• Roberta Rathert

Sheep, War, and the Bad Axe Confluence.


I bought a farm on a high ridge ten miles east of the Mississippi River and right above Newton Valley. It was German Ridge to the old who were born there but became Hickory Ridge or Pumpkin over years’ time. Then commonly known to everyone as Harmony Township.


A plane flew over one day and took a photograph from the air. Weeks after, a knock at the door brought me face-to-face to a man holding an overbig frame with a picture inside. Our pastures and woods, the hayfield, both barns, the filled woodshed and redone hen house and run, all the chickens and even the sheep flocks showed, all from a height we never knew. Of course, the salesman wanted me to buy it but more noteworthy to me was the arched horizon bounded by the Mississippi River’s blue flow. This is the cause of me buying the image in the end.


Working on this farm, driving to and from it, just living in it and on it for those many years, we never saw the river from our ground. A captured view elevated just above treetops gave the relationship of the far-off river and our place. From airplane height, ten miles was not far off but much unlike our driving over ridge and valley roads in a farm truck.


Besides raising our grandson there, his other grandma and I raised Katahdin meat sheep for ethnic markets in Minneapolis and Chicago. Somalian, Greek, and orthodox Jewish buyers came from distance to bid on the lambs we put out. We also sold breeding stock to other shepherds, and then elder sheep to petting zoos and those who wanted livestock to mow their lawn. The work was not easy for two grandmas and a boy but we were diligent in every aspect for twenty years. Breeding and lambing, raising hay, providing pasture and grain, cracking winter ice for water, plowing snow and mowing, hauling feed sacks too heavy to hold, keeping the flocks to USDA standards for health, all solid work. Some days we loved it, other days we just did it.


Our pastures were divided into four portions and each was divided in two. The system we configured worked by itself just by opening and closing gates, keeping freshened ewes with lambs together and moving in thick green pasture. The unfreshened grazed in other nearby paddocks with their group kind only. Ewe sheep went to new grass just by sending our grandson to switch gates easy enough. Rams were kept remote in their pens, gone from the ewes as we managed their reproduction. These rams butt heads till bloody and chased humans in circles around their single livestock shelters. Intact male sheep rarely tire from a chase but wear quickly from each breeding forty ewes. It took us some seasons to realize rams cannot butt if their eyes are covered. This is how we finally overpowered the chase and head-butts, by tossing a grain sack on the top of their horns.

The land was rolling with its share of furrows and ravines, plus a pond that flowed downward toward a crease and then into a second pond that overflowed to a rocky creek bed passing through our woods. From an overhead view, it was easy to follow the water as it left our land and ran northeast through what neighbors thought was a civil war backroad. By now it was grown in but took on the flow of water from our ponds. From the air, it was evident that the curvature of this ran like a giant comma gently downward nearly two miles from our home place. It leveled off below as it crossed under a little bridge on a county road labeled Y just before a hard curve, and then poured its small amount of water into the narrow North Branch of the Bad Axe River. A few hundred yards back from that spot was a dam holding back the Bad Axe that originates at Esofea. The lake made from the holdback is called Runge Hollow where many local humans find fish and fun while likely not knowing or having any concern for where all the water rises.


As the North Branch comes down to make Runge Hollow, it flows through the lake and under the dam. The lake itself is a source of leisure for those who live there, boating, swimming, and fishing for panfish, bass and trout. Winter it's covered with ice and fishing, maybe some skating. It’s a small lake, not even 40 acres, and it is only 15 feet at the deepest. I kayaked this lake sometimes only two miles from the farm, but after a body floated up to a small fishing boat, I stopped using that water for fun. Some people believe it was suicide, the woman having carried cement blocks and chain to sink herself in despair. Most of us have other ideas what happened.


At the below-dam side of the lake, the North Branch continues its flow through Newton Valley, near burial mounds of early nomads, and toward its end at the Mississippi River near Victory. Even though the Bad Axe spends its entire length on the west end of Vernon County, it has three forks that have been the blame of devastation for decades of flooding. The North Fork runs southwesterly, 31 miles from start to finish. The South Fork rises to run only sixteen. The main Bad Axe stem is a result of the two forks merging, then running just over four miles where it blends with the Mississippi River. This confluence is nearly undetectable most days, but during a flood season, I imagine its rushing sounds and turbulence.


I have heard of destruction caused by the Bad Axe branches overflowing their banks, including the third branch, the Springville Branch of the Bad Axe River, and I have experienced the ruin firsthand. In the 2008 floods, living on the highest ridgetop and on a raised-up portion of that, we did not flood. Our barn took on water when the flooding rain used it to pass through, our basement was full when a walnut clogged the only drain, and our pastures were soggy as they tilted downward toward the woods and soaked like a sponge. But we were stranded at home, unlike so many down-below neighbors whose homes were floating in the valley, and hillsides became mudslides tearing roads and ridges to chunks and small pieces. A woman woke in the rubble of her home that had slid down the ridge side on mud. It skidded to a stop on the Great River Road and its adjacent rail tracks leaving a pile of broken furniture and splintered building. A bulldozer scooped up this house-size rubble and made a giant pile of her stuff in a downtown parking lot. I saw a large flatscreen sticking out at the top of the ruins. All this happening in pouring rain added to the mayhem.


