Jun 152014

You know when you’ve been on vacation when . . .

  • you come home to ankle-high grass
  • all the items you unload from your vehicle(s) make you want to leave for another vacation
  • you’re grateful your neighbor collected the newspaper you forgot to cancel and the package you forgot you ordered
  • after five loads of laundry, you can’t believe the end is not in sight
  • the luncheon meat left in the refrigerator has passed its “best when eaten by” date
  • you thought you got away cleanly without any insect bites, but then the itching begins
  • your laptop is loaded with unread e-mails and waiting-to-be-configured software updates
  • you’re still eating leftovers two days after you come home
  • the mail held by the Post Office consists mostly of unsolicited catalogs, credit card offers, and invitations to tour senior living communities
  • you want to extend your vacation because it went by too quickly.

Yes, that’s exactly how we felt when we came home from a week spent at Backbone State Park in northeastern Iowa. This is the ninth consecutive year we’ve rented a cabin there, and it hasn’t gotten old yet. In fact, it feels more like our home away from home, but a nice, uncluttered one where you can sit down and relax immediately. I admit we do bring a few comforts from home, and that helps.

Cabin Collage

Except for last week Saturday, when it rained, the weather was perfect with temperatures in the mid-70s. Every evening, as the sun set, we built a campfire and either toasted marshmallows or read books, courtesy of our e-readers and tiki-style torches.


It was nice to visit with Nicole Peterman, one of the concessionaires’ daughters. During the school year, she teaches and this year is also completing her master’s degree, but during the summer she helps her parents manage the concession stand. When you arrive at Backbone State Park, this is where you check in and collect your cabin key, and also where you can pick up snacks, drinks, firewood, and other conveniences.


We were charmed, when we pulled up in front of our cabin, to discover that the 2013 Industrial Technology Class of Maquoketa Valley High School had installed a lending library-on-a-post just across from our parking space. It was stocked with about two dozen titles. The glass door is etched with the words, “Take a Book. Leave a Book. Free Book Exchange.” All week long, we observed cabin residents borrowing books or returning them. What a great idea!


I keep a dedicated journal when we stay at Backbone State Park. It’s great to return to previous years’ entries and re-live the memories.


Every year we learn a new fact or two about Backbone State Park. This time we learned that the boathouse, concession stand and Backbone Lake dam were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Great Depression. By the end of 1933, there were 22 CCC camps in Iowa, providing work for young men who would otherwise be out of work. The men were paid $30 a month, plus room and board, but $25 of their pay was sent home to their families. Two of the camps were located at Backbone State Park and were served by about 200 men. The men gathered native materials to build structures, splitting tons of stone for walls and foundations, and felling trees for log beams and posts. Camp SP-2, Company 1756, constructed the dam for the 125-acre Backbone Lake, as well the boathouse and bathhouse. The bathhouse later became the combined concession stand and Beach Lodge, which can be reserved for weddings, graduations, birthdays and other group events. Camp SP-17, Company 781, performed reforestation and erosion control, as well as construction of roads and trails. Backbone Lake is actually a reservoir formed from the damming of the Maquoketa River, a tributary of the Mississippi River, that has been flowing through 150 miles of Iowa since the last Ice Age 16,000 years ago.

This is the original boathouse. In the background you can see the bathhouse, which today is the Beach Store and Lodge.

This is the original boathouse. In the background you can see the bathhouse, which today is the Beach Store and Lodge.

The boathouse today looks very similar to the original one.

The boathouse today looks very similar to the original one. The view in the black-and-white photo faces the lake, while this view faces the shore.

The Beach Store and Lodge look very different from the original from the original bathhouse, although the basic structural lines are the same.

The Beach Store and Lodge look very different from the original bathhouse, although the basic structural lines are the same.

When the reservoir that is now Backbone Lake was formed, two spillways were created. They are easier to see from the other side of the lake.

When the reservoir that is now Backbone Lake was formed, two spillways were created, one on each side of the trees in the center of the photo.

During our annual cabin retreat at Backbone State Park, we make regular trips into the nearby town of Manchester to buy groceries, torch lamp oil and other supplies. One day of each stay, John arms himself with a shopping list and drops me off at The Quiltmaker’s Shoppe so I can shop for fabric. This is always a treat. I tend to buy fabric in half-yard cuts, and plan later what I’ll do with it—probably sew bags, journal covers, and organizers. In the photos below you’ll see Mary Ann at the cash register, and Carol near the cutting table.

The Quiltmakers Shoppe

One of the delights, of course, of being at Backbone State Park, is enjoying nature. You can always find raccoons, both in the forest and in the waste bins. When we chatted with Nicole at the concession stand one day, we remarked that last year John learned that you don’t want to take your trash out to the waste bin at midnight because that’s party time for the raccoons.

“They’re pretty clever,” I said. “They get into everything.”

“Not that clever,” said Nicole. “There was one that knew how to get into the trash bin, but not out. I had to stick a wooden pole in there for it to climb and get out.”

When we were at the northern end of Backbone State Park, we spotted this raccoon, playing in a trout stream.

