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“Day THREE of my Eight-Day Mark Twain Riverboat Trip Along the Upper Mississippi”
“Get your facts first, and then you can distort ‘em
as much as you please.” – Mark Twain
I wondered what fish live in the Mississippi River and did a little research: walleye, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, channel catfish, northern pike, bluegill, crappies, and Gulf sturgeon.
Then I wondered what food dishes are popular in this area. After another search, I came upon a list including the following: wild rice soup, honey walleye, deep-fried cheese bites (beer-battered cheese curds), toasted ravioli puffs, slow-cooked pork BBQ, biscuits and sausage gravy, Memphis style BBQ ribs, southern fried chicken with gravy, Louisiana barbeque brisket, New Orleans gumbo, Creole-spiced shrimp po-boys, red beans and sausage, bananas foster sundaes, jambalaya, southwestern catfish, and New Orleans beignets. My mouth is watering already. I’m wondering which of these may be served on the cruise.
On Day 3, at 6 a.m. in La Crosse, on the eastern, Wisconsin side of the Mississippi, it was 27 degrees. Once again I bundled up with all the winter layers, including ear muffs and gloves, before stepping out on the Observation Deck. The forecast promised warmer temps in Dubuque the following day (60 for the high and 40 for the low).
At 6:30 a.m., there was enough light to see two bald eagles perched on top of a snag across the river. I didn’t see a nest on that tree, so perhaps they were just sitting there until something tasty caught their eagle eyes.
La Crosse is the largest city on Wisconsin’s western border. Its population is about 52,000. La Crosse is a college town with over 20,000 students and home to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Viterbo University, and Western Technical College.
The first Europeans here were French fur traders who traveled the Mississippi River in the late 17th century. In 1805, Lt. Zebulon Pike mounted an expedition up the Mississippi River for the United States. He recorded the location’s name as “Prairie La Crosse,” a name originating from a game with sticks that resembled a bishop’s crozier, or “la crosse” in French, played by Native Americans there.
In 1841, Nathan Myrick, a New York native, built a temporary trading post just west of La Crosse’s present downtown. Surveyor William Hood platted the village in 1851, opening up the land for further settlement. By 1855, La Crosse had grown to nearly 2,000 residents.
From the 1840’s to the 1880’s, steamboats brought thousands of immigrant settlers to this area. 1857 was the peak year for riverboats in La Crosse. 1,569 boats landed here that year, more than any other city on the upper river.
The city grew even more rapidly after 1858 with the completion of the La Crosse & Milwaukee Railroad, the second railroad connecting Milwaukee to the Mississippi River.
During the second half of the 19th century, La Crosse grew to become a center of the lumber industry. Logs cut down inland were rafted down the Black River to sawmills in La Crosse. It also became an important center for the brewing industry and, in 1884, produced more beer than any other city in the state.
The cruise provides Hop-On Hop-Off tour buses to take us through the towns where our riverboat stops. First I visited the Riverside International Friendship Gardens honoring La Crosse’s sister cities around the world – and they have quite a few — represented by a Chinese Feng Shui garden, as well as French, German, Norwegian and Russian landscaped areas. Some are filled with evergreen plants and are still pretty once the temperature turns cold; a few roses still remained in spite of the recent freeze.
A path from the gardens leads to a footbridge over the La Crosse River and continues along a 1.3-mile path on the western edge of the La Crosse Marsh. A different path veers to the right before the footbridge, taking one to a series of trails crossing the marsh. The La Crosse River meanders through the marsh and meets the Black River, where they both flow into the Mississippi. The walkway along the Friendship Gardens provides access to a view of this confluence.
My next stop was the La Crosse Area Heritage Center, which only opened in 2020, where I learned about the history of the local Ho-Chunk people, formerly known as the Wisconsin Winnebago Tribe. From 1832 to 1874 there were efforts to ethnically cleanse the Ho-Chunk from Wisconsin and Illinois into what would be become Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska. The Ho-Chunk continuously thwarted these efforts by returning to their land. They finally exploited the 1862 Homestead Act to purchase land in their ancestral home. This strategy resulted in a new national law, the Indian Homestead Act of 1875. Today, the Ho-Chunk Nation owns land in 14 counties in Wisconsin rather than living on a reservation. The Nation is the largest employer in two Wisconsin counties.
At the Heritage Center I also learned about La Crosse’s Wisconsin Pearl Button Company, once a flourishing business along the river from 1900 to 1933. Fresh water mussels were harvested from the Mississippi River from the 1880’s through the 1960’s to cut buttons from their mother-of-pearl shells. At its peak, the company employed 225 workers and produced 3,000 buttons an hour.
