Sunday, July 26, 2009

Preview - Table of Contents

Our freshwater journey began in the pouring rain on the ultra-gray morning of June 28, 2009, at Bear Pond in North Turner, Maine.

Author Robert Thorson emerging from the water to begin the westward slog (blog).

Our trip ended under bright blue skies at Brush Lake in northeastern Montana on the afternoon of July 18. There, the wheat fields seem larger than some New England towns, and many of the abandoned farm buildings are effectively "freeze-dried" by the low summer humidity and protracted winter cold.

Wheat field and abandoned farm buildings in Dagmar, Montana.

Each day between Bear Pond and Brush Lake gave us a chapter's worth of experiences, stories, and images involving Earth's most vital substance, fresh water.

This posting is a preview of the book-length treatment that takes the form of twenty individual chapters, each in a posting of its own. Each entry gives the chapter title, a description of the travel path, one or more representative highlights, and a photograph stripped of its caption to intrigue you to read the rest.

The posting preceding this one, the "Introduction," explains why we spent our summer vacation this way, why our geographic range was restricted to the glaciated fringe, and the methods we used to gather information.

Day 1 - Bear Pond, Maine

The most northeasterly point of our journey was a meeting of the Bear Pond Improvement Association in North Turner, Maine. Later, I went for a swim in the rain and saw water-related businesses through the wet windshield. Our net distance that day was about 2 miles. Apart from my swim, the highlight of that day was the honest integrity and folksiness in evidence during the Pledge of Allegiance.

Day 2 - Northern New England

The first travel day was between Bear Pond and the Meadow Farms Bed and Breakfast in Northwood, New Hampshire. We traveled south through the lake district of western Maine, east along the Ossipee River, north to the highlands of interior New Hampshire, then south for sleep. The water highlight of the day was the purity of New England's mountain streams and lakes.

Day 3 - Southern New England

After a blueberry pancake breakfast in NH, we looped southeast through Lexington, Massachusetts, then south to the industrial villages of the Blackstone valley, then east from RI to Mansfield in northeastern Connecticut, to spend the night in our own bed. The highlight was a pair of literary water stops at Robert Frost Farm in Derry, New Hampshire, and Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.

Day 4 - Western New England

In the rain, we drove across the rural highlands of eastern Connecticut, up the Connecticut River Valley, north through the Berkshires of Massachusetts and the Green Mountains in Vermont, and ended up at the historic Waybury Inn in East Middlebury, Vermont. The highlight was a happy retired guy named Tony who said he went fishing near Lennox, Massachusetts, four times a week.

Day 5 - Adirondacks

We ended up in Gananoque, Ontario (pronounced "Gahn-ahh-knock'-way) on the north side of the Saint Lawrence River. That was after we had traveled across the Lake Champlain lowland, north along the lake's rocky shore, over the Adirondacks, past a horse show at Lake Placid, New York, and then north to the Thousand Islands Bridge, our entry point to Canada. The highlight was rain -- drenching rain -- falling so hard on beautiful Cranberry Lake that I'm surprised the photo turned out at all.

Day 6 - Lake Ontario

We headed southeast down the Saint Lawrence River and along the north shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, ending up in Ingersoll, Ontario, at the Elm Hurst Inn, the "house that cheese built." Our highlight was visiting a commercial business in Woodstock, Ontario called "Water Depot," which markets water treatment equipment in an area where groundwater pollution is a serious threat.

Day 7 - Lake Erie

To avoid the Fourth of July traffic taking place in the adjacent United States, we took a day trip to the north shore of Lake Erie, then returned to the Elm Hurst Inn for a second night. The highlight was seeing the contrast between 19th century Mennonite farming practices and those of 21st century commercial farms, and their respective impacts on stream and groundwater pollution.

Day 8 - Michigan's Mitten

From Ingersoll, Ontario we made it all the way across Michigan's "mitten" to the Mackinac Bridge at the northernmost point of the lower peninsula. This was Sunday, the 6th of July, and the beach at South Higgins Lake State Park was absolutely jam packed. Experiencing the crowds was my highlight because it perfectly illustrated the main theme of Chapter 11 of Beyond Walden, that of loving lakes to death.

Day 9 - Upper Peninsula

This day began with interviews in Mackinaw City, Michigan, and ended with the scenery of Vilas County, Wisconsin, where the land is as much lake as solid ground. The highlight was the lingering presence of Lake Michigan's northern shore, which culminates at Manistique. Though "A River Runs Through It" and though it's surrounded by fresh water on all sides, this city has high local water bills. Go figure.

