Monday, July 18, 2005

Sioux City, Nebraska/ Iowa/ South Dakota

We got an early mark from Onamia, so managed to get away before the huge holiday influx. After cutting across country on minor roads to avoid traffic and we eventually arrived in Hudson, WI and spent a few days there with family relaxing before heading towards South Sioux City, Nebraska.
Our apartment, a new large 2 bedroom affair, is on the south edge of town in a recent development overlooking bean fields and a silo. That night we certainly had a ringside seat from the third floor for about an hour as 4th July fireworks were let off all around the river on both sides of the border.
Sioux City sits on the borders of South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska. The town was actually founded in Iowa, just east of the confluence of the Big Sioux and Missouri rivers but as a result of expansion, if you now live in Sioux City, you can live in any of those three states. This can be very confusing for the uninitiated.
The town has a similar history to many in the mid west. Native Americans were the first inhabitants who met up with the French and the Spanish trappers and explorers in the 1600’s. The first recognized explorers were Lewis and Clark as they made their way up the Missouri River in 1804. Sioux City was founded in 1854 when a young surveyor, John Cook, incorporated a town company. Although growth was initially slow, it became a steamboat and railway supply town for military outposts in the Dakotas and for goldminers in Montana. By the 1890’s the town was booming.
More historical data is available at: http://www.siouxcityhistory.org/
Sioux City has held onto its historical past with many blocks of well preserved late 19th century buildings. This area now features antique and specialty shops as well as pubs and restaurants. The rest of the city is typically modern with a central business district that contains the usual government buildings, major retailers (Sears, Younkers, J.C Penny’s), specialty shops and service centers. There is also a concentration of sports, entertainment, convention and arts facilities. National and college “football” and baseball are big sports here. The older suburbs that sit on the eastern hills overlooking the town
contain some pretty large and grand looking houses on tree lined streets. The new urban sprawl outside that area has typically modern housing.
The riverbanks are given over to recreation and with a number of easily accessible large parks on both sides. The Missouri is quite wide here and very swiftly flowing. There is a huge amount of private watercraft which is accommodated in modern marinas dredged off to the side of the main stream. Of course the river is nothing like the one Lewis and Clark struggled up 200 years ago. Flood mitigation as turned it into an engineered canal. It is no longer a relatively shallow waterway with shifting sandbanks and treacherous snags which meandered through the countryside. Now it basically races straight through it. And there is also the question of its ranking. Some say because of its length and size of drainage area it should maintain its name after it meets the Mississippi at St. Louis and continues onto the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing like a little bit of controversy!
You all know I have a deep interest in the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803-06. Sioux City has a brand new Lewis and Clark Interpretive Centre on the banks of the river. It has a wonderful bronze statue of the pair with their dog, Seaman, below a 150 ft. flagpole which flies a giant replica of the 15 star, 15 stripe flag they took with them. This is all surrounded by a garden of native flowers that were growing in the area when they passed through.

Lewis and Clark, Sioux City, IA
There is also an on going attempt to faithfully reproduce a few acres of original prairie. The centre itself concentrates on the human aspects of the expedition. It’s interesting to learn about the lives and tasks of the relatively anonymous members of expedition (including Clark’s black slave) rather than the main participants. There are also two theatres, one showing the National Geographic film on the expedition (not as good as the Ken Burns series shown on SBS some years ago) and the other, a film on Sacajawea, the pregnant Shoshone Indian wife of a French trader they employed up river as a guide and interpreter. She proved to be a life saving asset on more than one occasion.
More information on the centre at: http://www.siouxcitylcic.com/
It’s worth just clicking on the ‘photo gallery’ link.
It was near the future Sioux City that the only member of the expedition died. Sergeant Charles Floyd succumbed to what was much later diagnosed as a possible ruptured appendix. He was buried by the expedition near where the Floyd River runs into the Missouri. His grave has been moved a few times due to the encroaching Missouri but he finally now lays at rest under 100 ft sandstone obelisk on a bluff overlooking the river and city. It is not only a memorial to him and the explorers who followed but to Thomas Jefferson whose foresight on securing the future of his country lead to the Louisiana Purchase and the exploration of the west.
Sioux City seems to be a city of memorials. High on the cliffs overlooking the river is the War Eagle Monument honoring a respected Isanti Dakota Indian.

War Eagle Monument
At Trinity Heights there are two 10m stainless steel statues of Jesus and Mary. On the riverfront there is the Flight 232 memorial. This commemorates the United Airlines DC10 flight that experienced complete hydraulic failure on a transcontinental flight and was steered to a crash landing at the local airport by the crew using engine thrust only. A great number people lost their lives but many didn’t thanks to the skills of the captain. He survived when the cockpit separated on crashing and slid into a cornfield. The crash has been featured on many Discovery Channel programs on air safety. Once you see the plane cart wheeling down the runway in flames you never forget it.

