The Valley Below
Minnesota Monthly, June 1999
© 1999 by Greg Breining
IT IS A BEAUTIFUL DAY on the sharp edge that divides summer from fall. Some trees are green; others are nearly bare. My trout season always comes to this: Inevitably I have fished less than I would like, and I've scrambled to spend the final day or two on some branch or tributary of the Whitewater River, with fallen leaves dancing on the riffles and floating in the pools.
We are surrounded by hills. Well, they are not hills so much as not the valley — a kind of negative topography. The Whitewater State Park valley is a subterranean oasis, a refuge sunk below a horizon of corn and soybeans. One moment you are driving amid farm fields, and the next, your car noses down and enters a parallel dimension of oaks, bluffs and babbling streams. But if I were to follow one of the hiking trails to the top of the bluffs, rather than looking out over the entire landscape, I would simply be looking eye-to-eye with the cornfields south of the valley.
I have forgotten how beautiful this stream is. Trout Run is a small tributary of the Middle Branch of the Whitewater. A gusher of cold, spring water, it spans for the most part only 10 to 15 feet. In places it squeezes down to less than a yard. Its fringes are covered with watercress, which tastes both fresh and hot, like wasabi. It is exquisite in its crystalline perfection. I have stolen that phrase from my friend Susan. She stands just downstream, counting the fish she sees in a deep but perfectly transparent pool.
"This is like a laboratory," she said. "You can see their mouths opening and closing. They're eating stuff down there." She casts a small wet fly. "They come up and sniff it." What they are eating more than likely are the drifting or swimming nymphs of small aquatic insects. Exactly what kind, we don't know, which is one reason, among many perhaps, we are not catching any. Finally I manage to catch a small brook trout. Its spots are the color of cloudless sky and summer sunsets. Its green back is as dark and dappled as the shadowed stream in the evening light. Hiking downstream, we come to a spot where the stream undercuts a tree along the bank, leaving an umbrella of roots overhanging the water. Surely there is a trout in there. I cast toward the roots. A strike! But I lose it. We move closer and I cast again. Soon we discern the outlines of a trout beneath the roots. It measures perhaps 12 to 14 inches. I cast and cast and cast, but it won't bite. Or even move. I begin to think it might be a figment of gloaming and moving water and suggestive river bottom. A stone trout. Finally I snag the root wad with my fly. As I pull, the roots vibrate. Trout appear from nowhere and flee in terror, but my target stands fast. Then, as I pull the fly free and knock several branches into the water, it too speeds downstream.
As we hike along the stream back toward the car, we hear a screech, a cross between a cat and tropical bird. The forest of the Whitewater Valley is lush and southern. Compared with the boreal shore of Lake Superior, where I have spent much of the summer, the woods here has a junglelike abundance. With bitternut hickory, black walnut, and honeylocust it resembles the forests of the Ozarks or Appalachians. Underbrush lassos your feet. Thorns and burrs snag your clothes. Timber rattles snakes sun on the rocky bluffs. Opossums emerge as night falls. Birds make strange, vigorous calls.
Finally we spot the source of the squalling — an owl perched atop a dead tree. By all appearances it is a great horned, most likely a juvenile not yet in command of proper owl noises demanding food from an unseen parent. Dampness creeps through the stream valley. Cream-colored cliffs, rising more than 200 feet above the valley, catch the last rays of the falling sun. Glowing and buoyant, they preside over a timeless valley.
