Lolling on the River
Following the Upper Mississippi by Land

By Bill O'Brian
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 22, 2005

If you think the prairie of Wisconsin and Minnesota is nothing but nondescript flatlands and farms, Buena Vista Park in Alma, Wis., is the place for you. Specifically, the bluff in the park more than 500 feet above the Mississippi River, which forms the border of the two states.

From that bluff on a clear day, you can see one of the most awe-inspiring panoramas in all of North America. I've been to the Grand Canyon. To Yellowstone. To Jackson Hole. To Lake Louise. To Niagara Falls. To the Oregon, Maine, Carolina and California coasts. To the interior of Alaska. To the top of numerous skyscrapers. The vista from the bluff in Alma on a clear day can compete with any of those places.

From that precipice, you can see for miles into the Minnesota countryside below. You can gaze upon the lush greenery of the Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest and the dark, rich soil of the northern portion of what schoolbooks call the breadbasket of America. As the Mississippi zigzags through that bottomland, you can see that the waterway is as unruly as it is majestic, as undisciplined as it is immense. It is clear that, left to its own devices, the river would follow no laws other than those of physics, which state that water flows from higher elevation to lower via the path of least resistance.

From that bluff in Alma, you can immediately understand what Wisconsin outdoors journalist Mel Ellis meant half a century ago when he wrote, "If you haven't fished Ol' Man Mississipp, forget about any preconceived notions you may have as far as rivers are concerned. Because Ol' Man River isn't a river at all. In fact, he's a hundred rivers and a thousand lakes and more sloughs than you could explore in a lifetime."

Northeasterners by birth and temperament, my wife, Sue, and I knew almost nothing firsthand about life along the upper Mississippi.

The Mississippi -- the river of Mark Twain, who once wrote, "It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable." The river of La Salle, Marquette and Joliet. Of B.B. King, Bob Dylan and the Doobie Brothers. Of Faulkner, Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot. Of historian Stephen Ambrose, who not long ago wrote, "The river is in my blood. Wherever, whenever, it is a source of delight. More, it is the river that draws us together as a nation."

So, from the point just outside East Dubuque, Ill., where the Illinois-Wisconsin border meets the Mississippi about 175 miles west of Chicago, Sue and I had set out northward on the Great River Road to see what -- and whom -- we might find. The river road is a federally designated scenic byway that stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. We covered a minuscule portion of it, a couple of hundred miles mostly in southwestern Wisconsin, primarily along State Route 35. We had no itinerary per se. We pulled off the road when the spirit, or hunger or curiosity, moved us. It was a drive-by -- a lazy, three-day upper Mississippi River drive-by.

On the first day, at a boat landing near the town of Cassville, Wis., we stopped to chat with Dwayne Durant, a fortysomething Iowan. Dressed in camouflage hunting gear, he was standing on the riverbank in the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge with his dog, Sidney. Durant had the satisfied countenance of a man who'd just bagged his limit for the day. He welcomed us to the river, patiently explained the intricacies and the appeal of duck hunting, proudly showed us his fresh kill (two wood ducks, two teal ducks and two mallards), then humbly thanked us for visiting his corner of the world.

The next morning, at Withey's Bar in Lynxville, Wis. (pop. 176), we introduced ourselves to a soft-spoken gentleman in a flannel shirt sitting on a stool at the end of the bar. Les Neefe told us that he was born 77 years ago in a Wisconsin cheese factory ("not in a hospital, not in the hallway of the cheese factory, in the cheese factory . . . in a room above the boiler"). Over coffee, Neefe rhapsodized about the pleasures of living in a houseboat docked on the Mississippi six months a year, and he made two recommendations. First, he suggested that, to get a real taste of Wisconsin, we should go to the cheese shop up the road in Ferryville and buy some "sharp cheddar, old sharp cheddar." Then, to get a real taste of river life, we should stop by P&M Concessions next to Blackhawk Park in De Soto.

We did both. The cheese, a nine-year cheddar, was rich, creamy and sharper than sharp. Along with apples and crackers, a block of the cheddar made a memorable watchin'-the-river-flow picnic lunch.

