of Vicksburg, stopping at the Reverend Dennis’ wonderful artwork/church on the way. (More info about Reverend Dennis here.) We ended up with five women on the boat, a slightly different crew than the eleven men of the Charlie Detmar(!)

My friend Cori Ellison arrived from NYC on Monday night, and we headed west on Tuesday, stopping for two nights (so we could go dancing) in glorious Lafayette, LA with Chris’ excellent friend Marie, about which I want to write more, and then through Texas, where I got a chance to paddle on the Rio Grande at Big Bend National Park, totally great, and then west through Arizona, staying a night in Sonoita with Cori’s friend Saba, and finally arriving at Montalvo on 30 December.

I’ve been here ever since. It is exceedingly strange to sleep indoors in the same bed every night, to unpack my books from the trunk of the car and put them on an actual bookshelf, to shower every day, to have constant access to electricity and running water and refrigeration and high speed internet.

It’s wonderful here, a great place to make this transition, and I am getting started on sorting through all the materials and ideas I want to explore for the next many months (years?), but my first priority is to get my voice and fingers working because I have a solo show at Stanford on 4 February, and I have not even been thinking about singing or playing or talking or manipulating electronics for many months now.

I am absolutely loving getting up and practicing every day, perhaps for the first time in my life. I used to find practicing boring, but I think these many months of paddling or biking for six hours at a stretch taught me something I never really understood before about how the physical and the spiritual (and the emotional and the intellectual for that matter) can be intertwined. Long distance paddling or biking just naturally becomes a meditation: I’m out in nature, I know going to be at it all day so I’m not overexerting myself to exhaustion, and something happens to my mind: I’m focussing, but also relaxed; I’m concentrating on the task at hand, but my mind is simultaneously free to notice stuff.

When she was visiting me in Iowa in late October during the lost gear adventure, my friend Rafaela mentioned something in her wonderfully low key and wise way about Jung’s four functions: thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition, and how doing this journey might be allowing me to shift my own internal balance of the four. I heard what she said at the time, but it is only now when I sit down to play and sing each morning that I realize the river has taught me a marvelous lesson without my even being aware it was happening. I am delighted and grateful.

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being a girl

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Stephanie, Mark’s wife, is a dancer who splits her time between New York and Lake Village. (Mark grew up in Mississippi, but went to school at CUNY and Stony Brook, and we had met once in NYC a while ago.) She threw herself into this adventure with great aplomb! On Thursday, we took a good bike ride to explore north of Lake Village, where there’s a channel marked on the map as the Old River. We were looking for possible put-in points for a paddle, but the Army Corps maps don’t cover all the back channels of the Mississippi, since the maps are optimized for barges and towboats, not for kayakers who prefer the back ways and side trips. We rode past a huge dam out in the fields, and near it is a perfect boat ramp, completely empty and unused. I’ve been avoiding the main river when I’m traveling alone: my vision of this journey does not include drowning, or even capsizing. So every chance I have to get on the river these days feels like a wonderful gift, and the back channels down here are strange and mystical places. Towards the end of our leisurely paddle Friday, which we treated more like a float, I noticed that there is a back channel to this Old River, which is of course already a back channel of the present Mississippi, so I left Stephanie and paddled around the long way, which must once have been the main river, because the state line is drawn along this tiny back slough. We met up again at the pullout, and retrieved cars and kayaks and headed home for a quick shower and then over to Winterville Mounds, where Mark works. We got there in time for Mark to show me around a bit before dark, and he told me a great story about the Native Americans accosting De Soto’s people in huge canoes each painted in a different primary color, and the paddles and the men themselves painted to match the canoes. Can you imagine how terrified De Soto’s troops must have been to see these brightly painted warriors paddling out into the main river, with their drums and their fierce songs?!? They didn’t kill De Soto’s band, but would come up to their boats and rock them until they tipped over, basically messing with them, hazing them, before disappearing back up the Deer River to Winterville. De Soto’s people decided soon after that to forget about the gold and treasure they had been seeking and just go home. De Soto himself was already dead and consigned to the river: legend has it that he was buried in what is now Lake Chicot, the lake Mark and Stephanie’s house is on.

