My sister and I went to visit a friend in Brownsville who lives on the banks of the Mississippi. The view from her house is mesmerizing, the river flowing endlessly downstream. Every now and then the vista was broken by a boat passing—a pontoon boat moving leisurely, a cruiser putting up a huge wake, a bass boat racing to the next hole, or a speed boat just plain racing. There were gulls passing by, but not the wading birds we see here.
Mary took us out in her pontoon boat, first to show us a new cove created by the Corps of Engineers with sand dredged from the channel. It’s huge, about half the size of the small end of Lake Winona, with huge sand dunes and shallow beaches leading up to them. There were five or six boats docked on a weekday, and some tents pitched. But on the weekend, Mary said, it was wall-to-wall boats.
On the way to the cove, we had passed two tows that had lashed together their barges, counting eighteen or so, and were waiting on the banks just out of the channel. Mary said a tow had grounded its barges the night before, just a little downstream of her house, and it took all night for them to be freed. Not only is the river low, but when we went down that way, we could see that a Wisconsin side buoy was way out of its intended position, giving the impression that the channel turned in a direction that it doesn’t. Maybe low water and bad channel marking had lured the tow and barges into trouble.
As we continued downstream, Mary pointed out many man-made islands that had been constructed to define the channel, presumably, and to attract wildlife. There were ducks and gulls galore, and in the fall, the Tundra Swans put the area on their route south.
We could see houses and small towns along the Wisconsin banks. Mary showed us the buoy markers that boaters have to follow to get to dock in Stoddard, and we could see the stacks of the Genoa power plant.
It’s so different from our stretch of the river it almost seemed it was a different river altogether. While ours is rather narrow, with interesting communities of boathouses and towns and more naturally occurring islands, down there it seems miles from bank to bank. The Burlington railroad tracks, rather than following strictly along the Wisconsin banks, as they do there, in the Winona Pool cut between the channel and the backwaters, creating some sloughs that are inaccessible from our channel. Whereas our sloughs are narrow, winding, tree-shaded, and mysterious, down there the backwaters are wide open, and appeared to be quite shallow.
On the way back to Mary’s house, we saw an eagle fishing, and campers lined up at a campground on the banks of the river. There were some boathouses, and some old, small river cottages, too. But our impression was that the river there looks more like a huge lake than our river, contained by close banks as it is.
After docking the boat, we hopped in Mary’s car and headed off to a rural restaurant. In contrast to that stretch of river, the landscape on the river’s Minnesota side is narrow, full of tiny valleys, and quite beautiful and mysterious. Houses are hidden away down winding drives, farms have lots of hillside, and more than a few of the roads we drove on were gravel. That county apparently doesn’t subscribe to the wider-the-better philosophy of county road building, and was more charming because of it.
We felt as though we’d been more than only forty miles away. It was more like a different country. That’s the beauty of Minnesota: the landscape changes as frequently as the weather.