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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

© Taunton Press, Inc.

February 2002

Off the rack

Our picks for a good read and a little diversion.

David L. Sperling


Take a peek into some classic – and tradition-bending – Wisconsin shacks.
© Taunton Press, Inc.
Reveling in the road less traveled
A giant step back into the woods and swamps
A rendezvous with Wisconsin history

So here we are, staring down winter and vacillating between the exhilaration of a winter walk and the "thrill" of skating across the icy driveway. The sunsets are glorious at 5 p.m., but there are still lots of tocks on the clock between dusk and dawn. Our recommendation? Dry off your boots, throw a log in the fireplace and settle down with a good read. We've found several books that are well worth your time.

If your shack could use a little sprucing-up or you just want to dream about the getaway you'll never go to, may we recommend The Cabin by Dale Mulfinger and Susan E. Davis, The Taunton Press, Newtown, Conn.

Long-time readers may recall our October 1996 article "That Special Place," in which our readers described how their family cabins preserve a sense of family identity, relaxation and hospitality. This book captures some of that spirit with eloquent examples of what's possible when a homeowner and an architect share their visions for a rural refuge. These are great cabins, and six of the 37 homes visited are in Wisconsin.

The Cabin is a visual treat that respects the enduring beauty of small cottages and larger spaces. The photography is spectacular, beautifully lit and displayed in rich colors on silky, matte paper. The images take both a wide view and a close look, showing cabins in their settings at different times of day as well as zeroing-in on artistic features. Readers like me who enjoy what they see, but can't figure out exactly why they like it, get some life lessons in architectural design. Site plans and simplified floor plans for each cabin aid the reader in pinpointing those attributes that make the cabins seem "right" for you.

Even if you don't aspire to build a palace in popples, you are sure to find an architectural idea or clever use of space you can incorporate in your own modest diggings. Readers get a look at rustic cabins, renovated places, traditional designs and very modern affairs. There are Wisconsin examples at both ends of the spectrum. My taste runs more toward the wooden cottage on Lake Chetek than the all-glass cube cabin along the Wisconsin River, but you'll surely find plenty here to inspire you. One of the highlighted cabins is a place you can rent and savor for a few days – the Seth Peterson Cottage at Mirror Lake State Park in Lake Delton.

Reveling in the road less traveled

As long as we've got you up and wandering about Wisconsin, may we suggest a worthwhile guide to add diversity to your travel kit? The Great Wisconsin Touring Book by Gary G. Knowles, Trail Books, Black Earth, Wis., opens options for day trips, weekend jaunts or those rare moments when the weather is just right and you can justify playing hooky. I'd keep this book in the car just in case a camping trip gets a bit too wet or the wind takes the joy out of a long bike ride.

Others don't need an excuse. They love taking car rides, motoring the back roads and exploring the byways. The author is clearly in that camp. Knowles grew up in a family that took Sunday drives and the slow, wiggly roads to Gramma's house. He headed the Communications Bureau for the Division of Tourism for 14 years, so he's visited a lot of state attractions, lodges and eateries. Knowles is also a devoted gearhead who sets up auto tours for roadsters who drive convertibles and cruisers. He also enjoys the outdoors, and the book encourages the casual travelers to throw away their watches, slow down, visit state parks, stop for hikes, take their bike off the car rack and try the trails.

© Trails Books
Hit the road with a guidebook as a companion.

© Trails Books

The book presents 30 road trips statewide varying from about 60-300 miles in length, but the relaxed style encourages you to savor these stretches one piece at a time. Full-page maps accompany each trip with big print (for the bifocally challenged). Detailed instructions in bold type note every turn down county roads and smaller routes. You won't get lost, even though the author considers that part of the fun.

The book provides great companionship on the journey as Knowles succinctly and congenially suggests attractions, shops, restaurants and interesting stops. The text is sprinkled with such diverse Wisconsin side stories as the Oorang Indians NFL team, the 85-mile garage sale along the Mississippi River, the Central Wisconsin Pumpkin Weigh-In (the first Saturday in October), the 140-acre Highground memorial to American war veterans, Wisconsin's only onyx cave near Blue River, and the historic statues of Waupun. I learned that Chief John Big Tree, the model for sculptor Earl Fraser's End of the Trail statue, was also the model for the face on the buffalo nickel and the old Pontiac automobile emblem.

