Steven Simpson’s Blog

Please check every Monday for my most recent blog posting.  Most entries will be about nature or other environmental topics, but occasionally I will write about writing, family, travel, or the Driftless Region.

“You Always Do This”

 Norma, a friend who lives down the street, won a kayak in a raffle. She’d canoed as a kid, but had never been in a kayak, so she asked me to take her out and give her a few tips. Her request coincided with me trying to get Manyu and Clare out on the water more often, so we made it a group outing.  With Clare and Norma in individual kayaks and Manyu and me together in a canoe, we paddled from the canoe access at Goose Island’s Shelter No. 5 to the boat landing at Hunter’s Point.

The trip turned out to be too long for a first timer. Norma tired about three quarters into it. Exhausted, she climbed into our canoe and became a duffer. Clare towed Norma’s empty kayak. I hadn’t brought a towrope, but we jerry-rigged one by stringing together cords unlaced from my  lifejacket. Norma repeatedly apologized for ruining the trip, and she wouldn’t believe me when I told her I welcomed the extra weight in the canoe. Norma and Manyu weigh about ninety pounds each. With both of them toward the bow and me in the stern, it was the first time all day the canoe was trim.

This is the fourth or fifth outing where I have overestimated the proper length of a day trip with beginners. In each instance, there were extenuating circumstances. On this particular trip, a south wind picked up so much that our boats drifted backwards whenever we stopped paddling. The direction of travel was downstream in a steady current, but forward progress was as hard as if we were heading upstream. When we reached the take out, Manyu complained, “You went too far again. You always do this.” Manyu exaggerated. She should have said “very often” instead of “always.” 

In my opinion, choosing a route with novices is difficult. If I plan a short route and nothing slows us down, people are surprised and disappointed when we finish early. If I extend the route, high winds or lack of current or clunky rental equipment adds a tiring hour and a half to the trip. Even though I know the rule of thumb with beginners should be “leave them wanting more,” my tendency has been to push a little too hard. 

My fondest memory of a trip-too-far was with my sister-in-law, CJ.  When I noticed she was tiring, I took a secret shortcut, only to discover the shortcut completely weeded in. Rather than backtrack, which would have totally demoralized my sister-in-law, I climbed into the water and started dragging canoes and kayaks through thick marsh vegetation. Standing waist deep in marsh muck and using all of my strength to muscle boats through sedges and rushes, CJ looked me in the eyes and exclaimed, “My God, you’re enjoying this!” 

Part of the problem might be that I do enjoy getting myself into minor calamities when I’m outside. I should probably avoid them when I am with other people. 

Reno Bottoms

Tuesday I put my kayak in at Reno Bottoms for a day of fishing. The Bottoms are a Mississippi River backwater just below the dike at Lock and Dam No. 8. I often walk the dike with my family and every time tell myself to come back with a boat. Tuesday was the first time I actually followed through. 

It is not the easiest place to put in. The small parking lot is up a hill and across the railroad tracks from the dike’s spillway. I had to carry my kayak two hundred yards just to reach the water. The last twenty yards is over loose riprap and hard on the ankles. Right now lugging my boat overland to the river is not a deterrent, but at age sixty-six, the day will come when it might be. I think back to my childhood when nearly all of my fishing was from shore. I’d have been thrilled to fish out of a kayak and would have considered the portage part of the adventure.

As with all new spots on the river, I did not know the holes and did not know what I might catch. The appeal of Reno Bottoms, however, was not the fishing so much as its potential for solitude. There were always a handful of walkers on the dike and a few people fishing along the spillway, but without a boat ramp at the site I assumed I’d have the place to myself once I put my kayak in the water and paddled around the first bend. On that point, my new fishing spot met expectations. Not only were there no other boats on the water, but no buildings and no traffic noise from either motorboats or cars on nearby roads. Considering the extensive backwater on the Upper Mississippi River, it is surprisingly hard to totally escape people. I have a secret backwater channel near Lytle’s Landing that is always quiet, but otherwise my favorite fishing places are within sight and sound of civilization. I can now add Reno Bottoms to my short list of nearby wild places. 

I did catch and bring home a couple largemouth bass. The taste of bass is not my favorite, but they are the perfect size for certain kinds of Asian cooking. I fillet perch, bluegills, and walleyes. With bass, I merely scale them, gut them, and leave their heads on. Manyu steams the fish and covers them with a subtle sweet and sour sauce (which is nothing like the syrupy topping served at Westernized Chinese restaurants). Then we eat the whole fish by lifting small pieces of meat off the bone with chopsticks. But now I am repeating myself. If anyone is interested in reading about Manyu’s sisters eating eyeballs and fish cheeks and leaving only a bare skeleton in a small pool of unconsumed sauce, he or she can check out the blog “Bass Blog” posted September 2, 2019.