Thursday, August 4, 2016

The "Mondo"

The bird slid motionless through unseen layers of air high above the hemlocks, spruce and birch-it had taken an hour and a half to appear. “Finally,” I thought to myself- I never tire of witnessing eagles. I'd expected to at some point, for this was the perfect habitat, but he or she, wan't on my schedule. Subconsciously, I put a check next to box marked “Bald Eagle, adult.” Already crossed off were Great Blue Heron, Common Merganser, Kingfisher, and mallard. I wasn't out on a bird watching excursion, so there were other things on the imaginary list as well-towering red and white pine, clear water, and “Canadian-esque” surroundings. This is as close to our neighbor to the north as you'll find in central Wisconsin.

The Mondeaux Dam Recreation Area, located outside of Westboro in Taylor County, is a gem within the Chequamegon National Forest. In 1933, the forest service began acquiring land here and in that same year, Camp Mondeaux River was established, (a depression era CCC camp). The young men stationed at the camp would play an important role in the development of “Mondo.” Their primary role was to develop the facilities within the new National Forest-building trails, bridges, tree planting and also suppressing fire. Archie Campbell, a local mechanic at the camp, suggested damming the Mondeaux River to provide recreational opportunities. Work began in 1936-37 and was ready to be flooded in 1938. The Mondeaux Flowage was born.

I'd visited a campground here many years ago and even had a chance to hike a lightly used portion of the ice age trail which passes through the Mondeaux area. The lake created by damming the north flowing river is almost four miles long and varies from a few hundred yards to a quarter mile wide-remnants of a glacial “tunnel channel” and “esker.” Remembering that I'd paddled a canoe here long ago, I thought it'd be a perfect place to kayak when looking for “new” water to explore.

Reconnaissance of new lakes or rivers for kayaking sometimes takes the form of just scrolling and zooming on Google maps. A large irregular blue shape requires closer scrutiny. Have I been there before, how far is it? Is it worth the drive to consider investigating? That's as simple as these things start-and it can pay off.

The locals call it “Mondo” Dam, I prefer the French. It's fairly popular on weekends, with mostly a few fishermen plying their luck along the thick forest shorelines or scattered rice beds. On weekdays, I'd expect to have the quiet waters mostly to yourself.

After a 90 minute drive, paddling friend Mark and I put in at a steep overgrown old canoe launch on the far south end-basically the start of the “lake.” There is parking for one vehicle next to the wood bridge on forest road 102. We did our best to clear out brush to reach the tiny narrow bank and without too much adversity, had both boats in the lily pad topped stream.

Paddling northward through a narrow channel of open water, the lake gradually widens. The only private cottages are located here on the south west side, with the east and far end all undeveloped national forest. As the kayaks continued, we were surrounded by more and more of that “up-North” feel, yes very much like Canada as I mentioned. Perhaps it's the size of the pine and Hemlock, the quietness, or the feeling of being in a remote place. That sense only occasionally disturbed by small fishing boats passing by. Several modest and simple campgrounds peek out here and there from the dense forest, but we see few people.

Mondeaux is all flat water paddling and it's not always clear which channel was the main one-no matter, we'd explore any and all of them if needed. Mark and I both eyed up remote campsite locations on the small islands we passed-this would make a great fall return trip. We'd take a cue from the fishermen as they'd pass as to where to continue and eventually made it to the Mondeaux Dam Lodge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building remains in a rustic style, much as it was when built in the 1930's. There is a small store here and canoe and kayak rental with a beach and picnic area. The original cement dam is sited between two day use areas.

On the return trip, we did take some of the alternate waterways around islands and explored a bit more while cruising along the opposite shore. The eagle made its appearance, soaring above and kept us company for a while, a welcome companion. We continued on, returning to the cabins on the south end. A recent storm had a few residents revving chainsaws to clear downed trees high above on the steep shore. A few more paddle strokes under the bridge and we were constricted into the narrows of the Mondeaux “river”/creek/stream/backwaters-a weedy thread where we began our outing two hours earlier.

From a suggestion to the CCC supervisor in April of 1935 by land owner Archie Campbell, to what is now considered to be nonpareil within the Chequamegon National Forest, the “Mondo” was all we'd hoped for in a “new” water discovery. My brief canoe stint 25 years ago didn't reveal just how inviting this lake could be from one end to the other for the paddler. Another box could be checked on my make believe list- Paddling water, scenery, superb.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The misi-ziibi

The Mississippi, the Ganges and the Nile,...the Rocky Mountains, the Himmaleh, and the Mountains of the Moon, have a personal importance in the annals of the world.: - Henry David Thoreau

The current is deciding. You see it, you see the effects it has, you know it's there. The bow of my boat just nudges the ripple of water deflecting of the leading edge of the island. Before the next paddle stroke, the kayak pivots in the current, turned broadside to the rivers breath, and I'm off course.

It isn't far across the main channel of the Mississippi in downtown LaCrosse, but the strength of the flow has a purchase on my boat, forcing it to ill-favored directions. The kayak paddle dips deeper and is pulled back with more force-I inch closer to the park on the west shore.

The bow came about at the last second and slid up onto the sand at a small beach. From the bank where I now rested, I could see across to the hustle and bustle at Riverside park, the traffic downtown and the steel bridges spanning the river. I lifted the boat from the water and set about stowing gear, my foray down the 'ol Miss was over.


