Monday, October 15, 2012

Birds and Bees and the Trempealeau Hotel

And can this really be the end of September?  I guess that's a common enough complaint, or exclamation.  We all wonder where the time went, how it got to be so late.  Gus often wonders this at closing time when he's just not ready to go home yet.  Often, that's just when everyone else wants Gus to go home.  But I shall not visit that scene today.

This past winter, I told of my search for canoe building materials in St. Paul, MN.  Well, a month or so ago, Gus finished his canoe!  Yes indeed, and he even chose a name for it, but I'm gonna keep that to myself for now.  I don't know why.  But here's the thing.  Ol' Gus put a lot of worry into building this craft.  Probably more worry than work went into it, to tell the truth.  There were periods of staring at it and wondering if this or that strip was the right one, or wondering why there was a small  gap in a joint where there was none the day before.  And there were times of famine, where Gus just couldn't scrape up the cash for epoxy or fiberglass.  Those were tough times, my friends (he intoned dramatically).  They were times of despair and self-doubt.  But you know, seriously, I've never wanted much, but my own canoe is one thing I've wanted for a long, long time.  Okay, I'll be honest and say that I'd really like my own sailboat as well, but Gus ain't a-gonna hold his breath on that one.

So, all that said, the canoe is finished, out of the shop to make way for other projects, and safely lodged in the shed out back.  It's been in some of the local ponds and a river.  And a few weekends ago I put it into the Deep River, the Ol' Man River, the Mississippi.

So on Sunday I woke at 4:30.  I had set my alarm for six, but didn't need it.  I got up and made coffee and then checked the weather.  I figured that if I made coffee first, I wouldn't change my mind.  The weather report was good, with breezes and a sunny sky.  I sucked down the first cup, then told the lady friend, P, that we were going canoeing.

One hour and a pot of coffee later we were on the road with the canoe resting securely on the roof of the old Toyota pickup.  The sun was up and the skies were clear.  There's something about the prow a canoe hanging over the hood of a truck that just feels right to Gus.  It just says, "We're going somewhere!"  Maybe other folks don't see it that way.  I hope they have something else that feels just as right.

It's about an hour and a half to Trempealeau State Park.  We pulled into the lot and parked and had the canoe in the water in less than ten minutes, including a quick run to the outhouses.  Another five and we had paddled out onto the rolling expanse of the Mississippi River.  There was only one other craft out there, a fishing boat anchored in the lee of the riverbank.  We took the canoe straight across the channel to an island, at which point we realized that we were both hungry and overheated already.  But we had food, and were overdressed, and were able to take care of both problems before we took off up the river.

It feels good to be in a canoe.  And that's really what this is about.  Gus could go on and on about the scenery and stuff.  And there was scenery, beautiful scenery.  The bluffs are tall and the islands are tree-covered.  And there are birds, and birds, and more birds.  There is also the sound of the highway a half mile away.  But for Gus it's all about the canoe, about pushing the paddle through the water so that the canoe moves forward.  It's about knowing how to turn, and how to stop.  It's about being one with the canoe, about reading the river, seeing the water ripple over stumps just below the surface, and steering your way around it.  It's about keeping it pointed where you want to go, no matter how the wind blows or the current turns.  And then there's the feeling in your shoulders and your back as you push through the water.  There's the entire physicality of the canoeing experience that, when coupled with just being outdoors with the river and the wildlife, can't be replicated.  It feels good to be in a canoe.

When I finished building the canoe this spring, I had to end with a fiberglass and epoxy coating.  I had some trouble with that, ending up with some bubbles and a few wrinkles and other blemishes.  So the first time I showed it to someone, I felt like I had to apologize for that.  But as I'm in the water more and more, the blemishes seem to disappear.  This is especially true when the currents get tricky and I'm able to handle it almost alone.  The canoe dances across the water almost joyfully.  But perhaps Gus is projecting.

