Tuesday, July 19, 2005


Once again, I haven't written in this thing for a while, but a couple unrelated happenings inspired me back to this long-neglected form of expression. First, was the sprain on my left (writing hand) thumb, tending my journal entries online-ward. Second, was an e-mail from my cousin Amanda touting her new blog, whose address I cannot find now.
I am supposed to be doing research on bibliographer Donald Wing, famous for his Short-title Catalogue Of Books Printed In England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, And British America And Of English Books Printed In Other Countries, 1641-1700
but here I am putzing around with this new form media at the DeKalb Public Library. I slated the entire morning to get an oil change and replace the brake pads on my 2001 Honda Civic DX. It is now almost 11:30 a.m., so I figure I'm ahead of the game. I would love to learn all the intricacies of the blogosphere, but since I'm neither a big fan or user of a blog I'm a little bit out of touch with all the capabilities it offers. Technologically, I'm a bit of a Luddite. I'm going through my entire music collection and right now am listening to LPs (long-playing records) on a portable record player. Here's a picture of the Newcomb player (the only difference between the photo and the one I'm using is the toner arm) . The record player belongs to another techno-phobe neo-Luddite Todd Stanley, my buddy who lives in Steger, IL. On Thursdays and Fridays I leave for Wisconsin to canoe the Rock River. My long-term goal is to canoe the entire river from its sources to its confluence with the Mississippi River. I interviewed last week with the Rockford Register Star to write a series of stories about the adventure, and they seemed really interested, with the promise to get back to me. But that was almost a week ago and I haven't heard any word, so I'm figuring they aren't interested. There are other newspapers along the river, so I guess the next step is to market the stories to them. I also am still writing poetry, working on short story ideas and admit I'm neglecting my cosmic/comic novel about a hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. But, back to the river. I've canoed all the navigable stretches of the east branch of the Rock River from Dodge County Hwy. D to Horicon, WI and scouted the south and west branches from their sources to their confluence off Hwy. 49 near Waupun, WI. Alas, although these branches are called "rivers," for most of their lengths they could hardly be big enough to be called creeks or culverts, and are certainly unnavigable. Thursday I will start from Hwy. 49 and canoe the Big Ditch through the heart of Horicon Marsh.
I'm running out of time, so will post the first article I submitted to the Register Star below:

There is a spring off Highway 41 just north of Slinger, WI. It is about 10 feet wide. At one end is a slight embankment with dry tendrils of broken earth. The other end drains into a tall grass meadow. A red-winged blackbird trills angrily as I approach and cross a foot wide stream bed lined with thin, rounded pebbles. The water smells and tastes clean.

This is one of three spring sources for the east branch of the Rock River, itself one of three branches that join together in Horicon Marsh and flow south through Rockford to the Mississippi River. I’ve come here in the early morning hours of July 8, 2005, to begin an adventure. My goal: To canoe as much of the Rock River from its sources to the Mississippi River.

This source is so radically different from the Rock River I know from childhood. As I strode the tiny rill, one foot on either shore, my mind was flooded with images: Flower gardens at Sinnissippi park; Ski Broncs shows at Martin park; Fourth of July fireworks off the State Street bridge; fishing at Fordham Dam; huge power boats with doomsday names like “Terminator” churning great white wakes near the Riverside bridge; Symbol; rock sentinels; and the lights of downtown Rockford reflected off the waters. The powerful river of my hometown, like all rivers, has a very humble beginning.

I’ve chosen to start with the east branch because it is the longest branch (45 miles). It flows through two state wildlife areas and three towns before it joins the main ditch channel in Horicon Marsh. The south branch flows through Waupun and joins the west branch northwest of the marsh. My plan is to scout out the sources of all three branches and visit every bridge crossing until I find a good place to put in.

The east branch looks wide and deep enough to paddle just south of the Theresa Marsh State Wildlife Area (5,500 acres). The bridge on Dodge County Highway D is the first with a sign identifying the river. I hide the canoe, life jacket and paddle near shore and return to the car. As if on cue, when I turn the ignition the radio plays Talking Heads’ “Take Me to the River.”

I drop the car off at Rivers Edge Park in Theresa, WI and ride my bike on West Bend Road back to the canoe. The gentle, rolling terrain of Dodge County is dotted with drumlins, tear-drop-shaped hills formed by the glaciers last retreat a little more than 10,000 years ago. I crest one and catch a glimpse of the river. Hay bales stand like evenly-spaced sentinels along its sunny south banks.

Reuben Gold Thwaites, Boston native and former secretary of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, wrote "Historic Waterways: Six Hundred Miles of Canoeing down Rock, Fox, and Wisconsin Rivers," published in 1888. In that book he chronicled a journey down the Rock River, starting in Madison at Lake Monona and joining the Rock River just south of Lake Koshkonong, which he followed to the Mississippi River.

Thwaites wrote: "Here in the Mississippi Basin, practically boundless opportunities present themselves, at our very doors, to glide through the heart of a fertile and picturesque land, to commune with nature, to drink in her beauties, to view men and communities from a novel standpoint, to catch pictures of life and manners that will always live in one's memory."

