Lynne Diebel canoed 359 river miles in 2009 with her husband, Bob.
If you happened to be traveling on the Beltline over the Yahara River on July 7, 2009, you might have caught sight of an older couple paddling a canoe south toward Lake Waubesa and headed for their home in Stoughton.
According to Lynne Diebel, she and her husband, Bob, were the only canoeists on that part of the river that day — an observation she makes near the end of Crossing the Driftless: A Canoe Trip Through A Midwestern Landscape.
For readers unfamiliar with the dramatic geological environment of southwestern Wisconsin, the book’s title references a region that escaped the glaciers and is etched with bluffs and ridgetops carved by deep river valleys. The Diebels set out in midsummer 2009 to travel 359 river miles in a canoe stuffed with ziplock-sealed bags of dried food, a rickety set of portage wheels, a chunk of red-wax-coated gouda cheese and other valuable gear.
The journey lasted 12 days, beginning at the couple’s family summer home in Faribault, Minn., and including seven Mississippi River locks and six portages. They paddled downstream on the Cannon and Mississippi rivers and upstream on the Wisconsin River.
Diebel, who grew up in southern Minnesota, has written two guidebooks about paddling canoes and kayaks in Minnesota. But Crossing the Driftless is more than a guidebook. It is part travel journal, part history lesson and part science class — all bound together in fewer than 250 pages. And while a working knowledge of traveling with paddles helps, armchair adventurers might be tempted to rent a canoe this summer just to find out if the experience really is as worthwhile and invigorating as Diebel claims.
Colorful stories are as bountiful as trout in the Kickapoo River’s streams: The couple decided to pitch their tent on a Wisconsin River sandbar and timed their journey to coincide with a hearty pancake breakfast during Water Ski Days at a park in Lake City, Minn. And they didn’t even roll their eyes as one of the three dudes on a pier at the Ole Miss Marina in Red Wing, Minn., loudly inquired if Bob and Lynne needed any gas.
They faced challenging headwinds and fog that threatened to delay their journey, while also encountering the kindness of strangers on every shore and, as Diebel writes in the preface, “seeking to understand the world at river level.”
Some of Diebel’s narrative departures will be familiar to longtime Dane County residents, such as references to Mazomanie’s nude beach, former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, former state Rep. Spencer Black and Madison’s own Canoecopia paddlesport expo.
Diebel dug deep during the research phase of this project, drawing on a variety of published reference material and interviewing experts — including her son, Matt, a research scientist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources — for insight into everything from geology and ecology to politics and history.
The comfortable relationship between Lynne and Bob also is fundamental to this story. Constant canoeing companions, each are steadfast in their ways — she is always positioned at the bow and he at the stern — but Bob’s easygoing sense of humor and whimsical map drawings coupled with Lynne’s dedication to both water and writing add to the book’s charm.
Crossing the Driftless: A Canoe Trip Through A Midwestern Landscape
By Lynne Diebel, Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press