Thursday, August 25, 1988


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.

Friday, August 05, 1988

REFLECTIONS: Mattawa dedication ceremonies as a Canadian Heritage River

Friday, August 5, 1988, Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park, Ontario

Friday morning dawned cooler than we'd had in a while, and overcast. Good, said the voyageurs in their wool caps and sashes. Good, said John le Bourgeois as he donned his ruffled, stiff shirt, wool trousers and satin waistcoat. Good, said I in my tight bodice and layers of petticoats. "Come on," said Jean-Guy, Assistant Super, our avant (bowsman), a.k.a. "Papa Smurf" in his floppy cap. "Come on, Bourgeois, put on your coat and hat!" John, whose on-the-job garb for the last five days has been Hawaiian shorts and a tank top, just laughs. There's plenty of time.

It was a controlled flurry as the park trucks roared down to the staging area, a hurry-up-and-wait as the men hoisted the wickedly heavy canoe down the steep hill to the river and we debated taking a practice run. "There's time," said Louis. "But they're early," says Henri. "Do we really need to practice?" says Ti-Jean. "Aw, come on," says Etienne, our stout-hearted Jeff who began dubbing us all with French names this morning. His face is wreathed in a glowing grin at the prospect of recreating the life of his hero, Etienne Brulé, who at sixteen was only three years younger than Jeff when he made "the most famous left turn in history" up the Mattawa in 1610.

"So, come on, Etienne, let's practice," I say. "Are you going to drop me like Madame on La Vase Portage?" The scenario calls for the milieux, Jeff and Ky, to carry me out of the canoe to the ceremony platform, where I am to gather all the children together and lead them and the multitudes in the national anthem. I have mixed feelings about this plan. My feminist independence and long canoeing experience battle with my respect for historical accuracy and desire not to look foolish struggling out of a deep canoe in long skirts. There will be cameras, after all. So, they make a chair of their forearms and I sit, bustle-first, into it and swing my moccasins over the gunwale. After a few tries, we can pull it off reasonably gracefully. 

We settle onto the narrow seats to laugh about that earlier Madame, who like all the other early travelers had to cross the famous La Vase Portage further up the Mattawa. La Vase often translates as "mud," but Alain has informed us that it is no ordinary mud, but "slime," "ooze," sludge," and other malodorous liquids. The usual way to carry the bourgeois (and their wives) was "pickaback," but this portly dame thought it undignified and insisted on the more modest (and awkward) chair carry. Her weight proved too much for their forearms (or their patience) and suddenly --"oops! Sorry, Madame!" -- they dropped her in La Vase. History does not record her comments as she struggled, half-carried, half-stumbling, through the remaining two miles of waist-deep slime.

But Jeff and Ky have strong forearms and cheerful patience, and the bank is dry. Cautiously, we paddle out into the current for a practice run, trying unsuccessfully to conceal ourselves from the waiting twentieth-century crowd upstream. A green heron glides past the green bank, and a fish breaks the swirling surface with a gentle smack. Time glides backward like a river, and it is 1815, when the voyageurs' paddles swirled the pools of the Mattawa as smoothly as a song. This canoe rides high and empty of the weight of furs, but the sudden breeze smells as sharp and spicy-sweet as the spruce of the pays d'en haut. Upriver the paddles pull, upstream toward that earlier time. "C'est l'aviron qui nous mène, qui nous mène, c'est l'aviron qui nous mène en haut."

Suddenly the radio crackles from the truck on the bank, and we dive for cover. The ministers are coming, they are closer, they are here…GO! Paddles swirl and heads duck as we back out past the deadfalls, and the old song rings across the water to the rhythm of the paddles. "C'est l'aviron qui nous mène, qui nous mène, c'est l'aviron qui nous mène en haut." Doug, the gouvernail (sternsman), leans to his paddle in solemn joy, his years at Old Fort William carved into the contours of his bearded woodsman's face. Will from the District Office grins as devilishly as if he were paddling the chasse-galerie, the flying canoe that made a Devil's bargain with lonely voyageurs to transport them back to the bright lights of Old Québec from the bleak midwinter wilderness. Our barefoot milieux are doubled over in unholy glee; Jeff and Ky paddle as if their careers depended on it. Perhaps they do. 

Six-foot John is a study in pansy dignity as he drapes his lacy wrists self-consciously over his woolen knees. His discomfort reminds us why the most valued voyageurs were short, stocky men; his lanky frame is folded onto his narrow perch as ungainly as a great blue heron. Beside him, I trail a finger in the swirling water and chuckle inwardly. They were right. Jean-Guy does look like Papa Smurf.

