The beginning of my connection to rivers
As a child my father took my brothers and I canoeing down the Namekagon River. The Namekagon runs 101 miles in Northeastern Wisconsin eventually dumping into the St. Croix River. The route we took was a day trip. 8 hours of paddling, never knowing what would be around the next bend. River trips as a child began my lifelong passion for rivers. Every trip brought currents of adventure, discovery, and a chance to connect with nature and family. Rivers connect many diverse ecosystems. Rivers also have a way of connecting diverse people and emotions. Laughter was never short on the river; all emotions are heightened when navigating unknown waters. I often reflect on my first river trip down the Namekagon.
I shared a canoe with my brother. He was an aspiring Eagle Scout. The aspiring Eagle Scout was not happy with my minuscule paddling skills as we navigated really small rapids. I could hear the strained impatience in his voice as he yelled, “Yaw!” I was neither muscle nor navigator at that time.
Later on, in the other canoe, my brother kept casting his line into the water, hoping to catch something other than a snapping turtle. Drifting down the river at a decent pace, all of the sudden, I heard my dad yelling. I looked over and saw him scrambling around in his cut off jean shorts with frayed strings hanging down to his knees, scrambling to find a scissors.
My brother had cast his fishing line over a power line and the current was carrying the canoe downstream at a fast rate. Snapping turtles, mud, 20 mph winds, river snakes, mosquitoes, poison ivy, eagles, power lines that get in the way, you never know what you will encounter on a river trip.
As I grew older, the meaning of the river changed. Adventure and discovery forked into spiritual meaning. I read Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse in my early 20s and it helped me to appreciate rivers in a different way.
“Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?” That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.”
Rivers began to serve a therapeutic purpose. The river was a place where I navigated swift and passing thoughts and emotions. The river was a place free from technology distractions and stress. The river was a place to dream. The river was a place absent of time, where I could connect with the eternal.
Escaping Chicago’s noise to a Driftless State
I lived in Chicago for seven years. Chicago is a city of noise. The El, jackhammers drilling into the pavement, sirens at 120 decibels, the experience of street noises is jarring on the senses. To escape the noise I would visit my friend in Mazomanie, Wisconsin. Mazomanie is about 25 minutes outside of Madison, Wisconsin. It is part of what is known as the Driftless Valley Region. Beautiful rolling hills covered in forest, green valleys stretched with farmland, it is a world of quiet. There is no ephemeron of beauty. Beauty is a permanent state of being in the Driftless Region.
Every summer my friends and I would canoe and camp on the sandbars of the Lower Wisconsin River way. I became enchanted with the river. We would awaken on a soft sandy shelf surrounded by the life of the river. One could see Bald Eagles swooping through the trees and hunting for prey. If you were lucky a Eastern Tiger Swallowtail or Monarch would dance with you. To refresh, we would swim in the cool water, and floating on our backs, let the current take us. Feet cushioned by the sandy bottom, you could walk back to your sandbar and sunbathe. Sandbars of all sizes, there was enough room to escape the experience of jackhammers pounding on cement pavement.
Drifting down the river in a kayak, boat, canoe, or tube, what I love the most is the absence of human development. There are parts of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway where you hear nothing. No traffic, no human noise, only the wilderness around you. Your senses become heightened to the noises of the world around you that are often forgotten in an urban sprawl. Birds calling to one another, the sound of turtles slipping into the water when you canoe by, wind rustling through the leaves.
Imagine a nude beach
Paddling down the river on the route we often took, we would pass by the Mazomanie Beach. The Mazomanie Beach allowed nudity, and Naturists frequented it.
My friends frequented this beach so I also went a few times. The beach was accessible by boat, canoe, or by foot. To reach it by foot you walk at least a mile through a thick mosquito infested forest. There was a part in the thick of it where one would begin to run; rather sprint through the forest. The mosquitoes were so thick you could barely see your hand in front of your face. It turned into a darkroom of mosquitoes. Furthermore, on each side of the path the forest is covered in poison ivy.
