Tag Archive | Midwest



I decided to take a quick roadtrip through the Midwest this summer – the middle of the Midwest, the part where no one goes for vacation!  I drove across northern Iowa, then down its Western border, and continued following the Missouri River through its namesake state all the way down to its mouth in St. Louis.  I popped in to South Dakota and Nebraska, but Kansas offered too much traffic for me to brave.  You don’t think of traffic when you think of Kansas, do you?  


In case you thought Iowa was nothing but corn, you can rest assured that there are soybeans here, too.


This giant statue of Pocahontas, along with a lot of historic signs about the real “Indian princess,” filled the town of Pocahontas, Iowa. Yes, you are remembering history correctly: Pocahontas was a figure in early Virginia history, at a time when no one even knew Ohio existed, let alone Iowa.


Somewhere around Oelwein, IA, the Driftless Area ends and the land flattens out. I was in foreign territory once I’d crossed the Wapsapinnicon… which became obvious as KwikStars gave way to Kum & Gos.


Onawa, Iowa (that’s 2/3 vowels for those counting) has the widest main street in the world. According to the sign.

This wasn’t just a whim; I had destinations in mind.  When conceiving of the trip, those sites seemed disjunct, just a mix of places and things that I might be interested in.  As I traveled, though, the pattern became obvious.  I drove through cornfields to find prairies, through a modern metropolis to find an ancient civilization.  I was exploring the beginnings of the American West, the conquering of wilderness, the root of our national psyche.  There in the cornbelt, surrounded by the simple life, I found myself feeling that I was on the cusp of great excitement.  In the middle of nowhere, at the edge of everything.  Maybe Iowa should adopt that as its new motto.


It really is corn as far as the eye can see, even in the rolling hills of Western Iowa, where the eye can see much farther…


Somewhere in the western part of Iowa, the towns get farther apart and the road ditches fill with prairie.


In addition to beans and corn, there is wind in


Iowa. These windmill farms use different technology than some of the others I have seen.

Up Nort’

Days 15-16

September 13-14, 2010

Mile 845 – 1230

Grand Marais, MN to Fosston, MN


***photos to come***

My morning was spent hiking at Cascade River State Park, up to see the falling water for which the river is named.  Although there is ostensibly a higher waterfall farther upriver, I did not find it.  The lower cascades, themselves, were quite lovely, however, and well worth the short walk from the trailhead/campground.

Would that I had the hand of an artist to sketch the symmetrical beauty of this site, for truly it is as if created by an architect!  Alas, I have only words with which to express this great splendor, and these poor clattering keystrokes can never bring forth the mellifluous impressions of our great poets.  The “cascades” proper, as distinguished from mere pedestrian flows of water over bedrock, were three in number, and ran through a narrow gorge of this River.  It appeared that the water fell an equivalent distance down each subsequent step, and flowed smoothly along a plateau between cascades.  The first seemed to sweep to the left, the next to the right, and the final back to the left – they could have been so many ladies swirling their skirts alternately to the side as they paraded down the staircase of a grand ballroom.  Indeed, their audible impression was also one of grace: the various tinkling of each droplet across the smooth dolomite combined to form not the fearsome thunder of a larger waterfall, nor the disordered churning of a rapids, but the cacophony of a well-tuned orchestra, or the rustling of so many silk gowns amid murmurs of genteel greetings.  That such a powerful yet delicate river should be subsumed within such a short distance by the overpowering Lake Superior was a tragic reminder of Nature’s ephemeral volatility.


Shortly after leaving the park, I bid farewell to Superior and headed westward, first through the Superior National Forest around Finland.  New flash:  The colors are changing!   Select trees are just starting to turn red and orange; the aspen and maples are not yet doing their thing, but the “scenic route” out of Finland was looking an awful lot like fall [NOTE: I wrote that a week ago – I’d bet things are looking even prettier up there now.].  Finland really is Finnish – names like Lehtinen and Taomi filling the landscape through that county and into the next… right up to the Iron Range, in fact.

I did not spend much time in the Iron Range, after running a couple errands in Hibbing, but continued through Grand Rapids, MN (birthplace of Judy Garland), into the Chippewa National Forest outside of Deer Run.  There I encountered again the Great River Road, which I hadn’t seen since just north of LaCrosse.  Lake Winnibigoshish (or “Winnie” as the locals say) was created by an early dam on the Mississippi, intended to prevent flooding in St. Paul.  Those dams don’t do much today, since the Lock and Dam system was built in the 1930’s. However, seeing the little trickle of a river flowing out from that lake, and thinking back on the start of this trip along the Mississippi, I decided it was worth the detour to Lake Itasca to view the headwaters.

I crossed the river several more times on my way through Bemidji and down to Lake Itasca State Park, and each time it was little more than a creek.  There wasn’t much more than that flowing out of marshy Lake Itasca once I got there.  I also found the first example of human intervention in the river’s natural flow – the CCC had redesigned the headwaters to give it an appearance “more fitting for this great river.”  Whatever that means…  It is probably for the best, however, as a half million visitors apparently come through every year.  Even late on a dreary September day, there were several visitors, as well as an entire tour bus, stopped at the site.  Despite its artifice, I was impressed with seeing the humble beginnings of a river that means so much culturally and economically to our region, and it made a suitable end to my time in the Midwest.  Tomorrow I embark on the Great Plains!