Do Thwaites words still ring true almost 120 years later? The view from a canoe is certainly "novel." The river provides a strange mix of beauty and ugliness, an accurate reflection of the "beauties," but also the "manners" of modern society. Communities put golf courses, parks, baseball diamonds and other green spaces next to the river because they value its aesthetic appeal. But the river also collects society's organic and industrial effluence.

Just after push off into the river I come to a blow down covering the entire channel. Matrix-like contortions get me through the branch tangles, but not before I almost tip the canoe. Then, out in the sunshine, the canoe gets mired in a thick growth of algae, underwater vines and lily pads. Each paddle stroke ends with a twist to shake loose the clinging vegetation. Rounding a bend, I come to my first portage, a logjam dam. Luckily, the ground around it is solid. After negotiating a few shallow spots, the river deepens and widens as it opens onto the marsh.

It took me six hours to canoe back to my car. In that time I did not see another person, road, or any other sign of civilization until I came to a dam just before Theresa. The cat-tails and sedges along the shore obscured any vistas. The channel is wide, sometimes so wide I lost it and found myself in marshy cul-de-sacs.

Water lotus, an invasive plant introduced from Asia in the early 20th century, grows in abundance. The petals of its white flowers lay in a perfect symmetry. Another Asian import, carp, proliferate these water. Their backs rise above the surface and the air is filled with the suction of their feeding. The water churns with their retreat. Sometimes 10 to 15 at a time splash in alarm. One splashed me in the face. Another thudded into the canoe.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the east branch suffers from bank erosion and water pollution from cattle operations, agriculture and urban runoff. The accumulated silt and mud means few fish species other than carp can thrive in these waters. I put a paddle in to test depth and it sunk more than a foot in the sludge.

When I arrive at the landing in Theresa, a group of children play in the water and sun on the concrete ramp. "Let's play dead-man's float," one of them says. I was tired from the day's exertions and lay on shore listening to their titter. "Hey, no fair. You splashed me." "Wow! I must have got eight or nine skips on that one." The sky is dotted with puffy blue skies. No one is in a hurry. Neither is the meandering river or the sinuous landscape.

Theresa (2000 population: 1,242) is where Solomon Juneau, a French Canadian fur trader with the American Fur Company established a trading post in 1833. Juneau made his home in Milwaukee, where he was the first postmaster and, in 1846, elected as the city's first mayor. He named Theresa after his mother and built a summer home there in 1847. This home still stands 200 feet from its original location and is open to the public on Memorial Day and every last Sunday of the month from Memorial Day through September. The town is small enough that dogs roam free and children ride bicycles down the middle of Main Street.

The river from Theresa to Mayville is wide and lined with trees. A depth check with the paddle no longer strikes mud, but solid stone. After stopping at a park pavilion just before a dam, I make a critical mistake and choose not to take my shoes for the three to four mile stretch from Mayville to Keskeskum.

After the Mayville dam the river changes character considerably, going from wide and marshy to narrow, rocky, shallow and overgrown with small trees. The channel is dotted with huge gray boulders. I have to stop, get out and drag the canoe more than I float. I see, smell, and feel firsthand the output from the Mayville wastewater treatment plant. The rocks are covered in algae slime. I slip often as I drag the canoe along. By the time I reach the landing near Roxy's Riverside Restaurant in Keskeskum, I'm wet, smelly and sore. The section from Mayville to Keskeskum should only be run in high water.

On Saturday I see my first canoes away from town as I catch up to members of the Green-Rock Audubon Society at the Greenhead Landing just outside of Horicon Marsh. The marsh is considered a world destination for bird lovers. The east branch goes by Four Mile and Cotton islands, which supports the largest heron and egret rookery in Wisconsin.

Bill Hallstrom, president of the Green-Rock Audubon Society, said his group makes an annual pilgrimage to Horicon Marsh. Group members vie to lead so they can catch closer glimpses before a blue heron or sandhill crane is scared into flight. One heron flew from one side of Malzahn's Bay to the other as the group drew closer.

"Check that out," Hallstrom said, pointing to the sky. "Those are white pelicans. I've never seen so many congregate. They are high enough to ride the thermals." Other times, Hallstrom scans the long grasses close to shore looking for smaller birds. More than 265 species of birds have been identified here. At more than 32,000 acres, Horicon Marsh is the largest cat-tail marsh in the state.

The east branch joins the main ditch, a 14-mile channel dredged through the heart of the marsh, and makes its way to Horicon. I have to take out well upstream of the next dam because the water is electrified to prevent further spread of the dreaded carp. This leg of the journey is over, but I know I'll be back at this very landing again soon, after I finish the west and south branches and follow the ditch the entire length of the marsh.

1 comment:

Kristin said...

My parents live in Mayville. I've long wanted to try to make the float between Theresa and Mayville but wanted to know what the depth was like. Thanks... now I know. I'll make it a post-rain/spring run.