Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of articles written by Cheyenne’s Mark Junge as he and his wife, Ardath, ride their electric-assist bicycles along the Paul Bunyan Trail and Mississippi River Trails in northern Minnesota. Mark is 78 and oxygen dependent.
“Sometimes we’d have that whole river all to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water; and maybe a spark – which was a candle in a cabin window; and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two – on a raft or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It’s lovely to live on a raft.” – Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Chapter 19
One of the greatest things in life is a lovely memory – be it a place, a person or a time when you were young and very much alive. You may not have known that it was special at the time, but it was. Yesterday, as I was floating on the Mississippi River, I became enmeshed in a reverie. I thought about Huckleberry Finn and his friend, Jim, on their raft and about Mark Twain who was a steamboat pilot on the river.
But where I was floating isn’t anywhere near Mark Twain’s stomping grounds. And it’s far upriver from where Huck and Jim floated to freedom. I was between Grand Rapids and Palisade, Minnesota, where there are no steamboats and no wooden rafts. Besides, until locks were built, steamboats couldn’t possibly get farther upriver than the St. Anthony Rapids at the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. And, finally, steamboats no longer ply Mississippi waters, having been replaced by railroads and barges following the Civil War. The Upper Mississippi, where Ardath and I have made camp in our RV, shows no sign of commercial traffic, except for maybe fishing outfitters.
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t actually floating the river on a raft. I was sitting on the deck of a pontoon boat, moored to the riverbank. Further, I must admit that my reverie took place on private property. The county road I had been bicycling was practically deserted, and I was lulled into thinking that the stretch of highway flanking the river was my own, private Minnesota. The pontoon boat looked so lonely down by the river I just had to visit it. I walked down the riverbank and stepped carefully down a steep aluminum gangplank to the pontoon deck, where it became obvious that the small craft hadn’t been used for some time … like a car alongside the road tagged with a yellow sticker.
So I sat back on the pontoon’s bench, one that invited passengers to relax, set their fishing rods into pole mounts, sit down, open an ice chest full of cold drinks and enjoy a few moments of conviviality. If it rained or the mosquitoes got bad, there was a small, screened-in, cabin on the deck that could hold two comfortably, even though the pontoon had holders for six rods.
Stretched out on the bench in the sunshine, I simply let time and the river flow by. But, symptomatic of my generation, I had to phone Ardath to join me. She parked our truck on a turnoff along the road, walked down to the pontoon and sat down next to me to enjoy a quiet moment on the river as the late afternoon glinted off the water. Nothing to see except a few yellow autumn leaves floating slowly downstream. No noise except an occasional gurgle – maybe from a frog, a fish or backwater current.
Ardath often sees things I don’t see. Sitting on the bench, she noticed that the surface of the river was low, about four feet below the grass along the bank. It has been a very dry summer in northern Minnesota, and people we’ve met along the Paul Bunyan Trail and Great River Road have lamented that very problem.
Northern Minnesota is also reservation land, home to the Chippewa and Ojibwe. We stopped along the road to visit a souvenir shop where the tourist can buy bags of wild rice harvested by Native Americans. The clerk told us that due to low water, some of the rice gatherers were walking, rather than paddling, through swampy water during the harvest.
”It is strange how little has been written about the Upper Mississippi. The river below St. Louis has been described time and again, and it is the least interesting part. One can sit on the pilot-house for a few hours and watch the low shores, the ungainly trees and the democratic buzzards, and then one might as well go to bed. One has seen everything there is to see. Along the Upper Mississippi, every hour brings something new. There are crowds of odd islands, bluffs, prairies, hills, woods and villages – everything one could desire to amuse the children. Few people ever think of going there, however.” – Mark Twain, interview in Chicago Tribune, July 9, 1886
Ardath and I have completed a week of bicycling along the Upper Mississippi. The longest stretch of the entire river is in Minnesota – 681 miles. By the time a droplet of Lake Itasca water reaches the Twin Cities, it will have fallen from 1,475 feet above sea level to 687 feet, or more than half of the elevation between its headwaters and the Gulf of Mexico.
From where we sit on someone’s pontoon, the Mississippi is a pleasant river for fishing bass, walleye, northern pike, muskellunge and, they say, an occasional sturgeon. The distance to the opposite bank is no longer than a touchdown bomb from Wyoming quarterback Sean Chambers. The land flanking the river is thinly populated. Riding south of Grand Rapids, the monotony of trees gradually breaks into hayfields, farmland and old farmhouses, weather-beaten barns, pairs of concrete silos … and the occasional and inevitable cemetery.
In truth, the Great River Road we’re following is not really a road at all; it is a designated national scenic route. Although some rural mailboxes may show it as an address, it is really just a series of county, state and even federal highways merchandised to tourists as the “Great River Road.” Making the journey along this crinkum-crankum route is made even more difficult when the number of a county road changes at a county line. Only a few, short, inconsequential strips of asphalt appear now and then, indicating that it could be a bicycle route. Yesterday’s ride incorporated an eight-mile segment of dirt road leading south to the town of Aitken, Minnesota.
We spent two nights at Palisade, a river hamlet where the population this fall is shrinking back to 197 souls as summer traffic diminishes. It’s like going “Back Home in Indiana” as we stop for fuel at a small filling station. The clerk tells us that right next door is “Gabby’s Eats and Treats,” one of two eating places in town and a place where she’ll probably see us shortly for dinner. At Gabby’s, we were greeted by an amiable hostess – Gabby herself – who, after a short conversation, is called by her restaurant co-owner husband to deliver a customer’s order. He informs us that his wife’s dawdling behavior is how she earned her name. Regardless, the food in this mom and pop café was excellent.
Postscript: Due to a contusion on his right fibula, Mark was not able to bicycle farther. Next year, he and Ardath plan to pick up the trail at this year’s stopping point near Aitken, Minnesota.