We drove up to Rosedale for dinner at a good restaurant with very slow service, so we were late to the show at Po’ Monkey’s, a storied juke joint way out on a farm road sort of near Cleveland. A group of electro-acoustic musicians had taken over the place for an evening jam, which Mark had been asked to join. None of the regulars were there, apparently last year’s version was enough for them. And I’ll tell you, I mean no disrespect, but the whole scene rendered me almost inarticulate with despair. Here’s this whole group of musicians and composers from all over the country, who have shown up for a festival of electronic music, and they come down and jam badly for one another, jamming after all not being exactly what they are skilled at, and they congratulate themselves for playing in a juke joint, despite the fact that no-one from the actual community, not one regular is in the place. And then I overhear one guy saying to Mark Snyder, the festival organizer, that another guy is “being a girl” about getting up and playing: he keeps saying he’ll join in after the next song. And to Mark Snyder’s credit, he called the guy on it, claimed not to know what he meant, asked for clarification that had the guy sputtering a bit. But sitting there as one of three women in the whole place, electro-acoustic festivals in general and this one not exceptionally being something of a boy’s club, I was not exactly offended, I think a better word would be heartbroken. In this day and age a full-grown nominally educated guy actually casually and unthinkingly derides someone by calling them a girl?! Are you kidding me?!? I don’t know that guy, he might be an otherwise lovely and talented human being, but I hope women steer clear of him for the rest of his natural life.

But Mark Snyder’s sly and effective response really got me thinking. I have had occurrences in the past couple of weeks where white people have said things I regard as racist. And I struggle really hard to know how to calibrate my response. I remember being in a cab once in New York with my friend Juliana, and the cabdriver said something racist and she immediately said something like, I don’t agree with or accept your way of talking, and please do not speak that way while I am in your cab. But that’s a slightly less complicated situation: Juliana did not have any relationship with the cab driver beyond an economic exchange. But when people are hosting you, or doing you favors, or being generous to you, how do you indicate your dismay and disagreement with the language they use, the attitudes they express? My answer so far has been to think more like an anthropologist: I’m trying to understand how people are rather than judging them or arguing with them. And perhaps my way has some tiny impact, however inconsequential. The person who made the most racist statements I’ve had to listen to also noticed and commented on my interest in black music and culture, and told me some useful information about the history and geography of black music and musicians.

The discussion at the BB King Museum the other night was full of talk about the complicity of the North in racism, claiming that Northerners, even abolitionists, didn’t actually like black people any more than Southerners did, and in certain ways understand black culture far less than Southerners do. Martin Luther King said he was more scared of the white racists in Chicago than he ever was down South. And of course, there are proportionally so many more black people down here than up North, and I do think there’s a complexity to the whole question of racism that I’m not going to address productively by demanding an old man to change his vocabulary so as not to wound my sensibilities. That man has lived and worked side by side with black people all his life. Let’s be real here: his daily life is in certain ways more integrated than the new music scene in New York City, uptown, downtown, or midtown. That’s part of the reason I’m not in New York right now, I’m trying to get some perspective on my own provincialism.

But it’s easy to be shocked. I am definitely not at home. Black or white, rich or poor, in one way or another, I am aware that I am an outsider, I do not really fit in here anywhere. Which is why hanging out with Mark and Stephanie is very welcome right now. It feels like a break from constantly negotiating my own otherness.

already the river

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John had invited me to join him on an all-day paddle he was scheduled to do Saturday with a father and son, so I was awakened early from the hammock I had set up behind his shop and overlooking the Sunflower River, with John offering me coffee and oatmeal and introducing me to Ellis Johnson, a younger brother of Super Chikan Johnson, one of the outstanding blues players flourishing in Clarksdale. Ellis himself is more dancer than musician, he said, and he is also a fisherman, and he told me about the huge turtle he caught the other day.