Once you got to the river, you had to walk along a sandy bank for less than a quarter mile until you reached the beach. It was a hidden enclave. Approaching the beach from the river one could paddle directly by it, or go around the sandbar that was in front of the beach. The sandbar had a forest so if people passing did not wish to see those enjoying the sun with their bare skin, they could go around the sandbar.
I witnessed people enjoying nature in a different way. I enjoyed nature on a deeper and more intimate level. Feeling the water and sand on my body was exhilarating. It was about the connection with nature for my friends and I. The beach is in a beautiful location where there are bluffs thick with forest. Every once in a awhile an eagle would swoop down.
The beach was closed by the DNR in 2016.
The government’s fight on nudity and a community
In 2016, the Wisconsin DNR decided to close down the nude beach, citing lude and lascivious behavior. This excerpt was taken from an announcement of the closing:
“The department will close approximately 140 acres of the 46,000 acre Riverway property that has become an area of illegal behavior, such as drug use and public sexual activity. This illegal and illicit behavior that developed there over several decades has created a pattern that discourages broader use of the property, according to Brian Hefty, DNR natural resources area supervisor.”
Some of the community was devastated, some of the community was happy. Personally, I never witnessed the above-cited behavior. Dan Behringer, from the local community said the incidents that apparently closed the beach numbered 25, 11 of which were dismissed in court, and 10 were against one individual who was later found deceased in his car. What we do know is the DNR did not communicate well with the community as to what the community needs were and are. Although there was a chance for the public to comment on the closed land and the DNR’s plans going forward, those public comments were never shared with the community.
What the community wants
I ended up living in Mazomanie from October of 2017 until January taking care of a small hobby farm of a friend. While I was living in Mazomanie I worked alongside of the Mazomanie River Alliance and Friends of the Lower Wisconsin River way. We held public events showing two films about the Wisconsin River way, Rhythm of the River and Gathering like the Waters (both entertaining, informative, well done narratives of the Wisconsin River way).
The idea was to build awareness and get the community excited about the supposed reopening of the 140 acres, which had been closed in part because of the Mazomanie beach. So far the communication with the DNR had been difficult. They were not giving an exact reopening date or allowing the public to have any say in how the land would be used.
We wanted to start a discussion asking the community who they were, what they wanted, and how they planned to get that going forward with use of the river. We constructed a survey and distributed it to engage the community. There were 164 responses. People were divided on whether or not to have a designated area for clothing optional at the Mazomanie Beach.
During a discussion at one of the movie events we had strong opinions from one of the community members against a clothing optional section of the beach going forward. I think it was hard for those who were advocates for it to speak up, as this is such a taboo topic.
This was just one of the issues of the land development plan that the DNR had proposed. There were other concerns, such as the proposed shooting range. At this point, it is still unclear what will happen with the 140 acres of land. People in the community seem to accept this, hoping that things will change with their votes in the upcoming elections.
Does the Government have a right to control how we connect with nature?
What I learned from this experience is if you don’t define who you are as a community and fight for it, those in power will do it for you. The river has had many different meanings to me, and will continue to evolve in meaning. This is the same for all users.
The question is how to preserve these meanings for everyone, how can we continue to make a space for people to enjoy and connect with the beauty of river ways? Once we begin to exclude one group of users, we begin to define how people should experience nature. Is it possible to have a shared space, where everyone can feel comfortable? How can we open our minds to different ways people want to experience nature?
This is an extreme example, as most river property doesn’t include the option for Naturists. I wanted to evoke other people into thinking about the uses of your parks and areas where you connect to nature. If you don’t work in your community to define what the community’s identity is, the government will decide for you. There are many obstacles to people connecting with nature already. The walls have been built up and tools for us to ignore the outside world are all around us.
How can we break these walls and use technology to bring us closer to the river?