Monday, August 22, 2011

The Mighty Mississippi chronicles

In this edition of Birdstud’s Birdchat, we’ll be focusing on the birds of the Mississippi Flyway at Mid-August reverse-migration point of the year.  We’ll also delve into some more small-town American (Wisconsin-style) moments as we do. 

The trip from Milwaukee to Grant County, WI is about 3-1/2 hours at the maximum posted speed limits.  I have found that I drive at the limits (watching everyone, and I mean everyone pass me up), because I am older, wiser and don’t want to have constant stress while I drive.  You might imagine that I (driving the speed limit) might frustrate other zooming motorists who encounter me on the road, feeling the need for speed as they blast past, and you’d probably be correct.  My response would have to be, “so what?”  If you are one of these types of drivers; you get what you deserve in the racking up of multiple moving violations, dealing with fender benders, and the incredible non-stop mental angst you put yourself through.  But then, I digress…

Our target for the weekend was indeed an incredibly wide and serene section of the Mississippi River adjacent to the US Army Corps ofEngineer’s Grant River Campground, but there were also a few other stops we planned to make in the area before the weekend was over.  Long ago glaciers advanced and retreated across Wisconsin, with the last retreat about 12,500 years ago. The southwestern corner however, was untouched and is known as the "driftless" area or Paleozoic Plateau.  It is a land of deep valleys, ridges, and bluffs never leveled by the glaciers.  The campground (off Hwy 133) is nestled between a vast stretch of the big river and the tiny “Catfish Capital of Wisconsin”; Potosi.  Nicholas Perrot discovered southwestern Wisconsin's first lead mine in what is now Potosi.  By 1850, the area embraced more than 10,000 hand-dug lead mines, supplying more than half of the nation's supply.  Mississippi riverboats carried Wisconsin lead throughout the nation.  The region produced virtually all of the lead shot for the Northern forces during the Civil War.  One more interesting feature that we soon discovered was also in between the river and Potosi, were two long shiny railroad tracks running right next to the tent campsite I had booked unseen on the Internet.

The 56 other reservable electric sites were all in use with large and impressive (hard-sided) RV units.  We later learned that a strong contingent of Good Sam campers from neighboring Iowa had all decided that this weekend was their chance to get together in Wisconsin.  They were incredibly organized and had a multitude of activities planned all weekend for their (mostly) aged members to enjoy.  One such delightful couple was Bob and Kathy Michael, (from Dubuque) who took up residence adjacent to our track-side site in their (home away from home) pull-behind “hybrid” camper.  At one point Kathy brought over to share; the most wonderful homemade molasses cookies I had ever eaten.  Once our site was set - complete with tent and sleeping gear and the majority of other (brought-along) items were in place; we motored off to nearby Lancaster, WI and the Grant County Fair.

The fair was located off a non-descript side road from the main highway that split the town of Lancaster.  We only found it because I am unopposed to asking directions.  I had driven about as far in and out of the town as I dared without seeing the fairgrounds when (at the northern edge of the city) I spotted a large Pamida (next to Gassers True Value hardware – imagine the sad and endless childhood taunting of the little Gassers in elementary school).  I drove up to an elderly man, circling his pick-up truck in the parking lot on foot.  He was wearing a GB Packers shirt and using a cell phone.  The two even older white-haired female passengers in his vehicle quickly deferred to his cartographic prowess when we asked where the fair could be located.   He came around to my side of the car and said the following, “you know back the way ya came, where the road kinda’ dips down…you know, then where the road takes a jog…well, the road you want is right there across from the library.”  Barbara and I smiled at each other and bid him and his equally smiling passenger’s goodbye, and headed off to the only landmark in his rambling directions that made us certain we’d eventually find it – the library.

