The lure of canoeing a river has much to do with floating downstream, letting the river take you where it will, revealing itself bend by bend. Yet each river is only one strand in a sprawling watery network. Like the asphalt webs spread over our landscapes, the river system offers a way to travel from one place to another—if you’re willing to paddle upstream.
Our small craft rests along the Lower Wisconsin near Spring Green.
I’ve canoed since childhood and with my husband Bob for as long as we’ve known each other. Bob and I paddled lakes at first, and later pursued rivers and whitewater. We spent three summers canoeing almost three thousand miles of rivers in Minnesota to write two guidebooks: Paddling Northern Minnesota and Paddling Southern Minnesota. But we were always traveling downstream. We often talked about that idea of traveling from one place to another by canoe, paddling downstream and upstream as needed, portaging between watersheds, following the practices of the Native Americans for whom the river was indeed a road.
Why travel by river now, when the landscape can be explored so thoroughly by asphalt? The reasons are several, as I discuss in my new book Crossing the Driftless: A Canoe Trip through a Midwest Landscape:
Rivers reveal only their narrow slice of the land’s breadth, but that slice is telling. Where the river has incised deeply, the land’s geologic bones are laid bare. The diversity of riverine ecosystems is often greater than that of the surrounding landscape. Rare plants sometimes survive in deeply incised river valleys because the farmer cannot plow there…The blue heron stalks the river but not the farmer’s field. The eagle watches both fish and paddler from his perch but doesn’t venture into town. Secretive animals like the coyote, the fox, and the raccoon go to the river to drink. Others, the otter and the muskrat, burrow in its banks. The beaver builds his organic dam to create the deep pool he needs. Wooded river corridors provide textural relief from the monocultures that are modern agriculture and the hardness that is manmade landscape. Only when we strip the bold highway lines from our 21stcentury maps do we truly see the thin blue lines of rivers, the original highways that served for centuries as the best way to get from one point to another. The river is a more primitive layer underlying the debris of modern life.
As it turns out, the river is sometimes still the best way to travel from one place to another.
For our first upstream river route we chose a path that connected two places dear to us; we paddled and portaged from Faribault, Minnesota, where my mother’s family first settled in the 1870’s—and where I spent every childhood summer and portions of every summer since—to our home in Stoughton, Wisconsin, one block from the Yahara River. That’s 359 river miles, six portages, and seven Mississippi River locks. The trip took twelve days. We paddled downstream on the Cannon and Mississippi rivers, upstream on the Wisconsin and Black Earth Creek, and then downstream on the Yahara. These are among the stories I share in Crossing the Driftless.
Lynne wades the shallows on the Lower Wisconsin near Arena.
The land that lies between these two homes of ours is known as the Driftless Area. The name refers to the absence of the gravel and sand deposits left behind by glaciers—known as glacial “drift.” Because it was never glaciated, the hilly, rugged terrain of southwestern Wisconsin is so different from the glaciated landscape—scraped and flat—that is the rest of the Upper Midwest.
The Driftless is a land of both narrow, ancient rivers like the Kickapoo, and rivers like the Mississippi and the Lower Wisconsin, whose ancient morphologies were reshaped by the sand-laden outflow of the last glacial period. By traveling the Wisconsin River upstream, we experienced an otherwise familiar landscape in a deeper way than we had ever experienced.
Like the rivers of the Driftless, the Cannon River in Minnesota has exposed layers of geologic history for the paddler to enjoy.
Paddling upstream is slower than downstream, of course, but we found it remarkably easy to adjust our expectations to the slower pace. Instead of following the strongest flow as we do when headed downstream, we found ourselves seeking out the slower flow and eddies that lie along the river’s meanders.
On the Mississippi, we realized how easy it would be to stay in the familiar riverside towns we had passed through so many times by car. We carried a simple cell phone that had no Internet connection. To find out if there was a room at the inn, we phoned our son Greg, whom we dubbed our “river concierge.” He called us back each time with a reservation secured: Alma, Trempealeau, Genoa. We have since discovered that long-distance paddlers with smart phones now often carry solar chargers: a tool readily embraced by modern voyageurs.
Modern Huck Finns float downstream on the Lower Wisconsin, fishing from the raft they built that morning from discarded materials.
Traveling by canoe is never without surprises. Some are intimidating, like the power of the wind on Lake Pepin, and some are delightful, like staying the night at a historic inn in a Mississippi River town. But traveling by canoe means that we never have to head off to a distant wilderness to find adventure. The river system: primitive, unpredictable and alluring, is always right outside our door.
To read more about Lynne’s recent paddling adventures, you can read her new book Crossing the Driftless: A Canoe Trip through a Midwest Landscape.