Debra Frasier
title
 
 
Rivers: 1 - 6 7 -12 13 - 18 19-25 26-30 31-32

Brown's Farm#30 Hay River,
Prairie, WI

August 31, 2008

After searching the maps and river guide books for a new river within a days drive of Minneapolis we settled on the Hay River, planning to put in just south of Prairie Farm, in north central Wisconsin. We could camp within an hour of the river on a friend’s farm so we headed off, tents and canoe and food and paddles all thrown into the car at the last minute. I was awaken early in my tent with a visit by Poppy, our host's lab.

The drive through Wisconsin farm country was like driving through a film, hardly any other cars on the road, all the fields mowed into giant bales of hay or left standing as millions of rustling corn soldiers for as far as you could see. The hour drive turned into nearly two hours with stops for gas and ice and bad map estimates.

 
Road closed
Tractor
We finally found the put-in to the Hay River just south of tiny Prairie Farm, up river from the Norwegian Bridge. Fisherman agreed to watch our canoe while we managed the car shuttle to the end of our day’s paddle. This proved to be more difficult than planned as the new guide book we were using was not well marked and the twisting path of Hwy F, V, VV, and 64 was like a labyrinth, and then throw in two closed roads. We were saved by Paul, tractor driver, who literally pulled up beside us to ask if we were looking for something local. He gave perfect directions, and we left one car at river trip end and drove the second car back to our canoe.
 

Hay River is a prairie river—low banked with fields and farms adjoining— punctuated by brief interludes of gorgeous sandstone cliffs. The Chippewa and the Sioux Dakota Indians fought their last battle on the river’s banks in 1861. Once again weeds caught in branches above us marked the astonishing high water mark of spring floods but now it was the last day of August and we found low water requiring many push and pulls over rocks and sand. Downed trees had us hauling the canoe over trunk dams and Sandstonethrough branches and since Ian forgot his water shoes back at our campsite, I did all the hauling and pulling while he kept his feet dry!

The river twisted and turned and winded this way and that. In a normal afternoon we have paddled between six and thirteen miles (depending on current and water levels) but the Hay proved so time consuming that we found ourselves only four and a half miles into our ten mile plan and the sun quickly sinking behind the tree bank line.

Sometimes the best laid plans…We hoped out at the next bridge, (knowing the next two bridges were closed for construction I had to hike to a farm house to figure out what road we were on and which direction should we walk. No one was home but old mail in the box gave us the road number!). We hid the canoe under the bridge and stuck out our thumbs in the hopes that a local would run us back to the Norwegian Bridge. After some time we were lucky, our driver was kindly, popped the trunk for our gear, and we began the long shuttle of picking up cars and canoe. It was a beautiful river, abet short, and another river lesson: When things go awry just smile and enjoy whatever IS happening instead of what whining about what ISN’T. It was a glorious day despite “The Plan.”
 
Roadside   With corn

#29 Brandywine River
Chadd's Ford, PA

April 27, 2008

Due to a fortuitous meeting in Florida months ago, and an ensuing unlikely wild plan, I found myself invited to join a three canoe Kerr family rendezvous on the Brandywine River, thanks to Randy, organizer extraordinaire.

  Hank's Place
Loading canoes  
   
Tiger  
After speaking at Nottingham Elementary, Oxford, PA, winner of my national drawing for a free Author Visit (and my hat is off to the remarkable staff and students of this stellar school), I met Randy, his family, and his trailer full of three canoes, at Hank’s Place, on Route 1, in Chadd's Ford. The morning was cold, slate gray, and bone chilling. Hank’s famous hash was in great demand and we waited for places in the Sunday gloom.

Animal keeperOnce fed we started the long shuffle of canoes and cars and I had the pleasure of waiting while poking around the closed-for-the-winter Brandywine Picnic Park. There is nothing quite so strange as a closed down amusement park and this place, in it’s Sunday morning gloomy quiet, seemed to spill with stories. While prowling around I met the animal keeper and the heavy sky, protruding fake animals, and bleating real animals made for a slip into a twilight zone.

