Sunday, May 12, 2013

Friday May 10th - Maiden Rock to Merrick State Park

Well sleep was indeed a challenge despite the constant rocking from the trains that speed past at least every half hour or so.  It almost seemed like they held off blowing their horns until the full power of the blast would be directed, directly at my tent.  By the end of the night, it felt like my ears where begining to bleed with each blast of their horn.  By morning, the train traffic seemed to slow down enough to allow me to catch a few winks of sleep.  But at 6 am, I heard a vehicle pull up next to my picnic shelter, heard a truck tail gate open, and then three men began talking just outside my tent.   

I hoped they might be Village workers, picking up garbage or something that would not take long, but soon understood that my fellow shelter seekers where not going away anytime soon.  I overhead them talking about having a pig roast.  So I reluctantly climbed out of the warm sleeping bag, got dressed for another day of biking and climbed out of the tent and asked my three new companions if they were there to make me breakfast.  They hesitated and then told me that it would not be ready until 6 pm.   

So, my visions of bacon and eggs for breakfast disappeared as I ate a few granola bars and watched them pull out a power cut off saw to shorten the legs of the soon to be roasted hog, so that its feet wouldn’t hit the side of the roaster as it rotated around for the next 12 hours.  Fortunately none of the spatter made it over to my gear which was laid out two picnic tables away.  The purpose of the event was to celebrate one of the men’s 5th wedding anniversaries.  The celebrant informed me that his bride was back at home getting the kids ready for school, while he came down to prep for the feast.   

Once the hog was roasting, the anniversary man broke out the fixing for Bloody Mary’s to keep the two roast watchers going for the day.  The celebrant downed one himself, and then went back home to drive his kids to school.  The “bloodies” would have to tide them over until the beer barrels for which they had multiple bags of beer cooling ice stacked around the shelter arrived later in the day.  They also didn’t offer me any of their mix, which was probably a good thing.  The roast master, who shared the same first name as me, and his partner talked about their work.  It sounded like they were dealers for the Prairie Island Casino across the river.  The roast partner was hoping for a promotion.  They also worked out a plan for getting the hog roaster back to the roast master if he decided to leave before the celebration was over, as he had to work the next morning. 

As the fumes from the roasting hog began to fill the shelter, I loaded up my gear, put on all the warm cloths I had, wished the hog roasters well with their day, and headed out of town around 8 a.m.  Fortunately the rains had stopped and the sun was out, but it would be a while before it cleared the bluffs to provide any warmth.  On my way out of town, I stopped to admire the views of Lake Pepin and the surrounding bluffs.  As I descended the hill out of town, I noticed the sand mining operation that was removing the sand from the bluffs, washing and sorting it, than loading it on the rail cars via a conveyor system that ran under the highway.  That explained the sign I noticed in someone’s yard in town that proclaimed “Save Our Bluffs, Stop The Frac Sand Mining”. 

I stopped at a historical marker detailing how the previous town had gotten it's name.  Seems that back in the day, a Dakata women, choose to jump from the cliff located south of town, rather then being forced to marry a man she did not love.  Tough love at it's best if the story is true.  

I wasn’t sure what the road ahead would be like, and as I climbed another hill or two, I hoped that things would flatten out.  The views overlooking Lake Pepin though did make the climbs worthwhile.  I stopped for a midmorning snack at the bottom of the hill in Pepin at the City Park located adjacent to Highway 35.  

I recalled waiting at this same park 22 years ago after starting work with the WI DNR.  At that time I was meeting with a coworker who was responsible for oversight of the City’s water system and I accompanied him on the inspection he did of the City’s wells located in the park.  That was probably one of my first trips out and about on the River Road, a very different and more memorable experience by bike rather than car.  It felt good on this day to not have any work responsibilities to worry about.  