Tim, a prep-school fundraiser, and his college-age son, David, showed up and got outfitted, and then we all headed out to Quapaw landing and put in. It’s my first paddling since above Memphis, and it’s hard to articulate how happy I am to be back on the water. It’s a strange reality that as the boundary between water and land gets more porous down here, with all the back channels and bayous and swamps, getting to the river from land actually gets harder and harder, so my bike rides don’t really bring me close enough to the river to fully satisfy my river jones. It makes sense: the bottomlands are a no-man’s-land where it is not practical to imagine permanent roads or houses. The river side of the levees are in a sense already the river.

Paddling with John, who knows this river the way I know the streets of New York City, is really a wonderful experience. We did all sorts of things I would never have been able to do alone. Instead of freaking out about the big stuff floating down the river, for example, we took advantage of its speed and power. We tied off to a huge tree that was plowing downstream and just effortlessly coasted down through the windy stretch. I was finally truly rafting the Mississippi! A giant barge and tow were coming downstream at the same time, and watching it pass us at an excruciatingly slow pace — since we were traveling nearly as fast — reminded me of that endless circus trailer in Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies.

We stopped at two different blue holes to eat and explore, and then John began to take us into back channels, wending through groves of trees. I could happily paddle back through thickets finding oxbow lakes and odd back bayous for many days to come. I think what I like the very best about this lower river is these liminal spaces, neither land nor river, exactly, but some curious inseparable hybrid of the two.

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John took us through one final back channel right near sunset, and we paddled into the setting sun surrounded by birds and the departing light. I didn’t want the day to end, but paddling up a good ways and then across the main channel in the dark was tiring enough that I was happy when we finally landed and Ellis pulled us out and took us home to Clarksdale.

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another confluence

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Because I wanted to go to church this morning, Mary decided to paddle the first part of the day, so I helped put her in at the tiny town of Commerce, well-named, since an unpleasant guy there actually charged us ten bucks to put in at his decrepit ramp, which I had to clear of logs and trash before we could use it. I decided to forego church in Commerce, and drove west to Charleston, MO, and ended up at the First Baptist Church. I was a bit worried what I would hear, after my experience of Baptist church in Fort Madison, but I really liked the service. There was a strong chorus, accompanied by both piano and organ, and the conductor was skilled, and she would have us sing the final verses of the hymns without accompaniment, a fine way to experience the coherence of the gathered congregation.

The sermon was good, nothing about beating children or the fires of hell, but an exhortation to give of the gifts we have been given, not just the offerings required by law, but freewill offerings from the heart. And he spoke vividly of time and talent, as well as treasure: it was not all about money, for sure. The sermon was all the more effective because he got quieter at the climaxes, drawing us in to follow his argument. Not unlike the a cappella final verses of the hymns.

I was repeatedly and warmly invited to stay for dinner (no coffee and donuts here, it’s a whole meal!), but I had to leave right after the service to drive way out on farm roads to the boat launch where I took over paddling from Mary. The last bit of road was too muddy and pitted to drive, so I left the car and hiked about a half mile to the ramp. Beautiful place, really remote: it’s at the beginning of a ten mile meander the river takes, shaped like the Greek letter omega, almost doubling back on itself before continuing down to the confluence with the Ohio. When Huck and Jim traveled this stretch it undoubtedly looked very much as it does now.

It’s becoming a Sunday afternoon tradition to hit a big confluence! I took a back slough at mile 5 (the river mile numbers start again at Cairo), and came out on the right side of the ”long tongue“ below Cairo Mark Twain describes, and there’s actually a point, the tip of the tongue if you will, where the Ohio and the Mississippi come together. It was a bit intense getting across the confluence and down a couple of miles on the left where I had told Mary I wanted to get out. The swells were big enough that the kayak disappeared in the bottoms of the troughs, and down in them I couldn’t see land at all. The ramp was obscured between some dry docks, so I almost missed it, and had to paddle hard to get in. No boils or breakers this time, just fierce big water. I take it very seriously.