Water rescue workshiop  
   
Cousins paddling  
   
 
Dogwood
 
 
Andy's catfish
Car shuttling complete we nosed the canoes down the steps and onto the lovely Brandywine. (In the 1770’s British Red Coats were seen bathing and washing those bright coats along this very stretch of river but today only the local Police Department was running a water rescue workshop in the chilly water.) Dogwood blooms floated amid the budding green trees and bits of rock walls, old stone barns, and trim houses stood as quiet evidence of the Revolutionary days. Bluebell season kept Randy, stern person in my boat, all excited, and we paddled from patch to patch to exclaim along the first hour.

The Young People’s boat in our flotilla was awash in cousin-talk, singing, and out loud laughing under the steel sky. It was chilly but their spirits were not and their banter kept the river lively with pirate songs and loud accusations as to exactly who had stunk up the canoe once again. The other boat was paddled by Andre and Karen, Karen being a native who, at first meeting, showed me a basket of mushrooms that were so fresh from the nearby mushroom farm that they seemed to radiate pure whiteness. Andre, who looks perfectly normal, actually builds mutant creatures in his spare time. See “Cat Fish” if you think I’m kidding.

 
Debra at the dam
Prom?
The canoe guide book promised two carries over small dams and the first one sounded before we saw it. We hauled the canoes over and around while Andre and Karen shot the rapid channel to river right. A bit of bridge graffiti asked the proverbial question many of us are forced to face: Prom?

A giant bald eagle settled on a tree ahead of us and we quieted our boats enough to paddle right under its imperious watch. Our youngest paddler, after all the silence, made me burst out laughing by saying: “I silently said the Pledge of Allegiance as we paddled by him.”

Several bridges spanned the still water, the last being a red covered bridge that made the only bright slash on this gray colored day…Except for one other and yet I know I do not have the skill to describe such magic... As the day wound down we found swallows swarming above, big clouds of black split tails darting this way and that in the dusk. A flock of startling iridescent blue swallows broke off and flew around and around our boat, flitting inches from the water, flicking their brilliant wings and calling, “Spring!” “Come!” “See!”

Covered bridge
 
#28 Bayou Long, end of Belle River, Louisiana

November 30 & December 1, 2007

Bayou Long, end of Belle River, Louisiana

School visits in Louisiana led me to a small cabin on Bayou Long, the tail end of Belle River’s water flow in Stephensville, just outside Morgan City, 90 miles west of New Orleans. The sweet-voiced cabin owner, Anthony, had said in the dead of night when I arrived, “Don’t worry about the alligators, it’s way too cold tonight...”  And he was right as I only saw a skeleton during my stay. (www.cajunhouseboats.com)

Cypress trees with "knees"

Cypress tree

After a great school visit to Berwick Elementary (followed by a tremendous school-wide Vocabulary Parade), I set out in the cabin’s small canoe, pleased that I figured out how to solo paddle the wide bottomed impossible little boat. (How? After much spinning I finally straightened her out with a deep stroke from the stern angling nearly under the boat, ending with a quick steering pry on each paddle.)

The morning mist had just lifted when I set off north, hugging the bank of the camp cabins lining one side of the bayou (the other side is wild), then out to an island ringed in cypress trees. With no wind and glassy water I slid along as quiet as any water snake—which were on my mind as I’d been warned to be careful stepping or turning anything over.

Grass

Cypress trunk 'skirtThe cypress trees have a near magical presence. Very slow growing they stand in shallow water, rising up out of great skirts of trunks, often twisted ever so slightly so as to seem to be turning. They are surrounded by “cypress knees,” the up-turning roots of the great tree, knobby topped, standing two to four feet high, ringing the big trunks. Watermark lines on their trunks recorded the low water of the current southeastern drought.

Like Minnesota’s long-gone Big Woods of hardwoods, this watery country once held the greatest cypress forest in North America. In my little cabin a poster proclaims: FB Williams Cypress Co. Ltd, The Largest Cypress Mill in the World, Patterson, LA, 1902-1934. Thirty-two Spanish Mossyears. It took about the same amount of time to harvest the great hardwood forests of the upper Midwest, much of which also ended up shipping out of New Orleans to the rest of the world.

