Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mountains of the Mississippi

Arrival of French explorers Marquette and Joliet by canoe at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers on June 17, 1673.  Photograph by Kay Irelan of the diorama in Iowa Hall at the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History; used with permission from Iowa DNR Geological & Water Survey (Iowa: Portrait of the Land).
Iowa is not known for high topographic relief, but I will argue that it depends on where you are and where you have been. 

It is true that most of our state is flat to gently rolling and that modern perception of topographic relief is skewed by vacations to the Rocky Mountains and by machines and vehicles that do nearly all of our climbing for us, rendering all but the highest hills imperceptible.  But imagine traveling in an era when all hill-climbing was accomplished by lung-burning, leg-throbbing, heart-hammering personal toil, not by flexing a toe on a gas pedal or by pressing an "UP" button.  Imagine you have just spent a month paddling a canoe laden with supplies from the Straits of Mackinac across Lake Michigan (flat), carrying that canoe and those supplies across the divide of the Fox River over the lowest possible portage route (gently sloping), and paddling down the Wisconsin River on a widening floodplain (flat).  Approaching the land of the Ioway, you round a bend in the river and are suddenly confronted with 500' bluffs rising abruptly from a broad, flat confluence with the biggest river you have ever seen, the fabled Father of Waters.  The bluffs are steep, you are craning your neck to see the height of land that towers over your puny boat (wobbling as it passes over confused, upwelling water), you are deep in a wilderness you have never experienced.  I imagine you would be inspired as Pere Jacques Marquette was in 1673 when he excitedly exclaimed that he had now encountered "the mountains of the Mississippi".

Ever since reading that evocative characterization of the Mississippi River bluffs, I had wanted to see them from Marquette's vantage point.  I had seen the diorama in Iowa City and had even stood at the blufftop in Pike's Peak State Park where the Indians depicted in that diorama had peered down at the expedition.  The view from above was wonderful, but I still wanted to paddle out to the confluence to see Marquette's "mountains" for myself.  Things fell into place during a trip to northeast Iowa in 2005, 332 years after Marquette's passage.  I launched my kayak from Prairie du Chien on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi and paddled through the backwaters of Garnet Lake toward the main channel.  Along the way, I passed through a watery mosaic of aquatic vegetation and open pools.  It was August and the water lotus (Nelumbo lutea) was in full bloom:

Water lotus in flower (left) and in fruit (above)

I broke into the main channel and was ushered downstream by the current beneath the Pike's Peak bluff (by the way, Zebulon Pike visited this prominence in 1805 and that "other one" in Colorado in 1806, making this the original "Pike's Peak").  A complex of sandbars formed a delta at the mouth of the Wisconsin River.  Eddies and upwellings were suddenly all around me, gently jostling my kayak.  Looking down into clear water, I saw numerous boils gushing countless sand grains as water flowed through the porous streambed.  Looking up and around, I finally saw Marquette's mountains: 

Looking downstream
Looking upstream

Blufflands at town of Marquette, Iowa upstream from the confluence, The Highway 18
bridge to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin provides a human scale.
Although popularly reserved nowadays for alpine ranges, the word mountain (montaigne in Old French) more broadly means "a naturally raised part of the earth's surface, usually rising more or less abruptly, and larger than a hill."   The rugged bluffs fronting the river and their network of steep ravines reaching into the uplands easily meet that test.  Less tangibly but more importantly, "mountain" brings to my mind a sense of wildness in the landscape.  Gazing up at the long extent of undeveloped wooded bluffs from my kayak that day, in a much tamer time than 1673, I still sensed traces of that wildness.  I think Marquette had it right!

Since my first outing to the Wisconsin River confluence across from Pike's Peak, I have paddled many additional segments of the upper Mississippi in Iowa and continue to be impressed with the "mountains" that we call blufflands today.  Here are some images of the river and blufflands in a variety of moods:


Vista from Paint Rock above Harper's Slough