Romancing Another River

This post comes from Wisconsin. I’m taking a break from the Colorado River this week, and writing instead from the banks of the Wisconsin River. We’re in Wisconsin every October because it’s the home state of my partner Maryo. She’s happy enough where we are, in Gunnison near the Colorado River headwaters, but a big piece of her heart will always be in Wisconsin; a month every year in Wisconsin is like a vaccination against terminal homesickness.

After sixteen years of this, however, I have come to appreciate and value the month in Wisconsin almost as much as Maryo does. Like Colorado, Wisconsin is a beautiful state, but it is a different beauty. Colorado’s attraction, for me anyway, has always lain in its vastness, its suprahuman scale; it is empty in the way of a promised land, grandly desolate in a way that both challenges and affirms the proud and lonely part of the soul; it makes me think there is more and better than just beauty to seek on earth. 

Wisconsin, on the other hand, is beautiful in its fullness. Some of this is due to its location in the humid part of the continent; in arid and semiarid Colorado, you have to go high into the mountains to find annual precipitation of more than 30 inches, but that falls abundantly and democratically everywhere in Wisconsin. The cultural difference engendered could be summarized in the use of ‘ditches’: in the arid and semiarid West, ditches are dug to move water onto the land to make it productive; in the humid East, ditches are dug to move water off the land to avoid saturation. 

This fullness is also suggested by Wisconsin’s generally genteel competition between tree communities and human communities. If there is not a farm or a town or some other human activity on Wisconsin land, there will be trees there – oaks and maples and other hardwoods in the southern part of the state, part of the great Central Hardwood Forest; a mostly-coniferous ‘North Woods’ in the northern half of the state, the boreal ‘subarctic forest’ very similar to our spruce-fir subalpine forest in the Rockies; and between the two, a transitional mix of hardwoods and conifers, dominated by the noble white pines that were mined almost to extinction in the 19th century to build America. The ubiquitous enthusiasm of trees is probably a nuisance to farmers – and vice versa; but they fill the land together, the straight and contoured lines of the fields and big rectangular barns contrasting with the messy vitality of the woods in ways that stir me to think there is more and better than just beauty to seek on earth.

We come to the same place in Wisconsin every year: a funky cabin right on the Wisconsin River, sitting in a stately grove of big old white pines. But the river dominates the place. The cabin’s bedroom – basically a glassed-in porch – looks out on the river; that’s where we drink the first cup of coffee in the morning, watching for action on the river. Gulls flying by, geese sometimes entertaining us with their awkward grace in landing on the water, a pair of eagles that spend a lot of time sitting in a dead tree on an island out in the river, one of them occasionally dropping down to the river to snatch something one doesn’t particularly want to watch it eat. Sandhill cranes and herons stalk through a little fluctuating slough between us and the river; deer and turkeys wander around it. One morning we watched a hilarious confrontation between two cranes in the slough who confronted a fox on the shore with flapping wings and squawking; the fox casually yielded the field. This morning the river was briefly graced by the presence of a pair of swans that floated by with three cignets.

The Wisconsin River begins in the uplands of the state (about 1,800 ft. elevation) in the North Woods; it flows generally south-southeast until it gets to the central part of the state, then it takes a relatively abrupt turn toward the west for around 100 miles to a confluence with the Mississippi River. The place where we stay is on that westerly part, about 90 miles from the Mississippi. 

The Wisconsin River is a smaller river than the Colorado River – 430 miles long, a third the length of the Colorado, and its watershed is only 12,000 square miles – a twentieth of the Colorado River’s 246,000 square-mile basin. From that modest watershed, however, the Wisconsin illustrates the difference between humid and arid, generating around eight million acre-feet of flowing water every year, more than half the Colorado’s total flow. 

There is some evidence that many millions of years ago the stretch of river in front of us, now flowing west, once flowed east, but to where and why is lost under the more recent geological changes imposed by the Pleistocene ice. Over the several million years of alternating continental glaciation and interstadial melting, the ice and water shaped Wisconsin’s two major watersheds – like Colorado, Wisconsin has an ‘east slope’ and a ‘west slope,’ although the upland separating them and the ‘slopes’ themselves are often barely noticeable. East of the subtle divide is the Great Lakes watershed – water flowing into a region depressed by the immense weight of the ice sheets, more than a mile thick at their peak. West of the divide is the vast Mississippi River basin, originally formed by the huge flows from the periods of melting ice. 

