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Tea-stained is probably appropriate. Really the dark, red-tinted water reminds me of rough garnets picked up on some trip of my father’s when I was a child. Or the color of tobacco juice, if you’re feeling less romantic.
The river drains more than half a million acres of forest and swamp still drying out from the last Ice Age. Twenty-five million board feet of timber, mostly white pine, was harvested from this place in the late 19th century. Trees running two to four feet in diameter, hauled out with oxen and horses on roads made of ice to the frozen rivers, crashing through come spring and drifting down to some of the world’s largest sawmills. The timber rebuilt Chicago, and fueled the growth of Midwest cities like Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Saint Louis.
Think of dams and Wisconsin doesn’t come immediately to mind. The big ones out west on the Colorado, the Columbia, even the impoundments of the Cumberland and Tennessee valleys. But those big sawmills needed dams and when the timber was gone they sold the rights to nascent power utilities; the structures became a permanent fixture on the landscape. The upper end of this watershed was spared inundation, and in time its hills grew back in pine and maple and birch. The men who made their houses from old growth took their children into these new forests to hunt and fish for smallmouth bass, walleye, and muskellunge. As word spread of the trophy fishing people came from all over, non-native mystery snails and rusty crayfish and zebra mussels left behind as mementos of the region’s popularity as an outdoors destination.
Damn pretty, though. The swift water and big, two billion year old granite boulders remind me of places back home sharing the same ancient geology, just swap the white pines for shortleafs and the paper birches for rivers. There’s deer, turkey, turtles. Baby cranes that look like something out of the Pleistocene. Flowers I’m unfamiliar with, as though Banksy stenciled a sunburst onto a dandelion to make you look twice at the familiar. Clouds of milkweed that are pinker than the kind at home and another variety with large, pale pink flowers that look alien and downright menacing.
And there’s the fish- smallmouth bass that snub fancy flies of rare hairs and craft fur I’ve tied specially for the occasion. I sit on a boulder and crack a beer, drink half and take a nap, wake up and notice the stiff mottled backs of a few large and many small Northern Hogsuckers as they nose for algae and diatoms on the bottom. There are Clouser minnows in my pack, yellow-eyed jobs with shredded bronze mylar sandwiched between a tuft of coyote hair from a trapper I knew back in Wyoming and a hank of hair from a fox squirrel’s tail, a fat male I shot out of my grandfather’s woodlot some time back. They’re perfectly serviceable if not a little ragged. Homespun.