It is during these tragedies that the convergence with the Mississippi is raging and loud. On the day I paddled on my river trip from Lock & Dam 8 toward the Bad Axe confluence, I saw a sand bar with a gentle rise that was large enough to land kayak-smooth and eat some river trail lunch. I thought about the Bad Axe coming up on my navigation and wondered what sounds I would hear. I recalled living above the Bad Axe for twenty years and traveling over its dam on trips to town. It had taken on a good deal of meaning.


So our ponds and pasture drained gently through the comma into the branch that met up eventually with the Mississippi River which then took on water from the Wisconsin, Missouri, and Ohio river giants, and many other various large and small tributaries. Is it of any consequence that my pasture water, rain running through the barn, flooded road water, all ran down paths in the pastures to the ponds to the woods in the comma to the north branch, then to the main stem to the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico to oceans and seas of the world where it all evaporates and makes way back to its beginning? The cycle of water gives life to humans, creatures, and plants with no prejudice. Meaningful to me because I saw it and knew it most days living on a ridge. Water management is a day and night job even at a rise of a high ridge where water gravity-flows downward. It brings livestock drink and mushy pasture, a cause for hoof rot and damp alfalfa hay, worms and other parasites. Water is the battle on a farm, dry land or not.


I pushed away from the sandbar after my apple, nuts, and drink with eagerness to move beyond this next bend. But the Bad Axe confluence was right here at the sandbar where I rested. It was the quiet trickle and peace I found. A confluence, to me, is always fast, full of sound and consequence where it goes, but this one was soothing and unpretentious.


It was at this point where the Bad Axe Massacre was fought 190 years ago on the days of August 1st and 2nd. The United States Army massacred the Fox and Sauk tribes, 500 numbered and at the closure of the Black Hawk War. The indigenous troops were led by Black Hawk’s British Band which included the Sauk and Fox tribes. This was a land war with the United States and its native allies after being accused of stealing indigenous lands. The army troops were nearly three times as many, but casualties included 150 of the 500 native fighters but only a loss of five soldiers from the army troops. The win against the native people has been called ferocious and devastating over the decades, so much to contradict the calm and peace-filled rest on the sandbar. Paddling along the river below the mouth of the Bad Axe, I was particularly caught by its haunted beauty.

The Battle of Bad Axe location is found right here at this place (43.459167, -91.218056) and other commemorative physical attributes surrounding the river are named. Blackhawk County Park, Town of Victory, Battle Bluff, Battle Hollow, Battle Island, and Blackhawk Campground to name a few. As I rested on the sand having quiet lunch, I knew the irony. It is the confluence, the joining of two rivers, waters from many places including my land once owned where sheep grazed quietly. This place, a combining and unification of water and land, two states, Minnesota on the west, Wisconsin to the east. I felt the battle there.


A steamboat sat in the water where I was paddling, but 190 years before. It was attacking any retreating Sauk and Fox Indians fleeing for safety on the Minnesota side. Women with children were some of those who were stopped and assaulted in the water. They were encouraged by their chief to move north for safety amongst the Ho-Chunk but whatever it was, stubbornness or fear, it pushed them to cross the river. Stories say it lasted for hours, two days total, and the ship Warrior returned to Prairie du Chen for firewood fuel. It took five hours to return to commence the fighting. Women, men, and children fled the slaughter through the Mississippi water and were killed or drowned right there. This was a ruthless and fierce fight to hold on to land that sits quietly today with hardly a few aware of anything significant there. The history of heartlessness against native people, for the cost of it and its worth, is palpable here just at the mouth of the Bad Axe River as it moves quietly to the Mississippi.


It is an unsettling and disturbing coming-together of a complicated number of things. The peoples of difference, white and indigenous, powerful and overpowered, past and present, my farm and these river waters, a comma of water from rains and flood, sheep and war, land and water, life and death, fighting for land that becomes a campground and park, uninhabited islands worth killing for, and untouched wooded land not worth dying today. There is after-quiet death and horror over this place but to only those of us who know. It is surreal to know and surreal to not know.


The very word and action of confluence means coming together. To join two or more and then flow together. It is the message of Paddling for Hope. Remember we are humans meant to bring difference to enrich lives. Encourage the love with me, to pour from us for everyone now and everyone then.


I am going to return to the Bad Axe mouth as it flows into the Mississippi River at the location of the Bad Axe Massacre. Many moments of silence are owed to those lost who fought for life, who died, drowned or starved. Children, grandparents, youth, women, and men, on both sides, died in panic, humans taken by humans there. It is impossible to paddle through this sweep of the river without taking time to be silent in grief for those still there. Anyone is welcome to join me.

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin,

or his background, or his religion.

People must learn to hate, and

if they can learn to hate,

they can be taught to love,

for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.


Thank you, Nelson Mandela.


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