Sweat is trickling down my bodice and my voice seems no longer my own as it bends the men to their paddles. Our chant rings across the water to the waiting crowd, seemingly composed entirely of cameras. "C'est l'aviron qui nous mène, qui nous mène, c'est l'aviron qui nous mène en haut." As our only French-Canadian, Jean-Guy calls the salute from the bow. "Preparez le sal-UUUUT!" You can hear them count the strokes. One, two, three…UP! go the paddles in a gesture at once strange and familiar, ragged and ancient as the singing. It's the paddle, it's the paddle, that leads upstream. And it's the paddle that turns us now, as the gouvernail steers us away from the low August rapids and straight across to the waiting bank.

"C'est l'aviron qui nous mène, qui nous mène, c'est l'aviron…" CRUNCH! Damn! Did the real voyageurs ever run aground during a salute? This is what comes of not practicing. But Jeff and Ky leap out as nimbly as fish, and, still singing, we are dragged into the shallows. No whoops and hollers from this crew, no jovial cursing and badinage -- pinned like moths under the clicking cameras, the men concentrate on the embarrassing task of getting everyone out of the canoe. There are some moments of awkward silence --perhaps English would spoil the realism -- and then Ky lurches and almost dangles John's long legs in the water. "Hey! Watch it!" and we all relax into honest laughter. It's my turn next. We manage it together, Jeff and Ky and I, and deposit me, dry-moccasined, on the bank where the cameras close in. The canoe is dragged up on the bank and the brigade (that's us!) stands at attention. John stiffly offers me his arm and we take our place in the proud, stiff line. Smile, everybody.

For a moment the dissonance is audible, the thin whine of anachronism as grating as unmeshed gears. Then the clicking of cameras takes over, and on one level we are actors at a media event, a short, frozen moment of plaques and politicians and speeches as stiff as a photograph. But behind our backs the river swirls, and in the silence beneath the words I can catch some of its music. It sings to me in its ceaseless motion, sings of fish and green herons and paddles and the smooth, uninterrupted movement of fluid life. Time flows, broken and jagged as the rapids of events and deeply and smoothly as our deep pools of habit and custom and tradition. Time sings, as fluidly as the river, as rhythmically as a paddling song. "C'est l'aviron qui nous mène, qui nous mène, c'est l'aviron qui nous mène en haut." Time runs like water, slows, pools into silence. The river remembers.

The river remembers, if not these words, at least the language with which I have chosen to begin the national anthem. "O Canada, terre de nos aïeux, ton front est ceint de fleurons glorieux." And here are those ancestors, this proud canoe brigade wreathed not in glorious flowers, but in sweat and bright woolen caps. Their ancestors sweated and cursed and portaged over this trail where we stand, to safeguard the precious, fragile birchbark canoes from the teeth of those August rapids. They camped and drank and raised hell around campfires whose ashes could lie beneath my feet; I curl my toes in their manufactured Wisconsin moccasins against the boards of the ceremony platform as if I could feel the heat from below. They made the ocher cliffs of the Mattawa ring with their haunting, lusty, rhythmic songs of courtly love ("M'en revenant de la jolie Rochelle/j'ai rencontré trois jolies demoiselles") and poignant loss ("j'ai perdu ma maîtresse/sans l'avoir merité/Pour un bouquet de roses/que je lui refusé").

Where are their descendants today? This rich culture is so totally erased from my own United States that I grew to adulthood knowing nothing of New France and the blended, dissonant, struggling culture of French, native and English that dominated the Great Lakes for most of recorded history. How can I, an American, pay tribute to a country that has adopted two national languages? By recognizing that plurality and striving toward bilingualism -- or modest fluency -- myself. By preparing, and leading the children in, the singing of an O Canada that celebrates the French roots that twine as deeply in my own country's heritage as theirs. And by delving more deeply into unwritten native history, that may come to change my ideas of how we use history.

The river remembers. My wish for the children, on this day of recognition for the Mattawa, is that they will bring their children here to find the river unchanged. I would wish that they too will hear the river's song, and find the fluid magic of time in the heron and the fish and the paddle. May they too paddle upriver to touch the past as a reminder of where they have been, as the current carries them into a future that will always include the serene flight of the green heron on the green bank.


LEFT:"Lisette Duval" (Lynn Noel) and her "cousin Pierre" (Alain Meunier) trade tunes of old Québec at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin's Villa Louis. PHOTO: John Kraniak
LEFT: Audience "voyageurs" celebrate their return to old Québec with a chanson à boire at Minnesota's Wild River State Park. PHOTO: Jeanne Danielsss
RIGHT: "Shoot the duck!"cries Pierre's faithful chien Fido (a.k.a. Ken White, Villa Louis' site manager) in a reenactment of a voyageur's tall tale. Audience participation is a key element of CROSSCURRENTS programs.
PHOTO: John Kraniak