After the car was parked in the field earmarked with a hand-painted sign indicating which aisle we had self-parked into, we walked past the wooden sandwich board indicating that an “adult season pass” to the fair was seven dollars.  We then halted our advance opposite two elderly VFW-garbed men with a huge roll of entry tickets.  “Day or season?” enquired the nearest one, extending the ticket roll.  Since I could find no handy reference whatsoever to any other admission choice or price, I opted for two “season” passes, citing the (what the heck, slim to none) possibility that “we could come back on another day.”  The surrounding grounds were filled with smiling adults, children and entire families as we worked our way around the perimeter of the fair; past the sprawling antique tractor collector and Platteville Optimist booths.  It was going on 6:30 PM and we were both wanting to learn the details of the advertised 7:00 PM Tri-State Truck and Tractor Pull and to get something to eat before the big event.  We headed for a huge grandstand-looking building with our questions and our appetites.

People seemed to be standing at a small table near the backside of the stands, receiving a paper wristband in exchange for a business card slip of paper.  I found out that this was the “Fair Bonus Card” redemption center and if we had been savvy enough to pre-purchase one; we’d have received “deep discounts” on all purchased beverages and food.  Since we had not, we shuffled away to a tall painted plywood kiosk under the stands that was selling beer “tickets” (one for $ 2.50/ two for $ 5.00).  A man and woman were both wedged into the small booth.  The man leaned toward the window ledge as I approached to ask what purchasing the tickets meant to me.  “It’s for the beer” remarked the jug-eared bespectacled, string bean man.  He was wearing one of those old-time red and white striped aprons.  My second question of “is a beer one or two tickets?” caused him to look backward to the woman as if to ask her if I was for real.  He looked back and grinned, “one beer for one ticket.”  Wow, I thought and said as much to Barbara.  This was great!  Being accustomed to paying over six dollars at any number of venues in the greater Milwaukee area for a 12 ounce cup of adult malt beverage, I was elated.  “I’ll take two (for now”) I said with real joy in my heart.

After waxing a lengthy Lions Club conversation with the Lancaster Lions members who staffed the beer ticket redemption counter, we got in the queue for the homemade foods.  A pork loin sandwich was recommended for me by one of the volunteer grillers and Barbara decided on the “Walking Taco” (A neatly snipped bag of Fritos as the main course, covered with taco meat, cheese, diced tomatoes and shredded lettuce.)  We ate at a wooden picnic table under the grandstand with a large cow-barn fan pushing natural coolness onto the bystanders; thoroughly enjoying the local fare.  I then wandered over to the ticket window and bought a pair of general admission tickets to the truck and tractor pull for another 14 bucks; plus two more beer tickets later and we were sitting on the aluminum bleacher seats awaiting the next exciting participant in the contest.   From the eyes of a complete novice; the Tri-State Truck and Tractor Pullers run a nice, neat, tight competition.  Mod 2wd Trucks, Modified V8 Trucks, Hot Farm Tractors, Super Farm Tractors, Super Stock/Pro Stock, Tractors, and the ever popular 2011 SUPER STOCK 4X4s make up the six categories of sliding weight-pulling vehicle.  The membership entry fee to the Tri-State club (allowing the members to participate in multiple annual contests) is $100.00 per vehicle (tractor or truck) and $25.00 for each driver to cover insurance.  Each puller is allowed two attempts to make a measurable pull within 100 feet. Moving the sled a measurable distance (one inch or farther) is an attempt.   Weights pulled, range from 6000 to over 10,000 lbs!

You’ll be happy to know (as I certainly was) that (according to the 69 official general rules) “when a vehicle motor is running someone must be in the driver’s seat at all times in the pits or on the track,” and that “no shorts are allowed during pulling or while working as an official.”  When one unlucky puller got off to a great start and suddenly blew something up inside his rig, the sage and wizened track announcer stated the following for the benefit of the assembled crowd of anxious onlookers; “You know these tractors are pushed far harder than God ever intended them to be sometimes.”   Amen brother.

