Thursday, August 1, 2002

Search for the Mighty Missisiipi Ends. Dam Truth Revealed!

"Before 1886, the upper Mississippi still had much of its natural character. Trees filled and covered it. Hundreds of islands, some forming and others being cut away, divided it, dispersing its waters into innumerable side channels and wetlands. During high water, the river spread into vast floodplains, filling lakes and sloughs and covering low-lying prairies. Sandbars, hundreds in the main channel alone, divided the natural river. At low water, these bars were near to or broke the surface. It is not just folklore that people once waded across the river...

"In 1823, the Virginia became the first steamboat to navigate the upper Mississippi from St. Louis to St. Paul. But to steamboat pilots, the natural river presented too many hazards, so... 1866...Congress told the Corps to dig a four-foot channel in the river for steamboat pilots, which the Corps did.

In 1878...Congress told the Corps to dig deeper, to four-and-a-half feet, which the Corps did by building wing dams and closing off the side channels. As railroads began to carry more freight, shipping interests got nervous and...

...Congress told the Corps to dig deeper, which they did to six feet.

But by 1918, the river still was not deep enough. Business and shipping and navigation interests told Congress, and...

...and Congress told the Corps to dig more, to nine feet. But the Corps told Congress that they couldn't dig--now they needed dams.

So...Congress told the Corps to build dams, and they went off and built a few...

...then Congress told the Corps to build More, and they did that, too...

...and by 1940 there were 26 of them from Minneapolis to Alton, just before St. Louis, and the "River" had ceased to exist, except in myth and icon in our minds, and had become a series of "pools," each numbered according to the dam that created it."

George and I gleaned the above selected factoids from one of the ubiquitous information kiosks along the "River," normally reserved for marking historical events having to do with the destruction of Indian villages and so forth. This one, here in Alma, Wis., has maps and brochures explaining to tourists, in simple language, the fine work the Corps has done in making the river safe for navigation. Directly behind the kiosk is dam No. 4.

And here at Lock and Dam No. 4 is where I announce to George that I consider our search for the elusive "River" to have ended in failure, because "it just ain't here any more, and hasn't been for my lifetime or yours. We may as well be looking for the Holy Grail."

Each sequentially-numbered pool, to a greater or lesser degree, I suppose, retains some semblance of its pre-tampering state. The success of our failure to locate the river of the National Genetic Memory meandering somewhere among the backwaters, lakes, sloughs and wetlands we have seen, some artificial, some not, is in the revelation, the ability to see what is truly there rather than our preconceived notion of it. This is the challenge, and the reward, of travel.

We arrived at Alma just in time to witness probably the most action you'll ever see at a dam, except in times of flooding disasters--a barge being locked through. We had just finished the 15-mile ride from Pepin, after descending from the bluffs, which had been flat and lacking in novelty except for the stop we made at the Nelson Cheese Factory where we sat out front by the door sweating and chewing cheese curds, bread crumbs and various other edibles with unmatched utensils littering our bench site, providing a curious spectacle, no doubt, for the steady stream of Wisconsin citizenry, young and old, visiting the Factory Store in search of fine cheeses. I left with half a pound of Farmer's Cheese with Peppers, and five small rolls, for a future meal.

Riding from the Cheese Factory store to Alma we had passed through a mile or so of another spectacular (to me) wetland. Once more, I had marveled out loud to George that these patches of primeval nature could survive and thrive, coexisting with the Corps, working its evil so near. George did not appear impressed with the view or my marvelings. I was suspicious he knew more than me about the real "nature" of these swamps, since I have found him to be more prescient than me in these and other matters.

My suspicions were not unfounded, for among the other rah-rah-Corps brochures here at the Dam No. 4 information kiosk was one produced, no doubt, by its Eco-Arm labeled "Natural Resources on the River." From it we learned that the Corps had recently realized, in retrospect, that its activities the last 125 years or so may have had some effect on the natural environment along the river, and it was now attempting to "mimic nature to create thousands of acres of wetland plants in the navigation pools by lowering some pools two feet for thirty days during late spring or earlier summer."

With this revelation I realized that those wetlands over which I had waxed poetic and contemplative were in fact created for me! I had been duped by the Army Corps gone Green!

Well, what was I to make of this information? Corps good or Corps bad? Hard to call it "greenwashing" because the evidence of its success was right before my eyes. On the other hand, there's been a lot of water over the dams, so to speak, since that first one, and I could invoke my urban cynicism, which comes in handy when condemning something I know little about, and say these Green-Corps wetlands are tokenism, too little too late, created for PR purposes near heavily-traveled roads within gawking distance of tourists.

George didn't have the answer either, so let's leave it at that for now. But if anyone has any insight or opinions or even facts about this, email me at and fill me in.

Jim Redd

Not really on the road anymore, but will be soon.

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