Saturday, September 10, 2005

Rock River Three


It is a sunny summer Saturday afternoon in Hustisford and people flock to Riverside Park to enjoy the weather. There is a party in a picnic shelter, children jump and scream on the playground. Above the dam, a jet skier pushes off from a dock. I want to put in below the dam. A steep incline leads to a shallow, rocky pool.
Better to delay such effort and enjoy a picnic. I walk up East Griffith Street to Radloff Cheese and wait in a crowded lobby to buy a bag of cheese curds. A tour is about to begin. The unmistakable, quintessentially Wisconsin scent of fresh cheese fills the air. Tours are also offered Monday through Friday between 8 and 10 a.m.
In “The Antiquities of Wisconsin,” published in 1855, Increase Lapham wrote that Horicon and Hustisford held a veritable plethora of ancient Native American mounds.
“At this place (Hustisford) there are the remains of a number of lizard mounds by the mill race, and also on the point opposite, on the east side of the river. There is a mound only two feet high… which is said to be the place where prisoners of war were tortured or sacrificed by the Indian inhabitants.”
I survey the shoreline, but see no definite shapes. I confess my observational skills are no match to Lapham’s. Nothing about the setting suggests any hint of past violence. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Mayville, the Effigy Mound culture lived in the area between 500 and 1400 AD. In Horicon alone are supposedly more than 200 mounds, many of them underneath existing buildings.
Back on the water, just beyond a small island below the dam, the rocky shallows force me to get out and drag the canoe. The dry weather this summer has made these wading portages a regular occurrence. The carp are so abundant they churn beneath my feet as I approach. I almost slip as I step on one.
I worry that the river will be shallow like this all the way to my take out at Davidson Road, but the channel quickly deepens and my canoe does not scrape bottom the rest of the way.
I keep a lookout for Wolfs Point, a spot along the river a couple miles below town that, Lapham wrote, was the site of an Indian battle and “here Black Hawk made a stand against his white pursuers in 1832.” Chief Black Hawk and approximately 1,000 Sauk and Fox Indians were pursued by American soldiers from the mouth of the Rock River at Rock Island, Ill., as far north as Horicon Marsh from April through August 27, 1832, when Black Hawk was captured at Prairie du Chien. He signed a treaty to forever settle west of the Mississippi.
The Blackhawk War was the last great Native American confrontation in Illinois and Wisconsin. A trip down the Rock River provides an opportunity to see many landmarks related to this confrontation. Wolfs Point is one of them. This journey from source to mouth will follow the war in reverse, from ending to beginning.
Unfortunately, like the mounds in Hustisford, I can find no sign of Wolfs Point. There are no shoreline markers or other signs of its location.
The river on this stretch feels much wilder than any stretch I’ve been on before. There are no houses, and a thick forest canopy obscures anything more than 15 feet inland. The only signs of civilization are stray tires, plastic water bottles, fence posts, a deer stand, and the distance sound of cars and airplanes. Four hours on the water and I saw more bald eagles than people.
The river is lazy and sinuous, with no apparent current. Twice blowdowns stretch across the entire channel. At one the surrounding bank is steep and I have to tug on dead branches to pull myself over it. At another I am able to push down floating logs with my oar. Such is the price of solitude.
The take out at Davidson Road is difficult. The only way that doesn’t require bushwacking through thick brush is a steep rock embankment. Cows moo in a barn across the road. Cicadas hum. A rottweiler dog stands alert on a house porch, curious about this huge creature emerging from the river side. Thankfully, there’s a fence between us.
On Riverview Drive between Elmwood Road and State Highway 109, I look again for a sign of Wolfs Point, but no luck. Today’s river experience felt, for a brief time, like a time warp to the days of Black Hawk, and my search for Wolfs Point is a vain attempt to preserve that anachronistic feeling.
After Black Hawk’s surrender, he was taken to Washington, D.C., and, depending on the account, paraded around civilized society like a celebrity or a caged zoo animal. He returned west and settled near Fort Madison, Iowa, near the Des Moines River. According to an account given by Burlington, Iowa, resident W. Henry Starr, Black Hawk gave a speech at a July 4, 1838 celebration.
Starr reported Black Hawk said, “Rock river was a beautiful country—I liked my towns, my cornfields, and the home of my people. I fought for it. It is now yours—keep it as we did—it will produce you good crops.”
It is still beautiful country. And, at least on the river, it still looks wild.