Back on the Prairie

Day 17

September 15, 2010

Mile 1234 – 1390

Fosston, MN to Arvilla, ND

I woke up this morning in Fosston, MN.  At first glance, there’s not much to the place: there are a rusty tank and helicopter memorializing veterans on the east end of town, and three gas stations along the half-mile “main drag.”  There’s even a stoplight, along with a couple businesses named after it (Stoplight Video, Stoplight Corner Store).  This indicates that there may be more to the town than meets the eye.  Fosston (population 1575) is a Minnesota Star City.  It is also an All-America City (1996), a member of the White House Millennium Council (“Honor the Past – Imagine the Future”), a winner of the “First in MN Beautiful Award” and “First in MN Community Improvement.”  It is the recipient of some kind of recognition for Progressive Agricultural and Industrial Development (the seal portrays a horse, winged with poison ivy… no wait, maybe it’s a soybean plant superimposed on a cow).  I’m sure that at least some of this is due to the foresight they had in town planning when they decided to devote the grassy area around their town shop to a fee-based campground.

I can’t really complain about the kids in the yard down the block having a bonfire ‘til the wee hours, about the grain elevator’s fans running through the night, or about the train whistling its way through town at 7 am.  For a tent, it’s only five bucks a night.  The smell of diesel and Fast Orange in the bathroom even made me a feel a little bit at home.  There aren’t a whole lot of other options nearby, actually: somewhere around Lake Itasca I started noticing more pastures, fewer trees.  Placid cows made me forget to look for moose around every corner.  When I pulled up my tent stakes in the morning, they were black with dirt.  With soil.  A couple weeks of sand and stone thinly blanketing the bedrock beneath made me feel like I was in another world.  Now, I’m back on the prairie.  I crossed the tension zone again, and I think I’m finally on the Great Plains.

If I hadn’t picked up on any of those clues, and I hadn’t noticed that Fosston’s motto was “Where the prairie meets the pines,” I could hardly have helped being tipped off by the name of the next town I came to: Fertile.  The scenery between Fosston and Fertile was nearly solidly ag fields – and those almost completely soybean, many already harvested, tilled, and replanted with winter wheat.  Past Fertile, to the north and west, I found a lot of unplowed land, much of it owned or eased by the state, federal agencies, or the Nature Conservancy.  It’s all some mixture of prairie and wetland (miniscule changes in elevation and soil causing the variation).  I spent some time hiking around in the Glacial Ridge Preserve area, a cooperative program among the several agencies.

The Nature Conservancy owns and manages Agassiz Dunes, with help from the Minnesota DNR’s Scientific and Natural Areas.  I hoped to see the star of that region in my hike – the Greater Prairie Chicken, but no dice.  What I did see, after several days’ reprieve, was lots and lots of poison ivy.  Also the last of the summer’s dry prairie blooms: heath aster, bottle gentian, gray goldenrod.  I have to wonder if everything has gone dormant because I’ve been off in the boreal forest so long, or if its due to my northern latitude – I know it’s been consistently at least ten degrees warmer in Madison than up where I am.  At any rate, I didn’t realize it at the time, but the sand blows at Agassiz may have been my last exposure to topography for many, many miles.

After chatting with the TNC crew at the Glacial Ridge Office between Fertile and Crookston, I went off to check out some of the area’s other nice features, including calcareous fen, marsh, wet mesic prairie, and mesic prairie along a former railroad grade.  I had to get used to the directions they gave, though: “ridge” means “area in wetland where ground is a couple feet higher and brush can grow.”  I also found myself wishing that I were better at bird identification, because this is a very popular birding area.  I was able to identify a rough-legged hawk and white-throated sparrow today, although I’m sure a lot of way cooler species got away without me spying them.

After spending much of my day on the prairies, I headed west and north, through Crookston and East Grand Forks, across the Red River of the North, to… North Dakota!  Yes, folks, I made it.  What I have to report is: Grand Forks, ND is nothing to write home about.  And that is being charitable.  If you can’t say something nice…   So I headed west a few more miles and came to Emerado, where I stopped for supper and a beer.  There is an Air Force Base north of “town,” which I did not check out.  I put it in quotes like that, because it is nothing but a looped road of trailer homes, with a bar/café and Dairy Queen at one end.  I immediately impressed the bartender as being a “hard drinker,” when I sat down and ordered a Grain Belt.  I assured her that I was from Wisconsin and could handle it.  I won her favor even further when I downed an entire 10” frozen pizza all by myself.  On my way out an hour or so later, when she and her friends urged me to come in again, I told them I was headed west, across the state.  I explained my mission to check out North Dakota.