The 30-minute ride back to the Grant River Campground was uneventful.  We climbed into the small nylon tent to collect some blissful shut-eye when the first of the eight, nightly speeding Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight trains, suddenly slammed onto the tranquil scene.  Our campsite was strategically layed out midway between two (mandatory 140 decibel, locomotive horn-blaring) crossroads.  We were particularly ensured to hear both engineer-delivered warning blasts with equanimity.   The brain does crazy things when the lights are out and imagining that the incredible cacophonous racket caused by the passing train cars would evolve into a screeching, twisting, accordion wreck of massive landscape-flattening freight cars is an easy one.  The BNSF (formed in 1996 out of the merger of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railways) is the second largest freight railroad in America, and is based out of Fort Worth, Texas.  BNSF directly owns and operates over 24,000 miles of track, in 27 states, hauling primarily grain, coal and intermodal freight.  These fascinating BNSF details were unfortunately lost on the both of us in the middle of the night while fighting to stay asleep between repeat performances.  Oh, and it rained too.  Hard.

Bird watching the next morning was wonderfully diverse.  While the coffee perked on the old green E-Bay Coleman stove; bright orange and black Baltimore orioles sat singing on an overhead electrical wire.  A large group of Red-winged blackbirds gathered in a nearby tree to verbally strategize their day as (over twenty) Turkey vultures soared in low trajectory arcs over the dual train tracks.  Cicadas were just warming up to their full pitch when the morning sun began to dry the moisture from the green tent and red bag chairs.  Many other birds could be seen and heard within the campground confines.  The list we tallied includes: Indigo bunting, Northern cardinal, Black-capped chickadee, American goldfinch, American robin, European starling, House finch, House sparrow, Downy woodpecker, Eastern wood pewee, Gray catbird, Chipping sparrow, White-breasted nuthatch, Field sparrow, Tree swallow, Barn swallow, Chimney swift, Mourning dove, American crow, Cedar waxwing, Least flycatcher, Great crested flycatcher, Eastern kingbird, Tundra swan, Great blue heron, Solitary sandpiper, Blue-winged teal, Ring-billed gull, American pelican, and Belted kingfisher.

The surrounding farmland was planted and thriving with eight-foot tall corn and acres of soybean plants.  The entire area along the Mississippi basin seemed lush and green; apparently plenty of rain had fallen in this year’s growing season.  We put the Canoe-dle in at the handy concrete campground  landing in the early evening, to partially escape being broiled within the shiny watercraft.  Light intermittent rain showers caused us to head for the shelter of overhanging trees near the northeast bank on several occasions, but the two hours we spent slowly paddling and exploring were relaxingly splendid.  Lilly pads along the sides of the river were huge and plentiful.  Duck weed covered the surface of the still near-shore water with a speckled brilliant green.  Large Catfish and other unknown shallow water creatures stirred the muddy river bottom as our aluminum canoe passed them overhead.

All in all, the trip was satisfying on many levels.  The camping, biking, and canoeing each complimented the surrounding beauty of the countryside, and even the noise of the trains was a unique opportunity to study the strength of American rail commerce.  We included a delightful Potosi Brewery tour and beer-drinking experience as part of this trip; however it will be detailed in another blog installation at another time.  This one’s getting long and I’m sure you need to take a break now.  Thanks for reading and (hopefully) enjoying the journey along with us, at this little slice of the Wisconsin bank of the Mighty Mississippi!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Canoeing the Milwaukee River (part two)

The Beautiful Milwaukee River (downtown)
In part one of this (two-part) vignette, the intrepid voyageurs of the “USS Canoe-dle” (17’ aluminum hand-me-down canoe) paddled and floated down a serenely bucolic, nearly four mile stretch of the Milwaukee River upstream of the focus of this next installation.   This time they were going “downtown” and into the actual shipping lanes of the same river, for their eventual take-out.

