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In a snowstorm, on a bright sunny day or on a moonlit midnight, skiing the backwaters of the big river opens up the heart and makes almost anything possible.

Skiing the Backwaters

By John Sagan
February 1996

From the lower end of Lake Pepin to Trempealeau Mountain, the Mississippi River backwaters are a dream for the cross-country skier.

When the conditions are right, a skier can travel for miles and miles in an afternoon on the big river and find plenty of adventures. The endorphins build up as you cruise, and soon you slide into a second childhood. Every peninsula becomes a new country -- unexplored and holding secrets. The eagles wheel, dive, swoop and glide above and before you. In the farther reaches, there are otter trails to follow and deer trails become highways through the trees. Mice leave their tiny patterns between the trees on snowy plains, from grassy island to grassy island. And the ancient trees dream of a century past.

Ice fishermen watch you glide by, wondering whether to try it themselves one day with a fish box in tow. Snowmobilers leave a trail of oily fumes as they scream by to avoid the improbable human before them. In a snowstorm, on a bright sunny day or on a moonlit midnight, skiing the backwaters of the big river opens up the heart and makes almost anything possible.

For those who like to ski, the choice of location is never easy. Try any landing at any point in any park off any road. If you want wide-open, flat-out skiing try the big backwater above Trempealeau Mountain. If you want intimate winding pathways through the trees and over the islands try the Nelson Bottoms or Reno Bottoms. If you want civilized groomed trails try Perrot Park near Trempealeau, Wisconsin, but you won't see much of the river. Merrick Park near Fountain City, Wisconsin, has small trails through the woods with many frozen little rivers all leading to the big river, and for an extra treat offers Devils Cut, which never freezes. Cutting back a little into the hills you can go up the Whitewater Delta. If you feel like really big skiing, head for Lake Pepin, which has some mighty dramatic shoreline at the right time of year.

The river can be a dangerous place in any season. Forethought and knowledge of the river will make you safer. Ski with a couple of friends and keep a little distance apart, especially if you are skiing in unfamiliar territory. Talk about safety and what you might encounter and how you will respond. Even when the ice is thick enough to drive a car on, dangerously thin spots will remain near springs, wing dams and places with current.

One afternoon, a friend was out with his wife on a benign little backwater that he had skied many times before. Since he was a faster skier, he took a longer path, while keeping his wife in sight. As he crossed an area that had a current, the ice gave way, dropping him waist deep in a mucky slough. He had to remove his skis and wade to shore, where he put his skis back on and headed back to the landing, as fast as he could go.

Some days you may have to break trail and other days will be just right, with the snow windswept and packed for the fastest skiing. Read the river, and it will give the answers that you are looking for.

© 1996 Big River

Read more stories about life on the Upper Mississippi in the Big River Reader, an anthology of feature stories from the first four years of Big River magazine. Check out the other featured stories there for more about the river.

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