Moving on, eventually the road did flatten, and I reached the bottom, the Tiffany Bottoms that is.  This is an area created by the Chippewa River as it enters the Mississippi River.  With high water, there was water running everywhere, and every direction.  Water birds of various sorts were also everywhere.  I recalled a couple of paddling trips I had done in years past through the area, and in some ways wished I had my kayak with me to explore the area as it should be, by boat.  But pulling my kayak up and down these hills behind my bike would probably find me still in the Twin Cities somewhere.   I had tentatively planned a day paddling trip to explore this area with some friends back in April, but cold weather and conflicts kept us from that adventure.  But the road adventure was in progress, so I focused on the pleasures viewed from my higher, and so far dryer, bike seat vantage point. 

Numerous bridges were built to cross the maze of flowing liquid, and each bridge was protected by a flock a swallows who would escort me across their territory with what I hoped were friendly swallow songs.  Biking through this area provide much distraction, and made the previous toils worthwhile.  I began to think about making a short day of it, and finding some high ground to camp on and just sit and watch the water, soak in the sunshine, and rest for the day.  But the only dry ground was adjacent to the highway and listening to cars and trucks zoom by accompanied by the tire strutting sounds as they crossed the bridge expansion joints kept me
moving on up to higher ground.  Leaving the Bottoms, I entered old flood plain farm fields, and as I rounded the bend, the twin stacks of the Alma Dairyland Power coal fired power plants dominated the horizon. 

Not really being hungry, but finding the opportunity to experience some food other than my standard fare of fruit, nuts, and granola bars intriguing; I stopped at Alma’s only barbeque place overlooking the lock and dam, thoughts of the poor creature I had scene earlier in the day being prepped for roasting forced me to order the chicken salad sandwich, in stead of their specialty roast pork.  It was quite good, and the waitress brought me a copy of the local paper so I could catch up on the happenings in the area.  I can’t recall reading anything too news worthy – but that seems to be the trend of most news anyway – which makes getting away from the news a worthy experience.  After finishing up my meal, I quickly cleaned and lubricated my bike chain as I was noticing some squeaks in it earlier.  Getting back on it, peddling seemed easier; at least the squeaks went away. 

I stopped to take a look at the power plants as I headed out of town and again thought about the apparent craziness of our power craze.  The Alma facility has the advantage of getting coal by both rail, and barge.  They maintain two huge stock piles of coal, one for each plant.  The dark material seems to be just dumped in piles on the ground, with no obvious containment systems around them.  But since the coal rail cars and barges don’t seem to be covered, there must not be much to worry about from the runoff, at least we hope.   An end loader and series of dump trucks were in the process of relocating some of the coal from the North plant pile, to the south plant pile.   There must be a huge energy value in the coal, to be able to burn all the diesel fuel to move it once again, and not be able to take advantage of moving it only once via all the intricate coal conveyance systems constructed around the complex.   Watching all the coal being moved around was sapping all my energy, so I figured I better move on as well.  Moving down the road, I noticed the signs pointing out the Dairyland Power coal ash disposal landfill, tucked back in the bluff side.  Another example of what it takes to keep us powered up.

With my energy reserves feeling tapped, I turned on the Ipod, plugged the earphones in my ears, and rolled on towards my next destination – Merrick State Park.  I was surprised to come across a sign not too far down the road announcing that it was only 1 mile to the Park.  As it was only about 2:30, I still would have some time to get some rest in. 

There was no attendant at the entrance to the Park, so it was serve yourself to any available campsites for $14.  I choose to go to the North Loop first and noticed only three other campers in large campers, leaving me the pick of the remaining sites.  I choose an electric site next to the river, and later paid the park ranger who stopped by my site the extra $5 so I could charge my phone and use the laptop and enjoy the water front property views.    

After setting up the tent, and getting things arranged I decided to wash up some laundry.  I unpacked my collapsible kitchen sink, added some detergent, and set to work.  I then installed the wind/solar powered clothes dryer I brought along and hung my cloths out to dry.   I walked down the camp road a bit and came to the trail that said “river access”.  I followed the stairs down to the river and noticed that the river was flooding the bottom of the steps, and I recognized this as the rest stop I made with my paddling partners as we passed by this way on our way back to La Crosse from the Chippewa River paddling trip a number of years ago.  After camping a couple of days on sandbars and islands, the pit toilets across from my current campsite seemed pretty fancy at that time.  If I had paid more attention then, I could have used the even more luxurious flush models at the other end of the campground. 
I began to notice loud engines revving up, and I figured it must be some hooligans on loud motorcycles roaring down the road, but as the noise faded away, and then repeated about every 15 minutes or so, I realized there must be some kind of racetrack nearby.  I hoped that the racing would not go on all night long, but it did, at least until around 10 p.m..  