I enjoyed Knowles' argument that cows and rail barons played an instrumental role in making Wisconsin a great state to explore. Because farmers needed to move perishable milk products to market twice a day, they insisted on a good system of paved roads wiggling their way well into the hills and coulees. These milk routes formed a veined network of secondary and tertiary roads connecting to highways. The abandoned rights-of-way from rail barons and lumber barons now form the bulk of our state bike trail corridors. The winding, twisty milk routes are perfect fun for car tours and the flat, even-graded bike trails make for easy, enjoyable pedaling through fabulous scenery.

A giant step back into the woods and swamps

Speaking of others who have spent a good part of their lives off the beaten path, I was curious to read the stories in The Last River Rat: Kenny Salwey's Life in the Wild by J. Scott Bestul and Kenny Salwey, Voyageur Press. Salwey is an anachronism. A child of the 1940s and a teen in the '50s, from an era when television, electronics and computers would become household standards; when the Cold War came and crested; when suburbs, malls and fast food spread faster than wildfire across the landscape. Yet he spent close to three decades as a reclusive riverman eking out a living by hunting, fishing and trapping the swampy backwaters of the Mississippi River less than a hundred miles from the Twin Cities metro area.

When an old-time DNR river warden, Jim Everson, convinced him to give a nature talk to a bunch of Wabasha, Minn. schoolteachers, the reclusive Salwey accepted the challenge for the money and the food. But the actual experience of sharing his knowledge, Salwey recalled, "would change my life forever."

© Voyageur Press, Inc.
Travel the Mississippi's backwaters with a man who knows the sloughs.

© Voyageur Press

He has subsequently earned a reputation for skillfully sharing his stories, artifacts and experiences with educators and students. His talks remain well attended and enthusiastically received.

The book crafted here with Scott Bestul, a regional editor for Field & Stream magazine, takes the reader through the year with this backwoods river rat. From April through March, the monthly chapters engage in the seasonal exploits of river life. It's a somewhat romantic look compressing highlights from years past, but it's entertaining – tromping the shallow ridges, paddling the sloughs, hopping into the canoe with Salwey's dogs and hearing old family stories.

Here are a few. As a six-year-old, Salwey was forever asking his family to explain natural happenings:

"Pa, what's making that smoke up in the woods?" Pa never cracked a grin. "Why that's because the rabbits are cooking coffee today." My eyes grew wide as I thought over that piece of information for a moment or two & "Naw, rabbits don't start no fires do they?" Pa chuckled a bit, then confessed, "Guess they don't, my boy, but that's what my Pa told me and his Pa told him. All us hill folks say that because it looks a lot like the thin smoke from a small campfire is rising out of the hollows and it only seems to happen after it's rained for some time. When it lets up or quits altogether and them thin wispy streams of 'smoke' start to rise up from the wooded hollows in the hills, you can pretty well bet your boots it'll rain again that day and most times quite soon as well."

Then there's this description of an old trapper's shack that Salwey venerated. It was given to Salwey and was used as one of three base camps he established in the sprawling Whitman Swamp south of Cochrane, Wis.:

The shack was built to combat the nature of the terrain in which it stood. It was a dark, rectangular building that measured about a canoe-length and -width square. The shack stood on top of a dozen barrels, which served as a floating foundation in case the waters of Whitman Swamp rose high enough to lift it off its footings – which was indeed a common occurrence. It was a lovely place, a place of shifting winds, no trees yet lots of marsh, a land that was more water than earth.

Inside, a medium-sized, wood-burning stove sat quietly in one corner with its stovepipe chimney extended perhaps eight feet straight up through the front-to-back slanted roof. Next to the stove was a pile of dry firewood, ranked up in short rows, neat and well cared for. Along the east wall were four wooden-framed bunks; each held a bedspring with a small mattress resting on it with some blankets, quilts, pillows and such to top them off. Against the south wall stood an LP-fired cook stove sporting four burners and an oven. Alongside of it was an old-time wash basin with a looking glass mounted on the wall above it. A drop-leaf table fit tightly to the west wall, directly below a large, rectangular, hinged window. Above the window hung an empty, notched gun rack; a couple of duck calls dangled from it with an old, battered, weather-beaten, felt hat. A mouse-chewed burlap bag held a half a dozen wooden duck decoys in the far corner. Imprinted upon the rough plank floor were several muddy footprints. A rubber patching kit along with a few empty shotgun shell casings lay strewn about on the table and a goodly number of mouse droppings as well. It was as though the hunters had just left a moment or two before, yet the place hadn't been used in years. I felt an eerie sense of having been there many times before – and I guess in a spiritual way I had been.

