For years now, I've been wanting to canoe the stretch of the Baraboo river between Wonewoc and LaValle. From the Wonewoc end, it looks interesting, beginning with a long straight stretch that flows quietly away from the highway and suddenly bends around a corner and disappears. You can't see where it goes from there. It's hidden from the road and doesn't appear again until you reach LaValle, eight miles away. Of course, eight miles on the road could be 16 or 20 or more miles by river. It's not a fast way to travel. And, from what Gus has heard, the Baraboo is not an easy river.
There are tales of people who ventured onto it, expecting a pleasant 3 hour tour, and not arriving until the end of the day. The river, is strewn with fallen trees and surrounded by swamps and shallow muddy ponds. It's a river that meanders and all but disappears, spreading wide and shallow across mud flats the suck and pull the unsuspecting traveler. It's not a river to be taken lightly. A few years ago, two women decided to paddle to LaValle. They left Wonewoc in the afternoon while their husbands planned to meet them in LaValle. At suppertime, they weren't there yet. And then it became dark, and they still hadn't showed up. The men finally contacted the fire department to begin a search. The searchers were using four-wheelers to ride up and down the bike trail, which cuts through the swamp and crosses the river a couple of times. They drove back and forth, not finding anyone. But according to the woman, they could hear the four wheelers, and were calling out, but the machines were too loud and nobody heard them. The women finally found a place to pull out, at around midnight, and made their way into town walking, tired and hungry and covered with bites.
(Neko Case is singing, "This Tornado Loves You" on the radio. Oh, man, that's a nice tune. Sorry, that has nothing to do with anything.)
I have talked to other people who have canoed that stretch. They were young and not inexperienced. And they all said that it was a hard stretch of water, and that they wouldn't do it again. I believed them. Gus is one of those guys who isn't afraid to take advice. "So, Gus," you might wonder. "Then what ever possessed you to try it this time, after being told how bad it was?" Well, the thing that convinced me was rain, and lots of it, day after day. I kept an eye on the rive, watching it rise, and rise some more. I watched it finally crest at the top of the banks, and I decided, what the heck, I'm gonna do this river. I'm gonna own this river!
So on a Sunday morning, I arranged for a ride, packed some food and water and loaded the canoe onto my pickup to drop it off on the edge of town. I could have started right in town, but have been down that stretch a few times already. It meanders far and wide for miles and miles just to double back to the city limits. I didn't feel like running that. I put in at the little rest area east of Wonewoc. There's an artesian well there where town folk fill jugs of drinking water, rather than drink the chlorinated and flouridated stuff in town. And that's fine, I can't blame them. I often wonder what kind of pesticides and herbicides are being dumped on the fields across the road from there, but I guess no matter where you turn you're liable to have something to worry about, if you choose.
There's a little swale in the park that is usually just grass. But that day it was filled with water from the flooded river. I was able to set the canoe in there without having to worry about slipping down a muddy bank. From there I loaded up and paddled out into the broad and muddy Baraboo river. The current was stronger than it appeared. I had to move quickly to get situated and point the bow downriver. But then for the next mile, things were pretty smooth. The breeze was blowing, the sun was shining, the sky was blue and dappled with white clouds. Birds of every feather and song were flying and calling all around me. A muskrat surfaced suddenly and floated along beside me, almost close enough to whack with my paddle, if I was the sort who might do that. But I'm not.
The straight stretch ended suddenly in a 180 degree turn. And just that suddenly the river became a tangle of downed trees, of trees and tall grassy banks closing in around me. The first couple of tangles were navigable, but there finally came one that I had to search for an opening through. I backed up, fighting the current, made a couple of false starts, backed up again, and finally found a narrow chute between the river bank and the crown of the downed tree. I shot through, cringing a little as the branches scraped along the underside of the canoe. And that describes most of the rest of the trip. I worked my way around branches, under trees, and over trees. I thought I was trapped at one jam, looking a long portage through the stinking mud. But I doubled back and found where the flooded river had cut a new channel through the woods. It was narrow and shallow, but deep enough to float me. I popped out at the other in, back in the main channel again. After 50 feet or so, I had to climb out and onto a downed tree trunk to lift the canoe up and over.
I finally came to a place where I had to portage. The only exit was on a muddy river bank. I pulled up alongside it and climbed out, trying to keep a footing on the bank. But I slipped and went down, landing heavily on my hand. My middle three fingers bent backward under me and suddenly popped out of joint, nearly touching my wrist. Just as suddenly, I was on my feet, and felt the fingers popped back into place again. It hurt an amazing amount! And the thing that amazed me the most is that I didn't yell or scream or anything. What would be the point? I was all alone. All I did was groan, and say, "Aw, jeeze!" There was no one to hear my pain. No one to feel sorry for me. And really, I didn't have time to feel sorry for myself. I had to grab the canoe rope and pull it up the bank before it floated away. Of course, the canoe wouldn't have gone far. All it would have done is float down to the fallen tree and get tangled up in the middle of the river. I dragged it up and carried it through the coarse and sharp river grass. The blades slashed at my bare legs and feet. I reached the open water and slid back in.
