Rivers are utilized repeatedly by different cultures and for diverse reasons. The landscape surrounding a river continually changes as it is deliberately re-sculpted to mean something new to the current dwellers. My family takes on each new season, each new force of life and nature, and we struggle sometimes with what we are given, but we keep moving forward taking on new adventures, just like a river.
It was known as The Big Woods, the land west of Minneapolis. Forests of oak, maple, elm and basswood coveted the area and wildlife abounded. During the period of westward pioneering in the mid-1800’s, towns sprouted along areas where the railway cut through the dense terrain and settlers started to claim plots of land for farming as industrial trade grew along the Crow River. Lumber was this area’s richest resource for a time as European settlers made their way west. The Crow River, now my river, was giving me a place to call home.
Rockford, Minnesota, is a small town along the North Crow. According to the city’s website, its history holds secrets not choosing to remain silent. Rockford began as a milling town for lumber, grain and wool. In this area, two branches of the Crow River, north and south, merge to combine one force that flows north to the Mississippi. The combined rivers are gentle in their journey, twisting and turning throughout the countryside. Through town, the riverbanks are low. Walking near the water is easily done by taking the city park path. The water feels whispery to me. It’s telling me stories about where it has been and where it is going. In the springtime, smaller tree branches float past me downstream and become lodged in a larger fallen trees, making an improved hideout for the bass. Plastic grocery bags float on top of the water, graciously waiting for deposit downstream into the fallen, twisted elms. In the summer, the kids and I used to make boats out of overgrown, hollowed out cucumbers from the garden. We put a toothpick in the front end of the boat for a mast, poked a little paper sail onto it, and sent them sailing down the river to parts unknown; never to be seen again. The river is part of my family’s playground.
It was a place the Winnebago Indians called their home before any Euro-settlers claimed rights to the area. Fish were plentiful, maple syrup overflowed, and wildlife was abundant. Considered a sacred hunting ground by the Indians, the Big Woods later attracted white trappers. The Winnebago had lived in this area for approximately 50 years—transplanted from Green Bay Wisconsin, as noted by local historians. They, along with the Dakota Indians, were forced by General Sibley to move onto reservations further southwest.
Indian mounds along the river remain intact and undisturbed. I can see burial mounds as I drive Rebecca Park Trail, which hugs the river between Rockford and the city of Delano. They are long and thin to fit into the gulley that acts as an overflow area for spring waters. I’ve never seen a mound built in the middle of a gulley—they are usually on a bluff.
It’s difficult to believe the woods were so thick here no light could reach the forest bed where I now stand. Even now, as my home in the Autumn Oaks addition turns twenty, deciduous and coniferous trees that have been strategically planted to give shade to decks and block out the neighbors wandering eyes across our backyards. We live side-by-side, yet we have carved out our own private, contemplative backyards that we are unwilling to share. Fences surround many homes adding to the secrecy; the privacy of our own little cookie-cutout pieces of nature. Yet the stars remain unlocked, free of possession and boundless in the sky from my deck at night. How did the Winnebago see the stars? Possibly, they amassed in canoes on wide-open river bends to see the universe past the canopy of thick branches. As I grow older, I appreciate the Native American’s spiritual viewpoint of nature. That is, sharing land, water and air as opposed to European settlers who seem to cultivate great pride in owning their personal piece. This river and this land are used by many living creatures whose level of intellect and will determines control of ownership.
I bought my home in Rockford eleven years ago in 2001. The Autumn Oaks development is an area well-hidden south behind the raised railroad track that rolls parallel to state highway 55. I never knew it existed and I had lived near this area for four years. The urban wild converges with the land development along the river. One night, I was wakened by what I thought was the sound of a screaming infant. It turned out Bald eagles nest in this area and have the most unsettling mating call that sounds like a wailing baby. The Canadian geese and Snow geese use this particular curve in the river to feed during the day and rest at night in the low grassy fields along the river. The fields are part of an older homestead that still remains intact along the river. The air is crisp in the fall and the charming, intermittent melancholy honk of the snow geese lets me know they are heading south again. Snow geese have a meditative quality. When I hear them above, somehow, I know everything is as it should be. It’s time to change gears again.