On a mostly clear and humid Saturday morning in late July 2011, the two vehicles (the canoe-bearing Mountaineer, and the IBIRD Dodge retrieval truck) left the driveway at around 9:30 AM.  A cooler full of iced-down sparkling water, sun screen and other typical canoeing gear was loaded aboard for the trip down river.  We (Barbara and I) both had our bird watching gear and digital camera along to capture the day’s watery adventure.  The first thing to do was to spot the retrieval truck at a convenient point at which to take out, also considering the important aspects of economically and safely parking for hours while we came southward along the Milwaukee County Urban Water Trail.  After consulting the awesome Milwaukee Riverkeepers river map-book we had printed off the home Epson, we decided that Milwaukee County Parks, Riverside Boat Launch at Bruce Street held promise.  At around 9:45 AM, we parked IBIRD on Water Street (no signage), south of the launch and looked at the launching fees posted there.  No attendant was on duty.  We figured since all we were planning to do was take-out (not launch and park) there would be no fee associated.

Launching, 2011 Rates, Pending DNR Approval
(prices listed include sales tax)

Age 60+
Jet Ski, Resident
Jet Ski, Non-Resident
Non-Motorized, Resident
Non-Motorized, Non-Resident
Under 20 feet, Resident
Under 20 feet, Non-Resident
Over 20 feet, Resident
Over 20 feet, Non-Resident

Together we drove north to Commerce Street and parked opposite the concrete ramp down to the dock area of the Milwaukee Rowing Club.  This is designated as a “public” launch and may be used at any time the Rowing Club is not utilizing it for exercises.  No Rowing Club members were visible at 10:00 AM when we carried the Canoe-dle and her gear down to the aluminum boat ramp that lead to a convenient floating plastic dock.  Barbara handles her “end” of the canoe quite expertly as (even though it is aluminum), it is quite heavy.  Loading equipment and bodies went well with no mishaps.  We first set off upstream about 800 yards to the base of the North Avenue dam’s churning outflow for a quick look.  We were able to swing into the rapids from behind the walking bridge abutment and get a “push” from the current, sending us downriver once more.  That was enough of a look, so away we went towards downtown.

The river was plenty high and wide at this point and the sun was baking down directly from above, so we kept primarily to the somewhat shaded sides.  The other reason to do so were the occasional other boaters, kayakers, canoeists and Milwaukee Rowing Club trainees who would paddle, churn, and slice by our canoe.  The long oars of the sculling craft reaching out and twisting like that of giant water striding beetles, paralleled by encouraging teammates on their motorized follow craft.  There was a more pronounced “odor” of storm sewer on this section; the closer we got to downtown.  Bascule bridges were plentiful as we drifted underneath each one in turn, generally on the leftmost downstream channel.  The rusty red underpinnings and peeling black paint showed their age.  The sea wall alongside both banks was predominantly of a corrugated iron make-up with deterioration aplenty.  Large scaly bolts protruding from the sides; nuts and washers no longer doing the job of holding anything, as their supposed adjoining steel cross members were rotted or missing sections, twisted and bent.  Small inlets from some unknown storm drain (or worse) trickled water into the main flow of the river.  A Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) barge worked its way up and down the center channel with hard-hatted, hi-vis vest wearing workers tending to something obviously important as they scurried fore and aft along their specially outfitted rig.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has been working to clean the Milwaukee River since 2007 and recently replaced its River Skimmer.  The new $387,200 (larger) River Skimmer boat (Aquarius Systems division of D & D Products Inc. of North Prairie), skims garbage from the surface of Milwaukee's rivers and harbor near downtown.  In 2010, the skimmer removed 1,683 cubic yards of debris, plus 38 tree trunks. It cruises the inner harbor, the Milwaukee River upstream to the Humboldt Ave. Bridge, the Menomonee River upstream to S. 13th St., the Burnham Shipping Canal off the Menomonee, and the Kinnickinnic River upstream to Lincoln Ave.

