Well, I finally got out for a while on my home waters following a couple years of being laid up while recovering from a hip replacement and, the next year, a broken leg. It was a sunset paddle, short, only about four hours on the water, I guess, but that included some loitering time for a shore snack and contemplation of the river while waiting for a sunset that really never materialized. A silvery sheet of clouds settled to the west obscuring the sunset, but that’s OK. It was beautiful nevertheless. For me this may be the longest time off this stretch of water in 15 years or so, though I’ve been regularly paddling this stretch of river for over 30 years. It really felt like coming home. This time the trip was made with old friends as well – GuideboatGuy is known to some here and SisterRena brought along two Panamanian exchange students who had not paddled before. It’s always rewarding to see new folks introduced to a river and a sport.
Heraclitus had a point about never stepping into the same river twice, especially when one considers this particular river. It is a “sand river” which flows through sand deposited during the run off from the last glacier, about 12,000 years ago. (“The river is old. Old as few things are old; old like orbits and dust and gravity.” Justin Isherwood) We put in at a town named Lone Rock, so named because there’s so much sand out there that if there is a rock in this river, it’s a landmark worth naming a town after. (The namesake rock has since been chopped up to make building foundations.) Well drillers in the area often report having to drill hundreds of feet to get out of the sand from these deposits and down to bed rock. Through this the river flows for hundreds of miles. It’s a hundred mile beach with a river running through it. Where dry, the sand often squeaks underfoot like new-fallen snow. Like snow in the wind, islands and bars are constantly changing form in the current, running at about 16,000CFS when we were there. When you camp on these islands there is a flow of water under your feet that, I’m told, that flows at a rate of about one foot/hour.
An Island I used to camp on was missing completely as was a favorite beach that a friend and I regularly camped and took friends to over many years. The beach was greatly diminished two years ago, but now I couldn’t have identified it at all if I hadn’t frequented it so many many times. I didn’t check this time, but behind that beach there used to be springs where I’ve found bryozoan colonies. They might still be there – I’ll have to go back and check… An eagle’s nest that was a regular check point was gone, but GuideboatGuy, who has been paddling this section in my absence, knew of the new site to which the birds had relocated. It’s good to be brought up to date on the news.
I have a friend, long since moved away, who was the DNR manager of this section of the river. He once told me of a town that was once located on this part of the river. The man could spin a yarn, but I don’t think he was up to creating mythology. This town was called Richwood City and was built around a scheme to capture and mill logs from the north woods that had previously been floated down to the Mississippi for processing. This would have been a scheme to capture and sell the wood which contributed to the building of Chicago. (A lot of this earlier northern forest wood was then lost to the Chicago fire.) They built a large wing dam to create a huge eddy where the log rafts could be held until they could be milled. It was potentially quite a large enterprise for its day and the town was built around this industry. It was apparently thought by some to hold potential for the State capitol. But it was a castle built on sand. In a high-water spring the dam changed the course of the river and washed the town out. According to my friend, following spring high water fishermen using depth finders would sometimes detect geometric structures, the remains of building foundations of the sunken ghost town of Richwood City. It was looking out across this section of the river that we lunched and awaited a sunset that didn’t materialize. Nobody steps in the same river twice. Everything has changed.
And yet, the tranquility I recall remains. The eagles remain, and the swallows dipping and bobbing over the water in the gloaming remains. The feel of 16,000cfs flowing under the keel and the rhythm of the paddle strokes is the same. The peace and the friendship of others who know and love the flowing waters remains. Like orbits and dust and gravity. It’s good to come home again.
I mention all this because, as fellow paddlers, I know you understand as others can’t - having home waters of your own.