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Thread: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

  1. #1
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    Default FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    In my 2020 cruise on Wisconsin's "West Coast," boisterous headwinds kept me from reaching the south end of Lake Pepin, where the Chippewa River enters the upper Mississippi after flowing 200(ish) miles through the north woods. So, when the chance came to return to the area in 2021, I was ready. Thanks in advance to Small Boats Magazine for publishing my article on the trip last year, and for their permission to re-post some photos and video clips here to revisit the Chippewa River delta again here.

    The boat, as always, was FOGG, a whitehall-style sail-and-oar cruiser designed by Canadian Don Kurylko. Don drew the plans specifically for a sleep-aboard cruising boat for the Inside Passage, and (with a few slight modifications) I've put it to good use in the Great Lakes as well. My main departure has been to swap the lugsail ketch rig as drawn:

    Alaska Plans.jpg

    For a mainsail-only rig, with the mast stepped in an alternate center mast step shown in the plans:

    DSCN3310 cropped.jpg

    Which is all pretty much irrelevant to this trip, since I didn't even bother packing the sailing rig. This was going to be narrow twisty river channels, deep in the largest contiguous floodplain forest in the Midwest (roughly 30 square miles). Oars only, in other words. Here's an overview of the Chippewa River delta and floodplain forest, which lies just across the Mississippi from Wabasha, MN (site of "Grumpy Old Men" if you care about that kind of thing).

    Delta overview.jpg
    Last edited by WI-Tom; 03-22-2022 at 05:14 PM.
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    Exactly one highway cuts through the Chippewa floodplain forest, running east-west. I planned to launch at one of the DNR ramps along the road, and (it looked like it might be possible, on paper) find my way into Buffalo Slough, a long winding channel running up the east end of the delta for nine or ten miles, and follow it upstream all the way to the main channel of the Chippewa River:

    The Plan.jpg

    From there--camp 1, perhaps?--it would be a more or less straight-line ten miles down the main channel of the Chippewa back to the Mississippi--camp 2? Another day of rivery wandering through the sloughs and backwaters of the delta ought to see me back to the car and trailer from there, I figured. I thought there might (or might not) be sandbars good for tent camping, so I came prepared to sleep aboard, or not, as conditions suggested. That's one major benefit of this kind of small boat cruising vs. a kayak or canoe, which in many ways is much more practical for this kind of outing. But then, I'm rarely looking for "practical" on these small boat journeys. Which is probably good, because I rarely find it, either.

    More later.
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    There are no such things as "charts" for places like this, so I downloaded a set of free topo maps at TOPOZONE. Printed off at placemat size, and laminated, these have proven really handy for small boat navigation--stiff enough to hold in one hand, small enough to tuck under a strap on the bench for easy visibility from the helm. Here's a look, with the launch ramp I chose marked in red/yellow:

    map 1.jpg

    A quiet woodsy place, the delta, with no other boats or traffic. I think it was a summer weekday. Nothing fancy at the ramp, but everything I needed:

    Ramp.jpg
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    That looks heavenly.

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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    Yep, it's pretty cool, Rob. If you like trees and rivers and boats and stuff, anyway--very Wind in the Willows, kind of.

    So, on with the plan--I launched the boat and started rowing along in perfectly flat water, not much current. A hot summer day. The waterway at the ramp pretty much ran parallel to the highway, passing under a few bridges. Somewhere in here, maybe, I'd be able to find the entrance to Buffalo Slough and start heading north. There were lots and lots of channels leading off to the north, so I just started exploring them all without paying too much attention to the map.

    I quickly ran into my first dead end:

    dead end.jpg

    Lots of little channels that got too shallow to take a boat up--I wasn't sure which one (in theory) led into Buffalo Slough. I explored the entire length of the main east-west channel checking them all out. At a nice ripply sandbar on the west end I found the railroad bridge marked on the map, so I knew the route I was looking for had to be farther east than that.

    rr bridge.jpg
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    At times, a little bit of creative propulsion and maneuvering was necessary:



    Not really a hardship, but not quite a straightforward rowing trip, either. Reminded me of the kind of pointless sweaty uncomfortable things I used to do as a kid.