When we were at the northern end of Backbone State Park, we spotted this raccoon, playing in a trout stream.

Our cabin is located at the southern end of Backbone State Park, but on the last day of our stay, we visited the northern side, which has its own surprises. In my next post, I’ll fill you in.

© 2014 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Jul 252013

There’s a story in my husband’s family that dates back to when John’s father still lived. There was nothing that appealed to him more than a Sunday afternoon drive. One afternoon he asked local neighbors Gary and Maxine to join his wife and him for a ride to get some burgers. When they were 30 miles south of Stevens Point, Gary turned to his friend and asked, “Where are we going?” The answer lay one-and-a-half hours south at Monk’s Bar & Grill, located in the city of Wisconsin Dells.

“You never knew where you’d end up when your dad was driving,” John’s mom said.

One time one of his car trips landed John’s parents in Canada, long before the days you needed a passport to cross over the U.S.-Canadian border.

We repeated his parents’ journey to Wisconsin Dells while we were visiting John’s mother earlier this month, all the way down to Monk’s, where we had burgers and fries.

Monk's Collage

Most people who visit Wisconsin Dells associate it with theme parks and boat rides, gift and souvenir shops, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum, Tommy Bartlett’s Water Show, too many sweet foods to describe, and countless amusements.

Dells Collage

If you visit “the Dells” over a summer weekend, be prepared to bring your wallet, for everything has a price unless you just want to look through the shopfront windows. John and I visited the Dells for a day with his mom, so we took in only a fraction of what the area has to offer. We played mini golf at Timber Falls Adventure Golf, taking time to feed the donkeys and goats, and flattening a penny to take home as a souvenir.

Mini Golf Collage

The highlight of our day, however, was exploring a 10-mile stretch of the Upper Dells of the Wisconsin River on a two-hour Dells Boat Tours ride. At 435 miles, the Wisconsin River is the longest river in the state and, according to the brochure that Ken the boat pilot and his assistant, Madison, sold us, is considered one of the hardest working rivers in the world, with six flood control dams and 21 hydroelectric dams along its route. While there is no doubt that a Dells Boat Tour is a commercial venture run by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, it follows the tradition of the original river pilot and guide, LeRoy Gates, a raftsman who charged visitors a fee for guiding them through the Narrows of the Upper Dells while they rowed and he talked. Gates, who wore a top hat and a dress coat, ran his business successfully for nine years. That spirit of enterprise is alive and well today from the moment you get your photo snapped before you board a tour boat to when you exit the boat and collect a package of photographs for a fee at the same location.


The Upper Dells is noted for its scenic beauty, with outcroppings of sandstone cliffs and narrow canyons. The Wisconsin Dells are one of only four places in the world—New York, Switzerland, Germany and Wisconsin—where you’ll find this type of sandstone that is so soft and porous that tree roots can grow 40 to 50 feet inside it before they locate water to nourish the rest of the tree. Bank swallows from Venezuela migrate each year to the cliffs to dig nests into their sides. The sandstone represents bedrock from the Cambrian period over 500 million years ago, when much of the planet was covered by desert. The word “dells” originates from the French word, dalles, a description of the flat, layered, or slab-like characteristics of the sandstone.


Much of what we learned about the Wisconsin Dells was narrated by Madison, a first-year student at the University of Wisconsin-Steven Point. This is his third summer as a tour guide, and he told us how much he loves his work.

“I even get to drive the boat sometimes,” he said.

Madison Collage

Madison pointed out that though the water of the Wisconsin River looks dirty, it is actually very clean. The river is colored brown by the tannic acid found in the bark and roots of tamarisk and oak trees floating down the river coming from northern Wisconsin and Michigan. Native Americans used to rub tannic acid on animal skins to tan or preserve them.


When you take one of the Dells Boat Tours, you are taking a trip back into time as the river pilot tells tales of the Upper Dells. About 14,000 years ago, a large ice lake gave way, allowing the glacial waters of Wisconsin to flood through the area, cutting out gorges and leaving behind cliffs. These gorges formed the Narrows, treacherous areas where the Wisconsin River narrowed to only 52 feet and the water was so shallow that it formed deadly rapids and swirling whirlpools where a man could drown if he was pulled under. In the mid 1800s, lumberjacks floated logs down the Wisconsin River every spring on rafts to the sawmills north of the Wisconsin Dells; a number of them lost their lives along the way. My husband’s great-grandfather, Edward John Nolan, in fact, was one of these lumberjacks. By the end of the 19th century the railroad replaced rafts for transporting logs to the sawmills. When the first permanent dam was built in 1909, it raised the level of the river about 20 feet and decreased the dangers of the Narrows at the same time.


Native Americans tell their own story of how the Dells formed. Long ago their fathers lived far away and were starving. They prayed for guidance in the grotto of the Green Dragon, and sent the dragon on a journey to find a solution. The Green Dragon arrived in the Land of Ice and Snow, where he could find no food. His heart was so heavy that he stopped to rest, and the beating of his heart was so loud that it carved grooves in the earth where he lay. The Green Dragon crept south, and as he did so, the ice melted and his tail left behind channels of water. Where he clawed his way forward, water filled the impressions and formed lakes. As he traveled, the dragon spat out the game he had eaten before his journey—deer, bear, turkey and sturgeon—and the green quills from his body fell off onto the rocks, forming the seeds of a forest. The banks of the river are forested with hemlocks, and white and red pines.


