Roads, not rivers, now bring most visitors to this small city where Wisconsin’s largest river meets the Mississippi, the continent’s largest and most legendary waterway.
But that’s been so less than 100 years. Paved roads and high-speed driving are modern luxuries. The Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers brought people to Prairie du Chien throughout the ages, albeit more slowly by canoe, barge, or riverboat.
They were people of all colors, races, and stature; and they journeyed here for everything from war to commerce to recreation and solace. United States presidents, especially, seemed to come here to offer aid and comfort while inspecting record floods that struck during the 1900s. Others came merely to campaign for the nation’s highest office—or to help fight its wars when they were soldiers, not presidents.
In fact, whatever their motive, 22 presidents from Andrew Jackson to Zachary Taylor to Bill Clinton and both Bushes have visited Prairie du Chien. By pure coincidence, no doubt, that list includes all four presidents who were later assassinated: Abraham Lincoln, James Harrison, William McKinley, and John Kennedy.
The visitors list also includes one of America’s most famous explorers, Lt. Zebulon Pike—namesake for Colorado’s famous Pikes Peak—who passed through in 1805. Pike wasn’t hampered by modesty nor troubled by duplication when naming places. If you look across the river from Prairie du Chien to a high overlook, you’ll see Iowa’s very own Pikes Peak—now part of a state park.
By standing on Pikes Peak, Iowa, visitors enjoy a spectacular view of bottomlands where the Wisconsin River joins the Mississippi. More imaginative visitors even envision a small band of French explorers navigating this intersection in two large birch-bark canoes in 1673, roughly 132 years before Pike happened by.
Those explorers were led by a Jesuit priest, Father Jacque Marquette, and mapmaker Louis Jolliet. Marquette and Jolliet, of course, reached this juncture via Lake Michigan and Green Bay by following the Fox River southwesterly and then portaging over to the Wisconsin River.
Long before explorers, mapmakers, and soul-savers passed through, American Indians lived, fought, prospered, and left their marks here. Unfortunately, some of those marks were made so long ago that history misplaced their stories, practices, and legends.
For instance, the Effigy Mounds National Monument preserves large earthen mounds, some conical, some linear, and still others resembling bears and eagles. The mounds date back 850 to 1,400 years, and are best viewed from above.
But who or what was meant to see them during that pre-flight era? No one knows with certainty. As the National Park Service’s brochure reads: “With no written records and few surviving tribal stories and traditions, the mounds’ origin and meaning remain a mystery.”
What is certain, however, is that the region remains remote by today’s standards. No four-lane roads speed you there at 70 mph. Two-lane highways do the job, still carrying appreciative visitors and “settlers” to the Wisconsin-Mississippi rivers confluence.
Among the settlers are Ron and Marilyn Leys, who have lived in this Driftless area—untouched by glaciers—more than 20 years since retiring from newspaper and teaching careers in Milwaukee. Longtime outdoorsmen and Milwaukee Journal readers will recall Ron Leys’ years as the Journal’s outdoors editor during the 1980s through 1991, as well as his long-running back-page column in the late Wisconsin Outdoor Journal magazine.
Leys, 78, now serves on Crawford County’s board and Prairie du Chien’s city council, but he still finds time to hunt deer, fish in the Mississippi, canoe the Wisconsin, and build cedar-strip watercraft.
He also hasn’t forgotten the best way to fish: unfold a lawn-chair on a point or island, cast some lines and live bait into the river, and wait to see if any bluegills, catfish, or sheepshead bite. He doesn’t take it personally if they ignore him.
Leys’ readers admired his love for human history, natural history, regional quirks, eccentric personalities, and a well-crafted phrase. Not surprisingly, as he and Marilyn treated my wife, Penny, and I to lunch on their porch in late October, they helped us grasp the idea that the rivers not only bring people to Prairie du Chien, but give the area its identity.
Riparian powers and wonders don’t end with humans, of course, even though 3.7 million people visit the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge annually to hunt, fish, bird-watch, photograph, and otherwise enjoy its beauty. The refuge stretches 260 miles from Wabasha, Minnesota, to Rock Island, Illinois, north of the Quad Cities.
Prairie du Chien nearly centers this sprawling refuge, which is home to 51 mammal species, 119 fish species, 306 bird species, 42 freshwater mussel species, 165 bald-eagle nests, 50 percent of the world’s canvasback ducks, and 5,000 heron and egret nests in 15 colonies. Likewise, the rivers help direct the lives and travels of fish and wildlife, including the region’s most charismatic bird, the bald eagle.
We didn’t have much luck spotting eagles around Prairie du Chien, mostly because the day we chose brought fog and cool rains. Still, we had a backup plan: the National Eagle Center in Wabasha. The Wabasha section of the Mississippi River attracts hundreds of eagles to its open waters during winter. Likewise, thousands of eagle-watchers go there to see them, especially after brutal cold snaps concentrate the birds over open water.
The Eagle Center holds daily seminars with a small, rotating cast of eagles rehabilitated from injuries that prevent them from flying. Most injuries result from collisions with cars, trucks and powerlines. Believe it or not, relatively few eagles reach full maturity of age four to five, when both sexes exhibit the species’ trademark white head and tail.
And although they can’t fly, the Center’s eagles never lose their territoriality. Even when indoors, they’ll watch the skies through a window and scream at wild, free-flying eagles hunting the river for fish and small mammals.
But unlike all those wild, healthy bald eagles outside, the Center’s handsome birds will never see the confluence of the two big rivers 120 miles south at Prairie du Chien; not unless someone drives them there.