Tag Archives: river

outing myself

This morning the phone rang while I was in Walgreen’s in La Crosse and it was Nick Lichter, who wrote The Road of Souls, an account of his 1991 solo journey down the Mississippi that we’ve been reading and re-reading as a sort of treasure hunt. Nick seems to have a knack of finding cool out-of-the-way things that we’ve not always successfully tried to find ourselves. We drove around Itasca State Park one afternoon looking for the marker commemorating the first sermon preached at the headwaters (by Archdeacon Gilfillan) to no avail — we even asked at park HQ and nobody knew; and we found the Chief Hole-in-the-Day Business Park (not kidding) and a set of beehives northeast of Little Falls, but not the burial mound of the Chief we were actually looking for.

But Nick found us, no problem, and invited us to stay with him and Margaret, whom he met on his trip (talk about life-changing!) and their three children in their house just up a coulee in La Crosse. And he suggested I go take a look at the Franciscan convent a couple blocks away since I had a bit of time before picking up Mac.

So when the laundry was done, I headed over to the Franciscan Sisters’ Motherhouse, and Sister Dorothy gave me a tour of this really beautiful chapel, which among many treasures has faux Norwegian pine columns that I can only call glorious, and she was so kind and so free and so playful in that way nuns and monks can sometimes be, and when they are it is just the best ever. And she left me at another chapel where there has been a perpetual prayer for peace going since 1 August 1878. When the bell rang the hour, everyone got up and recited some prayers including that line about doing the work God has chosen for us to do. And I know it sounds completely dumb to say this, but I really feel like this journey is the work I have been chosen to do right now. I don’t really have a clue why, exactly, I mean, prior to a year ago I really had no particular connection to or interest in the Mississippi River, it’s not like I’ve been fantasizing about doing this journey since childhood or anything like that. It just came over me and now here I am. And I feel pretty foolish posting this for all of you to read, and you are totally welcome to scoff if you like. I mean, really!?!? God told her to paddle down the river. Whatever. But there it is.

Anyway, as I was leaving, Sister Dorothy hugged me and blessed me, too, so now I think I can go to Catholic Church one of these Sundays after all. I’ll carry Sister Dorothy with me and everything will be fine.

After retrieving Mac, we headed over to Nick and Margaret’s and had a really wonderful evening with them and their children. Paddling the river builds a very deep connection, that’s for sure! And Nick’s way of immersing himself the history and stories of the river along with the physical, tactile experience of being out there is something I appreciate very much. They offered us their vacation house just down the river in Ferryville, so we’ll be spending some more time with Nick (and maybe his family, too), and I’m really looking forward to that.

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.

between Monticello and Anoka

instead of writing, I decided to do today’s post as a sort of voicemail from the river:

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reading the river

I begin to learn the very basics of reading the river: learning to see the difference between ripples in the water caused by wind and those caused by branches or rocks just under the water. It’s a funny thing how the kayak wants to go right where the obstructions are, to join the faster water that’s created there. I am aware that I am a rank beginner at this river reading: it’s about equivalent to my Ojibwe recognition: a ”g“ at the end of a word makes the word plural, I know that much!

I’m actually quite good at being a beginner at things: perhaps it’s my only real expertise. I know 300 words and the conjugation of the present tense in as many as 10 languages, but I can’t really speak any but English. I can play simple music on virtually every instrument, but I’m not a skilled performer on any of them. I realize I am in certain ways a total dilettante, a ”generalist“ as my father described me to my chagrin as a teenager. I berate myself all the time for not mastering Greek or the piano, I put myself on disciplined schedules of study that invariably fall by the wayside because the next project requires me to learn the rudiments of the Persian radif and carpentry, kayaking and Ojibwe. After first spending some time with my music, my friend Susan pronounced me a bricoleur, without a trace of disdain, so I’ve decided finally to embrace my bricoleur self, make my peace with my own nature. I have the confidence that I can learn almost anything I need to know to do what I want to do, to make what I want to make. But sometimes I do get lonely for that sense of pure mastery of a single subject. I think of Mark Twain’s immortal description of the river pilot’s expertise in Life on the Mississippi, and I would like to have that mastery in something more, I don’t know, elevated than driving a car, using a Mac, editing audio, setting up a tent.

Although writing this, I’m suddenly realizing that the pleasure I take in dumb little rituals like organizing the car, setting up the tents elegantly and efficiently, keeping my databases and hard drives ridiculously tidy, and a million other tiny tasks, which I execute in a laughably OCD and control-freakish way, are a way of counterbalancing my openness to beginner status and serendipity (otherwise known as ignorance and luck) in the most important parts of my life.

And there is a moment sometimes when I’m writing a new piece when everything falls into place, and suddenly I do have that sense of mastery of the needs of that exact piece and no other, and I feel this oceanic sense of utter certainty: it didn’t exist at all, then the fragmentary thread of something shows up, and then all of a sudden, I know exactly how it goes, what it needs to be. It doesn’t feel like MY mastery at all, more like something visited upon me. But perhaps that’s my version of reading the river. I’ll take it; it’s enough for me, for sure…

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.