I first became aware of a place named Prairie du Sac was through the writings of August Derleth, long before I ever thought I would live here. I was living and working up in Sturgeon Bay for a summer, tending to the office at Potawatomi State Park. It was an alright job, something I took up to make some extra cash between semesters while at the same time trying to write my dissertation. The place I stayed at was at the outskirts of Whitefish Dunes State Park, a double-wide trailer designed for up to sixteen people that I had pretty much to myself. I learned to handle a pilot light on the water heater and how to cook on a gas stove (a superior form of cooking, if you ask me), and how to cope with living on the end of desolate road in the middle of nowhere without television or WiFi. I wrote my dissertation largely out of boredom, throwing together the bulk of it without the benefit of cross-referencing sources via the internet or correcting figures via Adobe Illustrator.
There was a lot of things I did differently because I wasn’t distracted by modern conveniences. In order to get my daily news fix I would spend hours waling a treadmill at the local Anytime Fitness. To cope with my loneliness I spent more time preparing meals and eating healthy(-er). To deal with boredom on days off, when I wouldn’t drive back to Milwaukee, I would take long bike rides through the states parks and along the Ahnapee Trail. And without moving entertainment I began tearing through books like that one guy in Twilight Zone. In a lot of ways, living in that ramshackle apartment in the boonies made me a more productive- dare I say, better– person than I have ever been before, or since. But that’s another blog post.
This one is about how I came across Auggie Derleth in the middle of that summer, when I worked the late afternoon-into-evening shift mid-week at the park office. Business was never heavy on weekdays, especially after dinner hours, so I spent a lot of time sitting near the drive-by window waiting for cars to pass. If the cars had a park sticker, I’d let them through. If they didn’t, I made them pay. Occasionally someone would step into the office to check in for camping. Once in a great while I would field calls from folks inquiring about the park, camping, fees, and whatnot. That was the extent of my job duties. The rest of the time I would cruise Facebook, listen to Brewers games on the radio, and read books. (Your tax dollars at work).
It started with a third-person account of Rene-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle, and his attempts to find the source of the Mississippi. It’s a tale filled with adventure and tragedy and warring natives and personal ambition and European colonization. It is the essential American story, and I ate it up. I could have read it in one sitting, if not for the fact that I had to close up the office. Part of it took place in the territory that would become Wisconsin, and so once I finished with it I was on the lookout for another regional narrative. That’s when I picked up Wisconsin: River of a Thousand Isles.
Derleth’s book is part of a larger series known as the “Rivers of America”, which was commissioned as part of the New Deal to give authors something to do with themselves. Derleth already was a known figure in regional writing, and that Sauk Prairie angle that permeates his writing doesn’t get a pass in Wisconsin: an entire chapter is devoted to the history of the twin towns of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac. At it’s heart Wisconsin is a history of conflict that shaped the development of the Wisconsin river valley; conflict between indigenous and European cultures, conflict between Sauk City and Prairie du Sac, conflict between humans and nature. It was here became fascinated with the Winnebago and Black Hawk Wars; learned why there are two bridges and two post offices in a combined town of 7,000 people, but only one school district; and conjured up images of the river long before I set foot here.
After that I discovered Derleth’s Walden West, a narrative of Sauk Prairie and its people. It didn’t capture my imagination like Wisconsin– his prose is a bit too flowery to sustain my interest through character sketches- but it struck my mind as a snapshot of rural America at the turn of the century. The first time I drove across August Delerth bridge from Highway 12 and into Sauk City, I began to reconcile the Sauk Prairie in my mind with the one from Derleth’s writings. It sounds cliche, but some things have not changed: stately house still overlook the river valley along Water Street, ancient brick buildings line the downtown on both ends of the city. There’s quite a few more things named after Derleth than was in his time, though.
One of the first things I did after we learned our offer was accepted on the house- besides freak out over now owning a 30-year mortgage- was pull out my sportman’s atlas and begin identifying all of the fishable water within an hour’s drive of our new home. It’s amazing what a small change in geography can have on perspective, and how much water now seemed open to me: Lodi Springs, Hinkson, Rowan, Black Earth, Honey, Willow, and Bear creeks; the may small streams tumbling out of the Baraboo Hills; the Wisconsin River, and the Baraboo; Fish and Crystal lakes, White Mound Lake, the Yahara chain… a lot of water that I’ve never fished before.
It occurred to me how much time I’ve spent chasing fish far from home, making two hours drives to Viroqua or down to Cuba City or back to Milwaukee in search of “good fishing”, passing over miles of perfectly good water. How often do we ignore local waterways because we’ve heard of better water far away, because we’ve never heard of anyone else fish it, because we’ve never heard of it, period? That’s the water that needs exploring the most.
I also thought about how much time I wasted driving when I could be fishing. How much gasoline burned, money spent, wear-and-tear on gear and myself, when there are waters just around the corner? Now that we have a house, a permanent place in the world, I feel that I should find what specials these nearby places special. Sauk county (and it’s nearby surroundings) don’t have places named Timber Coulee or West Fork of the Kickapoo, but maybe that’s my next challenge to face as an angler: to find good fishing where it’s not advertised.
I’ve already discovered one place- the Place That Shall Not Be Named- that proves good fishing is well known, but the best fishing is never shared. But there is still a list of places I have yet to fish here. This upcoming season is the year to finally discover the good in these places. If August Derleth were an angler, I think that’s what he would have done.