As always, there had been a rough sketch of a plan: a 7- or 8-mile row, heading generally northward through the meandering sloughs and backwaters of the Chippewa River delta, the largest contiguous floodplain forest in the Midwest. From there, it would be an easy float down the main river channel to its junction with the Mississippi. Two or three nights aboard, a wandering pilgrimage through 30 square miles of river bottom forest and wetland bisected by only a single road. No need to pack the sailing rig—oars alone would do.
The more I thought about it, the better it sounded. With no charts available, I downloaded a set of detailed topo maps, printed them at 2″ to the mile, and ran them through a laminator. A bit smaller than restaurant placemats, and stiffened nicely by the laminating, they’d be perfect for one-handed use in a small boat—a trick I filed away for future trips. Even better, the maps seemed to suggest that the route I had imagined might actually exist. From a launch ramp 50 yards off the south side of Highway 35, a reasonably open channel paralleled the road eastward for a mile or two, snaking back and forth beneath a series of bridges before entering a thin but apparently continuous ribbon of river leading farther north.
This channel—Buffalo Slough—ran generally northward along the eastern edge of the delta for several miles, swooping through a series of bends and hairpins and pond filled backwaters to connect with another winding channel—Little Buffalo Slough—that diverged from the 300-yard-wide main channel of the Chippewa 10 miles upstream from the river’s confluence with the Mississippi. I’d anchor there, behind a half-mile-long island at the entrance to the slough, and then have an easy downstream row on the Chippewa. After a second night somewhere near the river’s mouth, I’d close the loop with a rambling track through the lower delta: up Government Light Slough to Smith Slough and on to the ramp, maybe. I didn’t overthink it. A certain degree of ignorance is a necessary component of these ventures, the best plans only vague brushstrokes to be filled in later, a new revelation at each stroke of the oars.
But there are plans, and there is reality. After two hours of rowing back and forth beneath the highway after launching from the ramp, I had failed to find the entrance to Buffalo Slough. Instead, I found a series of obscure channels blocked by downed trees, low water, and strainers, any one of which might have been Buffalo Slough. I hadn’t been able to go farther than a hundred yards up any of them to find out.
Trying to bring a boat like FOGG up Buffalo Slough was ridiculous, really. The channels were barely wide enough for oars as they were twisty, and thickly overgrown. It was the kind of delightfully pointless and uncomfortable outing I might have invented for myself as a kid, when every drainage ditch was a potential adventure, and every thicket an incitement to exploration. Long shallow stretches forced me to wade upstream, pulling the boat behind me like a dog on a leash—hard-earned, sweaty, knee-deep-mud-and-crawling-through-branches yardage. I had to climb ashore and line the boat through a few tight spots where logs or low branches prevented the use of more conventional tactics. This wasn’t a river—it was a forest. Craggy-barked cottonwoods lined the shore, with well-spaced silver maples, basswoods, and ash trees farther inland. Birds were singing everywhere, only occasionally visible as they flashed from tree to tree. Squirrels chattered loudly, scampered off when I got too close, and chattered some more.
No matter what my carefully assembled maps might have suggested, the sloughs and channels here were shifty things—erratic; devious; not to be trusted. The few inlets that weren’t blocked completely grew steadily narrower and shallower as I fought my way upstream, until all that was left was a trickle of muddy water between undercut banks. I finally gave up, leaving the boat firmly aground in a side channel to explore on foot.
Tall maples and basswoods broke the late afternoon light into a rustling green-gold shiver overhead, and the damp sand of the slough bed was a jumble of tracks: the split-wedge marks of white-tailed deer, web-footed beaver prints, and the peace-sign slash of blue heron feet. The forest floor was pure floodplain and flat as a parking lot, too damp and shady to support much undergrowth—only a scattering of mayapples, and a few trilliums just starting to open into bright three-pronged stars. Farther into the woods, knee-high ferns brushed my legs with a feathery shushing at each step. Circling back to the boat, I found more tracks in the riverbed behind it: the rail-straight line of a keel dragged through the sand, and my own barefoot prints at the water’s edge.
I eventually abandoned the idea of finding Buffalo Slough and headed downstream instead, planning to anchor a few miles south of the ramp in Smith Slough, or Government Light Slough, or some nameless adjacent backwater at the edge of the delta. I’d spend the night just above the Mississippi River and come up with a new plan for tomorrow.
