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Reviewed by:
Lynne Diebel, Crossing the Driftless: A Canoe Trip through a Midwestern Landscape. Madison, WI: Terrace Books, 2015. 248pp. $19.95.

In her acknowledgments, Lynne Diebel thanks two people for help with “the subtitle question” (xiii). Whatever that question was, its final iteration should alert readers to the fact that the Midwest is home to diverse landscapes. The Driftless Area centering on southwestern Wisconsin—so called for its having avoided glaciation and the “drift” of gravel and rocks left behind by the last ice age—is one of the most distinctive. It is decidedly un-midwestern in the popular flatland and cornfield sense, replete with fast-flowing streams, “a rugged landscape of forested hills, deep coulees, bedrock outcrops, and bluffs; of caves, sinkholes, springs, and disappearing streams; of effigy mounds and geologic mounds; of bottomland and blufft op farms” (x). It is one of few landscapes to draw Thoreau out of Massachusetts (for his health, per doctor’s orders), and formed the center of Frank Lloyd Wright’s midwestern upbringing and inspiration. Most visible to the trans-midwestern traveler, the Driftless defies the Midwest’s claim to the straightest roads on Earth, forced to follow steep ravines and watercourses instead of its customary rectangular grid. [End Page 115]

The book follows, chronologically and geographically, Diebel and her husband on a 359-mile canoe trip from near her childhood home at Faribault, Minnesota, to the couple’s longtime home south of Madison, Wisconsin. In a chapter per day, tastefully illustrated by Robert Diebel’s hand drawn maps, the couple paddles down the Cannon River, down the Mississippi, up the Wisconsin, and down the Yahara River, with several portages and some rides from helpful friends, family, and strangers. If this were all the book did, Crossing the Driftless would succeed on Diebel’s attentiveness; she is clearly of the mind that a canoe trip is the proper speed at which to appreciate a landscape. Such a narrative echoes nineteenth-century writers like Mark Twain, George Catlin, Reuben Gold Thwaites, and others whom Diebel read in preparation for paddling and writing. But Diebel deftly interweaves her trip with exposition about the rivers’ deep geological and more recent human history.

Most of that recent history centers on disagreements about the Driftless’ status as part of a midwestern agricultural heartland versus something else, a wilderness of trout streams, mussel beds, native plant habitat, or playground for urbanites from Chicago, Madison, the Twin Cities, and as far away as Europe. Along the Cannon River, the small grist mills are a reminder of the way that Midwest-as-farm-country does not only recall the way that Pillsbury and General Mills built Minneapolis, but also the way small communities on the fast-flowing waters of the Driftless region grew. Indeed the Diebels paddle past Malt-O-Meal brands in Northfield, Minnesota, a company whose presence hints at the centrality of agriculture in establishing a small city that today is a bastion of higher education (town motto: “Cows, Colleges, and Contentment”!). Diebel is also beautifully perceptive of the ironies in watershed management throughout the Driftless and beyond; the cross-purposes to which Congress and industry groups have tried to put the Mississippi, or the way that government has subsidized human development in flood plains through levee construction and, when levees fail, also pay with taxpayer-subsidized flood relief. Though many of these debates could be political in nature, Diebel refrains from making them so, and allows landowners and other river users to reveal their respective stances in “the struggle between our economics and our ecosystems” (125).

Paddling for twelve consecutive days is hard, and even to the aficionado, can grow tiresome. The monotony lends itself to wanderings of the mind, like the river itself, and these wanderings are where Crossing the Driftless shines. This form gives the book the quality of recreating a canoe voyage [End Page 116] for the reader, only Diebel’s musings, informed by conversations with biologists, geologists, and other river experts, are more insightful than those of the average paddler. The book, published by the trade imprint of the University of Wisconsin Press, lacks footnotes, but scholars should not brush it...


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