THAT EVENING WE DRIVE TO ELBA, three miles north of the park at the confluence of the three main branches of the Whitewater. Of the region's trout fishing, Elba is the epicenter. We crowd into the Elba House for buffalo burgers and then walk across the street to Mauer Brothers, which has all the requisites of a sportsman's bar: detailed and lifeless wildlife art, trophy deer racks, a moose head, a stuffed badger, turkey, coyote and ducks. It's the first day of the archery deer season, and a line of camouflage shirts and jackets at the bar quaff 80-cent beers. On the wall, beneath several mounted trout stuffed to the proportions of footballs, are the weekly results of the Mauer's Brown Trout contest. To be eligible, a fish must be a brown trout caught in a branch or tributary of the Whitewater River. Weekly winners get a 12-pack of beer or pop. Susan and I scan down the weekly results: 5 pounds, 2 ounces, caught on a night crawler. Three pounds, 8 ounces — night crawler. Seven pounds, 2 ounces —chub meat. Chub meat! In years of fly fishing on the Whitewater, the largest trout I have caught measured 17 inches — 2 pounds max. Four pounds, 2 ounces — chub meat. What would it take, I wonder, to tie a fly that looks and smells like chub meat?
We camp in the Whitewater State Park campground, in one of the last sites available fronting the Middle Branch of the Whitewater. During the night lightning crashes and thunder ricochets off the hills. Rain falls steadily on our tent. The name Whitewater was bestowed by Dakota Indians for the river's turbidity after heavy rains. Some erosion of the steep hills apparently was natural. But during the late 1800s white settlers of the area switched from wheat, which held soil comparatively well, to corn, which protected it hardly at all, especially when hills were plowed up and down the slope. With the advent of tractors, farmers plowed steeper slopes. Hills too steep to plant were logged and put to pasture. By the early 1900s gullies crept up the slopes and cleaved the hillsides. Rain cascaded off the fields and pastures, washing topsoil into the rivers. Once-prosperous farms, covered by sand and mud, were abandoned. In 1938 the town of Beaver, a farming community nestled in the valley at the confluence of Beaver Creek and the main stem of the Whitewater, flooded 28 times. By 1950 the town was deserted. Roads and bridges were raised repeatedly to keep pace with the rising levels of the floods. Old photos show old fence posts poking a mere foot above a fresh deposit of alluvium, and a sedan from the late 1930s buried to the tops of its fenders in sand.
From such desolation sprung an unprecedented conservation program. Behind the leadership of Richard J. Dorer, the state Department of Conservation designed a plan to restore the valley. Slopes were planted in grass, shrubs and trees. The state and federal governments and private organizations such as the Izaak Walton League encouraged farmers to plow the contours rather than the fall line and to fence cattle out of woodlands and off steep slopes. Ponds were built to retain runoff. Stone quarried from the newly established Whitewater State Park was used to stabilize creek banks. The state reintroduced wild turkey, deer and beaver. Erosion-prone land was purchased by the state to form what is now the 28,000-acres Whitewater Wildlife Management Area, which comprises much of the lower river, including the town site of Beaver. Not only has Dorer's heroic effort improved the condition of the Whitewater River and valley; it has provided incredible public opportunities for fishing, hunting, hiking and sightseeing in an area otherwise surrounded by private farmland.
THE NEXT MORNING the skies clear and we hike out along the Meadow Trail through an old farm field and one-time golf course, now slowly being overtaken by the bottomland trees that once covered the area. We reach a fishy-looking stretch of the Middle Branch of the Whitewater. Despite the rain, the stream runs nearly clear, with just a touch of milkiness, as though it were dusty.
Working nymphs and streamers through the riffles and runs, we catch several trout. As David Quammen has written, the trout is a synecdoche, a figure of speech that represents not only the object itself, but a host of other things. To say you caught a trout in a southern Minnesota stream is to say there is abundant spring water, plentiful aquatic insects, forested slopes, contour strips, no-till planting, protected wetlands, and grassy sloughs. Today, unfortunately, the action is not fast; the trout are not large. But the fishing is good enough to affirm we stand knee-deep in a living trout stream.
Here in this serene valley time seems to have run its course backwards, leading us back toward the garden, where the forest grows thicker and the water runs clearer. As we drive home, emerging from south end of valley, surrounded by corn and soybeans, I feel as though I have stepped back into the modern world after a brief absence, as though I have awakened from a dream.