Ah, vacation. There’s so much to tell where do I start? We took this trip over a Thursday – Tuesday in celebration of our third wedding anniversary. The first three days we spent camping at Wyalusing State Park (www.wyalusing.org) in Wisconsin, on the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. The second three days we spent in Mt. Horeb, WI, a small town about 20 miles west of Madison. It was the perfect balance.
Thursday’s drive up to Wyalusing was nice – we avoided the interstate as much as possible (as we always like to do) and really enjoyed the scenery – the rolling hills, corn and soybean fields and small towns were all beautiful after spending so much time in the city. We were a little concerned about the weather on the way up – the day was overcast and we were running into more and more rain showers the closer we got to the park. So we were worried that we were going to have quite a wet weekend. But as we checked in at the park and spoke to the ranger, the rain had died down to a drizzle and she said that was about all we’d get the rest of the weekend – and she ended up being half right (we had a torrential storm Friday night after midnight and it was a good thing we had the rain fly on the tent and the tarp for our gear). The first wildlife we encountered were half a dozen hummingbirds flitting around outside the office window.
Setting up camp went quickly. The campground was only at half capacity when we pulled in (likely due to the wet weather) so things were quiet and we were able to upgrade our campsite to one on a bluff 500 feet above the rivers. Even though it was hazy and overcast, the view was amazing. We set up the tent and a tarp to cover our gear (since we were still concerned with the rain) and relaxed in camp. We made dinner on our camp stove and enjoyed a nice fire. The next day, we were up early to hike the Sentinel Ridge trail. A lot of the trails were closed because they had been washed away from extremely bad storms last year, but Sentinel Ridge was one of the few still open. It was gorgeous – it winds along the bluff through the forest. There were some pretty serious hills and sticky parts where the trail was muddy and slick, but we did just fine. At the end of the trail near the Passenger Pigeon monument (where the last known passenger pigeon in the United States was shot, exterminating the race) is a series of Native American burial mounds. They were mostly linear and conical, but there were a few effigy mounds, in the shapes of bears. It was special to see.
We spent a little bit of time in Prairie du Chien, but honestly there’s not much to see there. It’s a pretty economically depressed town (the only industry seems to be the Cabela’s warehouse and 3M) so that was touching to me, but as a traveler it was disappointing. The entire downtown is under road construction and there weren’t really any shops or places of business that we were interested in – the few that were geared to the “tourist trade” did so in an overpriced, over the top hokey way. We did stop in at Cabela’s for a Thermarest for husband – sleeping on gravel is no fun! So it was definitely nice to camp in a park that had an outfitter nearby. Prairie du Chien does have the Villa Louis estate, a park-like area with several preserved log cabins, cottages and what amounts to a manor house. We photographed the grounds, but didn’t tour the Victorian-styled manor house as we missed the last tour time when we stopped by.
We had better luck town-wise in McGregor and Marquette, IA. Both are really small towns right on the river, and McGregor was especially charming. They have a main street that is beautifully preserved, and have built a short “frontier” street with a saloon, hat maker, and whatnot – it’s mostly just a façade for photo-ops (at least while we were there) but there seems to be a working B&B housed in the upstairs. There were plenty of interesting antique shops and boutiques, including a great little bookstore called Paper Moon Books (www.papermoonbooks.com) where I purchased Classic French Cooking by Elisabeth Luard – it’s a beautiful little mint-green hardcover that does all the hard work of interpreting LaRousse Gastronomique (in my opinion anyway, it doesn’t profess to do so). I also picked up a few interesting little toys for my niece’s Christmas gift. We also stopped in at the River Junction Trading Company (www.riverjunction.com) which sells reproduction nineteenth century clothing and dry goods. They have two storefronts – one featuring men’s goods and the other featuring women’s. It was like walking into a frontier general store – the dresses and shawls in the ladies store were stunning, and if we’d had the extra cash on hand, husband would’ve purchased a handmade stove-pipe hat for sure (it’s not cheap but its quality stuff and a great experience). We had lunch at the Old Man River Brewery (www.oldmanriverbrewery) where I had the best pulled pork sandwich of my life – the sauce was just the right combination of tangy, spicy and sweet and the meat was in bite-sized chunks – highly preferable to the gossamer thin shreds you find elsewhere. And as their name suggests, they brew their own beer and its pretty good stuff. In Marquette, we stopped at the Schoolhouse Mall, where I purchased a “Federal-style” milk glass platter for ninety-five cents, but stupidly did not purchase the miniature milk glass hen on nest for $5.00. Live and learn. We also stopped in at the Eagles Landing Winery & Vineyard shop on the main street and had a free tasting of about eight of their wines. We purchased six – three bottles of table red – two called Frog Hollow Foch Reserve, and called one Rhode Red. We also came home with a port, a ligonberry and a raspberry as dessert wines. These are the first local wines we’ve come across that are dry enough to pair with dinners – the wines we purchased up in Door County this past February were good but very sweet. So we’re excited about enjoying these wines over the next year and stopping in again to replenish our “cellar” the next time we head up north. While we were in the area, we also stopped in at the Effigy Mounds National Monument near Harper’s Ferry, IA and took an easy two mile afternoon hike up to the Great Bear Mound and Fire Point where we hiked up a bluff (I won’t pretend it wasn’t taxing!) and saw more conical, linear and effigy bear mounds. The views of the river and the size of the Great Bear mound were phenomenal. We only hiked a small portion of that park, so we’ll definitely go back to see more.
