We held a family reunion last weekend at a cabin on the Kickapoo River near Wauzeka. The cabin sits on a ledge overseeing the valley, suspended in the canopy like a tree house. The river lazily passed by just down the hill from the back porch.
Siblings armed with potato salad, cucumbers, and ham sandwiches arrived to shake hands, grasp shoulders, and sit with elbows on knees to tell our family history; each with their own version. A straw hat sat on the pot belly stove; a proxy for our departed brother.
My own history begins on a river, winding its way up the Kickapoo to the headwaters of my youth. I spent many a summer day in Ontario, waking to the smell of bacon sizzling in an iron skillet and the thundering voice of Ruth Downing. Ruth lived on a street climbing the hill above the river, not far from the switchboard operator who knew everyone by their first name on the telephone party line.
On sun swept days my mother and I would pile into Ruth’s ’41 Chevy, which served as tour bus to explore the winding roads of the Kickapoo Valley. I sat in the backseat; my nose lurking below the windows, listening to Ruth’s rolling narration as the landscape rolled by like a movie in an outdoor theater. The cinematography was hypnotizing, capturing every angle of the valley from the cavernous backseat.
We climbed the highway with hairpin turns to Wildcat Mountain State Park, for family picnics on tables set with a view of the sprawling valley. I remember losing a football over the edge of the overlook. It might be still falling, given the endless drop to the river below.
My history flows down the river like the life line on the palm of my hand. As an adventuresome teenager, I camped in a pup tent near Steuben while canoeing, the river waiting just outside our tent flap. Later in life I helped with the Driftless Area Art Festival in Soldiers Grove, an event held on the banks of the river that captures the story of the Driftless area on canvas, pottery, fabric, and any number of ways that make you ponder.
I helped set up rest stops for the Kickapoo Brave Ride at Gays Mills, a bike ride that explores every turn of road and crest of hill that frames the valley; and this year, includes a paddle on the river to boot.
I worked on the lower Kickapoo, marking deadfalls to be cleared to open up the river for navigation. I sat in the front of a canoe expertly piloted by Mark Drake, trying to keep my eye on the map while mallards launched from the river’s surface, sandhill cranes paced the river bottoms, and scenery unfolded around every bend.
My history winds through Driftless Wisconsin as aimlessly as the Kickapoo, never knowing what the next bend will bring. I invite you to begin your own history in the valley. No matter that you did not spend your youth here. The river and its ways will begin for you a new childhood, ripe with adventure and stories to tell.
The story begins on a river.