We drove back in to Cairo and picked up a bottle of wine to celebrate the official completion of the upper river. 1325 miles. I am very moved to be here in the heart of the heart of the country. But it is heartbreaking to see the state of decay Cairo is in: practically a ghost town except for some pretty awful barracks-like projects on the outskirts. The liquor store was virtually the only functioning place in the whole town. We camped completely alone at Fort Defiance, which felt a bit risky, but somehow necessary, and were rewarded by a clear night with a million stars. I kept Uncle Bob’s very sharp knife in the hammock with me, more as a totem than as an actual weapon, and slept without fear.

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not even a hair is missing

So I’m driving back from dropping off Rafaela at the Quad Cities Airport (I felt really bad that her whole visit was taken up with searching for the lost gear: not much of a river trip for her, that’s for sure), and as I was heading over the Burlington bridge, the phone rings and it’s the Lee County sheriff saying he thinks they’ve found the kayak just down from the Green Bay launch caught in some trees and reeds. EXACTLY as I had hoped; exactly as I had asked you all to dream! We had gone out looking very slowly and carefully yesterday, and hadn’t found it, but maybe the wake from the boats in this morning’s bass tournament dislodged my kayak from where it had snagged! So I go sit impatiently in the library for a bit and the sheriff calls again and tells me to come down to the Fort Madison launch. I drive down and find John Pawling from Lee County Conservation and the sheriff, James Emmett, standing there with my kayak. Not only my kayak, but ALL the accessories: paddles, life jacket, skirt, safety gear, even my well-used boat shoes and slightly stinky gloves. EVERYTHING!

And then John looks up at my roof rack and says “Where’d you get that bike?“ Cindy and Tom had lent me one of their bikes yesterday, and we had made a plan to meet up in New Orleans when I’m done with the journey for them to retrieve it. (A fine excuse for a trip to NOLA, don’t you think?!) John says, ”I’ve got your bike, too.“

Can you imagine?!? It turns out he saw it locked up at Ortho landing and thought perhaps someone had stolen it and hidden it down there, so he cut the lock and brought it back to the Lee County storage facility.

It’s hard to describe how it feels to have imagined I had lost everything, and suddenly have it all restored in the snap of the fingers like this. The Lee County Conservation folks even gave me a new lock to replace the one they had cut!

So I spent the rest of the day driving back and forth several times between Fort Madison and Burlington: returning Cindy’s bike, picking mine up, heading out to River Basin Canoe to buy a lasso lock for the kayak, and calling all the amazing people who had offered me replacement kayaks and bikes, written articles to get the word out, offered money to re-outfit, places to stay, searchboats to go look, to tell them the miraculous outcome of this story.

And I’m going to choose to believe that the wind pushed my boat six to ten feet down the beach into the river all by itself. No kids, no vandals, no theft, nothing like that. The outpouring of kindness from the people of Burlington and Fort Madison and Keokuk has been such an amazing gift to me. And the support and love from all of you here and on Facebook means so so much: I really feel like I am carrying all of you with me on this journey: you are keeping me safe, and all shall be well.

If you want to make a gesture in support of the people of Lee and Des Moines counties, and all they’ve done to make this story have such a wonderful ending, you could send a donation to either Des Moines County Conservation or Lee County Conservation.

