By Jim Force

Special to Wausau Pilot & Review

I can count on one hand the times I’ve won anything. So I was stunned when our boat-building instructor, John Karbott, reached into the coffee can and pulled out my name.

“Jim Fawse,” he proclaimed in his New England accent.

I had won the 12-foot semi-dory row boat my class and I had built at the Wooden Boat School that sunny week in Maine in 1999. Wide cedar planks form its flat bottom, and the sides are marine plywood, the overlapping boards riveted together in what is know as “lapstrake” design. The transom (rear end) is 5/4 pine and the interior frames and supports are oak.

I paid $875 for materials, found a shipper who trucked it to Wausau for a couple of six-packs, and spent over a year meticulously finishing it with varnish and marine enamel. I ordered new oars and oar locks, made the leather collars and oar lock platforms, and have rowed her every summer since on lakes and rivers in the area.

Usually, though, my trip is on the Wisconsin River near Oak Island. At the launching ramp, I get an admiring comment or two from the joggers or walkers on the river edge trail–those few who appreciate wood over fiberglass.

The rowboat at the launch. Photo: Jim Force

Once on the water, it is remarkably quiet. Here in the middle of the city the only sounds are church bells, maybe the train, and the soft churning noise from the 3M plant on the west side.

I look for the heron–usually stationed at the point where the north end of Fern Island pokes into the river. She (or he) and I have spent many moments warily eyeing each other. The bird stands motionless, a thin statue, then takes slow, measured steps with its stilt-like legs.

Farther up the channel, I encounter otters playing tag under the bank. Sometimes, I scare up a speckled young whitetail who’s come out of the woods to the river’s edge for a drink.

It’s remarkably like the description of this ancient river in Michael Kronenwetter’s splendid and informative book Story of Wausau and Marathon County.

He imagined the river bank 200 years ago as a “thick untouched forest teeming with life.”

“Competing bird songs filled the air and squirrels leaped from tree to tree,” he wrote. “Skunks and other small animals scurried beneath the underbrush. Otters frolicked mockingly (around the early explorers canoes) and deer darted among the pines.”

The Wisconsin River, of course, is a major artery in the state’s history and development. Formed when a ribbon of buried glacial ice melted, it courses from the northern highlands over 400 miles to its rendezvous with the Mississippi near Prairie du Chien. Geologists have concluded that it followed the existing valley through our area before spilling onto the sandy plains below Stevens Point.

The reflection on thee water gives lily pads a Monet-like feel. Photo by Jim Force

The native Sauk and Fox had the place to themselves until the explorers discovered it on their search for a route to the west. Kronenwetter reports that a pair of fur-trading adventurers–Menard Chouart and his brother-in-law Pierre Espirit Radisson–were probably the first whites to travel down the river in 1659 or 1660. The Jesuit priest Rene Menard–who vanished near here–explored the river in late summer, 1661.

At Wausau, they would have had to negotiate the rapids later known as “Big Bull Falls.” That dangerous stretch of water led to numerous dams and bridges as the city and its many mills developed. Much of that infrastructure was swept away in a big-time flood in 1912.

Today, the Wisconsin Public Service dam–built in 1921-1924– takes advantage of that drop in elevation to produce up to 5.4 megawatts of power while regulating flow, according to the WPS website. It’s Dam No. 12 in a series of 26 dams on the river, from Lac Vieux Desert in the north to Prairie du Sac in the south.

And the relief channel around the dam on the river’s east side–originally designed to pass excess water and chunks of ice– has become a world-class whitewater kayak course since its inception in 1974. Wausau Whitewater information calls it one of the few championship level natural courses in the world. Recently , it’s been getting a facelift, with the local organizers hoping for more worldwide competition in the years ahead.

This afternoon, as the hot summer day cools and shadows lengthen, I row all the way up to the bottom of the kayak channel, poking carefully among the sandbars and rocks, remembering the Irish and British paddlers who competed here in the ‘90s and stayed at our house.

Then I drift back. A flotilla of water bugs follows me on the surface and a dragonfly hitches a ride on the empty seat in front of me.

As the current pushes me around the bends and past the inlets and overhanging tree limbs, I imagine smelling campfire smoke and catching glimpses of Indians or voyageurs crouched around the flickering flames.