Flight 232 Memorial
I had a week where I succumbed to three American “institutions” that I had been avoiding for a number of years. One was the drive through coffee shop. Ok, we were late and just couldn’t spend 15 minutes inside the shop for a relaxing break. Nothing like sipping a cappuccino at 75mph! So the drink holders in cars are not superfluous after all. The second was the dreaded “box” (doggy bag) at a restaurant. Well, it really wasn’t our fault. The fact the usual service ethic broke down and they served the main course 30 seconds after the entrĂ©e (appetizer) was the cause.
The third was going to the Outback Restaurant. Now there are a lot of bad kitschy things about this pseudo Aussie eatery but the food isn’t one of them. The steak we had was absolutely delicious. Ok, stuffed koalas climbing up the pillars are a little off putting but I think some of the menu items, or rather their names, are the worst. You know how us Australians just love an onion flower. For those that can’t remember, it’s a whole onion that’s been opened up, breaded and deep fried and served with a dipping sauce!
NO! I am not kidding!
But the worst thing is this item was listed as an “Australian Ab-original” (sic)!
One thing I miss in the Midwest is Asian food, especially Thai. But there is a great substitute ie. Mex! It’s usually cheap, plentiful and of high quality especially if you find a genuine restaurant ie. not a chain. There is one down from the road from us which is fairly new and run by Mexicans. It also has a take out (take away) and a Mexican grocery store attached. Another plus is that the vast majority of the cliental seems to be Mexican.
The sauces served with the chunky crisp corn chips as appetizer need a 911 call to the fire brigade and the fajitas and enchiladas are to die for. All this with a couple of cold beers will set you back about $25 with tip for two.
My “local” wine shop on Cornhusker Avenue (great name!) has a good selection of American and foreign wines at good prices. The Aussie selection is quite broad.
There is a variance in liquor laws throughout the USA, probably as a result of prohibition but living in a tri state corner you get to run the gambit. In Iowa you can’t buy grog between 2am and 6am, Monday to Saturday. This is extended to 8am on Sunday. In Nebraska, they are a little more strict. It’s 1am to 6am on weekdays. In South Dakota, no grog at all on Sundays!
There are about 20 wineries and a few hundred grape growers in Nebraska, mainly in the south of the state. The largest has only 9000 vines. They concentrate on native or native/European hybrids. Due to this fact, we decided against the journey south.
More information at: http://www.weekendwinery.com/Wineries/Wineries_NE.htm
Two weeks left in the USA. Will let you know the rest of the story later.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Minnesota