Outside the P&M Concessions stand was a sign that read, "Welcome to the River -- Sit Long, Talk Much, Fish A Lot." Behind the counter was 34-year-old Amy Kroning, whose father is the proprietor of the bait/tackle/refreshment/boat rental shop.

"I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be than right here," said Kroning, a mother of five who was born and raised in De Soto. "If I get more than an hour from the river, I get depressed. Really. I'm not kidding. We go to a Cubs game once a year [in Chicago], and I'm a nervous wreck the whole time."

So, what is the allure of the Mississippi?

"It has a calming affect. It's relaxing," Verdetta Tusa said later that day as we stood watching for more than an hour while an enormous tow barge squeezed, wheezed and creaked its way through the lock at the town of Genoa, Wis. "It's the history, too," said the 56-year-old lifelong Minnesotan. "They've been doing it this way, basically, from the beginning."

The lock at Genoa is one of 29 on the upper Mississippi. Watching tow barges come out of the sharp curves of the river and negotiate the locks with pinpoint precision is a pastime unto itself. Typically 15 barges are connected together in front of one pilot boat. They transport grain, steel, road salt, fertilizer, coal, petroleum products and other nonperishable goods up and down the Mississippi most of the year. It takes a barge about 10 days to get from Minneapolis to St. Louis, but one 15-unit tow can carry as much grain as 225 rail cars or 870 semi-trucks at a fraction of the cost.

As a barge passes through a lock, you can get close enough to chat with the stevedores on board. One deckhand told us that sometimes he stays out on the river for 60 to 80 days at a time. And that he'd rather toil on the upper Mississippi than on the lower, especially in the dead of summer, because down near New Orleans and Memphis, "it's too hot, and the skeeters are bigger than I am."

An hour north of Genoa on State Route 35, not far past La Crosse, Wis., we came to Perrot State Park, a verdant 1,400-acre refuge. There, an information marker on a small bluff overlooking braided channels of the river reminded us just how remarkable the Mississippi is. It's 2,350 miles long; it's home to 100 species of fish (most notably walleye, sturgeon and catfish in these parts); it drains all or part of 31 states and two Canadian provinces.

"From Red Wing down to Iowa is the most beautiful part of the river, with all the bluffs and trees. It's almost a fantasyland," said Bob Schleicher. "It's a place of mystery. It's got so much folklore. Some of it's true; some of it's not."

We met Schleicher, a 65-year-old retired car salesman, at the municipal marina in Red Wing, Minn., the final town on our river drive, directly across the bridge from Hager City, Wis. Captain Bob, as he likes to call himself, told us that he has navigated the Mississippi from St. Paul, Minn., to its mouth in Louisiana. He explained that part of the appeal is that "you can be whoever you want to be on the river." He told tales of river-running bootleggers, past and present. He explained how the upper Mississippi differs from the lower -- it is less crowded; it has more islands, beaches and marinas; its currents are less dangerous; its water is less sandy. But, he said with a smile, river people have a "mutual bond, whether you're a Confederate or a Yankee."

Schleicher talked for a while about the river's importance to birds. Forty percent of all North American waterfowl and 326 bird species -- including hawks, eagles, falcons, herons and swans -- use the river as a flyway, according to the Audubon Society. We had seen a handful of bald eagles soaring over or perched along the river, and Schleicher beamed as he spoke of the resurgence of that ornithological American icon on the bluffs near Red Wing.

Then he suggested that, after spending a couple days driving along the river, Sue and I might want to spend some time on the river. For $10 apiece, he offered to take us on a leisurely two-hour cruise in his old military flatboat-turned-riverboat.

Once we cleared the dock, Schleicher allowed each of us in the small group on board to take a turn piloting the boat for a few minutes. As I stood at the helm, guiding the boat around the river's trademark sweeping bends, minding the red and green buoys that mark the shipping channel, passing huge tow barges, I suddenly understood what Schleicher meant when he said you can be who you want to be on the river.

At that moment, as we glided past the tree-lined banks, pushed along by the gentle current, the serenity was overwhelming. And the history palpable. At that moment, I was every riverman who's ever skippered a slow boat on Ol' Man Mississipp.

Bill O'Brian is a senior editor of The Washington Post Magazine.

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