Saturday, September 10, 2005

Rock River Story 2


Here's a copy of my second Rock River article. It will probably appear in some modified form in the Watertown Daily Times.

My Rock River journey from Horicon to Hustisford is a study in contrasts. The last time I was on the water, the river was narrow enough that a couple times deadfalls covered the entire channel. Here, the river is wide. Last time I got sunburned and it was hot. Now it is cloudy and cool.
I put in at River Bend Park in Horicon after a thunderstorm. The air is cool, a stiff breeze blows from the north, and low scuttling clouds threaten more precipitation. But I’m not worried. The breeze is to my back and cool air is a respite from the 90-plus degree temperatures. The river is wide and deep. Life is good.
Six double-breasted cormorants look like large black “Ws” as they perch, wings outspread, on the protruding branches of a deadfall. They take advantage of the wind to dry their wings because, as I later discover, they don’t have very well-developed oil glands. One at a time they take off into flight, leaving one last reluctant stray splayed out in fearless defiance. Later, I see one nosedive into the water after a fish. Cormorants are in the same family as pelicans (Pelecaniformes), but their gullets are not as noticeable.
Summer homes dot the shoreline. Many have picnic tables, fire rings, docks and overturned canoes on the shore. No one is out enjoying the cooler weather. It is a Thursday. I’ve got this vast immensity all to myself.
Cattails and sedge grasses vie for open light on the shoreline. Swamp milkweed adds a reddish hue to the mixture of brown and green. Weeping willows look like a still-life portrait of a waterfall. Their tendril branches touch the water and the backs of the leaves show bright green with each gust.
About three miles east of Juneau, at the end of Club Grounds Road, is a small boat landing and a row of cabins. I take a lunch break on a small grass lawn and prepare for the inevitable storm. Birds scuttle and squawk. The wind carries the scent of wet asphalt. Just as a push off into the water, the storm kicks into gear. I hear the rain before I feel it.
After about 10 minutes, the storm abates. I’m miserable now, cold and wet, but options are limited. My bike is about three miles downstream, on the other end of Lake Sinissippi, and my car is three miles upstream in Horicon.
I push on, but am quickly rewarded. I see a flock of pelicans. Most of them take off when I get closer. Wow! These are big birds. Again, like their cormorant cousins, a few brave pelicans hold their ground and refuse to budge until I’m almost upon them. I’ll never forget the sight of these majestic, bright, snow white birds against a backdrop of dark clouds.
Lake Sinissippi wasn’t a lake until John Hustis built a log dam across the river in 1845 to power a sawmill. Water quickly filled in the marshy bottom lands and the drumlin hills became islands. The lake’s gone through many name changes, from Cranberry Lake to Hustisford Mill Pond and Lake Hustisford. “Sinissippi” comes from an Algonquin phrase, “sin sepe,” meaning, quite aptly, “lake-like river.”
It was foolish of me to tackle this section of water without a map. The lake has a series of inlet bays and promontories. After rounding an island, I come to a dead end amongst shallows choked with water cabbage. The wind that once aided now works against me as I struggle to make headway around the next point. I break through the white caps and successfully avoid the many boat docks.
The sun peeked through, and by the time I make it around Steffen Point all the gray clouds are blown away. The punishing wind remained and I was utterly lost. Dare I attempt to go down the next inlet? I saw a man pushing a lawnmower and waved him down.
“Is this the way to Hustisford?”
“No, you’ve got to go around the next two points, then it’s a couple miles to town.”
I waved and turned the boat around. I felt so small and helpless on the windswept, choppy water. Paddling almost due east, the wind tried to push me back down the inlet and every once in a while an ill-timed wave swell washed over into the boat.
Around the second point, heading south once again, I still could see no sign of Hustisford. My shoulders ached, a dull hunger gnawed at my abdomen. What if this was another dead-end inlet? Would I have enough energy to make it to the bike and then ride another 40 minutes to the car? I rounded Koch Island and saw two water towers, landmarks of town. What a relief!
Koch Island has no permanent homes, but many small docks and what looks like shanty cabins, some no larger than an outhouse. Larger Anthony Island has only one dock and a trail snaking off to a clearing in the woods. It looks like a good place to camp.
I rode back to the car, returned to Hustisford, and loaded up the canoe. I drove to Memorial Park, now entirely in shadows, and checked out the original house John Hustis built in 1851. The park also showcases a replica of the Roethke Shoe Shop, a two story band stand, fire bell and cannon.
Leaving town, I stopped on top of a hill and took one last look at Lake Sinissippi, its waters an orange glow in the setting sun. This day had tested me like never before, but now, labor done, blessed fatigue upon me, this was my sweet reward, a calm ending to a stormy day.