“Oh,” they assured me, “North Dakota’s really not that bad.  It’s flat here, but it’s not that bad.”

“You poor SOB, you came in through Grand Forks – you should have come from the other direction!”

“Out in the western part of the state it gets nicer, more like badlands.”

And my personal favorite: “I come from Minnesota, where at least we have trees!  We may not have rolling hills, either, but at least there were trees…”

This last led me to learn my first new term for this state: shelter belt.  Tune in next time to find out what exactly it means…

Isle Royale – Farewell

Day 14

September 12, 2010

Mile 795 – 845

Isle Royale National Park, MI to Grand Marais, MN

I finally got myself out of bed early this morning, in order to take one last short hike over to nearby Lake Mason, in hopes of seeing wildlife or at least getting a few more moments of solitude.  The hike was shorter than I’d thought, and there was no wildlife, but it did make a nice, peaceful place to sit and enjoy the morning.  Technically, I had seen the sun rise from my shelter (and a beautiful view it was), but I got to see it actually come up, sitting on a rock next to Lake Mason, blinded by the light glinting off of wet branches.  The dew and fog never quite got around to burning off back in that lake (probably because it was

On the dock at Chippewa Harbor, waiting for the boat

actually leftover rain, not really dew), before I had to head back down and get myself packed up.

My tent had mostly dried in the night, and I made myself some breakfast and a Nalgene of tea while loading my pack for the last time.  Waiting on the dock with the guys from Detroit, I reflected on how different my trip was from what theirs would be.  For all of my concerns of being ill-equipped for the trek, I was far better off than they were.  Moreover, my journey had been a solo one, with minimal human contact.  I can’t say that it would be better or worse to be hanging out with my buddies the whole time – just different.  A different interaction with myself, and with the world around me.

Before long, the Voyageur II came along to pick us up, and I got my last view of Chippewa Harbor as we pulled out into the Lake.  The sun had started heating up the day by that time, causing the

Voyageur II arriving in Chippewa Harbor

winds and waves to pick up a little, and by the time we got to Malone Bay, the calmer harbor waters were welcome.  The Detroit guys had been impressed by the distance we had traveled in about an hour – and a bit nervous about having to walk that whole distance back again!  I felt a little bit satisfied with myself for having already hiked that – and more, and was looking forward to impressing myself with the distance we had yet to travel to Windigo.

By the time we got to that next harbor, a little under two hours later, it felt as if two days had elapsed – the boat pitched and rolled with the high waves, water crashing against the decks and leaking in around the window frames.  The mate referred to the lake as a “roller coaster” that day – I might have called it a bucking bronco – but I guess it depended on whether we were headed directly into the waves or were hitting them on the side.  Neither way was particularly fun, though the former provided a little more predictability.  Focusing all of my mental and physical energies on not getting nauseous, listening to the clanging of deck doors and hearing the slapping and washing of water along the length of the boat, I found myself dredging up repressed memories of my journey across the Pacific.  Truly, I thought that I didn’t remember anything of that day and a half of seasickness, half asleep and half puking, but vivid mental pictures of the Navarino’s storm-tossed cabin and deck came back to me!  Perhaps if I had had the coves and ridges of Isle Royale to fix my gaze on then, I could have avoided it after all!  As it was, I was very relieved to make it to the calm waters of the bay around Windigo.  It was really beautiful, threading through the many smaller islands that surround that harbor, and I found myself thinking it would be fun to paddle on a calmer day (there are a few boat-access campsites out on those islands, too).  After loading up the rest of the boat with passengers and their cargo, we headed back another wave-tossed two hours to the mainland, and I was happier to reach Grand Portage than I ever thought I would be!  Kudos to the captain and crew for getting us there as quickly and smoothly as possible – I know they weren’t enjoying it any more than we were.

Lake Superior on a windy, windy day. If you look closely, you can see the island's coastline on the horizon (I hiked all you can see, and more)

After seeing nothing but water streaming down steamed-up windows for all of that time, it was a bit surreal to step out into a warm and sunny, if breezy, day.  It made for a nice drive back down 61 to Grand Marais.  I treated myself to a good dinner (and an overpriced, but delicious, beer), and realized for the first time that I was ravenous – and exhausted!  I hadn’t planned on being so tired after a day of doing nothing but sitting on a boat… but I also hadn’t planned on using all my strength to stay in my seat!  I headed out of town and decided to stay at the first campground I came to, at Cascade River State Park, a few miles south of Grand Marais.  I could still hear the waves of Lake Superior (along with cars passing on the highway, and folks laughing around campfires), but a couple cushy pillows in my tent made all the difference, and I fell quickly asleep…


Day 1          August 30

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.

Not a bad view to wake up to!

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.

Rush Creek State Natural Area

Fish Farm Mounds

I made it up to Brownsville, MN, a small town in far southeastern Minnesota where I have not been for several years.  I was

Brownsville Bluff

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.

Prairie Blazing Star, Side-Oats Grama Grass, and other native plants.

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

Sunflowers and grasses colonizing the area around stumped cedars.

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)!