Mile 80 – 190
Bagley, WI to LaCrosse, WI (the long way)
A lot of folks will have you believe that rural areas and small towns never change – that Joe is always behind the counter of the filling station that bears his name; that Uncle George will always live on the corner of Main and 3rd; that the Smiths graze their cattle right up to the churchyard on the south side. Today was the first real day of my adventure, and I spent it re-visiting some places that I used to be familiar with but hadn’t seen in a few years. What I learned was: things change. Some for the better, some maybe not so much, and some are just plain different. What hasn’t changed is the beauty of the Mississippi River valley in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota – and as long as that stays constant, I guess the details aren’t all that big of a deal.
I started the day in Wyalusing State Park, which used to be practically home for me – but I enjoyed getting a new perspective on things. I stayed in the Wisconsin Ridge Campground, which offers great views, though there is little privacy from the other campers (I could see at least fifteen other families from my site). Wyalusing (dnr.wi.gov/org/land/parks/specific/wyalusing/; www.wyalusing.org) is located at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, and the view from my site looked down on the Wisconsin, with the town of Prairie du Chien and its river bluffs rising from the opposite shore. I took my favorite hike, along the Sentinel Ridge Trail from Lookout Point, through the Green Cloud picnic area, and down to the boat landing. The top of the ridge is covered with a series of linear and conical mounds built by Woodland Indians up to 1,000 years ago. A prescribed burn that took place this spring has resulted in a flush of wildflowers and grasses under the open oak canopy, and reduced the heavy brush on the slope down to the river. The park is currently thinning some damaged oaks on the mounds, and opening the ridge up even more. These were a few changes that I was really pleased to see – they are helping to restore the habitat at this historic site to something more like what those mound builders saw hundreds of years ago.
After leaving Wyalusing, I travelled through Prairie du Chien and up the Mississippi onHwy 35. I stopped for a brief hike at Rush Creek State Natural Area, which was beautiful despite the heat and poison ivy (no, I don’t know why I thought 12:30 on an August afternoon was a good time to climb up a goat prairie). I crossed the Mississippi at Lansing, IA, and continued up through New Albin on Hwy 26 to Minnesota.
I made it up to Brownsville, MN, a small town in far southeastern Minnesota where I have not been for several years. I was
particularly excited to stop at their local Kwik Trip – it was a holdover from a previous decade, before the regional gas station chain underwent a modernizing transformation and expansion push. When I passed all of the new waterfront homes and rounded the corner to the last of the old-school KT’s, though, I found it shuttered and dilapidated, with all identifying signage removed. Very sad. I was not so devastated that I couldn’t carry out my other plan, though, which was to hike up on the bluff rising adjacent to the town.
It is common among these bluff country towns, and especially those in Minnesota’s Root River valley, to make a sign of whitewashed rocks, spelling out the town’s name high up on a nearby bluff.
I always particularly liked Brownsville’s, because it surely has the longest name of all, and the letters were pretty small when all was said and done. It wasn’t easy to read from a distance, but I was disappointed on my drive in that I couldn’t see it at all. The reason, it turns out, is that the summer prairie grasses were too tall and dense to allow the letters to show through! All in all, the prairie looked awesome, with significant tree and brush clearing a few years ago, and a recent prescribed burn to remove
additional woody material. Grasses and forbs are colonizing the once bare areas where cedar trees stood, and the diversity of plants was really beautiful. [I’m not above giving a big pat on the back to myself and everyone else who has worked on the site – way to go, guys!] I guess I can handle the disappearance of a convenience store and construction of river-bank McMansions in exchange for a refreshed prairie! If I were going to be around a month from now, this bluff jutting into a wide stretch of the Mississippi would make a great place for watching the migration.
As it is, I continued up the river, picking up Hwy 16 through LaCrescent (the Apple Capital of Minnesota – where I couldn’t resist buying a few pounds of early season fruit), and back across the river to LaCrosse, WI. There I enjoyed a few of the local brews proliferating in western Wisconsin these days, and the hospitality of a friend for the night. It was great to wake up to drizzle and later a thunderstorm… and know that I was on a nice, dry couch (thanks Nate)!