The mussels were an important part of Native American culture in the Ohio and Mississippi River basins, used for food as well as tools and ornaments. Mussel shells were burned and crushed and added to clay to make pots that were harder and stronger after firing. Piles of shells, called shell middens, have been found in old villages and encampments along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.
The mussels are largely responsible for filtering and cleaning fresh water. Due to over-fishing, more than 70 percent of the species are endangered, and they are now protected. (I’m saving more details for Day 6, Muscatine, when we visited the National Pearl Button Museum and learned the history of the river mussels in depth.)
We spent a half day in La Crosse, giving us all afternoon to enjoy watching the river as the paddle wheeler traveled downstream. Once again, as the riverboat pulled away from La Crosse’s shore, the steam calliope played tunes. Not long after, the black smokestacks were lowered as we passed under two low bridges. A number of loaded barges were gathered along the far shore. Wooded islands in the middle of the river broke up the view.
Especially when the water level of the river is lower than usual, it is critical for riverboats to stay in the deepest part. Colored buoys guide the path of the paddle wheelers and other river traffic. The red buoys are on the Minnesota side. The green buoys are on the Wisconsin side. The boats stay between them.
As I hoped, the leaves were starting to turn color with many yellows and a few reds. The green, forested bluffs along the river’s shoreline were sprinkled with oranges and reds.
A river historian named Frank gave presentations every day. We called him the Riverlorian. This afternoon he listed all the fish, birds and wildlife thriving in these waters, confirming those I already knew and adding some: channel and blue catfish, alligator gar, American eel, sturgeon, the fresh water mussels that filter the water, crawfish, bull sharks, cormorants, bald eagles, egrets, raptors such as red-shoulder hawks and ospreys, American white pelicans, turtles, black bear, beavers, coyotes, deer, river otters – you name it.
We were passing through the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, a haven for migratory birds, fish, wildlife and people since 1924. The refuge stretches 261 river miles from Wabasha, Minnesota, to Rock Island, Illinois – the majority of my trip’s itinerary. It protects more than 240,000 acres of Mississippi River floodplain. It is the longest contiguous river refuge in the continental U.S. and lies within four states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois.
The Refuge hosts more than 3.7 million annual visits for hunting, fishing, wildlife observations, and other human recreation and has been designated a Wetland of International Importance and a Globally Important Bird Area.
The Refuge is the result of the vision of avid fisherman Will Dilg, who, in 1923, learned of a plan to drain a large portion of the river’s backwaters. He felt the solution was to turn the entire stretch of river into a federal refuge and presented his idea to Congress. One year later, Congress passed the Upper Mississippi River Wild Life and Fish Refuge Act in June of 1924, authorizing acquisition of land for the refuge.
We passed through Lock & Dam No. 8 while it was still daylight, the first time I got to see this process.
At any lock, there is always a dam that crosses the width of the river, causing the river’s water level to drop several feet to a lower level downstream of the dam. Since the river boats can’t make that drop, they are passed into a rectangular area of river water with gates at both ends.
First the upstream gate is opened. The water is at the same level as where the riverboat has just come from, upstream. The boat moves into the enclosed area, and the gates close behind it. The water is then released out of the confined space, lowering the boat. When the water level is as low as the downstream portion of the river, the gates at the far end are opened and the riverboat passes through them and continues down the river. Once the boat is in open water again, the second set of gates close behind it, ready to repeat the process. If a boat or barge is headed upstream, the process is reversed so that the river traffic can be raised to the level of the water upstream of the dam.
Once again the smokestacks were lowered as we passed under bridges or low-hanging power lines. Further down the river, we passed a large square platform halfway between our boat and the shore, used to dredge the river. It was buoyant enough to support a large piece of dredging equipment as well as the soil being removed.
At dinner I had a crab and avocado appetizer, crisp frog legs (the first I’ve ever had), corn and crab bisque, pan-seared rainbow trout and banana foster for dessert. I was disappointed that the dessert wasn’t flaming, but maybe that would have been a safety concern for a riverboat.
Day Three had been another great day. The only issue was that we had begun to complain that the week was passing too quickly.
“Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die,
even the undertaker will be sorry.” – Mark Twain
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La Crosse Area Heritage Center interpretive signs; American Queen Voyages Hop-on Hop-off Tour Map of La Crosse; American Queen Voyages “Daily Voyage” newsletter, 10/19/2022 (La Crosse Issue 698); https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Crosse,_Wisconsin; https://wisconsinfirstnations.org/ho-chunk-nation/; www.riversidegardens.org; https://www.lchshistory.org/lacrosseareaheritagecenter