We felt a little like Lewis and Clark, paddling our canoe down uncharted waters, seeing all sorts of wondrous new sights.
Of course, Lewis and Clark didn’t have shuttle bus rides, number 15 sunscreen, coolers full of soda, or blaze orange life preservers, but what the heck. This is the ’90s. You do what you can.
What we were doing was something I’d wanted to do ever since I discovered the relatively untouched beauty of the La Crosse River Marsh a couple years back. We were paddling down the river in a canoe.
The river is still fairly wild, for a 20th century river that runs right through the heart of a midsize metropolitan area. Maybe it’s because of its unpredictable propensity for flooding that makes most of the land around it a flood plain.
Maybe it’s the normally shallow nature (average depth 3 feet). Maybe it’s because the Mississippi and Black Rivers are here too, drawing the big motor boats, the boardwalks and the Bikini Yacht Clubs.
Whatever, for most of the ride down the La Crosse to the city that bears its name, this is water pret’ near untouched by development and industry.
The La Crosse is a placid looking river, but don’t be fooled. The current is swift. Recent storms have downed a lot of trees, and at times it’s a challenge to negotiate some tricky turns to avoid scrapes with overhanging branches or collisions with looming logs.
Inexperienced canoeists may not quite make it. My travel partner’s bruised knee and the amount of foliage laying in the bottom of our canoe at the end of the trip was proof of that. At one point, there were even some rapids. (Just hang on, and do your best to steer from the back.)
Don’t let me dissuade you, though. For most of the way, the La Crosse is an easy paddle, meandering through the scenic valley between West Salem and La Crosse. For miles you will go without seeing a trace of civilization. The whole world is shore and bank, little sand bars and trees and long, tall creek grasses and maybe some bluffs in the far distance.
You will come upon a towering hunk of sliced-off rock wall – man-made, perhaps, at one time, but now home to hundreds of wrens who have burrowed their little holes in the wall on the side of the cliff.
You may chance upon some wildlife, mostly finches and egrets and red-winged blackbirds and teal, maybe even a great blue heron rising majestically out of a treetop and out of sight in the blink of an eye.
There is exactly one herd of cows you will pass on the trip. Munching on grass just inches from shore (no fence to keep them out of the water, though they really didn’t look up for a swim), they stare at you like cows will, only, it seems, more severely. Who the heck are all these sunburned humans in the long little boats, slip-splashing their way along the old stream? Often there’s no time to stop and take a picture as the current demands your attention.
You can get so lost (mentally speaking, anyway – you know the river will go where it’s supposed to) that brushes with the man-made world can be jarring.
Valley View Mall, way off to the right, high above the flood plain, re-orients your position in the civilized scope of things. From there: a highway bridge over Highway 16, a main vein into the city. Sounds of the Interstate off in the distance. A big red Coke billboard as you take a turn toward entering the city limits. A cloud of dust and the smell of smoke as you pass by a local gravel pit. Rusty old railroad bridge, overgrown with ivy. A house way up on a hill, its dark windows looking blindly down on the winding river below. Another railroad bridge. A field of power company towers, weaved together like some crazy steel spider web.
These sights are fleeting, however. Nine-tenths of the time there’s nothing but you, the canoe, the river, and Mother Nature.
The sun beats down. The clouds come up. Raindrops fall, cool and wet on your arched skin. Far-off thunder threatens lightning but never delivers. The sun reappears.
You pull up on one of the pocket-size sandy beaches that dot the shoreline, and pull out the cooler for an impromptu picnic. You get out the football and play some catch, slogging out into the waist-high water, feeling the good solid push of sandy river bottom against your bare feet. There are no broken bottles, or castaway beer cans. There are no other people, it seems, except for that other couple that took the shuttle with you and is paddling up ahead somewhere, a comfortable distance away.
Sooner or later, of course, it must end, and you pull back into the city near the spot where the La Crosse feeds the mighty mighty Mississippi and you drag your canoe back on shore at the north end of Riverside Park.
The trip is over, but you get into your car with a new perspective: tired, shoulders sore, but also kind of amazed, that yes, right within the confines of La Crosse County, cutting straight past malls and farm fields, highways and wetlands, there is a river that rolls on, oblivious to the concerns of land and men, politics and progress.
On a hot summer day, it’s a good place to be.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published in the Onalaska Record on July 16, 1990. That newspaper is no more, and some things may have changed along the river (including the closure of the canoe shuttle service we used back then). But not a whole lot, thankfully.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in a small Wisconsin blue-collar town, Mike Starling ditched the assembly line for a long, sometimes circuitous career working with words, sound and images. His original music is heard on numerous recordings and soundtracks, and his stories and photos have been featured in books, films, mags and other media. Among his other interesting career moves, he has edited a beer magazine, played bass in a reggae band and sold potato chips door-to-door. Inspired by the life-altering events of 2020, he launched a year-long web-based project called I Remember Travel in January 2021.
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I REMEMBER TRAVEL
Journeys in sight and sound by Mike Starling
All text, images and music in the I Remember Travel weblog ©Mike Starling unless otherwise noted. Music published by Bean Hoy Music (BMI). All rights reserved.