And I’m heading down to Quincy and Hannibal this weekend, to the heart of Huck and Jim territory, and Lincoln/Douglas territory, and the Underground Railroad, and more cool stuff I can’t even predict, and it’s gonna be GREAT!

missing: one red kayak

When we went out to Green Bay landing this morning, the kayak was gone. Simply gone, no trace. The last time I saw it was Sunday around noon, when I was about to paddle down to Ortho landing where the bike was locked up. The wind was too strong, so I decided not to paddle, and I thought it was a bad idea to try to put the kayak back up on the car, partially because I was alone, partially because I needed to drive up to the Quad Cities to pick up Rafaela at the airport Monday and the wind was strong enough that highway driving with the kayak seemed dangerous. I had already left the kayak there overnight with no trouble, so I thought it would be okay.

I was wrong, obviously. Totally wrong.

We called the Lee County sheriff and he came out and took a report. I talked to Mike, a local farmer, whose friend owns some of the hunting camps just upriver and they both promised to ask around.

But there’s more.

We drive down to the Ortho landing ten miles downriver, where I had parked and locked my bike with a big NYC-type chain. And, I bet you can guess, the bike was gone, too. Simply gone, no trace. Not even the presumably broken lock. There was a woman there who comes out every day on her lunch hour who had seen it yesterday, which means the bike was stolen between 1 pm Monday and noon Tuesday.

We called once again, and the police came out to take a report this time (Ortho launch is within Fort Madison city limits, while Green Bay is north enough of Fort Madison to be under the aegis of the county.)

I am now without any form of human-powered transportation. Except walking, I guess(!) And I am kind of in shock. In nearly two months of traveling down the river, nothing has prepared me for this, not even a hint that something like this could happen.

So. We go to the Fort Madison newspaper where I talk to a sympathetic reporter named Joe Benedict, who promises a story for tomorrow’s Fort Madison Democrat. And then we drive back up to Burlington, where I talk to the very kind and helpful editor, Randy Miller, at The Hawkeye, and he, too, promises a story for tomorrow’s paper.

Randy puts me in touch with a local person who wants to remain anonymous, who has put us up in a hotel for the next two nights, and will take us out on the river to look for the kayak tomorrow downriver and in the back sloughs, just in case someone decided it would be fun to launch the kayak just to see where it ends up.

All these people have been so great, so generous with their time and energy and sympathy, that it seems almost unimaginable that both my kayak and my bike could really be gone forever.

So here’s what I’m praying for. That we will go out tomorrow, and my little red sportscar kayak will be caught in some reeds down the river a bit, victim of a dumb prank by some bored kids, and all will be well and I’ll be able to continue on my way almost as if this whole bad adventure didn’t happen. I don’t have much hope for recovering the bike, because in my experience a stolen bike is gone forever. But I’m focusing on the kayak right now, and if you have a little extra space in your day, if you would just dream about my little red kayak half-hidden in the bullrushes waiting to be rescued, I would be really grateful.

painting and paddling

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Today I set off in the kayak from Shady Creek with a very fun send-off crew: a group of folks who winter together in Florida and summer together by the banks of the Mississippi. (Sounds like a pretty good life to me!) Full of energy and laughter, they were just the right people to launch me on this rainy gray day for a sort of curious journey past through Lock and Dam #16, where the tender sent me through almost without a single word, a quick rest stop in Muscatine, where Caroline the Chicago poet was waiting to greet me, then past a bunch of huge factories spewing gunk right next to seemingly pristine natural vistas right next to wacky duck blinds (all the birds in that photo are decoys, in case that’s not clear(!)) Caroline retrieved me from a landing where you drive up and over the levee to get there, quite cool, and after a restorative lunch at the riverfront cafe I’ve been hanging out at every day (it’s called Elly’s and if you get to Muscatine, you too will eat there every single day, I am sure), we headed over to the Art Center, which is one of those 19th century houses with lots of Persian rugs and beautiful furniture and tasteful minor artworks — not so much my kind of thing except for this painting of the Mississippi River.