While the endeavor is certainly worthwhile, it appeared to me (the novice) that simply driving the thing back and forth (dead center) on the river (that particular Saturday) was doing nothing to really grab the trash.  It (the garbage) was all collecting against the sides of the channel, and there was particularly dense floating debris lining in the wide expanse near the Hoan Bridge.  It was impressive however with those men scrambling around the deck, but picking up trash?  I’m not so sure.  One particular place on a concrete river wall had two large inlet pipes, one of which was blowing thousands of gallons of water into the river.  There was a happy and whimsical painting of a curly-Q waterslide depicted on the wall at the outlet, perhaps to make the sight more appealing and less questionable.  A saying on the wall read: A Clean River is a Fun River.

As we drifted under one downtown Milwaukee bridge to another I could not help but remark out loud, “This is just so cool!”  All my Milwaukee life I had wanted to something similar and now we were actually doing it.  No super-expensive boating equipment was needed; just something seaworthy, a little pre-planning, some carrying muscle, and a good attitude.  Nicely dressed small groups of people hanging out on the Riverwalk that morning looked down at our small craft and smiled; we waved back and kept on drifting and steering on course.  Swallows (Barn, Cliff, and Rough-winged) were becoming more plentiful now and the occasional bank-side Herring gull stood watch on brilliant orange webbed-feet as we passed.

The outflow of the MMSD combined sewer (emergency dump) sites were clearly marked as such, along with a prudent warning about drinking the water in that area.  I wouldn’t go swimming or even dip a hand into the water in those areas without some way to sanitize, however it was water and it was wet, and it was fun.  We’d rounded a bend near Saint Paul Avenue and under the bridge when a public dock came into view.  We were getting a bit hungry and decided to pull alongside and tie off.  Before we knew it we were comfortably ensconced at a riverside table belonging to the Milwaukee Ale House, ordering one of their fine craft brews.  A pair of adorable elderly ladies was seated quite close to us and began to engage me in conversation as we sipped our beer.  Before we knew it we had discovered their names and the fact that they were both artists.  By the time each of our “Wisconsin Brat” meals had been eagerly consumed, and immensely enjoyed; they wanted to adopt the both of us.  Promising to get in touch, we waved goodbye from the canoe as we passed, and drifted out of sight.

A small detour upstream towards the west, and we had passed by the largest Milwaukee Post Office building, and then the Intermodal (Amtrak and Greyhound) station.  I wanted to get near the 6th Street Bridge, so we went that far before turning around and paddling downstream again.  The Harley Davidson Museum building was in sight as well as the Iron Horse Hotel.  More Milwaukee Rowing Club craft were in this area in what appeared to be training mode.  Dozens of gulls lined the old train bridge underpinnings and pilings.  This old brown and rusting hulk was permanently in open (perpendicular) position and someone had even been tending blooming flowers in pots placed on its deteriorating skeleton.  Riverfront Pizzeria was on our left and reminded us that a Metro Milwaukee Optimist Club meeting was coming up.  The seafood restaurant at the end of the point (formerly named Riptide) was open and sported the new name of Sail Loft.  I don’t think much of that name.  Perhaps the food is good, but with a name like that; good luck.

We made final a concerted push to sail through the wide river inlet, along the sea wall.  Floating garbage was plentiful and the waves were choppier.  I told Barbara that I wanted to go out into the big water, around the bend towards Lakeshore State Park.  That proved a tiny bit dicier than I figured as the waves from passing boats, and the natural Lake Michigan movement threatened to cause us some grief.  We basically arrived at my chosen landmark, took a picture; staying low in the canoe, and worked our way back into the channel as fast as we could.  We both figured our luck to date had been good; so why chance it.  The next stop was the Bruce Street take-out.

With a final stroke, the canoe went nose-first onto the gravel bottom next to the concrete boat launch.  Barbara got out and pulled me the next little bit up onto dry land.  I walked the three blocks to where the IBIRD was parked and (Ta-Da!) had the key with me.  I drove back and pulled to the side of the generous parking area to load up the Canoe-dle.  A middle aged County Parks attendant got up from his aluminum lawn chair and approached us, clipboard in hand.  I was in the middle of hoisting the long boat onto the top of the vehicle.  He walked slowly around to the front of my truck and began studying my license plate.  I stopped fiddling with the tie-down straps and approached him asking, “Do we owe you something?”  He straightened up, pulling the clipboard to his chest and replied, “Oh yeah you do…you launched here didn’t you?”  I replied that we had not in fact launched there and that all we were doing was taking the boat out.  He looked suspiciously at me and asked, “Where?”

Did you ever notice that even when you are totally in the right, and have a plausible explanation to relay, that circumstances sometimes cause your tongue to get tied and your delivery to become woefully weak?  Well, for some reason (for me) telling the God’s honest truth can sound like I’m trying to hide something.  Like the time my Dad, brother and I had just spent a long week in Canada fishing and were about to hit the customs waypoint back into the United States.  I was driving the vehicle and pulled up to the first window where the customs agent was to ask me a series of questions related to my whereabouts and intentions.  There could (and are on occasion) also be a full-blown, “Get out of the vehicle and get inside that holding pen while we totally dismantle the car down to the frame, while we look for contraband including too many Walleye fillets!”  All I needed to do was to stay cool and tell the truth.  We had no contraband, or too many Walleye fillets after all; we were Boy freaking scouts when it came to taking chances.

I rolled down the window and said, a timid “Hi.”  The responding, hat-wearing official’s one-word reply was, “Country?”  I blanked.  Country…what the hell is “country”?  At the risk of becoming unreasonably chatty, I asked for more clarification with a small, “country”? of my own.  He said, “Which one”?  All of a sudden t came to me…he wanted to know which country I was from!  Now, knowing what he wanted is one thing and being able to utter the words, “the United States” is quite another.  About the only thing I could think to do was to point in the direction the car was heading and emphatically state, “That one!”  I sat there like a deer in the headlights saying nothing, convinced I was about to be forcefully evacuated along with my open-mouthed father and brother.  Fate smiled on me as the official laughed and threw a couple more softball questions in my direction, and off we went into the good ‘ol USA once more.  To this day I’ll never know what the man thought of that exchange; however I’m leaning more towards being too stupid to lie to him, as my ultimate saving grace.

Back to the Parks attendant’s question of “Where” (had we launched from?).  My mind went blank as usual and I started to gesture with my hands in the direction of the Rowing club, miles up the river while saying “Commerce Street.”  I threw in an equally unconvincing “Milwaukee Rowing Club, you know, over there by the brewery?”  The man stood there for a minute and looked at me.  Barbara came to my rescue with solid competent-sounding reiteration of my ravings and the man just finally, mercifully, walked away, saying nothing further.  Whew, that was close!  I had almost turned a solid truthful story into something that sounded like premeditated subterfuge (again!).  I was breathing easier and thanking my luck, when I noticed and heard Barbara following the guy back to his lawn chair asking him questions.  I heard something to the effect of, “…when was he (the man) supposed to be on duty this morning, because how could a person be expected to pay for a launch when the only pay envelopes were (in fact) locked in the unattended booth?”  I blanched and pleaded with my eyes for her to leave well enough alone.  She looked back at me and (thankfully) did, walking over to help me finish loading.

Know that I can’t (nor won’t) ever blame her for having my back 100%.  On the contrary, it’s one of her most amazing qualities and one that any man would give his right arm to be the recipient of…however, discretion is quite often the better part of valor, and why snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?  I thanked her for her undying support, love and vehement protection of the logical and drove back to Commerce Street’s Rowing Club to fetch the Mercury.  It was getting really hot outside and I was thirsty…ready for an air-conditioned nap and so was she.

What a GREAT (Milwaukee River) DAY!