    Tom
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    I spent a couple of hours rowing the main east-west channel paralleling the highway, ducking into each north-leading entrance in the hopes of finding Buffalo Slough. Every time I passed under a bridge, a bunch of swallows--barn swallows, I think--swooped around chattering loudly. Nice to have company.

    v1.jpg

    The route must have been something like this:

    sat 1.jpg

    But I never did find a northward-leading channel that kept going. Every one of them faded away into a muddy trickle in the forest, leaving FOGG grounded in the sand. Even the south-leading channel that, in retrospect, would have connected up to Buffalo Slough after a quick dogleg south, dried up into an impassable low-water marshy spot before it got that far. Eventually I gave up, left the boat on a sandbar, and wandered through some of the forests on foot, listening to the birds and frogs, looking at the trilliums and may apples. A beautiful day to be in the woods.
    Last edited by WI-Tom; 03-23-2022 at 07:23 PM.
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    So, by late afternoon, it was time for Plan B. With no route open to the north, I figured I would head south and find a quiet corner of the delta to anchor or shore camp for the night, and reassess for day two. So, off I went, down Smith Slough (one of the larger waterways in the delta, it looked like--bordered on both sides by wide swaths of open marshland), which was also marked with little blue "canoe trail" signs.



    A good boost from the current here, so I was in no hurry. I pulled ashore whenever I felt like it, just dawdling around. It was only 3-4 miles to the Mississippi anyway, and I figured I better camp somewhere before reaching the main channel if I wanted peace and seclusion. There were sure no other boats in the delta so far--very nice.


    Ashore.jpg
    Last edited by WI-Tom; 03-20-2022 at 07:57 PM.
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    The route, more or less:

    sat 1.jpg

    The barn swallows were not my only company:

    Company.jpg

    The Burlington Northern Railway crosses the delta on a long causeway hidden in the woods, with occasional bridges providing welcome moments of navigational certainty:

    v4b.jpg
    Last edited by WI-Tom; 03-20-2022 at 08:01 PM.
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    I dawdled along through the evening, keeping an eye out for likely anchorages or camping spots, stopping ashore here and there.

    Ashore 2.jpg

    Finally I found a little backwater separated from the main channel by a long low sandbar--pretty much just what I was looking for. The sandbar was more mud than sand, so I figured it would be a night to sleep aboard. The Alaska design is quite luxurious (by ultralight backpacking standards) for a solo sleeper, with a platform 10' long and 4' 6" wide or so:

    Sleeping Platform.jpg

    And while it's hardly an ideal onboard tent--no sitting headroom, for one thing--my little Eureka Solo would at least keep the bugs off (though honestly, I hadn't noticed any on this trip. Yet...)

    tent 2.jpg

    And since the evening stayed bug-free, I sat up reading in the sternsheets lounger until it got too dark. Not quite as comfy as the lounging seat way up in the bow, but a close second, and a nice place to hang out and listen to the rivery sounds of birds and frogs, and watch a couple of beavers truck back and forth on their mysterious wanderings.

    Tent.jpg
    Last edited by WI-Tom; 03-20-2022 at 08:02 PM.
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    Wi-Tom, thanks for 'taking us along' on this trip - beautiful scenery - ( in the early 2000's, I lived about 30 / 35 miles west of there )




    Rick
    Charter Member - - Professional Procrastinators Association of America - - putting things off since 1965 " I'll get around to it tomorrow, .... maybe "

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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    Quote Originally Posted by hawkeye54 View Post
    Wi-Tom, thanks for 'taking us along' on this trip - beautiful scenery - ( in the early 2000's, I lived about 30 / 35 miles west of there )

    Rick
    Thanks, Rick. I think of these threads as entertainment mostly for myself to relive a trip, so it's nice to hear that a few others are interested, too.

    Tom
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    Day two, and I needed a new plan. Looking over my maps, it looked like it might be possible to continue down Smith Slough to the main Mississippi, go upstream past the mouth of the Chippewa, and enter the delta on the west side. And, with luck, work my way northward through the western half of the delta, then cut east to get back to the Chippewa River--kind of a mini-mirror image of the route I had initially planned.

    The first leg, only a mile or so, was easy downstream rowing on channels wide enough to be little rivers of their own.

    sat 3.jpg

    The nice thing about river trips is that you can stop ashore whenever the whim strikes.

    2.1.jpg
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    Even if "ashore" is just a sandbar in midstream:

    2.2.jpg

    One of my favorite stopovers was at the foot of a rooty old tree:

    2.3.jpg

    A flat-water rowing trip, with no expected exposure to wind and waves, apparently led to a more slovenly than usual packing scheme underway. I think I even left all 7 of my bulkhead hatches in the car, not fearing a capsize.

    2.4.jpg
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    Summertime on the river had me feeling a bit Huck Finn-ish. Really nice to get away, even if it was hardly out of my own backyard compared to some of my trips to more distant cruising grounds.