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It was tucked away near the bathroom or something. The painter is named Bill Bunn, and I just came up with this Life Magazine article from 1940, which describes how he and his 19-year-old wife were about to sail down the Mississippi in their own boat. I wonder if they did it?! He just died this summer at the age of 99, according to this article. I want to see more of Bill Bunn’s work! Somebody should get on this, don’t you think?

immigrant squirrels

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My friend Cori was supposed to fly in to Moline last night, but her dog got sick and she couldn’t come, so I headed back to Bellevue where Lori (I know, I know, I didn’t do it on purpose!) arrived around dinnertime from Columbus, OH. She had read about the journey in the NYT and decided to come out and join on for a few days, very cool! Turns out we both were friends with Robert Hilferty, whose death in this summer of many sad deaths is one that truly breaks my heart, so perhaps these few days we spend together can honor his memory in some small way.

Lori helped me put in at Bellevue for my first real paddling day in a week, and it was great to get back down in the river the way only a kayak allows. The wildlife on the river remains amazing: I saw an eagle take off from about 15 feet away, the herons and egrets and pelicans and ducks and geese are everywhere, but the winner was this crazy squirrel I came across as he was swimming across the whole river. (click the photo for a slightly clearer view…) At first I thought it must be some other animal, but as I got close I realized it had to be a very nervous squirrel: he was making that scared clucking sound the whole time he was swimming, and I wanted to tell him to focus his energy just on the swimming (it looked to be hard work for him) — but eventually he made it to the other side and scampered away. What do you suppose that was about? He heard the nuts in Iowa are more plentiful?!

I pulled out at Savanna, where Lori was waiting for me with Jeff, who is aiming to walk down to NOLA pulling his stuff behind him in a little red wagon. We talked with him for a bit and he gave me a banana (thanks and good luck, Jeff!) and then we decided to head up to Galena, IL to check out the US Grant Museum. The museum was okay, but the town of Galena was sort of trippy: upscale tourist central in the middle of rural Illinois. I had never even heard of Galena, but clearly it is a destination for well-heeled tourists from all over. It’s hard to define the exact place where charming crosses over into precious, but for me Galena is definitely on the other side of the line. I suppose my complete lack of interest in buying stuff has a lot to do with my antipathy, but I also resent the way functionality is actually displaced by the Disneyfied similacrum of “town” in such places. There are real river towns right nearby, so why does anyone want to hang out in the overpriced fake version?

family ties

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We had an entirely different sort of paddling day today, totally great: Nick and Margaret brought their daughters Jennifer and Kimberly, Jennifer’s friend Eliza, and two canoes to augment our solo kayak, so all SEVEN of us put in at Lynxville for a really fun day of paddling. Here you see Kimberly, age 11, a totally natural kayaker, learning about map navigation from her folks.

We didn’t all make it down to Prairie du Chien, where we had parked the second car. At a certain point, Nick took over with the kayak while the rest of us gamboled at a boat launch, which included Mac getting coated with tire rubber helping to rescue a truck from backing right down into the water along with the boat it was trying to pull out. (There are aspects of being male in this world that I certainly do not envy in the slightest, among them being forcibly enlisted in idiocies that require brute force.)

The day ended with a really great meal with the whole crew at a brewpub down in McGregor, and then we all headed back upstream and Mac and I crashed one last night at the house in Ferryville. What a wonderful time I’ve had with Nick and Margaret and their crew: it feels like the start of a long friendship — actually, more like the continuation of a friendship that was already there.

Oh, and I forgot to tell you that the marker I posted yesterday is not the official Historical Society marker, but one of several put up in the 1930’s by a local doctor and history buff who constructed them out of concrete on his dining room table in Viroqua. In addition to seven markers commemorating the massacre, he also constructed a monument in his hometown “honoring a July 4, 1856 speech by Lucy Stone, which he called ‘the first Woman’s Rights and Anti Slavery ever given by a woman in the great northwest.’” I got all this from an article in the Kickapoo Free Press that Nick gave me, which also offers the local Sheriff’s Report in verse. A sample:

8/2/09 Insomnia
Logan Sheldon sleeps so seldom
Good thing that the guardrail held ‘im.