Wisconsin’s Wyalusing State Park lies nestled at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers in southwest Wisconsin, fifteen miles south of Prairie du Chien. The sandy Wisconsin River provides the northern boundary to the park and the muddy Mississippi its western reach. Across the Mississippi at its northwest corner sits Iowa’s Pikes Peak State Park overlooking the confluence, and just slightly further north lies Effigy Mounds National Monument with its ancient, mysterious bear, bird, conical, and linear Native American mounds.
With the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge likewise weaving through adjacent river bottomlands, and with Iowa’s nearby Yellow River State Forest, the region protects and preserves over 35,000 acres of natural and cultural heritage.
None of this, of course, is chiefly on my mind as my wife Dianne, brother John, and I kayak through the twists and turns of the six-mile Wyalusing canoe trail. We are infinitely more focused on trying to spot the blue trail markers variously nailed to trees and stumps amid the wet and weaving path. It’s a bit like a Where’s Waldo game, but one punctuated by long stretches of dreamily watching herons flap into long-legged flight, spotting the occasional bald eagle in overhead branches, taking stock of the water lilies about to bloom, and looking for the mussel-shelled remains of a raccoon’s late-night dinner.
The trail begins at the Refuge boat landing centrally located on the backwater Glenn Lake. Officially, the trail first twists north and west through backwater sloughs to the Mississippi channel, then backtracks along the same path before heading south beyond the landing to another opening to the channel, and reverses along its path again. Unofficially, we usually connect the weaves by venturing down the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River, hugging the shoreline and bobbing in the somewhat more agitated waters. There we can usually find a sand bar on which to have a sandwich and a drink, and to watch the world float by.
Here, too, is where history intersects with the natural world. Jacque Marquette and Louis Joliet were the first Europeans to have passed this way in 1673, having paddled down the Wisconsin River and entered the Mississippi. Marquette marked the occasion in his famous journal:
“We safely entered the Mississippi on the 17th of June, with a Joy that I cannot Express….[The Mississippi] is narrow at the place where Miskous [Wisconsin] empties; its Current, which flows southward, is slow and gentle. To the right is a large Chain of very high Mountains, and to the left are beautiful lands; in various Places, the stream is Divided by Islands.”
The confluence of the rivers looks much the same today, with islands shifting and rebuilding amid ongoing cycles of flood and drought, replenished by Mississippi mud and Wisconsin River sand.
Joliet kept a journal as well, but his was lost along the way when his canoe overturned in a rapids. I would have been Joliet.
Off the channel and having paddled back up the southern loop of the canoe trail, we exit Glenn Lake and load the kayaks onto our trailer. In other visits to Wyalusing we have explored the trails, but not yet to due diligence. Trail names and park features, however, speak to the blend of nature and history here: the Old Wagon Trail, Sand Cave Trail, Old Immigrant Trail, Prairie Trail, Sugar Maple Trail, Sentinel Ridge Trail with its Native American mounds, and the Mississippi Ridge Trail, among others. Hikers can pick up a bird checklist of 199 species to test their luck and eyesight while on the trails.
A pavilion name is all that remains of Chief Green Cloud’s Ho Chunk village, a holdout settlement on the current park grounds that defied an 1829 “treaty” until the village was forcibly abandoned in 1882. CCC/WPA pavilions built from 1936-1941 dot the grounds, another link to history.
The park was established in 1917, one of Wisconsin’s earliest state parks, although initially under the name of Nelson Dewey State Park, until that name was utilized at the nearby Cassville, Wisconsin, site of the first governor’s birth home.
My brother, our kayaking guest for this excursion, lived in Prairie du Chien long ago, so we capped off this outing with a side-trip to his former home, thus completing our weave of history.
The Mississippi-Wisconsin confluence area had been a neutral grounds among at least fourteen tribes who lived, visited, and traded there. Just a decade after Marquette and Joliet’s excursion, Nicolas Perot established a trading site in 1685 at the Meskwaki village in the location of present-day Prairie du Chien.
Later French and French-Canadian traders, miners, and explorers intermarried with the Meskwaki, forming a Metis—or mixed-ethnicity—village that eventually took the name of the Meskwaki chief Alim, whose name meant “Chien” in French, or “Dog” in English.
Prairie du Chien and the surrounding area would continue to play important historical roles throughout the next centuries. The town was captured by the British in 1814, and after its recapture, the American government built Fort Crawford in 1816 to defend the Upper Mississippi. The Sauk leader Black Hawk surrendered himself at the fort in 1832, days after his people had been massacred by government forces thirty-seven miles north along the Mississippi.
Happier days included riverboat and rail visitors to the region.
Layered on top of this deep history was my brother’s personal past and family memories. We drove past the house he lived in at the time.
Returning from Prairie du Chien, we ventured again across the clean-sanded Wisconsin River, past the turnoff to Wyalusing State Park, back home again to Dubuque. The waters we’d kayaked on a lazy Friday would soon roll past our home, the final stitch in the weave of nature, history, and our personal lives.