Anyone who has ever had the privilege of moving their lives to Sauk Prairie will tell you of one common experience upon greeting the seasoned locals - you're bound to get "the River talk."
Before I could even put out my welcome mat I heard of its dangerous currents and sandbar sinkholes that will suck you in and have you clear down to Muscoda before you'd know what hit you.
Over and over again well-wishers would carefully detail the Wisconsin's dangers and how you should never ever go near the old railroad bridge by McFarlanes'. Yet, without fail, they'd pause and launch into glorious tales of how they used to swim in the river as children and how they'd turn off their car motors and ride over that same dangerous bridge under the cover of night with their tires carefully driven over the tops of the rails - all with a mischievous twinkle in their eye.
So when I set out to canoe the Wisconsin for the first time this summer, my trip was clouded with these warnings of danger mingled with that inescapable, unbridled sense of adventure this wild river imparts.
"The Wisconsin River has a history of Indians, exploring missionaries, French-Canadian fur traders, Indian wars, military forts, early settlements on the Lower River, lumbering on the Upper River, dams, ferries and bridges, agriculture and industry, politicians and cultural giants," notes William Stark in his book "Wisconsin, River of History."
And through it all, this history is laced with romance, challenge, and excitement. For over four hundred miles this river flows the length of the entire state, from northeast to southwest. It begins as an outlet of a large lake on the Upper Michigan-Wisconsin border. As it flows from the pine-rimmed shore of Lac View Desert, the river is less than ten feet wide and only a foot or two deep. When the Wisconsin finally empties into the Mississippi River after dropping 917 feet, it has become a beautiful, island-studded, fast-moving, eddying sheet of water, almost a half a mile across.
Perhaps Stark drew some of his inspiration for writing about the Wisconsin from Sea Captain Frederick Marryat who over 175 years ago detailed his own experience.
This river has been very appropriately named by the Indians the ‘Stream of the Thousand Isles,' as it is studded with them; indeed, every quarter of a mile you find one or two in its channel. The scenery is fine, as the river runs through high ridges, covered with oak to their summits; sometimes these ridges are backed by higher cliffs and mountains, which halfway up are of a verdant green, and above that present horizontal strata of calcareous rock of rich gray tints, having, at a distance, very much the appearance of the dilapidated castles on the Rhine.
It was Marryat's description of this particular bend of the river that has been said to draw the first major settler of Sauk City, Count Agoston Haraszthy, to lay down roots. Haraszthy, planning to settle in Florida, abruptly changed his plans when he happened to read Marryat's glowing description of the region while on board ship crossing the Atlantic.
And it's this same accessibility to the Lower Wisconsin's front-row seat of wild beauty, which despite being tamed by a few dams along the way lies mostly unchanged since the time of the Count, that calls thousands of canoeists and recreational users here ever year. Understanding the river's potential dangers, these visitors seem to all return to land with a new respect for the value of this natural resource, its beauty and history, in ways those of us who have never experienced time on the water can.
This Thursday evening at 8 p.m., Wisconsin Public Television will feature a new documentary on the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway, "The Rhythm of the River," produced and directed by Dave Erickson who lives on the river near Lone Rock.
"The Rhythm of the River" has a soundtrack of mostly local musicians and the film narrator is Sarah Day of the American Players Theatre.
Watch the documentary, and if you are able, rent a canoe or kayak and experience first-hand what all the buzz has been about since 1760 when English cartographer Jonathan Carver first wrote about what the Indians had known for much longer - the mighty power of the Wisconsin River to change both land and people.