Badger Bookshelf: “Crossing the Driftless”

The “Badger” in Badger Bookshelf does not refer to UW-Madison sports teams, or even the state of Wisconsin as a whole. Rather, the reference is to the original meaning of the word as an identifier of place, predating both sports and statehood. The early 19th-century lead miners in what would become southwestern Wisconsin were said to be “badgers” because of the shallow holes they dug to gain access to lead ore. Books reviewed here will be selected from works of authors who either live (or lived) in southwestern Wisconsin, or who write about natural, cultural or historical aspects of the area.

By Peter Schmalz

Crossing the Driftless
By Lynne Diebel
Terrace Books (2015)
230 pp., $19.95

Every person faces many significant challenges in life, often related to health, money, relationships or major decisions. In addition to dealing with these, some individuals pursue extreme goals voluntarily, creating situations of long or short duration that stretch ability, strength, tenacity and organizational skills to the maximum. I have been unsuccessful in finding a single word to capsulize the stretching of oneself in attempting self-initiated megaprojects, but I hope that what follows will illustrate the meaning of this elusive potential word.

As a young man I fantasized about hiking the Appalachian Trail, devoting months to hiking its 2,200 miles. Life, as they say, got in the way. I have a friend who has through-hiked the entire trail – twice — and hearing the stories of his hiking adventures partially makes up for my own lack of the experience. Another friend moved to Colorado after retirement to expedite his goal to climb the 53 mountains over 14,000 feet in that state. He has achieved this objective, in his late 60’s and 70’s. Both these men are driven by passion for a particular kind of experience, and their projects are different from the more common “bucket list,” which can be superficial and, at times, downright silly.

Often, giant efforts of human will are physical, like hiking or mountain climbing, but can also be social, intellectual or artistic. Well past the extreme sports stage of life, I find my own megaprojects take the form of reading all the works of Henry James, or listening to all the compositions of Beethoven. I haven’t done the math, but it seems that if all the pages of the complete Henry James were laid end-to-end, their length would be close to that of the Appalachian Trail. I am quite sure that it is taking me more reading hours to survey James’ works than it would to hike the Trail! In any case, the most important characteristic of very large goals is that they are driven by personal passion, not by seeking the attentions of others through fame or fortune. Those who are willing to expend great effort over time, and who have the capacity to deal with frustration and discomfort, will find satisfaction that transcends mundane rewards. They dig deeply into a place, a physical challenge, a collection of creative works, a language, a technique, an historical era or a cuisine. The possibilities are limitless. Upon completion of such a project, they are ready to move on to the next, which might be of a very different type.

Fortunately for all of us, some individuals who attempt – and usually complete – megaprojects leave a record of their adventures in writing. One such person is Lynne Diebel, who has paddled thousands of canoe miles in Minnesota with her husband, Bob, and has written two guidebooks about their experiences. Her most recent book, “Crossing the Driftless,” is a chronicle of a 359-mile canoe journey Lynne and Bob made from Faribault, MN, to their home in Stoughton, WI. Almost all of this route is through the Driftless Area, the topographical anomaly shaped by rivers, not glaciers, making river travel physically and historically appropriate. Some of the rivers paddled by the Diebels are not linked, necessitating six portages. The trip was difficult physically, and at times psychologically, and was filled with surprises, despite careful planning. Lynne’s expertise as a canoeist is apparent throughout the book.

Also immediately, and continuously, apparent is her expertise and sensitivity as a writer. She has won several awards for her work, with good reason. A travel account of this type can be an uninspired and repetitive list of “we saw, we heard, we suffered.” “Crossing the Driftless” avoids telling personal stories that, however meaningful to the participants, leave the reader yawning. Diebel identifies the theme of the book as an “intersection of cultural and natural landscapes.” Ideas are broadly linked, and illustrated through close-up perspective. The chronological narrative is enriched with observations about river flora and fauna, human contacts, commerce, ecology, history and the impact of engineering. Especially ecology. Diebel’s obvious love of nature drives long discussions of the effects of technological change: dams, pollution and resource exploitation. River restoration, both as a potential and as an accomplishment, is a frequent topic. The ecological sections are saved from environmental polemic by a style that “tells” rather than “preaches.” Indeed, Diebel’s writing succeeds by being plain, without being simplistic, and by taking a humorous approach to the serious aspects of the journey.

Lynne’s husband, Bob, has contributed appealing hand-drawn maps that precede each chapter. Some of the photographic illustrations are too small for their subject. The book should resonate with readers of Voice of the River Valley since its second half follows the progress of the Diebels upstream on the Wisconsin River. In this telling, an intensive canoe trip, with its challenges and rewards, is presented as a metaphor for life. In fact, every “Big Venture” should be seen as a life metaphor: Despite knowledgeable planning, surprises – good and bad – require spontaneous and resourceful thought and action.

Peter Schmalz is a retired high school music teacher with interests in classical music, philosophy, history, literature, visual arts, model railroading and cooking. He lives in Mineral Point.