Whenever I am in the presence of something that grows very slowly, like the giant redwoods, or carpet lichen, there is a kind of patience that seeps into my eyes, then down into my heart. A momentary borrowed quiet sets in. This is what happened here on the bayou.

Everything about this paddle was liquid—the glassy water and its reflecting flashes up the trunks of the great trees, the high fluid lines of a hundred ducks, black, drawing lines across the sky, followed by the changing floating “V” of the white pelicans, flashing white, then wing-Gator head skulltipped black. The cypress trees are hung thick with Spanish moss so edges are softened and even the smallest breeze is evident, eddying like water around draped limbs high above.

Even on December 1st it’s still fall here on the bayou and the leaves are browns, dark burnt golds, pale orange, many floating in the mirrored water. A white heron lets me paddle only so close before raising giant wings. It is so quiet I hear duck wings pounding air as they draw over.

The next morning I tired to repeat the same paddle. A gusty wind came up and the little flat bottomed canoe could barely fight back. Hunters flooded the islands, orange vested, roaring around in silver boats. Successive gun shots rang deep in swampy woods. Not to be mistaken fChair on dockor a canoeing deer I tied an extra orange lifejacket to my waist and set off for home.

This is why they say you can never step in the same river twice. Every river is always different, moment to moment, day to day. Fortunately, I still carried yesterday’s stillness, deeper than gunshots. Then suddenly all the hunters roared off, as if someone had blown a whistle. The wind died. A huge eagle caught sight of something flashing in the water and the quiet hunters took over. I paddled home.

#27 Blue Earth River
October 25, 2007

The Minnesota Library Convention took me to Mankato, MN, south of the Twin Cities by about an hour. Despite being late in the year I had hopes we could find a river and some good weather so at the last minute I tied the canoe on the car, added Paddling Minnesota Rivers to my suitcase and drove off. A look at the map revealed a surprisingly thick web of small rivers flowing into the grand Minnesota River, which meanders to the grandest of them all, the Mississippi. After reading all the descriptions (and looking for a river with the least amount of “rapids” hatchmarks), the charmingly named “Blue Earth” won the vote.

The Blue Earth flows northeast and is crossed by the Rapidan Dam, built in 1918. The official canoe put-in could not be found (we later heard that it was closed) so we began poking our cars along back roads that paralleled the river, all in the hopes of finding an available place to launch a canoe. (I was a bit relieved not to put in at the dam’s base as it was churning thunderously and the day was cold. If there was ever a day to NOT turn over, this was it.)

We followed a meandering road that eventually turned to a driveway, where, to our astonishment, we found a house with a ramp right down to the river. A man struggled at the base of the ramp and looked up as if he was expecting us. He needed help moving a floating dock that had lodged itself in the way of his boat launching and he was now late for a meeting. Ian helped lift and lever the impossibly heavy dock out of the way just enough to get his boat trailered in. He was grateful and we were delighted to find ourselves at a safe place for the second car, with riverside paved put-in, to boot.




The water was high and fast due to a recent dam release followed by late rain and the constant riffles and rocks kept us on alert. Lunch was spent atop a warm flat rock just beneath this waterfall where the most graceful curve of sand channeled the spring out to the river. Burnt gold dotted the riverbanks of bare branched trees, the last remaining maple leaves holding tight. The day was exquisite in every way, all the more so as we knew it would not be long until even these last golden dots will be lost to white.

We crossed the confluence of the LeSeur River and the river slowed and broadened. We saw no one on the water except for the very man who had loaned us his boat ramp. The river flowed so quickly that twelve miles flew by in less than three hours, long lunch at the waterfall included. Gold draped the final section and suddenly the bridge and factories of little Mankato loomed over us. A young man fresh from third grade met us at the park with a zillion questions. We hid the canoe and set off in Ian’s car to collect my car, left back at the boat ramp. We decided to drive over the dam and visit the famous Dam Store, a house more than 100 years old, that was moved to its present site when the reservoir was flooded. The interior is like something out of a 1950’s movie set and the pie is just as other-worldly. If you find yourself just south of Mankato, don’t miss it.