Now that I’d given up on finding a northward route, the channels grew wider—the size of small rivers, and easily rowable—and my map seemed accurate enough. The Burlington Northern rail line ran through the delta on a series of bridges and causeways, and the first bridge I passed under provided a reliable fix to confirm my admittedly hazy dead reckoning. I knew where I was, mostly, if not where I was going.
I let the boat drift along at a moderate pace, using the oars more for steering than for propulsion, stopping ashore wherever I felt the urge, or could find a relatively mud-free landing. Other than constant birdsong and the intermittent rumble of passing trains, I was caught up in a wide and rivery stillness: the faint drip of water off the oar blades, the hush of the current rippling along the banks, the breeze stirring through wide expanses of reeds at the water’s edge. After 2 or 3 miles, I pulled into a quiet backwater 20 yards wide, a still pond tucked beside the channel like a mirror sinking slowly into the mud. A few cottonwoods lined the bank, 40′ tall and leaning far out over the water. Their reflections broke into wavering ripples as the boat glided toward shore. I slid the bow up onto a low island at the edge of the pond and stepped out into thick mud.
Even well back from the river, where bright green shoots of new grass created the illusion of a carefully tended lawn, the bank was too muddy for tenting. My camp chair, a recent and dangerously hedonistic concession to comfort, sank a few inches into the earth when I sat down, and wouldn’t settle onto an even keel. The “lawn” quickly became a cattle-pen quagmire of muddy footprints as I unloaded my gear. After a supper of rice and red beans, I dragged the boat to a level position, barely afloat at the edge of the pond, and set up a thwart-height platform and small tent for sleeping aboard. I scraped most of the mud off my feet—or some of it, at least—and crawled inside at full dark. I woke again well after midnight to see a foggy glimmer of sky just visible through the leaves, and a bright half moon caught in the treetops.
By morning, after a long scrutiny of maps in the flickering light of a dying headlamp the night before, I had decided on a new plan. I’d continue down Government Light Slough to the Mississippi—less than a mile now—and then upstream past the mouth of the Chippewa River and into the western arm of the delta, an inkblot swirl of channels, oxbows, meanders, and sloughs that might allow me to piece together a loop after all. Fortyacre Lake, Chimney Lake, Swinger Slough: a devious back-channel route leading to the western bank of the Chippewa River a few miles upstream, almost a mirror image of the route I’d originally intended. From there, I could continue down to the Mississippi, up Swift Slough, maybe, and get back to the car.
I was happy there was still the chance for a continuous loop, however irregular and wandering it might prove. The thought of returning the way I had come would seem like a defeat, and a lost opportunity. But did the loop I saw on paper actually exist in the ambiguous and twisty delta? I had no idea.
The first leg of the day’s journey went quickly. Within 20 minutes of starting out, I reached the end of Government Light Slough and entered the Mississippi. Behind me, flat forest; ahead, wide open water, and the tall bluffs of the Minnesota side. Blue skies, bright sunlight—startlingly bright after the channels of the delta. I rowed 400 yards across the river to the mile-long ribbon of Drury Island and beached the boat as a passing barge tow sent its wake crashing onto shore. Once it was past, I headed upstream again. The current here was sluggish, and it wasn’t difficult to keep the boat moving.
Just past the western tip of Drury Island, a line of high dunes came into view on the Wisconsin shore, steep slopes of bare sand rising 70′ from the river, half again as tall as the cottonwoods lining the bank beneath. Fake dunes, I knew. The Chippewa River runs through the sandy soils of northern Wisconsin for almost 200 miles, draining an area roughly the size of Connecticut. Much of the sand it carries drops to the riverbed where the Chippewa empties into the Mississippi. Fifteen thousand truckloads of that sand are dredged from the Mississippi River here every year and piled onto the bank in a Sisyphean effort to maintain a 9′ channel depth for commercial traffic.
I couldn’t resist a climb to the summit of the sandpile. I beached the boat, buried an anchor on shore, and headed up the slope. The sand was rough and grainy on my bare feet, and I slipped backward at every step, losing momentum, but the sun-warmed sand was already too hot for me to stop moving. When I finally reached the top, I found a barren topography of sand stretching 500 yards from east to west, far above the floor of the delta. To the south, on the Minnesota side, steep bluffs rose 500 feet above the Mississippi, capped with a thin layer of pale sandstone. To the north, the sand heap dropped abruptly to the Chippewa’s floodplain, offering a view into the forest canopy from above, leafy and green with early summer growth. A bald eagle launched from a tree below me, climbed into the sky with a ponderous rhythm of wingbeats, and angled across the river toward Minnesota.
