Big River Magazine
Mississippi River stories and news
September-October 2008
News excerpts and

Follow the links for more information about news in Big River.

Fall Festivals

Lansing, Iowa — Pools 8 and 9 of the Upper Mississippi have attracted enormous numbers of tundra swans and waterfowl in recent years — well over half a million. Lansing’s Rivers and Bluffs Fall Birding Festival, on two successive weekends — Nov. 7 to 9, and Nov. 14 to 16 — aims to give people every chance to see and appreciate this amazing seasonal event. There will be more field trips than last year, along with resident bald eagles and other birds, opportunities to view waterfowl at close range, sourdough pancake breakfasts, and boat trips aboard heated excursion boats. The weekend is sponsored by the Friends of Pool 9 groups, who will post details on their website after Labor Day, and the Friends of Upper Mississippi River Refuges.

The Iowa Wine Trail’s fall festival, on Nov. 1 and 2, celebrates “Heirloom Family Cuisine with Iowa Wines.” Seven wineries in northeast Iowa take part in the celebration. Each will provide wine samples as well as samples of local holiday foods, with recipes. The trail takes about four hours to drive, not including time spent at each of the wineries. Designated drivers may sample the foods for free. All others will need tickets, which are cheaper if bought in advance.

New Refuge Friends

Trempealeau, Wis. — The Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, a 6,226-acre refuge within the boundaries of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, just upriver from the village of Trempealeau, made some new friends this summer. The Friends of Trempealeau Refuge group will help with wildlife surveys and habitat restoration, besides lobbying for support for this and other refuges.
The latter has turned out to be a powerful tool. Spokesperson Peg Zappen, of Trempealeau, said that the recent increased budget for refuges is likely due to an outpouring of support letters from citizens, organized by friends groups. Refuges hadn’t received an increase in funding for many years.
Trempealeau Refuge is an isolated backwater, cut off by dikes from both the Mississippi River and the nearby Trempealeau River. The refuge includes sandy dunes, woodlands, prairies and wetlands, and is a favorite place for both birds and birders.
The refuge’s new Comprehensive Conservation Plan was approved in June. It will be used as a management guide for the next 15 years. It includes plans for additional dikes and water-control structures near the Marshland entrance and new islands in the eastern end of the refuge, near Kieps Island Dike and Trempealeau Mountain.

Links for the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge (between Trempealeau, Wis., and Winona, Minn.)

Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge website

Fish & Wildlife Service Profile

Banking on Nature:The Economic Benefits to Local Communities of National Wildlife Refuge Visitation (Sept. 2007) (pdf) Trempealeau Refuge statistics on pdf pages 172-175.

Tow vs Bridge

Dubuque, Iowa — In high water and a fast current, barges from a 15-barge tow hit the Julien Dubuque Bridge between Dubuque, Iowa, and East Dubuque, Ill., on June 9, closing the bridge for less than a day. The towboat, crew and 14 of the barges were okay, but one of the barges was damaged after it bumped into a bridge support, lodged there and partly sank. More than four weeks passed before it could be removed.

With a Little Help

Balltown, Iowa — Breitbach’s Country Dining was already famous. It was the oldest restaurant in Iowa, having opened in 1852. The owner’s great-great-grandfather bought the place in 1861. It was also a mainstay of this community of 70 people and was regarded as a second home by most of them.
That was before it burned down. It’s even more famous now that it’s been rebuilt, because of the way it was rebuilt.
Breitbach’s restaurant burned down on the day before Christmas 2007, for reasons unknown, although no one suspects foul play. Owners Mike and Cindy Breitbach, both in their 50s, considered throwing in the towel, then decided to rebuild. In March contractors told them the new building could be finished by October.
That’s when the volunteers started showing up. It seems that the Breitbachs had made a lot of friends over the years. Former Balltown residents donated their architectural skills. A fellow who had become friends with the Breitbachs while motorcycling through town years ago hauled building supplies from Ohio. Townspeople and longtime customers came to pour concrete, raise the roof, frame the walls and cook for each other while they worked. Amish people in Indiana donated 175 handcrafted chairs. Breitbach’s Country Dining opened in June, four months ahead of schedule.
Besides receiving attention from the local press, the New York Times sent a writer (6-14-08). Bloggers read that and commented on it. Blog readers commented back. Now the restaurant is really famous. Not only does it serve great spicy pork ribs and homemade pies, but it’s become “a testament to the existence of good people out there who are willing to pull together to do the right thing,” as one blogger said.
If you’re traveling the Great River Road northwest of Dubuque, look for the new Breitbach’s in Balltown, near a scenic overlook.