#26 Yellow River - Northeast Iowa
October 4, 2007

The summer of 2007 brought a very busy studio filled with deadlines, a little bad luck and a lot of very bad weather in Minnesota with intense flooding in the south, drought in the north. Our rivers are loose for only half the year and all those things must be in alignment or before you know it, the green carpet of summer is suddenly dotted with orange tinged leaves.

And that’s exactly what happened. On October 2nd I walked to my car and found crisp leaves spinning down around me, astonished that I had foolishly nearly missed the rivers. Call it misplaced priorities or too many obligations, call it whatever, but no matter how late you wake up to it, no matter how hard you push against the earth’s spin, you can’t stop the water from turning to ice.

Impending ice is not negotiable so we left early on the 3rd of October for John Snyder’s Iowa farm. I had read of a river south of Decorah, south of the lovely Iowa River—the Yellow—tiny and farm lined, eventually twisting into the Mississippi. Arriving at John’s farm late we found his kitchen counter piled high with magnificent green-topped beets and vegetables grilling on the fire. The next morning we toured John’s new barn studio renovations (he is a brilliant painter) and filled our ice chest. A map check pointed us south, curving on dirt roads to a tiny dot along the Yellow River.

Iowa is tinged with straight-out-of-the-crayon-box-orange in early October, and like a kindergartener’s coloring book, it was scribbled everywhere between the deep greens. Pumpkins lined mowed lawns: three minis for one dollar. Trees stood half green, half orange. Morning light turned brittle corn stalks orange. Roadside tomatoes sat fat and juicy with the color. We missed turns, found turns, bought pumpkins, and wound our way to an outfitter in a named town that was really no more than a string of houses along the river.

Unfortunately, not a person was around. No people meant no shuttle service. Fortunately, a man pulled up, introduced himself as father to the outfitter, and volunteered to run one car down to the take-out, and bring us back to our canoe. He turned out to be a delight, and a collector of Indian artifacts, (some found just across the river, he pointed) and promised a tour of his collection at day’s end.

Sitting down in a valley, the Yellow River twists between farms but is lined by a greenway for much of the river. A Paddling River Pirate saw us off! Evidence of the severe flooding of August was everywhere: trees undercut on the banks, debris high in the branches, and submerged trunks clawing up from the surface. Water rushed fast for late fall, still. Ian was seriously concerned and insisted on zipped lifejackets (PDFs), speaking sharply. He was right.

 
 

River-left we spotted a lunch spot complete with steps but the swift current carried us beyond it before we could stop. Paddling back we got a taste of how a gentle stream can be a tough competitor. Ian had packed an orange spread-of-a lunch but dessert’s Honeycrisp apples drew a swarm of bees. We escaped to an island for a rest amid rushing water and no bees. It was one of those Perfect Places and I sometimes imagine myself there, still.

The river turned through several limestone bluffs and then flattened out to cornfield edging. An eagle, startled to find us at a turn, surprised us with a flight across our path. The sheer size of a nearby eagle is always astonishing yet by the time it joined another to soar the far ridge it was only a tiny dot in the sky. Day’s end brought us to the take-out and here’s where I made a Very Big Mistake, ignoring Ian’s good advice and overshooting an easy take-out for one I thought I understood to be ahead. We ended up dashing to the bank in the muck amid a herd of horses on both river banks. My misunderstanding had very nearly taken us to the next section of the river where the guide warned of no take-out for miles and serious rapids, to boot. We had to carry our gear and the canoe up a steep bridge slope and moments were tense between us. Canoeing is a partnership. It is not called “The Divorce Boat” for nothing, and I pushed the limit this day, not listening more closely. We were last-minute-lucky and I learned another river lesson.

We had a peek at the Indian artifact collection on the way back and saw stones shaped for pounding, arrow points, and food grinding. The drive back to John’s farm was equally orange, with dried corn fields stretching as far as you can see and an orange sign explaining why a train lay silently parked across the only dirt road we knew to get us home. Dinner at a restaurant in Decorah dropped us into a young crowd of Barak Obama organizers, all checking electronic devices and buzzing like the river bees after his local speech. Next morning the drive back to Minneapolis gave us tractors to buy, or pumpkins, and I couldn’t resist one more of the latter.

 
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