Back at Wyalusing, we spent some time Friday afternoon canoeing through a slough on the Mississippi. Now I have to admit – my husband is the water guy and I am very much a land person. I love being on solid land – when I’m hiking and I stop, I’ve stopped for real. When you’re in a canoe and you stop, the current (as benign as it was) is still moving you along. I admit it – I freaked out a bit and had a hard time relaxing. We were canoeing most of the time in a relatively shallow, low-current area through a chain of slough islands off the main branch of the river, but there were many obstacles of trees and branches in the water to canoe around at high speeds (for a land-based hiker, anyway) and getting stuck on a giant sandbar was the last straw. My husband was a saint. He remained calm. He tried to talk me through my fear. Despite all this, I still found moments to enjoy. The scenery was like nothing I’ve ever seen so up close before. And we amazingly saw a blue egret standing at the water’s edge not fifteen feet away from us. Little by little I want to learn to overcome my fear of being on the water – I love the idea, but I know I’m not a strong swimmer and I evidently have a complex about currents. Baby steps with that one.
We were able to see a lot of other wildlife at Wyalusing beside the hummingbirds and the egret. We saw hawks everywhere, especially floating on the thermal currents above the bluff at our campsite. At one point we saw four at a time flying together. We also saw a family of raccoons wandering off into the undergrowth walking through the campground and I almost stepped on a poor little toad until it squeaked at me. We saw a cardinal and an oriole as well.
Saturday the sky finally cleared and husband woke up early and hiked down to Promontory Point to watch and photograph the sunrise. I’m sorry I missed it with him – apparently when he tried to wake me it just wasn’t happening – I was asleep. But the pictures are amazing. They have an observatory at the park, and the forecast was so clear that they scheduled a free astronomy program for Saturday night. After watching the sunset together over a campfire at our site on the bluff (finally we got a good sunset!) we drove up to the Passenger Pigeon monument to watch the sky turn to dusk. It was cool, quiet and beautiful. Then we headed over to the observatory for an hour-long lecture/discussion on general astronomy. Most of it was stuff we’ve learned already (how stars are born and die, how elements are formed, what our solar system is like) but it was still interesting because its stuff you don’t think about every day. Then we went outside to view the stars. They had a few telescopes set up, but we didn’t get a chance to use them since there were so many people there. But for me, seeing the sky with my own eyes was enough. Living in a major city, all we see when we look up is black, and maybe a few stars. But we never get to see the sky – or our galaxy. But we did at Wyalusing. We saw our branch of our Milky Way (the Orion arm) as well as some of the constellations – the Big Dipper, Little Dipper, and Sagittarius. We also saw the North Star and Jupiter. And so many stars. A blanket of stars. It made me well up inside, after so much time separated from the night sky, to see our context – that we live on this tiny planet called Earth, in a middle-aged solar system in the Orion arm of the Milky Way galaxy. Makes you think a little bit about the enormity of things. It was beautiful.
The next morning we broke down camp, packed up the car and drove east along the river bottoms and rolling hills to Mt. Horeb.