    Listen to those birds! June 2, this was. Early summer is the best--days long and still getting longer. Not too hot. Not many people around yet.

    Tom
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    Around here, which is almost around there, the birds nesting under bridges are usually “cliff swallows”. There are a few places along the Upper Iowa River where they still build their mud nests in the cracks and ledges of the limestone bluffs.

    I love to see these truly local boating stories, Tom. The sailing and cruising books I’ve been reading keep slagging the Midwest and it’s nice to see a good time being had in my backyard where I plan to do basically all of my sailing.

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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    Thanks for the comment--there are lots of good adventures for small boats around here, I think.

    I would expect cliff swallows under bridges for sure--they had the mud nests--but they were quite strikingly blue as they buzzed around my head, which (I think?) might make them barn swallows. ALL ABOUT BIRDS says

    Their mud nests are often tucked under the eaves of barns and stables, on structures near playing fields, or under bridges. You can find Barn Swallows across most of North America.
    Tom
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    It didn't take long to reach the Mississippi, at which point I rowed across the channel to Drury Island (foreign territory, since it belongs to Minnesota) and stopped on a nice sandy beach for a walk:

    2.5.jpg

    A barge tow was coming downriver, so I headed back to the boat and shoved off to avoid the wake. Once back in the boat, it seemed to make sense to keep going. Once the tow was past, I rowed upriver--almost due west here--along the Wisconsin shore where I figured the current would be weakest.

    2.6.jpg
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    Less than a mile upstream from my landing on Drury Island's beach, a towering sand "dune" (actually spoil dredged out of the river channel and dumped here--the Chippewa River runs through sandy soils for a few hundred miles, and drops much of its sediment right here when it enters the Mississippi) rose from the water on the Wisconsin side.

    sat 4.jpg

    In no particular hurry to get anywhere, I pulled in to explore.

    v12c.jpg

    It was a bit of a steep climb, through sand already almost too hot for bare feet. But somehow, I persevered...

    v13b.jpg

    Good views from the summit, which was a long stretch of bare sand--about 20 acres or so--rising high above the floodplain. Fake dunes. Or rather, one BIG fake dune. I ran back to the boat in a series of crazy leaps and bounds, aided by gravity. Too lazy to climb up for another go at it, I started rowing upriver again.
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    Half a mile farther on, just at the Chippewa-Mississippi confluence, a flat sandy bench opened up on the Wisconsin side, shaded by enormous cottonwoods. Lunch!

    sat 5.jpg

    This "stop wherever and whenever you want to" mode of cruising had its advantages. No big crossings or long passages, just easing along with only the faintest hint of an agenda or plan. Looks like a nice place to hang out? Head on in.

    v14b.jpg

    It really is a nice place to hang out? Take full advantage (note the boat toilet doing double duty as a footstool):

    2.7.jpg

    Gray overcast kept things from getting too hot. I read a while (why is it that sitting in a chair on dry land feels like a break from sitting in the boat?) and just generally enjoyed doing not much at all. Kind of the point of the trip, anyway.
    Last edited by WI-Tom; 03-22-2022 at 05:22 PM.
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    Quote Originally Posted by WI-Tom View Post
    This "stop wherever and whenever you want to" mode of cruising had its advantages. No big crossings or long passages, just easing along with only the faintest hint of an agenda or plan.
    This is what appeals to me these days also. I'm not feeling like I have to do summit climbs so much, and my knees do not like the descents. Bike touring is still fun, but you really need to plan overnight camping spots ahead and they are usually crowded. Blue water cruising never really appealed, don't like being out of sight of land. This type of easy going exploration of the littoral (and I checked, littoral can mean near shore to lakes and rivers as well as the ocean) seems the best way to get out in a wild area, get some exercise, yet minimal risk due to weather or injury. A little boat carries all your gear, and unlike a kayak the right one is your overnight self contained camp.

    Thanks for posting these trips Tom.

    -Rick

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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    Quote Originally Posted by rgthom View Post
    This is what appeals to me these days also... A little boat carries all your gear, and unlike a kayak the right one is your overnight self contained camp.

    Thanks for posting these trips Tom.

    -Rick
    Thanks, Rick. I've enjoyed your threads about delta cruising as well. I guess the main difference is, around here, there are no tides--and around there, no trees!

    Tom
    Last edited by WI-Tom; 03-23-2022 at 05:53 PM.
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    It was probably still only late morning when I left my lunch spot. I decided I'd try to row up the Chippewa River a ways:

    3.1.jpg

    but the current was way too strong to make any progress. I rowed in place for a while, then turned downstream, completed my Chippewa River crossing, and entered the west side of the delta, looking for a way leading north and back into the Chippewa farther upstream.