Day 10 - Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail

We traced a line from northern Wisconsin at Rhinelander, where we spent the night, to North Saint Paul, Minnesota, where my sister Ingrid lives. There were two highlights: a stop at the Ice Age National Ice Trail near Bloomer and an evening reading from my new book, Beyond Walden, at Garrison Keillor's bookstore, Common Good Books in downtown Saint Paul.

Day 11 - Twin Cities and North

This day's highlight was a trip to Lake Calhoun in urban Minneapolis for an interview with Tom Crann of Minnesota Public Radio for a Friday broadcast of All Things Considered. I could almost feel the presence of Henry David Thoreau, who came here on doctor's orders on his only trip outside New England. After our urban shock, we worked our way north to Lake Plantagenet in Hubbard County, Minnesota, where my parents spend their summers at the family lakeside cabin.

Day 12 - Bemidji

Bemidji is my home town, the place where I visited as a child and went to high school and college. Kristine and I spent the day seeing family and recovering from the first phase of the trip. The highlight was lecturing in the very same room to the very same professors who lectured to me forty years earlier when I was a college student. That took place in Sattgast Hall at Bemidji State University.

Day 13 - Mississippi Headwaters

Friday, July 10 was the first night of the Thorson family's annual reunion. Before the evening's in-gathering, Kristine and I made a large loop to explore the headwaters of the Mississippi River: south at Itasca State Park where we met tourists; west in Clearwater County where the land is nearly empty; and north to Turtle River, site of Concordia Language Villages where we met globally energized students.

Day 14 - Lake Plantagenet

This being the central Saturday of the reunion, we didn't go very far. Our only travel was to the public boat launch, where we learned about state regulation of lakes. The day's highlight was a swim in "Greater Lake Wobegon" to complement my earlier swim in "Greater Lake Walden."

Day 15 - Lake Union

Eventually, the happy mob left the reunion. Kristine and I took a late afternoon trip out to the edge of the prairie at Erskine, Minnesota. This is where -- at Lake Union in 1928 -- the tap root of family lake culture was planted in our family tree by my grandfather Theodore and my grandmother Lillian.

Day 16 - Lake Wobegon

We began the second leg of our journey by leaving the Bemidji area with the goal of reaching South Dakota. We didn't make it, instead staying at cousin John's lakeside home in Richmond, Minnesota. Our goal was to find Lake Wobegon in the conjunction of Sauk Centre, Holdingford, and Avon, Minnesota. The highlight of this longest day (and the entire trip) was pouring filtered water from Thoreau's Walden Pond into Keillor's Middle Spunk Lake, my stand-in for the mythical lake in the heart of the heartland.

Day 17 - Continental Divide

This was a meandering trip from Richmond, Minnesota to Aberdeen, South Dakota, across the boundary between forest and prairie. The highlight of July 14 came at Lake Traverse, where we crossed the cultural divide between east (lake country) and west (cowboy country) and the "continental" drainage divide between Hudson Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Day 18 - Twin Dakotas

Northwest of Aberdeen, South Dakota, we joined the Lewis and Clark Trail on the Missouri River before ending up in Bismarck, North Dakota. The day's highlight was contrasting the Big Muddy with its clear-flowing counterparts of the east, a contrast that says more about long-term geological history than the present climate.

Day 19 - Badlands and Goodlands

The water highlight was Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota, where we ended up staying the night. This highlight was a bad(land) experience. We spent most of the day near Mandan and Center, North Dakota, searching for the original homestead of my wife's Danish immigrant ancestors. We found it.

Day 20 - The Final Distance

From Medora, we worked our way west and north through unglaciated ranching country to the glaciated grain fields of Reserve, Montana, our most northwesterly point on the trip. The day's highlight was the emptiness of the prairie, rendered this way, in large part, by the lack of water.

Day 21- The Return Trip

We did not blog our way back east, in part because it would have been anti-climactic. We will finish the trip, probably around August 8, when we return to Bear Pond for a second swim. Heading back east without the urgency of interviews and daily writing gave me a chance to reflect. This posting remains as unfinished as the sale of the boat below, which looks as if nobody has used it in years. Let this be a metaphor for what is yet to come in this blog, or may never come.