I returned to the boat in a series of gravity-boosted leaps and bounds that carried me an improbable distance downslope at each step, nearly sending me tumbling headlong a few times. I was tempted—briefly—to climb up again for another go. Instead, I shoved off and continued upstream.
After rowing another half mile up the Mississippi’s eastern bank, I beached the boat at the mouth of the Chippewa River, set up my camp chair under a canopy of cottonwoods on a stretch of flat, firm sand, and read a few pages from George Birkbeck Hill’s Johnsonian Miscellanies, Volume II, a collection of wide-ranging anecdotes and aphorisms related to Dr. Samuel Johnson, one of the leading literary figures of 18th-century England. As an English teacher and writer, I had always felt a nagging obligation to learn at least something about him, so when I found the book in a dusty corner of a used book store, I bought it. With Volume I missing, I could appease my conscience without the bother of reading the whole thing. Besides, a collection to dip into at random seemed better suited to my lack of ambition than James Boswell’s 1,500-page opus, The Life of Samuel Johnson, which sat beside it on the same shelf. Perhaps most important of all, Johnsonian Miscellanies cost $4.50; the Boswell was priced at $65. A little learning may be a dangerous thing, but drinking deep seemed prohibitively expensive.
As it turned out, the unhurried pace of the 18th-century prose and the book’s lack of a continuous narrative thread seemed to mirror my erratic wanderings and ill-defined goals quite nicely, though I doubted Dr. Johnson would have thought much of my trip—at least, not if Hill’s portrait caught the true measure of the man: “He thought that that happiest life was that of a man of business…and that in general no one could be virtuous or happy, that was not completely employed.”
It would have been a nice campsite—level sand for tenting, plenty of shade, and a sheltered harbor for the boat—but the western arm of the delta lay just across the Chippewa River, and I was still fixed on the idea of a loop. A mile of rowing, maybe, would get me to Fortyacre Lake, the first possibility that looked worth exploring. I packed up my chair and the book and shoved off.
Fortyacre Lake went about as expected, a series of winding passages that were more forest than river. There were overhanging branches and leaning cottonwoods, side channels too overgrown or too shallow to enter, a few herons wading the reedy shallows, and finally, a dead end. I ate a late lunch aboard, grounded comfortably on a sandbar, and returned downstream to the delta’s edge to find Chimney Lake.
Here I had better luck. The channel leading into the floodplain was hidden behind a screen of reeds, and took some finding, but it kept going. Soon enough I was into a corkscrewing creek that I guessed must form the downstream end of Swinger Slough. I rowed from the aft thwart facing forward so I could weave around sandbars and downed trees without needing to turn my head to see where I was going, but it was a trade-off. The current was fast enough to require strong rowing, and pushing on the oars limited my power.
I was in no hurry, though. It was only about 3 miles along the slough from the entrance to Chimney Lake to the main channel of the Chippewa River, and the absence of downed trees and brush made up for the slow pace of upstream rowing. I pulled into a quiet corner of the woods at the foot of a railroad bridge—another definite position fix—and walked the tracks for a while, balancing on the rails as long as I could, looking for cast-off railroad spikes. The railroad causeway was the highest ground for miles, a long straight line slashed through the forest. Eventually I returned to the boat for lunch—or was it supper? I didn’t care.
By 7 p.m., with plenty of daylight left, I made the turn into the upper arm of Swinger Slough. From here the route paralleled Highway 35 eastward to the Chippewa River, less than a mile ahead. By now, though, I understood that distance was not a relevant measure in the floodplain. After all, the dirt ramp I had launched from was just 2 miles farther down this same road. Through all my river wanderings, I had been covering an as-the-crow-flies distance of less than a mile per day.
FOGG, however, was no crow. No matter how twisty the channels were, I had no choice but to follow them. From here, though, it would be a straight run to the main channel of the Chippewa River. There was a fierce current against me, but with the end practically in sight, I kept rowing east along the highway, up Swinger Slough—until, with the bridge over the Chippewa River in sight 100 yards ahead, a series of downed trees blocked the channel from bank to bank.
Was the channel completely blocked? I didn’t want to believe it. It had taken me all afternoon to make it this far; I wouldn’t believe it. But there it was: three leafless and spindly fallen trees, spaced a boat length apart, just tall enough to stretch all the way across the slough—roots on the north bank, treetops on the south. Another dead end.
