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The river is finally coming down (08/24/2011)
By Frances Edstrom

The river is finally coming down toward normal levels ó in August! The high water that we had all summer made river recreation somewhat different from usual. Many sandbars were under water, beaches were smaller, the current was so fast there seemed to be fewer boats pulling kids on tubes, and some cabin properties were more than a little damp.

But what high water does do is make the backwaters more accessible to boats. We took advantage of the higher water to get back into some places we hadnít been for quite some time. The backwaters are by far my favorite part of the Mississippi River. There are more turtles, birds, and probably fish, but I donít fish. There certainly are many fishermen back there.

One of our favorite backwater trips is accessible most of the summer, high water or not. It is in Aghaming Park, and part of the trip is called Swift Creek, which leads into Straight Slough, along the Burlington tracks across from Homer. Itís a great place to bird watch or just noodle along. In lower water there is a nice beach, but not this year.

There is a backwater area near our cottage below Dam 5A that used to have at its head a nice beachy sandbar with a shallow area for the kids to play. When water levels were right, weíd either reach it or leave it through the backwater, which dumped us out into the channel about where the river turns downstream and you can see the courthouse and Sugar Loaf. In high water, itís not much of a challenge, but gives you a sense of the hidden mysteries of the Mississippi. You can see no cottages, no barges, no buildings, no Winona skyline, no dam behind you. Itís just you and the river and its secret denizens, much as it must have appeared to the people who lived here before towns and trains and steamboats changed everything.

We took two or three trips through there with friends this summer, and they were duly impressed. Then we decided to up the ante a bit and take one of our favorite trips from the old days, when we had nothing to lose and could be as adventurous as we liked. The river is misleading back in the sloughs, and even kayaks and canoes can get led into dead ends trying to find a way out.

This year, we went with another couple who like river adventures and rode up to Prairie Island, taking a hard right at the spillway and then wending our way downstream, behind Winnebago Island and ó we hoped ó into the channel below the dam. It was pretty smooth sailing until almost the end. There seemed to be current and enough water to go in several different directions. We tried the shortest. But we came to a downed tree that we tried to sneak around, with no success. Back up and try again. This time, we followed the current into what looked like a dead end, but snaked back and forth through the vegetation and finally led us to the channel.

Years ago, when we had a boat house at Bass Camp (the story about how it tore away from its moorings during the flood and set out on its own trip downriver I will save for another time) we took the kids and my cousin Mary, who was visiting with us, back in the sloughs around the Corps of Engineers in Fountain City. John had just bought maps of the river, and we had been exploring all summer.

We got back in some pretty remote water, and, following the map, thought we could come out a little down river from Bass Camp. The water got narrower and narrower, the tree canopy overhead denser and denser. I had some bad moments wondering if anyone would ever find us there. The hour got later, and finally, we admitted we were very, very lost.

Just before we decided to try to backtrack, like Hansel and Gretel without the trail of bread crumbs, we turned a corner and heard an amazing din. We had happened upon a heron rookery. The noise was deafening, and up in the trees we could see huge stick nests, herons in flight crisscrossing the woods. We were stopped short, though, by a horrible cry. Looking up, we saw the heron sentry just before he let go with a huge deluge of vomit, designed to chase us away, I think. And it did. We were able to find our way out, with some bad moments of doubt under the darkening sky, and made it back to Bass Camp in time to go in for dinner (and a beer to calm our nerves). After that we were a little more suspicious of the map of the backwaters, which of course were subject to change after every flood.



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