The chief task of the Wisconsin River and other Mississippi tributaries is to help move the residual debris from the glaciers down to the Gulf of Mexico. The vigor with which the river has undertaken this means that, like Aldo Leopold, we inhabit a ‘sand county’ here. The river has pushed along vast quantities of the ‘loess’ mix of sand and silt ground down by the Big Ice; it is the ground we walk on here as well as the bed and banks of the river.

There’s an island out in the river in front of us that has been there long enough to grow trees thirty or forty feet high, but it is basically just a large sandbar, a “walking island”: we have, over our years coming here, seen it lose maybe 50-70 feet off its upstream end, redepositing it on to the downstream end. It was probably piled up, far upstream, in the big flows of the glacial meltdown, and has been walking downstream in the diminished Holocene flows ever since. Trees topple off the eroding end, and seeds start new trees on the growing end.

At this point in the river’s evolution, however, the task of conveying sand has been interrupted; the river has been put to work for human enterprises, generating electricity. An underinformed website calls the Wisconsin River “the nation’s hardest working river,” a boast I challenge as an inhabitant and afficianado of the Colorado River. The Wisconsin River does have as many mainstream dams as the Colorado, on a river a third the Colorado’s length. But it does not provide domestic water for anywhere near 40 million people; most domestic water in the humid parts of the Mississippi Basin comes from wells. Nor is the river’s water diverted back onto the land to irrigate millions of acres of agricultural land. Wisconsin is a farming state, but because of the humid climate there is little irrigated agriculture, and what there is comes from center-pivot wells. The river provides electricity and recreation for the people of Wisconsin, but beyond that, its main function is removing excess water from Wisconsin’s landscapes in the aesthetically entrancing way that rivers do that.

I mention this ‘aesthetic function’ of the river because that is the way in which its lower reaches ‘work’ today. From the last hydropower dam, a few miles upriver from where we are, the 95-mile reach to its Mississippi River confluence is designated the ‘Lower Wisconsin State Riverway,’ regulated ‘to protect and preserve the scenic beauty and natural character of the river valley, to manage the resources of the area for the long term benefit of the citizens of the state, and to provide a quality public recreational area in a manner consistent with the resource and aesthetic protection goals and objectives.’

The Riverway was officially designated in 1989, ‘after years of planning and hundreds of hours of public meetings,’ according to an online history. Anyone American who has sat through land-use planning meetings anywhere, whether for local city zoning or National Forest management, will empathetically understand this prickly statement: ‘Many divergent opinions existed regarding the type of protection needed and the degree of regulation, if any, which should be involved.’ 

I attended a lecture a couple years ago, at which the Executive Director of the Riverway reflected on some of those meetings – meetings to which some residents of the immediate area had come armed, and the debate sometimes passed from ‘contentious’ to threatening. They sounded in fact, like meetings that would happen today, in the Era of ‘Trumpfrontation’ – except this was a quarter-century before Trump emerged. Trump may just be a bit of foam on a wave a long time forming.

Eventually, however, opponents to the idea were either won over or just stopped showing up, and the Riverway project was realized, with a fairly high degree of regulation to protect and preserve the aesthetic integrity of 80,000 riparian acres in the river valley. Permits are required for any new construction or modification of existing structures along the river, and get as detailed as proscribing the color of buildings; trees can only be harvested selectively for the most part (no clearcuts to improve the river view). Et cetera: The overall intent is to render any evidence of human activity ‘visually inconspicuous.’ 

I am aware that I am probably sounding a tad skeptical here. Since the 1960s I have been having an argument with myself about the concept of ‘wilderness.’ What should we think of a people who are so out of love with themselves and the world they have created that they want to protect any remaining uninhabited scraps from themselves? Love best a landscape in which they are not a presence?

I confess that I’ve got a streak of that in me – I like the fact that we can lie in bed here in the morning, look out on the river, and see nothing of ourselves there, or on the opposite bank. Occasionally boaters floating by stop and camp on ‘our’ island; I am embarrassed by how glad I am to see them leave in the morning. Back home, I support the wilderness proposals. But there is an element of ‘due diligence’ to it; there’s a part of me that looks over my shoulder and asks if I really know what I’m doing…. That part that loves a farm and forest landscape.

