“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.
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.