My mother and brother Mark helped me launch my Winona Prism into the foamy waters below the Kekoskee Dam along the right descending bank (RDB) at 10 a.m. Skies were clear with a slight breeze from the north and would assist my southerly descent on the Rock River. The Rock had inch-thick tan colored foam covering the surface for a few hundred feet in the tailwater area of the dam. The river was flowing substantially above normal as a result of last week's heavy rainfall that dumped several inches of rain throughout the upper Rock River watershed. After several minutes of arranging gear and collecting water quality information with a portable dissolved oxygen meter and transparency tube, I was finally underway at 10:20 a.m.
Water current exceeded 2 ft per second in some serpentine reaches of the narrow tree-lined channel below the Kekoskee Dam. Frequent deadfalls (sweepers), cross currents and undertows required alert steering. A pull over a debris blocked channel was required just upstream of the Greenhead Landing. Downstream at the landing, a few elderly fishermen reported no success in their pursuit of the lowly bullhead. As I headed downstream towards the great marsh, I reflected on one of Wisconsin's oldest fish stories described by Robert Gard, author of Wild Goose Marsh Horicon Stopover and is briefly summarized below.
During the winter some 139 years ago, when the marsh was turned into a huge artificial lake by the placement of a dam at Horicon, the great Kekoskee fish story was born. Apparently the ice and snow covered lake became devoid of oxygen which sent fish, mainly bullheads, up the east branch of the Rock to the oxygenated waters below the Kekoskee Dam. The bullheads were packed so tightly below the ice as they headed up Rock River towards Kekoskee that the ice surface "rolled and tossed like waves of the sea." Upon reaching the open waters below the dam, a "geyser-like eruption of bullheads fifty feet across and twenty feet high" spewed out on to adjacent lands and ice to depth ranging from "six inches to two feet". "Farmers came from miles away to haul 900 wagonloads of fish away in one day yet the fish run lasted two weeks..."
In Wisconsin, the term Kekoskee Man is used to designate one who has a wheel in his head. No Kekoskee Man has been believed under oath or admitted to the jury in Wisconsin since 1860. This unearned reputation has ruined the town. You see it as it is, silent, almost deserted, a few empty buildings standing in the town martyred into ruin by too strict adherence to the truth. For every word of this story is true..."
I entered into the open expanse of the Great Winnebago Marsh or Cranberry Lake, white men's early name for this vast wetland complex. Before me lay the open waters of Malzans Bay, surrounded by dense beds of emergent vegetation. The water was noticeably more turbid than that observed upstream. Water lilies were occasionally seen along the pockets of still water. The edges of the bay were comprised primarily of thick broadleaf cattails. Bur- reed, jewelweed and occasional stems of Phragmities were scattered amongst the cattails along the open water edge. A few springs of wild rice were present below the bay just west of Fourmile Island. I recalled seeing rice in this area thirty years ago when this reach supported a definite rice bed covering a much larger area.
There was a ghostly absence of great blue herons and American egrets in the canopy of Fourmile Island, a once prominent nesting sanctuary in the great marsh. Apparently a windstorm decimated the tree-holding nests in the recent past and the area has seen considerable reduction in use. There may be other underlying factors such as the availability of food or competition for remaining nests by other colonial nesting birds such as the cormorant that may have driven the herons and egrets away.
The Horicon Marsh has been a center of environmental controversy for more than one hundred and fifty years. It was damed to form a 50 square mile lake; it was home to private shooting clubs; it was drained for agricultural production; flooded again to rehabilitate the marsh; geese were introduced into the marsh and then were later hazed to reduce their numbers; dikes have been added in places to isolate and raise water levels; it was drawndown again to rejuvenate submersed aquatic vegetation and was chemically treated with toxicants to remove the exotic carp. Efforts are now underway to repeat part of this "management" cycle in the coming year when drawdown and carp eradication will be repeated. One wonders how the Winnebago, Fox, Potawatomi, Sauk, and other native Americans who traveled this waterway in the past would judge our "conservation efforts."
Kayaks and canoes were common in the river's channel between One-Mile Island and Bowling Green Park in Horicon. Before departing the marsh, I wondered off into a open bay at the southeast end of the marsh to search for submersed aquatic vegetation and found none. The absence of this underwater plant community signals a serious decline in habitat at least from the marsh I knew in my youth. The brown turbid water limited transparency to about 10 to 15 cm, which greatly restricts light availability for this form of aquatic vegetation. Ironically, "Horicon" is an old Indian name for Lake George, New York, which reportedly means "clear, pure water."
I arrived at the Bowling Green Park at 1 p.m. and received a warm reception from my daughter Colleen and relatives who were awaiting my arrival from my wife's parents house which sits atop the RDB hillside. The high ground on the west bank is part of a historic glacial dike that helped form the glacial lake that pre-dates the present marsh. Over the course of thousands of years, the lake level fell as it cut through the narrow constriction at Horicon and eventually resulted in the Great Marsh we know today. A quick stop was made at my in-laws, Robert and Lu Ella Pedigo, for a piece of cake from their 50th wedding anniversary while I provided a short debriefing of the trip down from Kekoskee.