The river twisted and turned, sometimes almost doubling back on itself. I would rudder myself around a sharp bend and see the river where I'd been five minutes earlier. One moment, the sun would be in my eyes, and then next it would be at my back. And even though the river was not the most dangerous or challenging that I've ever been on, it was definitely the most work. Ol' Gus's arms worked steadily to keep the canoe where I wanted it to go. I had packed a lunch, but only eaten a half a sandwich so far, because there was just no time to idle and float. I could have pulled ashore at some point, but there were insects along there. So I had to keep going. And it wasn't without its rewards. There were steep cliffs that I didn't know existed back here. There were hidden farms with cattle grazing next to the river. There was one steep cliff that had a chain link fence running along the edge. Cattle stood up there and looked down at me. I passed a low-hanging tree, and realized that there was a dead fawn in one of the branches, hanging limply over the river. It was a sad thing to see, but it got me thinking about how far I was from any well-traveled routes. I have heard of lions doing that, and every year we hear rumors of big cats in this neighborhood. And though I didn't feel in any danger, it seemed like a good idea to not linger under those branches.
I had to navigate many more snags and jams, but only had one more portage. That was in a section of the river with a tall grassy bank on one side, and a muddy swamp on the other. And when I looked more closely at the tall bank, I realized that it had more nettles than grass, and the nettles were waist high, and I was in shorts and sandals.
I back-paddled for a some time, looking up at that bank, and looking at the distance I would have to travel. There were three trees down in the river, so it would be a couple of hundred feet of carrying. And there was no telling what the ground would be like, but most likely it would be mud. Mud and sawgrass and nettles, and me with bare legs and toes. I sighed and climbed ashore, taking care to not slip this time. Then I pulled the canoe ashore and set out across the broad isthmus.
I started to think seriously about a cold beer right about then. My plan was to pull out at the River Mill and wait for my ride there. I was going to have a cold one and relax. The River Mill. It was built back in the early 80's, when the old River Mill burned down, along with the rest of the block. There was also an old hardware store that never rebuilt, and at least one other business that I don't recall. I like the River Mill and I don't. I feel ambiguous.
It's a big log tavern, with high ceilings, a stuffed moose and wolf and
lion on a big shelf above the bar. It's got the feel of a northwoods
tavern, airy and comfortable. But it's got this big-ass television
right behind the bar. It's just big, and loud, unless you ask the
bartender to please turn it down. And they usually do. And, back to
the "like" column, I really like the service there. The owner is a genial and good-humored guy, always ready to visit if he has a minute. The staff is
always friendly, and generally prompt. It's a really nice place to hang
out and have a beer or two. It's a great place to unwind. It's clean and kept up really well. There are lots of windows all around and a really pleasant dining area that looks out at the river. I've seldom had a bad time at the River Mill. I'm
not impressed by the food though. Once again, it's like a lot of food
served in cafes around here. A lot of it is ready-made and not really
inspired. It's not "bad" so much as not much of anything. And really, in a place like this, I feel bad for finding fault with the food. And, of course, it's just my opinion.
The grass slashed at my bare legs, and the nettles stung me every step of the way. I was able to drag the canoe though. The tall grass and the mud didn't scrape it. If I had had to carry it, I would have sunk in. I nearly tripped over some long-fallen trees hidden in the grass. But I made it around the jam and put the canoe back into the river, sliding the nose down the tall bank, and then carefully following behind. My feet and legs were smarting from the nettles and the sweat that trickled into the thousand tiny cuts. But the amazing thing about nettle bites is that they go away quickly. I dragged my legs in the river for a short distance and the welts were gone.
The next two hours seemed like, well, two hours, or maybe even three. That's not to say I wasn't still enjoying myself. I was. The scenery was lovely, and that portage was the last bad jam that I encountered. But it was still a steady occupation that demanded attention. I was getting hungrier, of course, and now was passing "No Trespassing" signs (at the edge of a cliff along the river?? Please.) and hearing steady gunfire on a hillside. Every time I thought I'd gotten away from the gunfire, the river doubled back closer. But I finally entered a stretch that I recognized, one that I'd seen from the bike trail. And sure enough, a couple of bikers pedaled past a quarter mile ahead. I knew exactly where I was! I dug in, telling my swollen and purple finger joints and aching shoulders that it wasn't far now. And it wasn't. I pulled into LaValle as the sun was dipping down to the tall trees the hilltops. There was a landing right between two taverns. One of them was the River Mill, my destination.
And here's the thing. Ol' Gus had just finished this five-and-a-half hour odyssey, and done it alone. I had conquered the river. In my head there was a fanfare, and there was a crowd of people watching from the taverns, wondering, "Who is this man? Who is this intrepid and powerful specimen of a man who braved the long, lonely river alone and is now emerging, weary and hungry and bruised, but undaunted, to claim his well-deserved accolades?" Yeah, that was in my head. I tried to climb from the canoe as if I had just gone out for a spin. I think I did a good job of it. I unloaded the canoe and carried everything up onto the bank, with a spring in my step, to a handy picnic table. Then I turned back to retrieve the canoe. This would be the hard part, picking it up as if it weighed nothing, and then walking up and not stumbling. I also managed that, balancing the 17-foot canoe on my shoulders, tripping lightly up the slope and then gently setting it on the grass. I was impressing myself! From there I walked into the River Mill. I decided to go with a weary but undefeated walk, kind of stretching, maybe dragging my feet a little. It was kind of a letdown to see that nobody was anywhere near a window. And nobody paid any attention when I walked in, aside from a glance to see if they knew me. Then they turned back to their conversations. So much for my self-image. I crept sheepishly up to the bar and ordered a New Glarus Moon Man pale ale and a glass of water, then pulled out my iPod to email for my ride home.