    Attempt 1 was a narrow-ish slough that, from the map, looked like it would be a dead end--but you never know...

    sat 6.jpg

    Besides, even the dead ends are worth it--for the company anyway, if the scenery isn't enough:

    3.2.jpg
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    In those strong river currents have you tried hugging the shore? There are usually eddies, I have rowed for miles up the Cosumnes River when the main current was un-passable 4 kts. Take the inside corners, but watch out for sweeper trees.

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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    Not much of an eddy here, I don't think. I was hugging the west bank of the river for 10 minutes, and probably made 50 yards. Spring, high water, fast current. Straight shoreline, too, which probably didn't do anything to get eddies started.

    Not much current on the inner delta sloughs, though. Not much water, either--even with a 7" draft, there were places that FOGG refused to stay afloat with me aboard.



    Eventually I gave up--things seemed to be getting shallower the farther up the slough I went. No worries--I was having fun just bumbling around, in the boat and out. Pretty soon I made it back downstream to the edge of the delta:

    3.3.jpg

    With one possibility investigated--no through route--I turned west along the edge of the delta, looking for the next way in.

    sat 7.jpg

    The shoreline, though heavily forested with big hardwood trees, was (obviously) extremely low-lying, with nothing much to distinguish. I didn't see any obvious openings or channels to match my map, so I ended up rowing all the way to the western edge (too far, I knew from the map) before turning around. The west end seemed to be a popular power boat/beach area anyway, so I was happy to avoid it.

    On the way back east to find another way into the delta, I stopped off at a mid-Mississippi sandbar--because, why wouldn't I?

    3.4.jpg

    The tall bluff in the background is the Minnesota side--there are plenty of bluffs elsewhere on the Wisconsin side, but the floodplain forest of the Chippewa River delta is dead dead flat.

    Tom
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    I finally found another entrance into the delta, through a wide stretch of marshy shallows that I wasn't sure would allow entry. I kept expecting to ground out, but somehow I managed to sneak my way through, though the keel did drag in the mud here and there. But eventually it was clear that I was in flowing water--I guessed from the map that this little creek would lead to Swinger Slough, which eventually turned east to parallel the highway, providing a through route back to the main channel of the Chippewa River.

    sat 8.jpg

    The water was so shallow that I switched to rowing from the aft thwart, facing forward, so I could steer into the "deeper" water (maybe only 1-2" deeper, but enough to keep the boat afloat). The Alaska is designed so the oarlocks work pretty well whether you face forward, or backward--a nice touch that's convenient for those times it's important to keep a constant look at where you're going.



    By the time I hit the railroad bridge, I was pretty sure the worst was over.

    3.6.jpg

    I hadn't been at all sure that I'd be able to find a way through to complete the loop, but the plan had apparently worked perfectly.

    Tom
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    Default

    I did not see the loop closing on your track, but by Google map satellite I see the slough paralleling the road and crossing the Chippewa. What a maze of waterways!

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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    Quote Originally Posted by rgthom View Post
    I did not see the loop closing on your track, but by Google map satellite I see the slough paralleling the road and crossing the Chippewa. What a maze of waterways!
    Oh, there's more to the story than that! Coming later tonight. The best laid plans gang aft agley and all that...

    Yep, it's a crazy cool maze, well worth a few more trips.

    Tom
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    Quote Originally Posted by rgthom View Post
    This type of easy going exploration of the littoral [...] seems the best way to get out in a wild area, get some exercise, yet minimal risk due to weather or injury.

    -Rick

    Very well said, Rick. Trips like these also allow one to bring along even very small kids, provided attention to basic water safety - that's a big asset to me.

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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    Thanks for taking the time to write out these reports, Tom. I really enjoy reading them and I always get new ideas for trips of my own!

    James

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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    Thanks, James. You sure don't need big water to enjoy time on a boat. Seems like the edge of every little creek or pond is largely overlooked by people on land. I'm pretty sure I could sneak in a night afloat in many places where I'd never be noticed.

    More on this particular trip in a bit. Thanks for the comments!

    Tom
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    I took a walk along the railroad tracks for a while--the built-up causeway was high enough to feel like I was walking right in the treetops--and then re-launched to keep rowing up Swinger Slough on what I figured would be the last leg of the trip. The slough turned parallel to the highway after a mile or so. The passing traffic was LOUD, especially after a couple of days lost in the woods, more or less--but at least I (kind of) caught some of the swallows on video at the highway bridge.



