March is a season of change on the Upper Mississippi River. Today I watch from the banks of La Crosse as the ice sheaths break apart in the main channel, spurred on by a recent heat wave. Watching this action is bittersweet, as the warmer weather has forced me to put away my ice fishing gear for the season, but will soon allow me to dust off my Old-Town and paddle the river backwaters located across the main channel from where I am standing. For now, I must wait, and leave our part of the river for the birds… literally. Hundreds of gulls stand along edges of the open water, jockeying for position to snatch up any bits of food that pass by. Bald eagles are present in this fray as well. These fierce predators come back to the La Crosse area with each coming spring, timing their arrival with the breaking of the ice to search for food and spring nesting sites. Today I count 23 of their bald heads, dispersed through the masses of gulls on the ice. Let these birds have this time on the river for themselves, for my time on the water is coming soon.
Soon the main channel will be open to more than just the benefit of the avian kind. The warming weather will bring to La Crosse massive river barges, some over 1000 feet long, carrying with them grain, soybeans, or coal to fuel our nations commerce in one way or another. Along with the barges will come the yachtsmen, the house-boaters, the bass-pros, and all other forms of the weekend warriors who will speed their way to our banks. In contrast to Mississippi’s main channel is the rivers shallower, more vegetated backwaters. Its area is rich in biodiversity, and, thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is largely public land. It is a canoers paradise, and an area ripe for fishing and exploring. I look forward to my homecoming with this place each spring and the time for a reunion is almost upon us.