My first official portage was required at the Horicon Dam about one-half mile downstream of Bowling Green Park. The dam gates were completely removed from the water in an attempt to drain the marsh and due to the high river flows. I could have easily passed beneath the raised tainter gates if weren't for the vertical strings of electrical wires that extended completely across the tailwater area of the dam. This electrical barrier was placed to restrict the upstream movement of carp into the marsh. Chain link fences, a railroad bridge and private property restricted access to the dam's tailwater from both sides of the river. I would have had to portage more than a mile had I used the designated take-out and put-in recommended by the DNR. I could have made a difficult portage over the high bank of a railroad and down the opposite side to gain access to the tailwater area. However, John Christian, a good friend from grade and high school and current law enforcement officer for the area DNR office, unlocked the access gate on the RDB earlier in the morning at my request. This greatly facilitated the portage and I made the carry near the former site of my Aunt Jesse's boathouse just above the dam along the RDB. The DNR needs to offer a better portage route at this dam for those canoeists without local connections.
I met my mother and Uncle John below the old canning factory about a quarter-mile below the dam along the LDB (left descending bank). My uncle was surprised at the strong current flow. I estimated it to be two to three feet per second and when combined with a northerly breeze, greatly facilitated my downstream progress. After a few minutes of greetings, I departed with the swift current and wind at my back.
Mother was again present at Third Bend Park at the southern limits of Horicon. She took more pictures and again wished me well on my journey. Many powerboats, water skiers, personal watercraft were present in the run down to Wood's Bridge about two-river miles below Horicon. I observed a loan water skier down in the middle of the river channel near the Horicon golf course. Upon closer investigation, I learned that he was waiting for his ski boat to return with another ski. I waited a few minutes in the general area until his boat returned since I feared an unobservant boater would surely hit him at his present location.
Mother was again waiting for my passage at Woods Bridge. I stopped briefly to stretch my legs and lost my clip-on sunglasses as I exited the canoe. I saw my mother's concerned look and indicated she not worry since I had two extra pairs in my pack. The river passage at Woods Bridge was narrow and swift and the river's bend at this location makes navigation potentially hazardous. A few boaters blatantly ignored slow no-wake buoys as we watched from the LDB. I waited for an absence in boat traffic and then, after a brief five-minute rest, was on my way towards Lake Sinissippi (Indian for "rocky waters").
The trip though Lake Sinissippi was peaceful and pleasant. The northwest winds provided a nice assist and a cooling breeze. I checked several islands for a possible campsite but they appeared to be privately owned or occupied. Two middle-aged women were landing their fishing boat as I approached Ratloff Island on its northwest side. I asked them if they knew of a campsite in the area. They indicated that Ratloff Island is leased to many individuals but no public sites were available. They were kind enough to offer me a site near their campsite. However, I did not want to intrude and decided to head down to Hustisford since it was only mid-afternoon.
Mother was again waiting above the Hustisford Dam with a new pair of clip-on sunglasses to replace those lost upstream. I thanked her again and placed the new unscratched pair in a side pouch of my daypack. I laughed to myself and asked her if she planned to follow me all the way to the Mississippi. She just smiled and indicated she had enjoyed the Rock River scenery and after a few minutes of watching me unload the canoe above the dam, headed back to Horicon.
I had just about put my canoe into the tailwater area of the Hustisford Dam along the RDB when a young boy who was fishing at the put-in spot exclaimed, "You gonna run the dam downstream?" I then remembered an earlier conversation with John Christian indicating he would like to join me on my trip below Lake Sinissippi so he could try his luck at navigating through "the rapids" of the old milldam below Hustisford. I then realized that I had a longer portage. An extra two hundred-yard carry brought me to the site of an abandoned milldam. The sill of the dam is all that remains and provided a two foot drop followed by a foamy standing wave, surely enough to overturn my loaded canoe. A nearby property owner, Mel Grulke, kindly assisted me in re-loading the canoe along the steep bank. I uncovered an old medicine bottle along the freshly eroded bank and gave it to him for his efforts. I departed into very swift current at 6 p.m.
It was somewhere near the Rapids of the Rock (Hustisford) that Chief Black Hawk turned his band of warriors, women and children around in their ascent of the Rock in the summer of 1832. They headed to the south and then turned west near the present city of Watertown. They raced westerly towards Four Lakes (Madison area) and ultimately the Mississippi River where U.S. solders would massacre the band near the mouth of the Bad Axe River on August 1st and 2nd of that year.
The run down from Hustisford was very scenic and tranquil. The wide forested floodplain makes this reach relatively free of development. A pull over one logjam was required. The floodplain was covered with the floodwaters of last week's deluge and I began to wonder if a dry campsite would be found. I was lucky to find a narrow six-foot high overgrown embankment on the east side of the channel about three miles below Hustisford (It turned out that this was the only available dry ground in the 10 to 15 mile reach below Hustisford). I quickly set up camp in the tall grass and had dinner by 8 p.m. in the company of similarly hungry mosquitoes. Twilight brought sounds of surface sucking carp, singing frogs, trumpeting sand hill cranes, squawking geese, hooting horned and barred owls and the hum of millions of mosquitoes. The sound of this noise was overwhelming. Perhaps I had pitched my tent on an effigy mound and the spirits of the native Americans were voicing their praise or protest at my encampment. It provided provoking thought but I directed them to visions of the voyage ahead and slowly passed off into a deep slumber inside a two-man Eureka Timberline tent.
Horicon Marsh at Malzan's Bay