Monday, July 29, 2002

In Search of the Mighty Mississippi, Part 2

"Mississippi rises, swells and bursts like a bloated bubble, and the bayou feels the pulse of a beat in the heartland.

"Mississippi rises, gathers range to range, flows down from the highlands, grows high in the lowlands as the water sheds its power, lays its burden dam to dam St. Paul to the Delta plain.

"Mississippi rises, a rogue tide beneath an aberrant moon, rouses from its bed like a nocturnal beast and stirs the prairie for a trace of its ancient path.

"Rise Mississippi, raise your crest above the braided hats and levees of the army corps, breach their gates and go for the coast, for the freedom of the gulf stream waters.

"Rise, Mississippi, rise!"

This poem, which I wrote in 1993, was inspired by the big flood of that year. Its relevance to the story at hand is a certain "pro-river" stance against the Army Corps of Engineers, and their efforts to control the river.

I have been intrigued by the relationship between the River and Corps ever since I read John McPhee's piece in "The Control of Nature," about the Corps' construction of a massive system of levees and other structures near Baton Rouge to prevent the Mississippi from exercising its natural tendency and "going for the coast" by the way of the Atchafalaya River, thus bypassing New Orleans entirely.

As you may know, the work of the Corps along the Mississippi is not limited to that levee down in Louisiana. In case you haven't heard, keep reading.

We left Prescott in the early afternoon, heading south on highway 35, a smooth two-lane blacktop with ample shoulder. It teases the river bank for 130 miles, where the once-mighty upper Mississippi ebbs and flows to the rhythm of 26 dams from the once beautiful St. Anthony Falls to St. Louis.

After riding for five miles along what the maps show as the river bank, we still haven't seen the river. Thirty-five soon cuts inland through marshes and doesn't return to the river path until Diamond Bluff, where we saw a body of water we thought was finally the River. "Nope," said Dallas, the greeter, you may remember, at the Methodist Church ice cream social across from the nuclear plant, "That's Sturgeon Lake, there." And the other Methodists present nodded in agreement.

After leaving the social, under guidance from the church folks, we turned right on US 63 at Hager City, six miles to the south, which crosses a bridge into Red Wing, Minn. Just before the bridge, we spotted the small campground they had referred to, nestled down along what we though was surely the river. With its grubby little tent site between two RV's and the constant traffic noise from Highway 63, the only thing this campground had going for it was the Mr. Sippi Bar, within stumbling distance of our tent site. This was enough for us.

That evening, after we showered, we decided to partake of the local ambiance of the Mr. Sippi. During a conversation with one of the patrons we learned that the Mr. Sippi Bar was not on the Mississippi at all, but something called the Wisconsin Slough, which, by the way, according to him, "flows backwards." I told him I was from Chicago, so it didn't seem so unusual to me.

Disappointed once more, the next morning we resumed our search for the elusive River, only to find ourselves pedaling upstream against a river of colorful MS riders heading north on the fifth day of that annual event. You may remember from a previous e-journal entry that this is the group the City Manager of Prescott was anticipating, having mistaken George and me for advance scouts.

For at least an hour we passed them and their various motorized support vehicles. There were many expensive recumbents, tandems and otherwise. Many shouted, "Hey, you're going the wrong way." This was funny at first but got old fast, so we just started ignoring them.

Stopping at a Kwik Stop or whatever, we struck up a conversation with one of the more eccentric riders, with a handle-bar mounted squirt gun and a bubble machine on his rack. In our brief conversation, we learned that this was really the Minnesota MS ride, and they were just on the Wisconsin side for a diversion. He was an interesting fellow. He had biked to Alaska, something George has also done, so he and George chatted a while. I took their picture together, then we headed up the 250 foot "Bay City Hill" just south of town. Freewheeling down the 1.5 mile descent on the other side, we noticed there was plenty of sag wagon activity among the MS'ers.

South of Bay City the more "scenic" part of the road began in a gentle but persistent rain, the road curving up 100 foot bluffs to reveal striking views of...the River? Guess again. It's...Lake Pepin! a 22-mile long natural lake that somewhat resembles the River as we think we know it.


No comments: