My recent discussion of the Great River Road was a bit of a setup. We took a short journey along Wisconsin‘s portion of the road, and into Iowa over the weekend. The scenery along the bluffs of the Mississippi River could only be described as spectacular; soaring cliffs towering over the ever-changing nature of the river itself.
We encountered remarkably little traffic. There were a number of motorcycle convoys as apparently this is a well-known touring road, but few automobiles and no trucks. I would have thought differently on a summer weekend and I’d prepared myself mentally. That was surprisingly unnecessary. That happens so rarely and I made sure to savor our good fortune. I don’t know if that was due to the economy or to the timing of a big 3-day holiday next weekend, but either way we cruised along roads practically by ourselves.
View Larger Map
Day 1, Saturday, involved a leisurely amble from Prescott to La Crosse, a distance of about 200 kilometres (125 miles) along winding country roads. This provided plenty of opportunities to stop anywhere we liked at the many overlooks, historical sites and quaint riverside towns. We spied a bald eagle soaring above. The previous day we’d spotted a black bear sitting right by the side of the road not paying us any attention as we drove right past him. He didn’t mind us and we didn’t mind him.
The Bow and Arrow
We arrived at the "Bow and Arrow" outside of Hager City. An archeologist in the early 20th Century observed this rock formation and remarked upon its unusual shape, as if it were a bow and arrow pointing towards Lake Pepin. Later archeologists speculated that perhaps it might be a bird effigy.
It is definitely not a natural formation. Humans places these stones here in a particular pattern, but nobody knows who did it, or why they did it, or what it’s supposed to represent. Native Americans do not remark upon it in their folklore and this is the only boulder formation of its type in Wisconsin. The manifestation of an ancient sacred site? The handiwork of bored early explorers of European descent? The mystery remains unresolved.
We followed the mountainside arrow, continuing downstream until we arrived at Lake Pepin itself. One often thinks of this river as being universally monolithic, the fabled "Mighty Mississippi." It’s a powerful force even way up here at its northernmost extremes but with lots of variation thrown in. It breaks into numerous paths as it diverts around networks of channel islands, it devolves into marshland as it courses though sloughs, it takes the appearance of an unobstructed pathway in places, and it creates lakes at others.
A dam forms where the Chippewa River dumps sediment from a sizable section of Northwestern Wisconsin into the Mississippi. The resulting backup creates Lake Pepin, the widest natural spot anywhere along the Mississippi River.
Lock and Dam Number 4
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers keeps the river navigable commercially. This involves a series of locks and dams on the upper Mississippi, many of which can be visited along the roadway. We stopped at Lock and Dam Number 4 in Alma, Wisconsin and arrived just in time to watch a lock in operation. Water filled a large rectangular basin in a matter of minutes. The lock door swung open and workers guided a tug and its barges slowly into the slot. The process repeated at a second step and soon the tugboat and its cargo passed the dam successfully. Another tug sat just downstream ready to repeat the process in reverse.
We continued onward to La Crosse (see part II)