October 2, 2004—Fall was rich in apples and hay when we set out, desperate to squeeze in one more canoe trip before the chill arrived. We headed east to the Kinnickinnick River, a small river just over the Wisconsin border. I had read how concerned citizens and Trout Unlimited had been working to restore the creek with both cleanup efforts and developing storm run plans with riverside business. But a quick survey of water levels from the bridge showed that we were too late in the year for this stream — we would spend the day dragging our canoe and scooping up sand in the thin water.
Onward! Checking the map we could see that the next river going east was really a creek. Doubtful, we followed the back roads to a likely put in…Too late. The water was too skinny there, too. Out came the map — The Chippewa — 40 minutes further east, a bit south. Guaranteed to have water as it is a working river, having carried logs from the great pine forests all the way to the Mississippi in the late 1800’s. Back roads took us through the magnificent rolling hills and farms of southwestern Wisconsin where feed corn stood crisp and ready.
We pulled into Durand, WI, where a guide book mentioned that we might find a shuttle at a local pub. Apparently no one in the bar had read our guide book but the proprietor volunteered to drive Ian to our calculated take out. We unloaded the canoe at the boat landing and I waited nearly an hour for his return. Getting late, I thought. Ian returned and we discovered we’d forgotten his hat. It was too sunny to attempt the twelve mile trip with no hat so I hiked to the hunting store and bought a cap. Getting late, I thought.
It was nearly 1 pm when we nosed the canoe under the town bridge. The sun was shining silver on the water and the river banks were lined with trees waving one last deep green before transforming to gold. Round
Hill appeared river right and after that civilization disappeared. We paddled quietly. Great sandbars served as landing beaches for sea gulls. A hawk fished the afternoon away. Lunch came and we climbed a high bank to a bench in front of a cabin shuttered for the winter. Down below beaches stretched on the opposite shore and the late afternoon sun showed flocks of birds rising and falling to the south.
A check of our map showed that we were only a third of the way to the take-out where our car was waiting. We marked an earlier take out and decided that if we didn’t make the early take out before 4pm, we better consider walking out at Ella or we’d be paddling in the dark. After lunch we paddled beside rock outcrops where trees gripped the stone, a sight that still amazes me. 4:30 pm came just as we were coming up on our sandy emergency take out. What should we do? Seven more miles to our car and it was sure to be dark by the time we arrived…We pulled ashore and pondered the map. It HAD been too late to start. We hid our canoe in the bushes and hiked to the road with our paddles.
The back road to the boat landing proved to be so quiet that only one car passed us in 20 minutes and it was going the wrong way. Getting late, I thought. In desperation we asked a woman carrying groceries from her car at a nearby house if she knew a way we might get back to our car. With great kindness she offered to drive us and this is how we arrived at the end of the Chippewa River: by Marion’s purple mustang instead of our green canoe.
But the adventure wasn’t over. Another surprised waited. On the drive to our car we passed the church at Plum Creek and I nearly jumped out of my seat! Laura Ingles Wilder country! Without planning we had stumbled into her neighborhood. I had always wanted to find one of her homes and the map showed that our way would take us right by the Big Woods cabin, near Lake Pepin. With the last of the day’s light I took this picture to show you that sometimes starting too late turns out to be exactly right.