For those who live in eastern Wisconsin, La Crosse is that semi-remote city on the Mississippi River. And they are right; La Crosse is some distance from other population centers in the state, and it is on Mississippi River. It seldom gets mentioned, however, that La Crosse is also on the Black River and on the La Crosse River. These waterways flow into town as three distinct entities and then come together as one at a single point in downtown’s Riverside Park. It might be because of this convergence that the city exists at all. La Crosse was originally established as a lumber town, and there was no better place to put up sawmills than where logs could be floated in from three different watersheds. This merging of the waters, combined with the largest floodplain within a hundred miles, also made the location an excellent place for indigenous people to gather for commerce and play. The legend is that French fur traders sometimes attended these rendezvouses and watched the American Indians play a game with a stick that reminded them of the staff carried by Catholic bishops. This staff is called a crosse,* so they called the game la crosse.
In spite of its unique physical geography, La Crosse is not billed as the Three Rivers City. Instead it is one part of a larger area called the Seven Rivers Region. This name is of recent origin and was coined by local community leaders trying to create a brand to compete with Wisconsin Dells, the Fox River Valley, and Door County for tourism dollars. Calling the area within a fifty-mile radius of La Crosse the Seven Rivers Region makes no more sense than calling the Big Ten the Big Ten, as there are more than seven rivers nearby. At Riverside Park there is a fountain to commemorate the Seven Rivers Region. Imprinted in the concrete circling the fountain, the seven rivers are identified as the Mississippi, the Black, the La Crosse, the Root, the Trempealeau, the Kickapoo, and the Bad Axe. If you were to google Seven Rivers Region, you might find the Bad Axe replaced by the Iowa River – and if you looked at a map of the greater Upper Mississippi River watershed, you would wonder why the Buffalo River is not included on the list. Even in a culture where more is considered better, the number seven apparently rolls off the tongue more easily than nine. Seven Rivers, Seven Hills, Seven Wonders, Seven Dwarfs. The Magnificent Seven.
Of the nine rivers near my home, I regularly use five in my personal recreation. The Mississippi has the best fishing, so it the one I find myself on most often. The Black near Lake Arbutus offers the best whitewater, but only in early spring. The Trempealeau borders Perot State Park, so I can rent canoes from the park office if I have more people along than I can accommodate with my own boats; it also has a loop route for the times I don’t feel like shuttling vehicles. I’ve never paddled the Root River, but I bicycle the excellent paved bike trail that runs parallel the river for more miles than I’d ever care to pedal. The La Crosse River also has a good bike trail, and I use a section of it almost every day as part of my exercise routine. In terms of water-based recreation, La Crosse has an abundance of riches. The backwaters of the Mississippi alone provide more water than I could explore in a lifetime.
* Crosse is the French word for this staff. The English word for the staff, even though it looks French to me, is crosier.