Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Looking for Laura Ingalls, Part 1: Wisconsin

Stories and photos from my recent trip

I could tell you all about staying in a condo at the Great Wolf Lodge in the Wisconsin Dells and enjoying the water park there, but it’s just not the image of me that I like to portray! We spent most of our time in the water. It was a blast, after two days I was waterlogged and exhausted. I can’t believe how many times my daughter had me climb the tower to the Tornado (an exciting ride, one that she just barely met the height requirements). I’m sure also sure part of my reluctance at recalling additional memories of the Lodge is that, in time, they’ll come along with a credit card bill.

The Photos below were all taken by Sage. Here's what you're seeing: 1. Leopold's cabin, 2. Healthy Oaks in the Big Woods, 3. Sage's truck hood after the battle with the squirrels, 4. the Little House, 5. A Garage in Pepin, 6. A barge going through the locks, 7. A CN train at Alma, 8. & 9. Backwater of the Mississippi at Perrot State Park.

We actually stayed in the Dells twice, once on our way out and again on our way back home. On the second trip, I learned that Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac, had his cabin nearby on the Wisconsin River. Although it was not open, I got permission from the folks at the Leopold Nature Center to walk back to it and pay homage to the man who is considered by many to be the father of the conservation movement. Leopold died at this site in 1948, while fighting a grass fire.

But this trip wasn’t about paying homage to conservationists. Instead, we were out to see and pay homage to the childhood sites of Laura Ingalls Wilder. First stop was Pepin, Wisconsin, the location for her book, The Little House in the Big Woods. Leaving the condo at Great Wolf, we assumed a more modest abode, a tent pitched at Perrot State Park, overlooking the Mississippi River. Wisconsin campgrounds are wonderful, my main complaint about Perrot being the mosquitoes. But with that much backwater from the Mississippi, what did I expect?

My other complaint about the campground was the inhospitable squirrels. I woke up at 6 AM, thinking someone was throwing rocks at my truck. When I went out to investigate, an was assaulted with a walnut that barely missed my head. The squirrels were busy in the tree above, dropping walnuts on the hood of my truck. Even worse, they were also spitting something that looked like green tobacco juice on my truck. It appears there were eating the green shuck that surrounds the nuts. For your enjoyment, I’m attaching a photo of the hood of my truck. I moved the truck so that it was not under the tree, but occasionally I’d still hear a ping from where they hit the truck. I hope those tree rats threw their arms out.

The town of Pepin isn’t much. There is a museum that took about 30 minutes to go through. The Ingalls’ homestead is no longer in the big woods, it sits among a few trees nestled within a big cornfield. Pa said he had to leave Pepin because there were too many people moving in, but I wonder if that was the real reason for we didn’t see that many folks around.

Maybe it was the ancestor of the guy with the liberate Iraq sign on his garage who was the real reason the Ingalls’ fled Pepin. Now that we’ve “liberated Iraq,” there’s an ironic twist to the sign.

Driving north of Pepin, there is a place called Maiden Rocks, where a fair Indian maiden threw herself off a cliff because she couldn’t marry the man she loved. I’ve never given such stories much thought, but now as a father of a girl growing up too rapidly, there is something sinister about such stories. I quickly did my own exegesis of the story, adding in a part about her being mentally ill in an attempt to remove all romanticism from story along with any suggestion that such behavior is noble or acceptable.

We drove around Lake Pepin, which is really just a wide spot in the river formed by the Chippewa River silting up the Mississippi and creating the wide space with large sloughs of backwater. It's about 120 miles around the lake and it appears most people live on the Minnesota side of the river, where they make shoes (in Red Wing), water ski (Lake City is the founding location for the sport), or just hang out and ice fish and be grumpy (Wabasha is the home of the “Grumpy Old Men).

My favorite part around Lake Pepin is the town of Alma. Here is one of the 27 locks and dams that allows the Mississippi to be navigated from St Louis to Minnesota’s Twin Cities. It takes what seems to be forever (over an hour) to move a tug boat pushing fifteen barges through. They have to split the load and push one set of barges through then the next. Still, I watched it all enthralled. Next to the river is the mainline for Burlington Northern Santa Fe. We were told that approximately 52 trains a day pass by the town of Alma. Not only were there BNSF trains, but also Canadian Nationals that used the line. On the other side of the river was the old Milwaukee Road line, which is now own by Canadian Pacific, or so I was told.