    The current was much stronger here, maybe 2 knots? Hard enough to row against, with lots of downed trees to dodge as well. I kept on keepin' on for about a mile and a half, knowing that I was almost to the main channel of the Chippewa River, which would be a fast easy ride downstream to close the loop.

    sat 9.jpg

    Wouldn't it?
    Last edited by WI-Tom; 03-24-2022 at 06:29 PM.
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    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    In a word: no...

    3.7.jpg

    It's hard to tell from this photo, but that little gap where the tree trunk dips underwater is the only passage through--a couple other dead trunks and stumps reached all the way across to the right-hand shore, with no way to get a boat past. And the current was plenty strong here, so much so that without room to row--I couldn't really fit the oars in--it was going to be very hard to get upstream. So, a dead end.

    Or was it? From the Small Boats article:

    And yet, it might just be possible to drag the boat over the first tree, where the base of the trunk dipped low in the water. Once the idea had planted itself in my head, it proved hard to abandon. I rowed closer. Yes, it might be possible. I tested the depth with an oar—waist deep. It was probably stupid to try. FOGG weighs well over 300 pounds loaded, and I could barely flip the empty hull for painting, even with my wife to help me. But here I was, in sight of the Chippewa River, the last easy link of the loop.

    It wasn’t easy. I managed to climb into the water and shove the bow up onto the first log, then scrambled over to the upstream side of the downed tree. The water there was neck-deep, with no firm footing to pull from. Fine. I climbed up beside the boat and manhandled FOGG farther onto the log. From there I see-sawed the boat up and down, and back and forth, walking it across the tree trunk the way you’d move a heavy cabinet across the floor, hoping the Douglas-fir backbone was strong enough to hold the hull together despite the wrangling. It must have been ten minutes before the boat finally slid free on the upstream side of the log.
    Success! Except...
    Last edited by WI-Tom; 03-24-2022 at 06:21 PM.
    You don't have to be prepared as long as you're willing to suffer the consequences.

    www.tompamperin.com

  34. #34
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Location
    northwestern Wisconsin
    Posts
    11,713

    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    Just a boatlength or so farther upstream, the next obstacle looked even worse.

    3.8.jpg

    I decided to do a shoreside recon. I climbed out of the boat--in shorts, T-shirt, and sandals--and found the entire forest floor was covered in chest-high stinging nettles. But I was SO CLOSE!

    I waded through the nettles for a hundred yards or so, and there it was: the green-and-white highway sign that read CHIPPEWA RIVER. I was there, at the bridge over the main Chippewa channel.

    But, the boat wasn't there...

    From the Small Boats piece again:

    For a moment I had the mad thought of crossing the channel, dragging the boat onto the southern shore—it was cattails and reeds there, and relatively flat—and rolling it past the downed trees along the marshy ground, using my plastic boat fenders as rollers. In the end, it wasn’t prudence or foresight that saved me, but only the discovery that I had left the fenders back at the car. It would be an ignominious defeat, then, with just enough time to turn downstream and find a campsite before dark.
    Last edited by WI-Tom; 03-24-2022 at 06:17 PM.
    You don't have to be prepared as long as you're willing to suffer the consequences.

    www.tompamperin.com

  35. #35
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Location
    northwestern Wisconsin
    Posts
    11,713

    Default Re: FOGG in the Floodplain Forest

    And so, about a hundred yards short of reaching the main Chippewa River channel, I turned back downstream and retraced my route in. With luck, I'd reach the edge of the delta with enough daylight left to find a decent campsite.

    Actually, the going was much easier downstream--I hadn't really been paying attention to how much the current was slowing me down. It was still light as I reached the more open stretches of the lower sloughs.

    3.9.jpg

    Somehow, on the way upstream I had rowed through here without any problems. Now on the return leg, I kept wandering off into water so shallow that the keel was dragging. But it was a pleasant evening nonetheless, and eventually I made it back to the Mississippi.

    4.1.jpg

    Where I turned downstream, back toward the mouth of the Chippewa River. Seems like a nice flat sandy lunch spot might make a nice flat sandy tent spot, eh?

    4.2.jpg

    Funny, I wasn't even frustrated at all, despite having to backtrack a few miles. Like I said, this trip reminded me of the pointless sweaty uncomfortable things I used to do as a kid. The discomfort was the price to pay to be out in the woods all day--deerflies, thick brush, thorns, etc. It didn't really matter, then, whether I accomplished whatever it was I set out to do. I was happy to find that it still didn't really matter.
    You don't have to be prepared as long as you're willing to suffer the consequences.

    www.tompamperin.com

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