Friday, 25 August, 7:30 am Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin
The Great River is quiet today, green and blue against a flat sky. Why are summer rivers this flat, pure green and blue? In late summer, colors are distilled to pure tones before they bleed into the blended browns and bronzes of autumn. Russet, copper, gold: fall colors are shiny, metallic. The water then is cold and silver as the aluminum hull of a canoe. But today, while the summer sun slants low behind me, the water glides flat blue, leaf-green.
Just across the river there is Pike's Peak, Iowa: the bluff that overlooks the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. Last night Michael Douglass, Villa Louis Director, took us up there for an Adventure: the Great River by moonlight. In the dark I was disoriented at first. But the lights of Prairie du Chien across the water sorted me out, and I began to see.
The bluff is dim and silver in the moonlight, and below us the Great River pours away like a stream of time. Behind the black bulk of Wyalusing, the full moon pours its river of silver over the vast landscape. Time unrolls itself like a map, and I can feel the silver ribbons of rivers stretching into history. Whither away, o voyageurs?
To Itasca? Turn northward, upstream, where Zebulon Pike sought the source of the Mississippi in a clear spring. If a source is that stem of a a river that rises highest and farthest from its mouth, then, says John Madsen, the Missouri holds that title for the Mississippi, and this river below us is some other river entirely. But to find Itasca (from the Latin for "it is the head"), turn right from the mouth of the Wisconsin, then left below the falls of St. Croix past Fort Snelling, until you come to the place where the glaciers flung ten thousand lakes across the Minnesota muskeg like handfuls of silver coins. There you will find Itasca, one headwater among many.
To Québec? Turn back east up the Wisconsin, up Derleth's "River of a Thousand Isles," and trace the long homeward journey across the portage to the Fox, and down through Lake Winnebago to Green Bay. Paddle cautiously through "Death's Door" at the tip of the Door County peninsula, and steady your heavy load for the icy autumn waters of the Lakes. It's two months from here to Montreal, so touch your cap to the cliffs where Marquette lies in the Straits of Mackinaw, and call on your God to carry you through the North Channel of Georgian Bay past that greatest island, Manitoulin, Spirit Place. Bend to your paddle to climb the French River; breathe for a moment in the wind-whipped waters of Lake Nipissing; then hoist your heavy furs to the Mattawa's many portages. Bring out the high wine on Explorer's Point, for tomorrow you will turn right, down the Ottawa, and next week you will dance with your sweetheart in the taverns of Trois Rivières.
To St. Louis? Turn left from the Wisconsin's mouth, if you are Marquette, seeking your beloved Kaskaskia far to the south. For winter is coming on soon, and you are an ill man. Joliet knows this, as he knows the hostile tribes ahead who will care little for the trade goods you carry. They know only that you are one of the hated black robes, bearers of disease and supplanters of faith. But you will reach your cherished village this last time. Kaskaskia, downriver. Of all the missions you have founded, this one lies closest to your heart. From your sandbar at the Wisconsin's mouth, Father, the way lies clear. The Great River is your lifeline.
Michael's voice is suddenly quiet in the wide silence. "What was he thinking, Marquette?" We laugh quietly, and recite, all three together: "Today we entered the Mississippi with a joy I cannot express." Alain knows that line by heart, by now. All summer I have been retelling the story of how I tried to recreate that magic moment.
It was August, a year ago, and I strained to see the Mississippi for the first time, from a canoe. The massive bluffs drew closer, closer....crunch! Did Marquette hit this sandbar too? We piled out of the canoe into boot-high quicksand: "too thick to drink, too thin to plow." Tugging and hauling our aluminum canoe, we walked into the Mississippi.
Yet the moment was magic. The Iowa bluffs loomed massive, reminders of that great glacial Mississippi that once drained a continent in a roaring, churning yellow flood. Once these waters ran as yellow as the sandstone scarps where eagles perch. We idled a moment in the sandy slough, soaking it all in, then thrust the bow cautiously into the current of the Great River.
So too must Marquette have let the current take him. "Here we leave the waters that flow toward Quebec, to follow those that will lead us into strange lands." As I stand on this moonlit bluff, the current of history tugs me with living force. This silver ribbon below me flows timelessly toward the sea, gathering each of our lives to it as smoothly as a stream running over bare rock. Time spreads itself like a map, etched with the silver tracings of the rivers that bind the land into a living network.
So too is the land bound up in the lives of the paddlers. The Great River is our history, our future, and our eternal present. Here, in a silver ribbon of moonlight, I can reach far upriver into the foothills of time to where the campfires still glow with the warmth of song and story, a living human heart in the dark forest where the river begins.Time unrolls itself like a map, and I can feel the silver ribbons of rivers stretching into history.