We have been staying for a short while in Onamia (O nay mi ah) in northern Minnesota. We are in a motel right across from Mille Lac Lake, the second largest of the reputed 10,000 lakes in the state.
This area’s landscape was formed by glacial advances, the latest about 10,000 years ago, which pushed up a natural barrier of rocks and gravel like a giant bulldozer. This natural “dam” wall now contains this lake and many others which are filled from water draining from the north. There is only one small outlet, the Rum River on the southern western edge, which I think, runs into the St. Croix and eventually the Mississippi.
The land has been inhabited for about 9000 years but the best known are the Dakota Indians who arrived around 1100AD. They named the lake Mde Wakan (lake of the spirit). They first met up with the white man (the French) in the mid 1600’s and it was here that Louisiana was claimed for Louis XIV of France in 1679.
The Dakota were pushed out towards the west by the Ojibwe as they migrated from the east under the pressure of white civilization. They occupied a considerable area of what is now Minnesota. They called this lake Missisagaigon (great lake). For trivia buffs, Mississippi in Ojibwe means great river. Their tenure became insecure as the area became important for timber and subsequent farming. The Ojibwe experienced all the problems of displacement, broken treaties, forced assimilation, attempted genocide and poor health that most other tribes experienced but they have fought hard for their tribal land over the years and have finally had their claims recognized by the USA supreme court. But even now the state government continues to appeal against this decision (does this remind you of anything?). Their descent into further poverty, unemployment and poor health has been prevented by the establishment of casinos on their reservations.
The Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe Grand Casino with its 400 room hotel is very large and has all the attractions associated with such an enterprise. It’s open 24 hours a day with 4 restaurants, almost any game you wish to mention (but not two-up) and a great number of poker machines which usually give you a good run for your money (or so I have heard). There is also a theatre which boasts forthcoming big names from the mainstream entertainment industry. The one thing it doesn’t have is alcohol. The whole establishment is “dry”! In the main restaurant they offer alcohol free wine. I tried a merlot.
NOT GOOD!
We played Bingo one night. I won nothing. One game had a jackpot of $24,000. No one won that. A lot of players were using electronic bingo machines. No need to mark off the numbers. It does it for you and beeps when you have one number left. Talk about lazy!
The area is very pretty with dense forest almost up to the shoreline. A few small towns and villages surround the 207 sq. mile lake. These mostly cater to the tourist trade as well as the semi permanent residents who have established many holiday homes and cabins in the area.
The major recreations are fishing and hunting and of course winter sports, mainly cross country skiing. One store near us has a huge sign out front, “Gifts and Guns”. Gee, I wonder if Grandma would like an AK47 for Christmas? It seems that owning a small business in these towns requires some entrepreneurial expertise. The Laundromat I went to was also a tanning salon and car wash!
The lake is frozen to a depth of 30-40 inches for about 140 days a year but this does not stop the fishing. You can rent icehouses which you slide out onto the lake, auger a hole through the ice and fish in heated comfort. There is a huge amount of wild life in the area and the road kill each morning (mainly deer) is a little sad. Remember Bambi’s mother?
A work colleague of Kris’s had hit five in the last six months, completely writing off two cars. Yes, she still gets insurance.
This is also black bear country. Apparently there are lots around and they come into town quite often. One was found asleep on the front porch of one of the clinic workers. No walking in the woods for this little red engine.
Bird life in the forests and on the lake is quite prolific. The lake is full of walleye, pike, bass and muskie but fishing is strictly controlled with very conservative size and bag limits. I took a fishing trip from Eddy’s Resort in a beautiful old wooden boat. I have to say here that I paid a “senior” rate which is 50% off. Fifty-five is the senior age in the USA and you can obtain all sorts of discounts from transport to tourist attractions to meals. They don’t seem to mind if you are a foreigner either.
Of course I needed a fishing license. That was easier said than done. They cater for “out of staters” but not as far out of state as I was. The automated system requires a social security number. Apparently the government uses fishing licenses as one way of tracking down errant fathers who do not pay their child maintenance. After a number of phone calls to the powers that be I was issued with an honorary 24 hour SSN and the license!
Lake fishing was quite different from that off the beach. We used very light gear and a bobby cork which kept the bait a foot or so above the lake bottom. I used garden worms, the others favored leeches. Not a lot of fish were caught by the 10 of us in the four hours we were out. The biggest was a 5lb walleye which had to go back. I caught four smaller ones which also went back. But who cared! It was a beautiful day on the lake with plenty of sun, a light breeze and some fun company.

The One That Got Away, Onamia, MN
There is also an insect “problem”, the most famous being the Mayfly. It hatches in early summer, lives for a day, mates, then dies. Apparently there are billions of them for about a week and they clog up everything. We thankfully missed this phenomenon. It is said that the state bird of Minnesota is the mosquito. We can vouch for that. They may be large and slow flying but they attack in squadrons. With West Nile virus rampant, Aeroguard tropical strength or its equivalent is essential.
After breakfast of OJ and an egg, cheese and bacon bagel at Maccas in Garrison (the smallest town in the world to have such an establishment), I set off on the three hour drive to Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi River. The night before we had had really bad storms and were under tornado warnings for a lot of the time. As a result of this front moving through, the weather was cold, wet and windy for this trip so it was tough going. The roads traverse tundra like wetlands covered in swamps and lakes with outcrops of granite. Occasional higher ground is covered in very green forest thick with maples and silver birch which was sometimes cleared for cropping. It reminded me a lot of Sweden. It obviously did the Swedish migrants too who named a lot of their towns after those in their homeland. But Minnesota’s Malmo has a population of only 36. Many of the lakes were filled with beaver dams not that I saw any of the animals themselves.
Luckily the rain stopped long enough for me to make the walk down to where the Mississippi runs out of the lake beginning its long 2500 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Lots of people make this pilgrimage. It’s only a few meters wide and you can either wade over or take your chances on some slippery rocks. One young smart ass hooning around with his mates actually fell in much to the amusement of onlookers. There is also a log bridge a little downstream for the more conservative. The lake was very misty and somewhat eerie in the wet conditions. Pity the camera couldn’t capture the atmosphere. The State Park that surrounds the lake is very pretty and it was disappointing not to be able to see more of it. The visitors’ centre was packed with drenched tourists enjoying a great display of the history and natural wonders of the park as well as all you ever wanted to know about the Mississippi.

Source of Mississippi River, Lake Itasca, MN
So now it’s the 4th of July long weekend. We will be heading towards Hudson, Wisconsin, then it’s onto Sioux City, Iowa or Nebraska (depends on which side of the Missouri you are on).