We did have a good trip on the river.  We stopped for lunch on an island beach.  We had sardines and crackers and fruit while we watched the river go by.  It's pretty cool to watch the water swiftly flowing past.  Then we pushed on up the river, past the silver maples filled with black cormorants that dropped almost to the water before gliding across to the other shore.  We found a channel that cut through the island and followed that into a shallow channel that opened up as far down the river as we could see.  Halfway back to Trempealeau we encountered a flock of pelicans, right before a mad hornet settled on Gus's neck and stung.  And stung.  I could feel the poison shooting in, like liquid fire.  So I killed that hornet, right there on the spot.  My goodness but Gus was angry!  I did some cussing for a while, but there was nothing for it.  P worried that I might have developed a bee allergy over the last couple of years, but that wasn't the case.  P often worries needlessly.  But the sting was just a painful annoyance, like the Republican party, and we soldiered on.

I noticed at some point that I was doing all the work.  I mean, the canoe became hard to handle, slow to respond.  And I watched my paddling companion for a little while and noticed that her paddle was only settling into the water and gliding back of its own accord.  We call that "dip stroking."  I suggested that I could use a little help.  Even though we were heading down river, the headwind was more than making up for the current.  P dug in and concentrated on helping, and it made all the difference.  I did have to remind her a few more times along the way, but by the time we reached the park channel, we were both pretty tired.  Our drinking water was almost gone, as were the snacks.

Gus could really feel the weariness hit when we pulled in at the dock.  We both climbed out and walked around a little.  I eyed the canoe, thinking that it was going to take a great effort to pick it up.  While we walked around, someone pulled up to launch their fishing boat.  The man got out of his truck and walked over, looking at my canoe.  "That's a really nice-looking canoe!" he said.  I thanked him.  He admired it for a bit.  The bottom was covered with sand and grit, so it was hard to see the blemishes that I had lost sleep over.   I finally told him that I had built it, and he was properly impressed.  We talked a little more, then he went back to launching his boat and I found the strength to lift the canoe onto my shoulders and carry it across the lot to my truck.  I felt pretty good.

So of course we were hungry.  P likes the Trempealeau Hotel in downtown Trempealeau.  It is a very popular spot, and it's the home of the Walnut Burger.  But to tell the truth, I've been in there a few times and never really felt comfortable.  Oh, it's all nice and clean, with screened-in dining rooms and a nice bar.  There's a lovely view of the river, and the bluffs beyond if you're seated in the right place.  But there's just something indifferent about the service.  And today was no exception, even though it wasn't busy there.  We got there at about 3:30 in the afternoon, and there were some people, but plenty of open tables.  We were shown ours, ordered water and coffee and then looked at the menus.  I ordered the blackened catfish, P ordered the walnut burger.  And the waitress was cheerfully indifferent.  And then, just before our food arrived, in walked Gus's ex-employer from when he was cooking part time.  She came in with her boyfriend and another couple, and sat down right next to us before she saw us.  That was quite a nice surprise, but still seemed a little awkward, though I can't quite put my finger on it.  We chatted a little bit, but it just seemed stiff.  But my leaving that place of employment had been a bit awkward.  I think she had hoped I'd stay longer, and I feel kind of bad about that.  And that, as they say, is for another day.  Still, it was good to visit with them.  Our food came, and it was fine.  No, Gus can't complain about the food there.  It's always good.  It's just not great. Perhaps "uninspired" is the word I want.  And the service was, again, indifferent.  I have had the same experience when I was working in this town for a week or so a year ago.  I would come in and sit at the bar and try to look friendly, try to strike up a friendly howdy-do with the bartender, and it inevitably fell flat.

That same couple of weeks though, Gus spent a few happy hours at the Hungry Point down on Lake Road on the edge of Trempealeau.  Every visit there was friendly.  The bartenders were amiable, and I had a fun time just chatting it up, mostly listening to the patrons.  Yup, Gus will have to go back there some time. But back at the Trempealeau Hotel, it took a long time to get a coffee refill, and to get our bill.  When we finally stood up to go, we both felt bone-weary.  It was a good tired though.  And when we finally got home and unloaded, and Gus got all cleaned up and relaxed into his easy chair, he could still feel the river's current rolling under him.


  1. Been gone awhile, but glad to be back and reading your ramblings. I guess the canoe is up in the shed for the winter now though. Keep writing, I'll keep reading, and I'll leave the light on for you too. (or even for you two)

  2. Well, thank you, Yaneverknow. It's good to know yer out there. I'll be more diligent.