A flock of great blue herons glided by high overhead as I slowly crawled out from the tent at 5:15 a.m. apparently heading for upriver backwaters for their morning feed. The weather was clear and calm with temperatures in the mid-60s. The morning brought peaceful silence to the river valley, a stark contrast to last evening when the sound of sandbar campers, fireworks, towboats and freight trains disrupted the clear night air.
Many recreational boaters were already plying the calm river waters at 6:30 a.m. as I began my final leg of my journey to La Crosse. Weekend fishermen hugged shoreline areas of the main channels and were coping with frequent boat waves. By mid-morning, most fishermen had left the main channel and drifted down secondary channels and into backwater areas were encounters with sightseeing boaters, jet skiers and water skiers were less frequent.
I descended along the Burlington Northern railroad dike that borders the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge on the east side of the river valley. Beds of Heteranthia and Vallisneria were scattered along the dike in the shallows. A lone fisherman was catching smallmouth bass at the refuge's pumping station outlet pipe about one mile north of Trempealeau Mountain. The discharge was considerably more turbid than the Mississippi River. The same was true of the Trempealeau River, which discharged a heavy load of silt to the river a few miles upstream of Lock and Dam 6.
Trempealeau Mountain - "Here it is, too, that the famous Island Mountain rises to the height of five hundred feet, completely covered with trees, and capped by a cluster of broken rocks. It is several miles long and about one in width, and is the largest island in the Mississippi. From time immemorial it has been celebrated for the number of its rattlesnakes, and on a grassy plot at is base stands a cluster of graves, where repose the ashes of stranger Indians who died upon the island from wounds inflicted by these reptiles."
Mayflies below Trempealeau - "At the spot of our encampment, as soon as the shades of night closed in, we were visited by hordes of ephemera. The candles lighted in our tents became the points of attraction for these evanescent creations. They soon, however, began to feel the influence of the sinking thermometer, and the air was imperceptibly cleared of them in an hour or two."
Shortly before 10 a.m., I calmly followed two cabin cruisers into the lock chamber at Trempealeau. I was soon overtaken by a small-overpowered speedboat whose overweight operator felt a sudden necessity to get ahead of my canoe as if it were a race. The wake from the powerboat crashed over my gunwales as I shook my head in disbelief at the belligerent move. In the past 12 days, I had traveled over 300 miles, ascended and descended large rapids with standing waves, traversed large wind-swept lakes and encountered one thunderstorm. During this time I had not shipped one once of water into the canoe other than paddle spray and rainwater. However, now as I drifted into the lock chamber I was sponging water out of my canoe as a result of this inconsiderate boater. I could not hold back my furry and told the powerboat operator that "one normally enters a lock chamber at slow no-wake speeds." He topped off his arrogant action by replying, "it doesn't go any slower", and failed to yield an apology. After his boat was secure along the lock wall, I smugly moved ahead of his craft and the other two crusiers to be first out of the lock chamber once it opened. I had won the race.
Ten to fifteen mile per hour winds slowed by progress during my 12-mile run down to Lock and Dam 7 at Dresbach, MN. The bright warm Saturday afternoon brought numerous boaters to the river. All beaches were occupied by boats or camping gear. Many fishing boats were anchored to catch wing-dam walleyes or smallmouth bass along the rip-rapped banks. I descended the right descending bank to avoid the wind and obtain occasional shading from large overhanging silver maple or cottonwood trees. At 13:55, I met a trio of fishermen in a bass boat immediately above the guidewall at Lock and Dam 7. They hauled in numerous fish including drum, smallmouth bass, northern pike and other unidentified species while I waited for the lock gates to open to descend to Pool 8. After about fifteen minutes, the lock gates slowly opened to release another half dozen pleasure boaters to Pool 7. All down bound craft entered into the lock in a calm orderly fashion and I took my position along the lock wall near the front of the pack.
Strong twenty-five mile per hour winds raced up into the tailwater area above the Interstate 90 bridge as I traversed to the left descending bank immediately below the dam. The combination of turbulent tailwater flows, standing waves and boat-generated waves made the crossing very difficult and exciting. One rogue wave spilled over the bow as the canoe tossed and tipped over the deep tailwater area. After about fifteen minutes of fighting winds and waves, I finally reached the East Channel, a secondary channel that parallels the main channel, and gladly descended it for it offered greater protection form the southerly winds and large boats.
Several large houseboats were parked at the large sand spit along the right bank just below the interstate bridge. A parade of twelve personal watercrafts slowly passed the sandbar as if in review apparently looking for a place to park to join the festivities on the sandy beach. A large volleyball game was in session while onlookers sat in lawn chairs, drinking refreshments and occasionally spraying contestants or each other with water cannons or squirt guns.
An acrobatic plane flew loops, rolls, spirals and sprayed out clouds of colored smoke as I entered the Black River just below Northern States Power shortly after 3 p.m. What a fitting welcome home to La Crosse. However, the spectacle was meant for the thousands of spectators that had gathered at Riverside and Pettibone Parks for Riverfest. I was just one of hundreds of river users that had gathered near the mouth of the Black River in all makes and sizes of watercraft to observe the air show from the river.
As I made my way carefully across the Black River channel to reach the east bank, a riverfest patrol boat failed to yield the right-of-way and passed within feet of my canoe and left a huge wake to slice through. Although several people were onboard the patrol boat, not one turned around to see if my canoe was still afloat. I felt a sudden urge to get out of the river to avoid being hit or swamped by other careless boaters. I paddled swiftly up to Copeland Park along the right ascending bank of the Black River. The Black was also full of boaters out for Saturday afternoon joyrides on the Black and Mississippi Rivers.
Dozens of people occupied the dense cluster of boathouses that lined the banks of the Black River near Copeland Park. The sight of my canoe among the numerous overpowered pleasure craft brought laughter, obscenities and staring disbelieve from some alcohol-filled party goers who sat on lawn chairs or benches on the crowded boathouse docks. I suspect some would have even laughed louder had they know how far I had traveled. I felt sadly out of place, embarrassed and a bit shocked from this unanticipated homecoming.
I landed at the West Copeland boat launch at 3:50 p.m. thirteen days and about 330 river miles from Lake Superior. Discounting the last mile up the Black River, it had been a wonderful trip and a journey not easy to forget. I called Beth and slowly prepared my gear for the final leg home where I looked forward to a more cheerful homecoming. As I unloaded and cleaned the canoe I wondered where I'd be if I had made the trip in the opposite direction. A smile quickly returned to my face as I imagined my son Tim waiting on the sandy beach at the mouth of the Bois Brule, perhaps some other time God willing.
Cover Map - Portion of the territory of the United States from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean ordered by Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War to accompany the reports of the explorations for a railroad route by G.K. Warren…under the direction of W.H. Emory in 1854 and of A.A. Humphreys 1854-57. Engr. by Selmar Siebert, War Dept., Washington, D.C., 1858?
(From Map Collections, U.S. Library of Congress).