I ate my typical meal, and then went for a walk on the trail going down river.  I stopped and sat on a stomp by the river, and wondered what it was like before humans invented engines.  Would the bird songs and the water flowing in the river sound different without the roar of engines?  Could birds hear their calls over all the human noises?  What did the bird calls mean?  Did the sound of petroleum exploding inside an engine have meaning – meaning besides our quest for more power?  And then some human noises coming down the trail caught my attention.  Two voices, talking, some kind of conversation – caused me to panic and abandon my perch on the stump and head back down the trail. 

Walking on I, stopped at the boat landing and descended down the flooded handicapped accessible walkway to where the dock would be when the river descended, where I stopped and looked out at the slough.  As I waited, the two talking ladies and their dog passed me by, and two chickadees landed in the tree in front of me.  One of the birds repeatedly sang a soft dee-dee-dee-dib kind of song.  Then one of the birds – I assume the male – passed some sort of morsel to the other bird I assumed to be his mate.   The ritual must be part of the courtship act of the chickadee.  Then a boat came motoring up the river carrying a man, a woman, and what I assumed to be the results of their own courtship ritual – two sons and some fishing poles.  Then some vultures came soaring overhead and I wondered if it was quieter in the sky.   

Leaving the boat landing I headed towards an old log shelter building.  The high river water was making most of the area wet, but the shelter sat on a bit higher ground so it stayed dry.  Numerous robins and grackles seemed to be taking advantage of the feeding opportunities provided by the high water forcing all the worms to even higher ground, so there was much bird song or ruckus as the case may be filling the air.  The joint chorus was almost loud enough to drown out the human noises in the background.  The smell of exhaust also filled the air as a passing motor boat left it in its wake.   Seemed like we ought to have a national day of silence – on that day the use of engines would be prohibited, and no talking would be allowed – only listening.  I wonder what it would sound like?  What sounds would be heard that have not been heard for hundreds of years?  Woodpeckers hammered back forth to each other on the trees.  Some bird poop from a passing bird splat into the water.  A pair of wood ducks splashed down into the pool of water, while waves lapped against the shore.  Birds called out – lustfully – in search of mates.  And the bats from the overhead bat-house screeched in anticipation of the coming dusk.   These would all be events that contained sound that would seem much more intense, if the human noise could only be turned down or better yet off. 

I walked back to the north end of the park to watch the sunset from the stairway to the water.  The fish had become more active as the night approached, breaking the mirrored surface of the water on a regular basis, creating gradually expanding concentric circles that got stretched by the flowing water which eventually erased it all back to smoothness.  The sun descended and a patch of orange on the horizon was the only remnant of our fiery star.  Miraculously it seemed, the racers had stopped roaring their engines, perhaps to pay tribute to that most awesome engine in the sky.  For a moment, there was some quietude, when all seems to be as it was meant to be.  As the racers roared back into action, the orange faded to pink, as the earth continued to revolve about its axis, the mirrored surface of the water, faded to black.   And a black silhouette of a blue heron reflected the darkening hour.  Oh Great River, wash away our inequities, and cleanse us from our sins!    

Later in the night a fourth camper joined the pack.  This one was loaded with kids.  A couple had taken their 5 or 6 sons who ranged in age from teenager to three year old, along with what might have been twin toddler girls or at least one toddler and a double toddler strolller.  The kids seemed to enjoy themselves, but the little I saw of the mother she looked wore out.  The father made an occasional appearance dressed in an orange tee shirt and shorts.  They joined another camper who I didn’t see any people at, but heard their large dog barking from the cab of the camper, whenever someone would walk by their site.  There also was an older couple with their grandson.  And a motorhome, who again I never saw people at, but some fancy Christmas lights lit up and laying on the ground next to the motor home.

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