Finally, a bit from a tale of finding refuge from a storm in an old hollow tree, the Grandmother Tree:

In about a half an hour, that huge black cloud was directly over us. Thunder boomed loud and deep, and lightning struck all around us. It began to rain hard. The wind began to blow harder. The rain changed to sleet. From sleet to heavy, wet snow, the kind of sticky stuff that sticks to everything, even the canoe paddle and the sides of the canoe. The water was cold and it began to slush up. The harder I paddled, the less headway I made. There were whitecaps on the narrow slough and I began to look for a place to pull the canoe out on the bank. Then I realized I was close to the Grandmother Tree. I maneuvered the canoe onto the bank, hauled Spook and myself out, quickly tied the canoe to a nearby tree, and turned it upside down and we crawled inside the old tree. We stretched out and I lay with one arm under my head. I listened to the storm and I rested. I thought it wouldn't be too long and the sun would come out, the wind would stop blowing and we could go on home. But that didn't happen.

When darkness came on, I realized we were going to be staying there because the storm wasn't going to be stopping any time soon. It was a little cramped to be sure, but I guarantee you one thing, when morning came I was mighty glad I'd found the Grandmother Tree. As we climbed out of the trunk at daylight, Spook and I couldn't believe what we saw. Everything was white: The swamp was sunk under the snow and completely frozen over. I probably would have frozen to death had it not been for the Grandmother Tree. I owed her my very life and that of my dog's as well.

I enjoyed this look at river life, but the mystery for me remains how a man survived in the 1970s and '80s leading a lifestyle that had largely faded from the Wisconsin scene more than a hundred years earlier.

A rendezvous with Wisconsin history

For parents who struggle to interest their children in Wisconsin affairs and history, consider picking up books in The New Badger History Series, published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. I was particularly taken with the third volume in the series Working with Water: Wisconsin Waterways by Bobbie Malone and Jefferson J. Gray, published in 2001. Malone heads the Office of School Services at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and Gray is the State Underwater Archaeologist.

© Wisconsin Historical Society Press
An introduction to the history of Wisconsin's lakes and rivers.

© Wisconsin Historical Society Press

The book series is designed for fourth-graders getting their first taste of Wisconsin history, but if you forget all that and just open the book, you'll have fun. Each page has photos, graphics, maps and an engaging narrative that presents a mix of science, personalities and events that shaped our past and our current water issues. Even if you tackle the book in brief 15-minute segments, you'll find something new to discuss. I particularly appreciate the pronunciation guides and explanations of new vocabulary words.

Working with Water takes the reader on a journey that begins with the glaciers. We then paddle with native people and fur traders, and follow settlers bursting westward as canals and locks linked waterways and formed communities. We set sail as schooners ply the Great Lakes and dive deep to unravel the mysteries of shipwrecked boats that perished on the journey. Readers meet those who made a living on the water by fishing, harvesting wild rice, raising cranberries, pearling and clamming. We see how Wisconsin's founding fortunes in lumbering, milling, papermaking, tanning, brewing and meatpacking all relied on a steady supply of fresh water. Finally, we join vacationers who found relief at Wisconsin's water spas, touring the Dells and fishing the lakes.

Two earlier titles in the series – Learning from the Land: Wisconsin Land Use and Digging and Discovery: Wisconsin Archaeology – further encourage students to explore. Instructors and home-schoolers may want to pick up the excellent teacher's manuals that provide additional readings, more drawings, activities, project ideas, references and pre-made lessons to accompany each book.

If you want to delve deeper into Wisconsin history with students, take a look at Wisconsin's Past and Present, a wonderful historical atlas published by The Wisconsin Cartographers' Guild in 1998. The Historical Society's Office of School Services also produced Mapping Wisconsin History – a collection of teaching guides and student materials to accompany the atlas.

David L. Sperling edits Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.