Measuring from the Sauk City Dam, the Lower Wisconsin River flows almost 90 miles to its confluence with the Mississippi. I’ve paddled as far as 40 miles in a day in fast water in April, but that’s only because I woke up at 4:30 a.m. shivering due to an unexpected freeze the night before. Lone Rock is famous for its bone-chilling cold.
Paddling 40 miles in a day at full speed isn’t normal for me. Now I follow my own advice that the last one off the water wins. Last one off the water means go slower, not faster. I take backroads, not Interstates, on land, and my riparian travel habits are identical. I often stop to poke around a sandbar, looking at animal tracks and fragments of shells from newly hatched turtles. Sometimes I stop for no reason at all. It’s the opposite of my old childhood whining are we there yet? Nope. Not there yet.
Of course, stopping for no reason is a reason. It’s to slow everything down. To savor it. I admit I have a habit of unbridled rapidity in too many areas of my life, and this stopping thing: it’s good for me.
The longer I stay, the more I see. Not just the heron tracks the size of my palm, but the sandpiper tracks that look like engravings in the wet sand. Unlike the gouges left by the heron’s claws, the sandpiper’s are too light to displace much sand, but their delicacy is enhanced by their ephemeral nature.
If the otters have been busy, sometimes you find the discarded shell of a river mussel. Wisconsin has dozens of species, all with a luscious nacre comparable to any oyster. The people who named the mussels were surely enjoying themselves. Some, like the Elktoe, Monkeyface and Slippershell, are thriving. Others, such as the Purple Wartyback, Sheepnose and Spectacle Case, are endangered. The otters don’t differentiate.
There are other ways to slow down too. Sandbars are a favorite, but so are cemeteries.
Right around mile 65, as Marietta township ends and Wauzeka township begins, you’ll find the unincorporated community of Boydtown, so named by Robert Boyd, who laid out his plat in 1844, anticipating the railroad. Sadly for Mr. Boyd, the railroad chose the southern bank through Boscobel and Muscoda. Boydtown is located at the mouth of Boydtown Hollow, along which runs Boydtown Hollow Road. He didn’t get his railroad, but at least he made his mark.
On a hillock overlooking the river is the Boydtown Cemetery, as pleasant a place one could ever desire for their last permanent real estate. There are approximately 160 graves, and about half as many headstones, dating from 1853 to 1979. One might imagine a gravedigger in 1900 pausing to cool off in the breeze, admiring the view upstream.
I have counted over a dozen small cemeteries along the river. Walking among the headstones and remnants of headstones is one of my favorite pastimes, teasing as much history as I can from the names and dates. Numerous dates correspond to the influenza epidemic that swept through southwest Wisconsin in 1918. George Wayne, died 1852, the first child born in Boydtown. There’s Inez Davis, died 1906, aged 25 years, 7 months and 7 days. Buried with her is “infant,” died 1906, age one day. The heartbreak of a mother dying in childbirth along with her baby is intensified by the absence of Mr. Davis. I can imagine him wanting to get as far away as he could from Boydtown.
I came across a cluster of Bush names that were unexpected in this place. Normally Wisconsin cemeteries are full of Norwegian and German surnames, but even in the English/Welsh southwest, it’s startling to see your own name splashed across a century-old piece of granite. My ancestors came from England and Wales about the same time these Bushes were settling in Boydtown, and they are, as far as I can tell, no direct relation, but it does make me wonder if we’re somehow cousins. I patted the warm stone and pulled a few weeds from around the Bush stones just in case.
Wonderful names grace these monuments, anachronisms today, but still poetic and lovely to the ear. Althea Ioline Titus Ward. Ebenezer L. Keilley. Gilbert G. Buckmaster, and my favorite, Chester Zephaniah Faust. Every name belongs to a person, and on a contemplative summer afternoon, one begins to think about their lives. A skilled genealogist might find when they were born, christened, went to school, married, worked, bought a piece of land or two, and died, but other than that, it’s pretty slim pickings. It’s frustrating: There are stories in every structure, even stories in places where a grave marker belongs and is conspicuous in its absence. You get the feeling that personal histories lie just under the surface of every tree, building and rock. You might find a diary or short history at the state Historical Society, but the majority of the history of many of these people is lost forever.
Today, Boydtown is not so much a community as a group of houses, the older ones vine-covered and abandoned to the elements. One wonders about the fickle comings and goings of cities and towns, why their residents built there and then a few decades later pulled up stakes and moved on. I’m sure the railroad had an impact.
It makes me want to write down my history, so that my great-grandchildren will know their great-grampa, a normal sort of non-famous person, and how he spent his time. Will my progenitors, a hundred years from now, have any idea about my history? That’s pretty much up to me, I suppose. They might find some of my writing here and there on whatever the internet looks like in a century.
It gives a guy something to think about while he’s paddling a stretch of my river, downstream of Boydtown.
Darren Bush, who owns Rutabaga Paddlesports, won gold for sports writing in the 2017 Milwaukee Press Club awards for his Isthmus story about tenkara, Japanese fly fishing.
If you are interested in writing a personal essay for Isthmus, please query firstname.lastname@example.org.