#13 The Sloughs of the Mississippi River

13-Trempealeau Hotel
Trempealeau Hotel

October 25, 2003—(Note: We have decided to count the Mississippi River, one of the world’s greatest rivers, as many times as we can find a way to journey on part of it!)

On Saturday, October 25th, we gathered for lunch at the old Trempealeau Hotel in Trempealeau, Wisconsin. The hotel was opened in 1871 and sits a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River, the railroad, and Lock and Dam #6. People, trains, and barges are constantly moving past the windows of the hotel and it is not hard to imagine the French trappers who settled the area striding up to the original bar and ordering a stout drink. The town is nestled at the foot of surprising mountains — surprising for the Midwest! — and on this particular Saturday the hills were covered in golden leaves, all about to leave their branches in the first high wind. We could not believe our luck! One more gorgeous paddle before winter closed the waters…

13-Ben and Jake
Ben and Jake

Ian and I were joined by Jerry and Ben, (see Minnehaha Creek and Bridal Veil Falls), and Ben’s friend, Jake. We launched our twin Old Town Penobscot canoes and paddled off under a sky so blue it seemed a cartoon artist had painted it above us. This time we planned to follow a “canoe trail” that Jerry had researched. Not far into the narrow channel we found the first of the blue diamond signs and turned off to the slough. (A slough, pronounced “slew” or “slouw,” depending where you grow up, is a swamp-like land bordering a river.) The slough was narrow and twisting, and draped with trees. Every small breeze released a rain of golden leaves. The small blue trail signs were not always easy to find and the water twisted and turned, so each spotting of a blue diamond was a great comfort.

 

13-Turtle Shell
Turtle Shell

We heard animals, but saw only a hawk and a glimpse of a bald eagle, until a golden retriever came bounding out of the woods. Hunting season. Time to be careful. Suddenly the water grew thin and abruptly ran out all together. We were stuck in thick black mud. We had to drag ourselves across the muck to what was once river bottom but was now a dry sandbar filling the river bed.

13-Open river
Open river

Ian set off to scout the situation while we lugged our snacks to the driftwood log in the middle of the sandy stretch. Ian returned with a turtle shell and news that the river started again in the big Mississippi, and then turned inland up ahead. Should we continue in such low water conditions, or turn around while we could still float our way back to start? We ate. We drank. We discussed. We voted, and decided to head on and hope the water grew.

After twists and turns with plenty of water the path suddenly opened up and we found ourselves on the edge of a huge shallow lake. Tall reeds grew everywhere

13-Wind on the Lake
Wind on the Lake

 and we set off across, not exactly certain where the trail actually directed us. No sooner had we entered the lake when a fierce wind swept up. We paddled with all our strength and went nowhere. Finally we headed toward the shoreline where the wind was cut by the straggly reeds but the water was too shallow. Back out in the wind we struggled. Ian’s hat blew across the water but Ben fished it out right before it sunk. Ian and I pulled ahead and found the very comforting blue diamond sign at the entrance to another narrow cut of water. The wind died as soon as we entered the protected channel and we pulled ashore to catch our breath and wait for our fellow travelers. We waited. And waited. Finally we heard them, SINGING at the top of their lungs. “He’s got big fat trees in his hands…” They were making up crazy verses to He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands and Ben swears they would not have made it through the wicked wind without the song. (Most of the verses I cannot repeat!)

On the last stretch we paddled past more of the odd houses bordering the edge of the slough. Every cabin was perched on top of six to eight foot pilings, safe from the wrath of a rising Mississippi. The wind was chilly when we pulled into

 the boat slip. We were covered with mud and getting cold as we tied the boats to the car racks. Homer writes of “the rosy fingered dawn” but as we turned out on the road we found the northern sky filled with “black-clawed winter.” Like the arching reach of Mordor, we could actually see winter coming for us with its dark, cold sky. The day that began in gold edged blue ended in shivering black. But somehow we had slipped our canoes through the very last hours of fall and we were nothing but gloriously happy and tired.

#12 Vermillion River, Minnesota

vermillion_1_400
Golden air

October 9, 2003—Trouble finding the put-in and take-out had us making sandwiches late in the day while pondering the shining small stream. We ate and watched it curve under a canopy of golden leaves on the most gorgeous of Indian summer days. We shoved off with our map in hand and immediately found our strokes scraping sand. We hoped it would deepen soon.

