Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Birds, Boats, Barges and more –

The Great River Road – Highway 35 in Wisconsin – was indeed great, basically paralleling the Mississippi River and its network of backwaters! Thankfully I got to Blackhawk Park Corps of Engineers Park in time to get a campsite under tall trees that would shade Jeremiah from the sun and give me a view of the Mississippi River. I planned to be here six nights, until Monday morning.

Jeremiah at Blackhawk COE Park

Blackhawk Park is a small portion of the 240,000-acre Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge that was established in 1924. A plaque in the park reads:

The seemingly endless panorama of river, backwaters, marshes, islands, and forest, framed by steep bluffs, makes the refuge a national scenic treasure; a place for wildlife to feed, rest, breed, and rear young.

I was eager to start exploring. First I noticed how high the river was – some primitive campsites were flooded, the dock at the boat ramp was partially under water, and one of the park’s dirt roads was closed due to flooding.

Note: That the "yellow" is sunlight on the water.

According to COE Ranger Eric, the Mississippi and all its backwater channels and lakes will be at their highest point in a couple of days. Check out this brochure photo of the river and its backwaters at Blackhawk. Note Battle Island, the location of The Blackhawk Massacre in 1892.

Barges and “tugboats”

While I was at the park several barges and tugboats (should be called “push boats” because they push from behind) passed.

Cabins on stilts

Between Highway 35 and the park’s entrance is an interesting community of cabins and homes of all sizes that appear to all be on stilts. This small one intrigued me.

Campground filled up quickly

Besides 65 campsites with electricity (no water or sewer) there are many primitive sites, and by Friday morning all sites that weren’t under water were full. Tents, vehicles, boats on and off trailers, and RVs were everywhere. Adults and children were fishing, boating, running, riding bikes, playing games and walking dogs – enjoying their vacation. This made for some major traffic jams at the one-and-only modern restroom/shower facility. In the woman’s side there were only three showers!

Enjoying the birds

I saw two birds that were new to me: American Redstart and Red-Bellied Woodpecker. Other birds included Cardinal, White-breasted Nuthatch, Crow, Robin, Red-winged Blackbird, Bank Swallow, Killdeer, Great Blue Heron, and House Finch. I was surprised at the apparent lack of other water and shore birds.

Park Outreach Program

The day I checked in, Ranger Eric told me about a school program to be held the next day and invited me attend. Ranger Eric along with representatives from the nearby Genoa Fish Hatchery, Wisconsin Fish and Game, and the Department of Forestry set up learning stations for students from the DeSoto Summer School program. Park Volunteer Carroll was there taking photos for the Park and his wife – a.k.a. Bobber – was there. Here they are:

Park Volunteer Carroll and his wife "Bobber"

Then the rain started

On the morning of July 4, with 90% chance of rain in the forecast and having already been alerted by regular campers that I was parked in one of two sites that flood during heavy rains, I asked myself, “Carol, do you really want to be here another day?” And as I noticed many RVs packing up to leave, I did also.

My next camping park was only 100 miles away near Preston, Minnesota. I would cross the Mississippi at LaCrosse.

Along the way I pulled in at COE’s Lock and Dam No. 8 at Genoa. Lucky me, there was a set of 6 barges in the lock and another set of 6 along with the tugboat waiting their turn in the lock.

Lock and Dam No. 8

Lock and Dam No. 8 at Genoa is set on a foundation of sand, gravel and broken rock. It has a 110-foot wide chamber and an 11-foot lift from the lower to the upper pool. This is one of 26 locks and dams built by the U.S. Government to improve transportation from Minneapolis to the mouth of the Missouri River. The project, approved by Congressional Act on August 30, 1935, was largely completed by 1938.

Things I learned from a helpful COE employee at the lock and dam:

-- The average river depth in the main channel is 8 to 9 feet.

-- Besides barges/tugboats, the lock serves recreational and fishing boats

-- From the shoreline it looked like each tugboat only had 4 or 5 barges, but barges are three abreast, making a total of 12 or 15 barges.

-- These barges are loaded with farm products, chemicals and other bulk commodities.