With geese, bring the coyotes. I can hear them late at night as I listen from my bedroom window. They howl down by the riverbank around the midnight hour. Intermittent between the howling, I can hear geese honking and their wings flapping upon the water perhaps in a getaway flight from their enemy. I noticed this beginning last June. The coyotes seem to be accommodating the urban invasion, paying no heed as they hunt down prey. Wildlife clings to the riverbanks. Deer come down to the river to drink on the riverbank across from my house before bedding down at night. I know this because I can count on them leaping across Rebecca Park Trail at dusk during the spring and fall seasons. It seems when my headlights hit them in the eyes, they are prompted to run in front of my car—a fauna form of Russian-roulette. The smell of skunks, nowhere to be seen, must be hiding in tree-trunk root systems, away from the danger of daylight predators. An infrared camera used at night might readily expose much more activity along the banks than during daytime hours. And there are the fish. I walk along the bank of the river by my home with my dog Nollie. In the spring, it’s not a viable surface as it’s usually flooded since it is below the levy. But in the summer, the overflow has subsided making way for a wide, dry, peaceful route for the two of us. The serenity relinquishes my stress after a busy day. The fish, usually carp, and catfish are creating sporadic splashes as they flip out of the water to catch insects that are seemingly unaware of the dangers below them. According to the Minnesota DNR, only one meal a week of any fish in the river is advised due to elevated mercury content—something the Winnebago hadn’t a need to consider.
The river runs adjacent to downtown Rockford. At one time, it was dutifully used for industrial purposes. Water pools where the old wheel of the gristmill once continuously twirled over the river. The constant processing of the water dug a deep hole into the river bottom. At one time, this town was bustling with activity. Now it appears that industry is no longer interested in this small town and Rockford acts as a fuel stop on your way toward Minneapolis.
Our house is one block from the Crow River in the Autumn Oaks development. The street names, I learned, were named after old homesteads that used to make up this particular area before it was partitioned off to land developers. My chiropractor, a local historian, told me this area was a farmer’s cornfield—nothing but corn for 20 acres. My lot was part of a century old cornfield—amazing. The soil, although somewhat sandy, apparently sustained the crop well. There were no bridges in the area that crossed the river until 1857. Prior to that, a steamboat or a paddleboat would transport travelers along parts of the river. A ferry dock, that farmer Kettenacker constructed on this land around the 1840’s provided transportation across the river. Kettenacker would charge a small fee to travelers to land at his dock. Currently, remnants of the dock, mostly large blocks of concrete, lay in over-lapped, slanted piles, like steps into the deep, dark water. The main foundation struggles to remain upright while the trees and the river continually swallow it up, little by little. Nature seems willing to claim it, but at a slow, slow pace.
The river water is always on the move. It cuts into its banks, not giving us much warning that one step into the water will be knee deep or higher, and will drag you with it to keep pace. Yet, a lake will say to you, “come on in at your leisure, feel the gentle lap of the waves, we aren’t in a hurry.” The river is constantly changing, by nature’s quick-wit weather changes or by manmade industrial pursuits that changed the river semi-permanently until his desire for assistance from the river runs cold. My family has been affected by the river over the past twelve years. It has acted as a barrier of sorts, keeping out the frantic bustle of busier cities just by it presence. It has been a place of danger when the children were young and not able swimmers. It has been a place of compassion and neutrality. It protects my sanity when I visit its banks asking for renewal of my spirit.
This river has been man’s savior—a life sustaining entity, ready to give of itself what is needed for the continuation of life that surrounds it. We have taken what we need from it: food, water, travel, capital, beauty and peacefulness. These are all riches to the individual. Its continuous, tumultuous travel, embraces the plight of the settler—always changing, exploring new territory, quaking and then dwindling along the way always in search of what lies ahead.
Peaceful Crow River