The meandering Vermillion is a river with a split personality. Behind us this same thin water had just plunged 100 gushing feet through Old Mill Park and the falls of Hastings, Minnesota, crashing over rocks as it rushed through a high and narrow gorge. It was hard to believe that this was the same water now lazily skimming the sandy bottom.

12-Fish roiling below!
Fish roiling below!

But this river had many surprises in store for us-For the first time we found ourselves on water with twists and turns and branching choices. Oddly, our usually reliable river map showed no branches, and no answers. Should we go right? Left? Again and again we would study the leaves floating on the river’s surface and try to sense which way the current flowed the strongest.

Our first branching choice took us to a large lake. The lake water thinned yet again and when I swung my leg out of the boat to walk the canoe I was sucked into a quicksand of black mud, trapped up to my thigh. Pulling with all my might, I tumbled back in the canoe.

12_Mucky shallows
Mucky shallows

 Covered with mud I looked up just in time to see the largest bird I’ve ever seen, circling. It dwarfed the other huge predators that shared the sky. Just ahead downed tree stumps made a bony fence across our path and we picked our way through them in eerie silence. A huge fish splashed, breaking the quiet, and rattling us. Soon the fish grew so thick that when Ian and I dipped our paddles we were often startled to feel not water but the quick muscular throb of one of these river giants. No wonder the biggest bird in the world was circling overhead. We made it to the end of the lake only to find a mass of still leaves covering the stagnant surface of the water. There was no outlet. We had no choice but to go back to the faraway branch in the river where we had guessed “turn right.”

On the trip back the water shrank again and we had to walk, pulling the canoe by a strap, paddling against the current when the water was deep enough. Finally we returned to our mistake. But not twenty yards down the left hand branch, the stream was blocked by a huge tangle of fallen tree trunks.

12-Out of water
Out of water

 We hauled the canoe over the knobby marsh beside the blocked stream and set off again. A hunter’s gun shots rang out nearby. When quiet returned we talked about how odd the lake had been-the sucking mud and startling fish, the huge circling birds and bony tree trunks. We could not help but call it a lake in Mirkwood, the frightening forest of Tolkein’s, The Fellowship of the Ring. (We had listened to part of this tale on the drive down.)

 

12-Thin water
Thin water

The Vermillion was beautiful but rigorous. Late fall and a summer of drought had made the water so shallow that we estimated that half of our paddle strokes touched sand. Beavers had been busy blockading the narrow turns. Signs of flooding told the story of the hundreds of riverbank trees now toppled into the river. We portaged one huge blockade, and hauled the canoe over another dam of logs. We walked when we had to, and often slipped under logs so tightly we had to lay down in the canoe to clear the passage. Once we threaded our way through a submerged log obstacle course so slowly that it was as if we were paddling on tip-toe.

12-Beaver evidence
Beaver evidence

 On an open piece of water a bald eagle swooped down for a fish, suddenly pulling out of its dive and rising right in front of us, giant golden talons still exposed.

By now we were losing the river light to the sinking sun. This was not a river to be on in darkness. Nervously we looked for the take out bridge at every bend. We had paddled so long that we figured we were on the wrong river, not the one on our map. Were we lost on some slough that edged the river further south? Finally, with only minutes of light left, we turned sharply onto a wide and open section of river. A boat landing shined just ahead and we decided to end the trip early, hide the canoe, and head to our car by road.

 

12-Even thinner water
Even thinner water

A kind man gave us a lift to the bridge where we had left our car. After he roared off we realized that we had left the keys to Ian’s car in my car, way back at the put-in. Phil, another kind stranger, gave us a ride the many miles back to our car – He was a knight-in-shining-armor to me, welcoming us calmly though we were lugging paddles and covered with mud. Finally we picked up my car, drove to our hidden canoe and loaded it under an orange harvest moon. We drove south to Ian’s Trooper, key in hand, this time.

As we followed each other home I listened to Frodo fight off the Black Riders. Their trials made me think – some days things go wrong. Some days lots of things can go wrong..

12-Hawk watches us
Hawk watches us

 Paddling with someone is a constant give-and-take and somehow we had (mostly) kept our good cheer through all the things that went awry. Later Ian and I made a pact: We want to stay open to everything that happens, ready for it all, not blaming ever, and never losing sight of the beauty. We need each other’s help to accomplish more than we ever could alone. Frodo and his company would agree, I think, don’t you?


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