There are many Native American tales associated with the Wisconsin Dells. One of the rock formations along the river is know as Black Hawk’s Profile, not because his tribe dwelled there, but because the leader and warrior of the Sauk and Fox Indians fled to the area to hide after a terrible battle at Bad Axe River in 1832. Legend tells that Black Hawk leaped across the Wisconsin River at its narrowest point to escape his pursuers. This 52-foot-wide stretch of the river is called Black Hawk’s Leap.

Blackhawk's Profile

All of the boats that are part of the Dells Boat Tours fleet are named for historical figures who played a role in the Wisconsin Dells area. Our boat was named the Joliet in memory of Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, French explorers who followed the Wisconsin River to what they thought they would be the West coast but instead turned out to be the Mississippi River. From the Native Americans who guided them, these two men learned the term “Meskousing” for the river, which over time became “Ouisconsin” and eventually “Wisconsin.” The Wisconsin Historical Society believes that Wisconsin means “River of Red Stone” or “River of the Great Rock.”


The fact that the Dells are in such great condition, historically speaking, is largely the result of the preservation efforts of a Depression-era entrepreneur named George Crandall, who said, “No one can own the Dells. He can only be a custodian for a time.” Crandall observed that the boat piers and resorts developing along the banks of the Wisconsin River were destroying the landscape of the Dells. Over time he purchased so many tracts of land in the area that he ended up owning most of it. He tore down old buildings and reforested the area. Upon his death, his heirs turned over more than 1,200 acres of Wisconsin Dells land to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation with the stipulation that it be kept in its natural state. Today that same land is owned by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which allows only limited access and has named the land a “State Natural Area.”


Passengers of Dells Boat Tours disembark at two points on their journey, one of which is Witches Gulch, a gorge through which a trout stream flows and continues to carve new patterns into the sandstone. Prior to the mid-1800s, access to the area was blocked by debris and a waterfall. However, a clever photographer named Henry Hamilton Bennett visited the Gulch during winter on ice skates, and chiseled his way through. Eventually he partnered with a local steamboat captain to build walkways into the area that have been in use (and of course updated) since 1875. When you visit Witches Gulch today, you use a boardwalk that tunnels through the openings in the cliffs. The sandstone is cool and damp to the touch, and the rock formations are awe-inspiring.

Witches Gulch Collage

The second place where your tour boat docks is along the shoreline where Stand Rock is located, a flat slab of rock that is impaled on a 47-foot-tall layered sandstone pedestal. Stand Rock is the most famous of all the rock formations in the Dells, immortalized by H. H. Bennett when he snapped a photo of his son, Ashley, in mid-air as he jumped a five-foot gap from a cliff to the top of Stand Rock. Bennett, the inventor of stop action photography, asked his son to jump the gap 17 times before he achieved the shot that earned first place in a national photography contest held in New York. Bennett, who moved to the area and became enamoured of the Dells, bought a tintype photography studio from the river tour guide, Leroy Gates. Over the years, he photographed the Wisconsin Dells frequently, which brought visitors to the area. He also befriended the local Ho-Chunk Indians and photographed them, documenting their culture.


Until the 1940s, when insurance companies expressed concerns, visitors reenacted the jump between the cliff and Stand Rock that Bennett’s son made. Today trained dogs make the jump instead, with a safety net below. While we were there, we observed a German shepherd in action.

At the Stand Rock shore landing are interesting rock formations, among them Visor Ledge, where descendants of the Ho-Chunk danced Native American ceremonial dances.


Many of the famous sandstone formations were named by Bennett, who sold the images on post cards.  Among the formations is the Junior Chimney (shown below), which is a smaller version of the second-most photographed formation, Chimney Rock. Both resemble the stick-and-mortar chimneys used by pioneers.

Junior Chimney Collage

In 1938 the water crested four feet above the top of Giant’s Shield, which looks like a warrior’s shield.


The last remaining resort built along the shores of the Upper Dells is Chula Vista, which is Spanish for “beautiful view.” You can see the stairs leading to the resort in this photo.


The name of the Sunset Cliffs speaks for itself. You can imagine what they look like at sunset, with the light glinting off them.

Sunset Cliffs Collage

At the head of the Upper Dells are sandstone cliffs called the Palisades, which were named after the Palisades of the Hudson River that borders New York and New Jersey. If you look at them closely, you can see how they represent a picket fence, which is what a palisade actually is.

Palisades Collage

Our two-hour journey through the Upper Dells of the Wisconsin River went quickly—perhaps too much so—but was thoroughly enjoyable and provided the capstone event of our day trip. Apparently you can book a dinner cruise on one of the Dells Boat Tours. Who knows? Perhaps we will do that one day.

Lasting Memories Collage

© 2013 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.