Seven-eleven. Would this be a lucky day? It certainly didn’t start auspiciously. Though she’d made me a delicious french toast breakfast Thursday, I had two reasons to skip Liz’s breakfast on Friday. First, I had a rather strange driving plan in mind for the day. I expected to drive south on the Wisconsin River Road but cross the river to Minnesota to make two stops. Then I’d backtrack north but cross to Wisconsin so I wanted to get started before Liz’s 09:00 breakfast schedule. Second, I planned to stop for a big lunch in Pepin, Wisconsin and didn’t want to weigh myself down with a big breakfast.
The inauspicious start to the day was the steady and heavy rainfall pouring down on St. Paul. Like any good traveler, I’d left my umbrella in the car where it was perfectly useless. Thus, I found myself soaked and sodden when I reached my car that was parked nearly two blocks away. The downpour worsened as I started the drive south and I hoped I would outrace the storm by the time I reached my first planned destination – the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, MN.
Indulge me in a brief digression about traveling the Great River Road specifically or other travels more generally. With respect to the GRR, as I mentioned in an earlier entry, the road doesn’t always trace the river. Some sections of the road abut the river, on other sections you are above the river but it is generally in sight, and still others are through rural countryside miles from the river. Now, although the Great River Road holds an official designation as an American scenic byway, I quickly learned that for much of its length, there’s not a single road GRR. For example, once you reach Hastings, MN, you can drive the along Minnesota GRR on the west side of the river or along the Wisconsin GRR on the river’s east bank. Or you can cross between the states. I think there are seven crossing points between Hastings and La Crosse. I’ve found no source that provides any guidance regarding which section most closely parallels the river or which might be considered more scenic. You simply roll the dice and take your chances.
The second part of the digression also addresses the issue of choices. Unless your time is unlimited you need to select the attractions you think will be of interest to you and attend those while knowing that you may not see some other worthwhile sight. I note this because my choices for this particular Friday were to visit the National Eagle Center, to have lunch at the Harbor View Cafe in Pepin, Wisconsin, and to visit the Minnesota Marine Art Museum (MMAM) in Winona. Now, I could have chosen to take the Red Wing Pottery tour in Red Wing or taken a riverboat excursion in in Lake City, or stop at the Polish Cultural Institute in Winona. The list goes on. I did a bit of research before I departed and tagged these three spots as my places of interest. Were you to follow the GRR, you could make entirely different choices.
Now let me get back on point. One effect of the rain resulted in an altered route. Because the Harbor View Cafe is closed until 11:00, I’d initially planned to drive to Winona, visist the MMAM then backtrack to Pepin and Wabasha. The rain slowed my driving and conspired with the two museums – neither of which opens until 10:00 to force a change that made my projected south-northeast-west-southeast route make even less sense than it had in the planning stage. Still, I did cross into Wisconsin because I’d read or been told that the the Wisconsin side of the GRR was the more scenic choice. This may be the case but as I noted, the river is not often in sight. When it is, however
it can be stunning. This picture was taken quickly because of the rain so it might not be as impressive as it would have had I taken time to frame it better. Still, I’m not certain that my limited ability to visualize coupled with the limitations of my small camera can adequately capture these dramatic views.
By the time I reached the National Eagle Center, the rain appeared to be easing and it was well past 10:00. The Center is located in Wabasha because this is a section of the river that doesn’t freeze in the winter and hence is a wintering spot for bald and golden eagles. Thus, the two raptor species can be reliably viewed in the wild.
The National Eagle Center exists to observe eagles and, when necessary to rescue and release injured birds in conjunction with the University of Minnesota. Many eagles are injured in impacts mostly with vehicles. Some die from these impacts. Starvation, disease, shooting, poisoning, and electrocution are among the leading causes of death. Lead poisoning is also a common cause of injury and is most often fatal. The Raptor Center of the University of Minnesota has found that about a quarter of the eagles admitted for rehabilitation in the last 40 years have lead in their system.
The Center currently has five birds – four bald eagles and one golden eagle whose injuries were to severe to allow them to be released back into the wild. They are used for demonstration and educational purposes to visitors. Lunch! Yum!
Having visited the Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Sitka, Alaska years ago and probably inflating in in memory to something greater than it was I was less impressed with this eagle center than I might otherwise have been. Still, I learned that an eagle’s eye is the same size as a human’s eye (in a much smaller skull) and that they have two centers of focus allowing them to see to the side and the front simultaneously. All in all, I found it worth the stop.
Next up was something I’d been anticipating since the planning stages of this trip: lunch at the Harbor View Cafe in Pepin. It seems odd that one can find a restaurant of this renown in a small more or less out of the way place like Pepin but such is the case. The menu changes daily and is written on a chalkboard above the bar. It’s not an inexpensive lunch – entrees priced between $15 and $33. The staff is exceedingly helpful. I had a piece of Alaska king salmon cooked to perfection served on a bed of kale with a mustard butter sauce served on the side (without request), a bit of homemade cranberry sauce and two red potatoes accompanied the dish. The restaurant looks out on the river so this adds to the ambiance. I hadn’t planned to take any photos by my server, Kayla, who was nice, helpful, and chatted with me about the trip, suggested a photo of the two of us.
Next up was the MMAM in Winona. This is a relatively new art museum. It opened in 2006 and houses a small, growing, and world class collection including works by Bierstadt, Turner, O’Keeffe, and Mary Cassatt among others. I was able to see William Bradford’s Expeditions to the Arctic as one of the special exhibitions. There was also an exhibition of woodcut prints by a regional artist. The paintings are on loan from a private collection of the museum’s principal backers Winona residents who made their fortune in a hardware supply business. However, since all the pictures are effectively on loan no photography is permitted inside. (Thus the limited number of pictures in the folder above.)
One amazing moment on this visit actually came before I entered the museum. I pulled into a relatively empty parking lot and chose a space at random. When I opened the car door, I saw:
Some sort of omen, perhaps? Now it was onto La Crosse a place I had to stay despite the fact that its name has no connection to the game we so love in Maryland. I had dinner at a Cajun style restaurant called Buzzard Billy. The beer that accompanied my dinner was Pearl Street Pale Ale – and American pale ale brewed locally in La Crosse. It’s a good beer that is still a bit too sharp for my fruity preferring palate. La Crosse actually looks like a fairly interesting place. The downtown area is filled with local of restaurants, bakeries, bars, and bistros.
Oh, and the six pack of the title? Well, when visiting La Crosse, the bit of Americana one must see is this:
In this album, I’ve included a close up of the sign describing the contents of this structure. You’ll also get introduced to Gambrinus – the true King of Beers. Tonight La Crosse. Tomorrow Dubuque.