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Swan Island

There are few places I can think of where the mix of nature and artifice is more thorough and complex than the Mississippi River, and one of the more fortunate outcomes of that is Swan Island in Weaver Bottoms in Pool 5.  It is this oddly shaped artificial island that from above looks like some postmodern construct from Dubai molded out of dredge material by the Army Corps of Engineers;  but to sit on the island it looks now like a bit of Edenic paradise, rife with life, a thriving prairie, and surrounded by clear water and thousands of water fowl. It is another testament to the fact that, when given half a chance, all these wild and beautiful plants and animals spring forth with great fecundity.

The Corps, in collaboration with local Departments of Natural Resources and the Fish & Wildlife System has taken to rebuilding islands in this stretch of the river as part of their work at mitigating the impact of the range of previous alterations they have some diligently carried out over the last 150 years.  The islands take a range of strangely symmetrical shapes that remind me of some of the Indian mounds found in the region, and I wonder to what degree that was a conscious choice.

We stayed three nights on Swan Island, conducting field studies, taking underwater video in the clear water, and discussing indigenous perspectives on land stewardship, with campfire storytelling and reading in the evenings.  

Discussion of the hydrological cycle, water chemistry, and local geology.

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The scenery on the island was stunning, to say the least.

Sunset on Swan Island

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Our paddle out of Lake Pepin was much easier than the passage down the top half.  We had a nice tailwind, and a rested and stronger set of paddlers.  We landed at Reads Landing at the confluence of the Chippewa River, set up camp on the sandy shore, and ferried across fro dinner at the Reads Landing Brewing Company, where we were joined by Ann Bancroft of polar exploration fame.  We had a delightful evening visiting with her, hearing about her exploits, discussing river exploration, and figuring out how to connect as we travel down the Mississippi and she travels down the Ganges with “Your Expedition” there.  Izzie and Noah recorded an interview with her that they are looking to work up into a podcast.  We’ll let you know once it is posted online!

Our next morning we had another heavy rainstorm and had to pack up very wet, sandy gear to paddle down to Wabasha, where we met visited the National Eagle Center and then pushed on to Swan Island.  As we get used to rigors of the trip, and our paddling muscles get stronger we are finding that we can cover more river miles, which will help with our busy schedule.

Leaving Swan Island we had another brisk northerly breeze, bringing cool nights, and much less sweaty paddling.  It prompted as well an attempt at hoisting a sail rig using some of our poles and rain flies, but the poles proved “under-scantled” and we had to break out the paddles.  But this is again a gorgeous stretch of the river, lined by high bluffs, braided side channels, and a healthy current, so we covered the 16 miles to Winona without much trouble.  We are all a bit tired, we would have to say, as we continue to adjust to this rigorous lifestyle, where even getting some water often involves hauling the water back to camp from a distant spigot.

In Winona we are at one of the typical American campgrounds, moved grass, fire rings, a herd of Winnebagos, a commissary, and all the peacefulness and tranquility of a bar on Friday night (But we don’t mind the showers). It was in the mid-40s last night, so our sense of urgency to head south is up a notch. We eye the birds heading down the flyway and know we are at least heading in the right direction.  

Today we joined students from Winona State University on the Research Vessel Cal Fremling on the river for a short tour and talk with Prof. Mike DeLong.  It was nice to meet the WSU students and discuss issues around river engineering and what is called “floodplain connectivity” along the river.

River tour with faculty and students from Winona State U on the Calvin Fremling.

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Tonight we will join the Dakota Gathering here for a Unity Dinner before returning to camp, and tomorrow it’s more classes, and a visit to the Winona Maritime Art Museum.