Another fun activity was canoeing the backwaters of the Mississippi. Wildlife was plentiful. We even spotted an Eagle. But after a few days in the big woods of Wisconsin, it was time to move on. Next stop, DeSmet, South Dakota.


  1. Loved this post. I would love to go canoeing in the backwaters of Mississippi. It looks so peaceful and relaxing and so different from Miami.

  2. Wonderful-wonderful post Sage. As a girl who loved Laura Ingalls Wilder I enjoyed all your pictures and tales. And I don't blame you a bit for saying the maiden who jumped was mentally ill....I wouldn't want my daughter thinking that was romantic either! Especially when in our teens we think all LOVE is the end of the world if it goes wrong!

  3. All of a sudden, I've developed a fondness for squirrels.

  4. Scarlet, it is peaceful but so is the Everglades! And they both have plenty of mosquitoes.

    Deana, stay tuned, they'll be more photos of LIW country.

    Murf, leave it to a Red to change sides! The thought of squirrel stew was tempting

  5. Mmm... I love stewed squirrels served with homemade noodles and mashed potatoes. I had that probably once a week while in college.

    I never knew that Aldo died fighting a grass fire there.

  6. Sage, that indian maiden sure got around. There is an old live oak a block from where I grew up called "lover's oak", where she jumped to her death too. A little Shakespeare in Native Americans?? Always enjoy your trips!!

  7. I really dislike those fuzzy tail rats. They own our back yard and our neighbors think they are cute and feed them. Of course the varmints nest in OUR trees.

    Lake Pepin would not be the recreation area it is without the Locks and Dams keeping the river at a consistent level. The story I heard regarding the growth on the Minnesota side rather than the Wisconsin has to do with deeper channel depths on the MN side permitting easier commerce back in the days before the Army Corp of Engineers

  8. Ed, I didn't know it either (ro had forgotten) until I visited there

    Pat, yeah, I've heard that story in a few other places, but as a father or a daughter, I no longer like it

    Mal, squirrels are a pain here too--they eat up way too much bird seed and my dog who use to chase them has now befriended them--that traitor mutt!

  9. Now that we’ve “liberated Iraq,” there’s an ironic twist to the sign.


  10. Al the photos are good, Sage, but the last 2 are really nice!!

  11. How cool! I would love to visit those places. I've never been anywhere near that part of the counrty. I'm looking forward to your next post too, as I did spend a summer in South Dakota many years ago.

    I hope your daughter appreciates visiting those places and spending quality time with you.

  12. These are awesome pics! Thank you for sharing!

    And what an excellent idea to add the mentally ill part to the legend about the suicidal maiden!

    I hope you guys continue to have a great time!!

  13. Great photos! And is it wrong I found the squirrel story kind of funny?

  14. Ohhhhh, so THATS why I saw all those squirrels in the check out line at the Wal-Mart......they were buying nuts and red crayons......

  15. Karen, yes, I'll sigh with you

    Thanks Kenju

    Dan, what part of SD? We weren't very far into the state, less than a hundred miles--I love the area around Deadwood and Rapid City and you should go there with your bike as we saw so many motorcycles leaving get together they have in Sturgis.

    Thanks Jaded.

    Diane, nothing wrong with it... are you the type to laugh at Helen Keller jokes? (I'm asking in jest)

    Non-angel, you must be a Red!

  16. Those last two pictures make me want to dive right in. And in this heat...I'd do it too.

  17. I love your vision of life, Sage. I love seeing new places and worlds through your eyes.

    I'm so glad Michele sent me tonight. She has a knack of focusing in on the best bloggers I've ever read.

  18. I'm glad you got those peaceful pics of the Mississippi before the flooding began. I drove down a portion of it today, and it's really high and not looking so beautiful.

    As someone who grew up on the Little House series - and a Wisconsinite to boot - it pains me to admit I have never been to Pepin. *wincing* You make it sound like it's something I for sure need to do.

    I quickly did my own exegesis of the story, adding in a part about her being mentally ill in an attempt to remove all romanticism from story along with any suggestion that such behavior is noble or acceptable.

    ROFL Good luck, Dad :)

  19. Sage - Dallas, SD. In the southern part of the state, maybe 15 miles from Nebraska.

  20. very cool! what an awesome trip idea. vicious squirrels though, LOL