Pool 6 and the lock and dam at Trempeleau was my put in. I'd wanted to avoid having to pass through any locks, not really knowing how that experience would go in a tiny craft. Better to stick with what I'm familiar with. I'd mapped out a reasonable day trip from here to LaCrosse, about 15 river miles, with one portage at French Island to avoid locking through at Dresbach Minnesota. My enthusiasm for kayaking has grown, so it was just a matter of time before I'd have to paddle the “misi-ziibi,” the Ojibwa name for the river.

Thoreau recognized the importance of this waterway. It influences everything within its reach. For me, “the gathering of waters” (another nickname) always takes me back in time-connects me to the history of this river valley. She has always dominated here. As a paddler, riding the current would give me a kinship with all others who have ever navigated her.

My close friend Kirk and his wife Lynn, met me at the flooded landing-they were kind enough to shuttle my truck to LaCrosse after I launched. It was very early morning and I appreciated their help. Kirk's parents live a few miles downstream on the Minnesota side so there was a chance I'd see them during their morning coffee excursion (I did, one of the few boats on my entire trip). The kevlar boat had her nose in the water and was outfitted for the trip as we said our “hi's” and “good byes” and I pushed out from shore.

Just how strong the river is became immediately apparent-the boat, instead of setting off downstream, was sucked up into the dock by the eddy behind the lock. A bit un-nerving to start, but going into this adventure I knew to respect every aspect of the “old Man River.” A few strong pulls prodded the boat out away from the lock and dam and breathing swells of the water pulled me downstream. I'm off.

I'm a rookie at Mississippi paddling-this was my first time and knowing her power, I'd decided to stay closer to the shore than away. The main channel, though not deep, holds all of the vigor of the river and until I had my “sea legs,” I 'd be better off in the margins-not that one can let their guard down there either.

Wing dams were first constructed in the 1800s to aid in deflecting current into the shipping course-there are thousands of these rock piles extending out from shore. Luckily, they are easy to spot by looking for ripples and waves sprouting up diagonally from the riverbanks. For a kayak, they aren't a big problem-there is no danger of hitting them like other boats may have-still, they produce swirls and funky whirls and in an instant, the you're off course. They are built at fairly regular intervals, so you'd just expect them as a continuous feature while paddling. The strangest phenomenon they produced was a standing wave of sorts from a passing sand barge. The tug was far to the opposite side, but when it's wake finally rolled onto the wing dam, it created a strange wide multiple wave crest of water. At first I hadn't a clue what it was-just that it was concerning as it approached. It did make sense, just as a wave builds up as it hits a shallow beach, the same was happening here, and luckily, was easy to slice through.

With the river pushing me along at a decent clip, I made good time. I hugged the Minnesota side, where the current was greatest, and was trusting my ability to use it to my advantage. Run down old boat houses showing signs of repeated flooding, contrasted with multi million dollar modern river homes higher up overlooking the water. It seemed to be a losing battle to challenge the river here-build too close to her and she'd reclaim her shore sooner or later. Old foundations, rip rap and precarious leaning piers lined the banks here and there near old rail road sidings higher up.

The Wisconsin side of the river is characterized by backwaters, side channels and sloughs worthy of exploring as well. At Dakota (MN) I crossed eastward into the “braided stream zone” of upper Lake Onalaska. It's a maze of small islands and floodplain forest, critical habitat for waterfowl and other aquatic life. Fish seemed to be abundant here, rising to the surface in a startled boil or jumping at newly hatched mayflies. Surprisingly, I met few boats, anglers or otherwise.

At Dresbach, the lock for pool 7 lies on the west shore. A long mile and a half long earthen dam extends east to French Island, capping off the south end of Lake Onalaska. Two adjacent boat landings span the dike and made it possible to portage over to what is known as the French Lake (the Black River is on the east side of the island and its delta lies 9 miles north, above Brice Prairie). Water was very high and the boat launch dock sat alone out in the slough-useless for anyone to use. I slid back in and headed south toward Lacrosse. French Lake here really is just a narrow channel along French Island with off-shoot waterways that eventually connect back up to the Mississippi. Except for a couple fishermen, I had these river bottoms to myself.

Strangely, after a fair amount of calm water paddling, I hit current from the west-a good indicator that I was nearing the big river again. The narrow artery (Smith Slough) crossed south of “Round Lake” (another backwater) from the Mississippi pushing my kayak to the south tip of the island. Here, industrial facilities started to appear, evidence I was nearing La Crosse and the end of my trip.

A few more boats appeared, in or back out from the marinas on the Black. It was strange to just be plopped out into the main channel directly at downtown La Crosse near Riverside Park. The strength of the water grew here and down river I could see a massive barge beating its way north toward the twin cities-I wondered what that trip must be like. My best bet would be to duck into the lee side of a mid-channel island and use the eddy near shore to push me upstream. At the head of the island I'd need to cut across the river's flow to make it to Pettybone Park, my pick up point.

With the Mississippi running at maybe four miles per hour, I'd made good time-even with plenty of flat water. It seemed I'd barely lifted the kayak onto the truck and my mind already raced onto where “Ol' Man River” would take me next-this half day trip just whet the adventure appetite. Thoreau knew the greatness chronicled in these flowing waters and now I could add it to my journal and history as well.