And yet, it might just be possible to drag the boat over the first tree, where the base of the trunk dipped low in the water. Once the idea had planted itself in my head, it proved hard to abandon. I rowed closer. Yes, it might be possible. I tested the depth with an oar—waist deep. It was probably stupid to try. FOGG weighs well over 300 lbs loaded, and I could barely flip the empty hull for painting, even with my wife to help me. But here I was, in sight of the Chippewa River, the last easy link of the loop.
It wasn’t easy. I managed to climb into the water and shove the bow up onto the first log, then scrambled over to the upstream side of the downed tree. The water there was neck-deep, with no firm footing to pull from. Fine. I climbed up beside the boat and manhandled FOGG farther onto the log. From there I see-sawed the boat up and down, and back and forth, walking it across the tree trunk the way you’d move a heavy cabinet across the floor, hoping the Douglas-fir backbone was strong enough to hold the hull together despite the wrangling. It must have been 10 minutes before the boat finally slid free on the upstream side of the log.
I had cleared the first obstacle—the first of three. And the next tree, higher out of the water, would be harder. I rowed up to it—awkward to do with so little room for the oars and with such a strong current flowing—and tested the depth. My 8′ 8″ oar sank all the way to the handle before touching bottom. There would be nowhere to stand for the initial heave up onto the tree trunk.
The bridge that crossed the main channel of the Chippewa was just ahead, a few yards off the right-hand bank. I could even read the green and white highway sign planted on the shoulder near the crossing: Chippewa River. It seemed a cruel blow to force an ending here.
Best to do a bit of scouting before committing to one option or the other, I finally decided. I tied the boat to the tree and climbed ashore. “Ashore,” I immediately discovered, consisted of a broad field of stinging nettles stretching 100 yards along the bank. I was wearing shorts and sandals, and a thin T-shirt. But the river was just ahead, so I waded into the nettle patch, crushing down the stalks with my feet, stomping a path. Nettles sprang back with each step to needle my legs and arms, burning and prickling my bare skin.
I finally reached the end of the nettle patch, hot, itchy, and tired. My survey from the slough bank proved that it would be nearly impossible to wrestle the boat over the second downed tree—I had known that all along, really—and the third tree was even worse. For a moment I had the mad thought of crossing the channel, dragging the boat onto the southern shore—it was cattails and reeds there, and relatively flat—and rolling it past the downed trees along the marshy ground, using my plastic boat fenders as rollers. In the end, it wasn’t prudence or foresight that saved me, but only the discovery that I had left the fenders back at the car. It would be an ignominious defeat, then, with just enough time to turn downstream and find a campsite before dark.
The return trip—after I had dragged the boat back over the downed tree—was an easy downriver ride. I let the current carry me along mostly unaided, using the oars only for occasional course corrections. What had taken me several hours on the northward leg took less than an hour on the way back.
Even so, I had turned around none too early. The sun was almost hidden beneath the treetops as I emerged at Chimney Lake, with only a narrow arc of white-orange showing at the skyline. Soon it was gone altogether. I rowed past the delta’s shadowy wall of trees as the evening faded to a purple twilight. The surface of the water grew dark, a pitch of blackness interrupted by the glimmering reflections of the first stars appearing overhead.
I spent the night at the mouth of the Chippewa River, at the campsite I had found earlier. Flat sand, tall cottonwoods, a convenient downed log for a supper bench—perfection, or close enough to it. I sat for a long time outside the tent listening to the chuckle of water as the river slid by, and the murmuring of the cottonwoods, and the long sad whistling of passing trains along the Minnesota shore. Bats swooped and dodged at the water’s edge, and the stars seemed to pulsate with a distant hum. The boat rocked gently just offshore, the painter a long pale swooping curve from bow to riverbank. Somewhere a fish jumped and fell back into the water with a splash that seemed bigger than it should have been.
“Life must be filled up,” Dr. Johnson insists—a remark that had stuck in my head from the pages I’d read earlier that day—“and the man who is not capable of intellectual pleasures must content himself with such as his senses can afford.”
Tom Pamperin is a freelance writer who lives in northwestern Wisconsin. He spends his summers cruising small boats throughout Wisconsin, the North Channel, and along the Texas coast. He is a frequent contributor to Small Boats Monthly and WoodenBoat.
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