|Paddlers pack into Appleton lock #4 on their way to |
Sunset Point Park in Kimberly. David Horst photo
Living history, unseasonable warmth and the promise of eagles — all trimmed in fall color — made for a perfect combination to draw a crowd to the last Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Paddle of the season.
We had 194 paddlers take to their kayaks, canoes and stand-up boards to tour the four Appleton locks Saturday, Sept. 27. We launched from Appleton’s Lutz Park and landed just over two hours later 6.5 miles downstream at Kimberly’s Sunset Point Park.
Along the way, four lockages courtesy of the Fox River Navigational System Authority required sardine-like proximity for the 130 paddle craft, two 10-person voyageur canoes and safety patrol boats from the Outagamie County Sheriff’s Department and Appleton Fire Department.
The lock tender opened the valves and the water drained quickly, lowering us the six feet or so that in pioneer times would have been a rocky rapids. The lower Fox River drops about 170 feet in all from Lake Winnebago to Green Bay.
Back in July for the Park-to-Park paddle, the locks drew a lot of attention because of the need to portage around the disabled Menasha lock, which has since been repaired. On this day, the four locks operated flawlessly, to zero fanfare.
Once the water level is equalized with the river downstream, the tender grips a steel rod and walks around and around the large gear assembly that opens the lock’s wooden gates. There’s a special charm in knowing that in the late 1800s, a lock tender’s steps tread that same circular path to allow the Fox River to be a route for commerce.
The railroads quickly turned the lock system into a relic. Thanks to the efforts of a lot of people for a long time, we still have that relic as a potential recreation and tourism treasure.
There must be some magic left in that old iron. This is the fifth year that we’ve offered the locks trip as part of the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Paddle series, a cooperative venture of the nonprofits North East Wisconsin Paddlers and Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway, and the numbers keep growing.
For the whole 2014 series of eight paddles, we had 613 event participants. Adjusting for those who did multiple events, we come up with 484 unique individuals. I’m especially please to say that 307 of those were first-timers for our events and 47 were younger than 16 years of age.
Enough of the math. Let’s get back to the river.
Jeff Mazanec, the lead volunteer organizer of all of this, boldly promised an eagle sighting before the launch. We weren’t very far downstream when the familiar voice of Portage’s Doug Klapper called out from his standup board, “There’s your eagle.” We would get a closer look at an eagle perched in a tree at Appleton lock #4 and another in flight between there and Kimberly.
The trip also brought us across white pelicans, cormorants and a soaring turkey vulture. In an earlier year, we came across a flock of egrets, a feathery white relative of the heron.
Of course, the trip also brings you in contact with other paddlers. The locks create close contact and give you plenty of time for conversation. Much of it was about past trips or this boat or the other. In lock #2, I struck up a conversation with the owner of four draft horses about the advantages of small square hay bales over large round ones, or vice versa.
I was traveling in one of the voyageurs, which is owned by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources but loaned out to us for several paddles. On board with me were my sister, her husband, two of their friends from their Wisconsin Bell days, two other passengers and Tom Young — the third main organizer of these trips, along with Jeff and me. Two of my nephews paddled my kayaks, to make it quite a family outing.
A seat separated me from my sister, so there was no bickering over elbow and foot room, as there often had been in the ’56 Ford of our childhood.
Maybe the trip has gotten familiar for me, because it passed too fast. Before I knew it, we were racing Mark Gehrke’s voyageur-for-hire, the good ship Nature Current, for the landing in Kimberly.
The boats of so many styles and colors landed at the concrete boat ramp. At least four of the occupants failed to get their land legs and went over as they tried to exit their kayaks.
As always, paddlers helped each other haul boats and gear. They loaded up and drove off into lives where the hierarchy is measured in other ways than length of boat and plastic, Fiberglas or wood.
Before long, we’ll get together again and plot the launches and landings for the sixth year of the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Paddles, and the Appleton locks undoubtedly will be among them.