I mentioned Aldo Leopold a few paragraphs back; it would be a sin against the river to not acknowledge his spirit along this sandy reach. His iconic Shack is just a few miles upriver from us – now sharing his porefarm with a much more magnificent (and much more energy efficient) Aldo Leopold Center, built from red pines that Leopold and his family planted on the land half a century before.

I’ve read – and reread – enough Leopold to know that when one thinks of such things, one has to ask WWAT – ‘What would Aldo think?’ I’ve more or less got his gold-standard ‘land ethic’ paragraph engraved in my mind: ‘Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’

But I also think that Leopold probably shared my appreciation for the ‘fullness’ of the Wisconsin landscape. He was a consultant on the first watershed-scale conservation project by the brand new Soil Conservation Service in the 1930s – working down on the ground with farmers and other ‘experts’ in Wisconsin’s Coon Creek Valley, farmers whose degraded lands made them aware there might be better ways to farm, and they worked together to work them out, down on the ground. Coon Creek became a model for other watersheds throughout Wisconsin, and the nation. 

If I could ask Aldo Leopold one question, it would probably be: Which made you more fulfilled, the conservation work in Coon Creek, or the ‘wilderness’ designation for part of the Gila National Forest? 

There’s another quote from Leopold that comes to mind, when I contemplate our increasingly divided culture – perhaps more prominent in Wisconsin that anywhere. It was in an unpublished work about wildlife ecology, so I don’t really know the context: “There are two things that interest me: the relation of people to each other, and the relation of people to land.” Were he with us today, which would he be wanting to working on with us?

Which reminds me, if you’ve read this far: VOTE. Vote as if the future depended on it. Who would Aldo vote for? (Or would he sooner just go out and plant a tree….)

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  1. Of course, my reply is that Aldo would want us to be working on our relation to each other WHILE working through our relationship to the land. Maybe actively cultivating both simultaneously. Calvin wants me to come back and pick crops with them – and I need to make sure that happens at some point.
    Which reminds me – I went to an Aldo Leopold Conference at UNM way back when. It was a room full of predominantly gray haired intellectual type white men. And onstage, there were three speakers. White, Native and Hispanic. This is a somewhat fatal tradition in NM – as if, all you need to do is have a representative of each ethnic group onstage, and all will go well. The Native and Hispanic representatives basically threw a small tantrum regarding being invited as guests to honor a dead white male conversationist. They vehemently defended their own conservationist methods which preceded Leopold. It was mildly hysterical.

  2. Hi George,
    Gorgeous writing. Your description of Colorado’s impact on you made me want to say “YES; ME TOO.”

  3. Good writing, Perfesser (you might check the spelling of “aficionado”). And interesting (a “walking sand bar”!). As well, the homage to A. Leopold inspires me yet again to try and read him. I keep sighing and backsliding into Tony Hillerman or some hairy Russian. I can so picture your glass bedroom view of the river, and I share what I imagine to be your opinion, that while the Wisconsin may be a trickle upside the Colorado, it’s all relative. I mean, I am now in Portland and am surrounded by truly mighty water. None of us is well-advised to boast, for surely somewhere someone sipping coffee beside oh, the Amazon, is chuckling: the Columbia? A stream at best. Whatever. Home remains where the heart is. See you when we both follow our hearts on back.

  4. Excellent George! I’m sitting here in our cabin in the UP as we speak reading this. Having cut my teeth on the Wisconsin River i appreciate your sentiment and comparison/contrast to the Colorado. I share much of the same experience. Our tamarack’s are “smokey gold” up here. If you know, you know.

  5. Loved this one! Maybe because it deals with a river I know and love.

    And I think I know how Aldo would vote. And then he would go out and plant a tree.


  6. Beautiful writing George. your sensitivity and growing connection to the Wisconsin country matches sentiments expressed by Barry Lopez in “Crossing Open Ground” and Mary Oliver in”Long Life”, both of which I am presently reading. What a gift. Thank you George.

  7. George – I’ve loved your writings/posts. My fishing buddy Harry Peterson knew you from his days at Western. A wonderful popular piece you did on the Colorado which appeared in Harper’s (I think) was required reading in one of my graduate water resources classes at UW. And one of my watershed association pals knows you from the Lab up Telluride way. Thanks for taking time off from “the West” to reflect on our namesake river. And yes, I voted!

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