I will freely confess, this is not my adventure. No, this belongs entirely to someone else. I'm more than certain that if my mother had found out I did something like this, I'd have been grounded for a lifetime from everything except school, and even that would have been in question. No, this is not my adventure, but still a tale worthy of telling for in a way this is partly about me, even though it is not my adventure.
This story takes place in Small Town America. A town much smaller than the one I grew up in, and even more close knit. It has all the elements required for adventure. A bit of danger. Some internal fortitude. The surety of youth and the belief that one will never die.
Growing up in Small Town America, you surely know that the price of rebellious misbehavior awaits when you arrive home. I myself experienced on more than one occasion the amazing speed at which news of some stunt or trouble or even a stolen kiss could make it home faster than any kid on a bike, even a Schwinn ten speed. No doubt about it, get in trouble away from home, and trouble waited at home for your arrival.
Winding through the countryside of Wisconsin are great rivers. The Mighty Mississippi makes up the western border of about half the state. Feeding that great black water is the Wisconsin River with its headwaters close to Michigan and it bisects nearly the entire state. It is the largest and longest river in Wisconsin, save the Mississippi.
Any large, flowing body of water is a source of power, and the Wisconsin River is no exception. Along its length are found hydroelectric dams to generate electrical power. Often, that power is used primarily by paper mills―-great, stinking Goliaths of progress that provide jobs, fuel Small Town America economies, and of course, dam up rivers for power.
At one such site, on the east side of one such small town, stands a paper mill which, for reasons beyond my fathom, has a stench worse than most. It permeates the entire town and if you live there, you never grow used to it. You'll smell it in your draperies and when you visit people, they will smell it on your clothes, your car, and your pets. It is inescapable.
Two dams hold back the river. One has the usual gates and spillways, and the massive turbines housed in a building to generate power. It stretches from the eastern shore to an island about mid river. The other dam which runs from the island to the western shore has no spillways. It's one and only purpose is to hold back water and divert the power of the river to the turbines.
Back in the 1940s and 1950s, that secondary dam was built of wood and by design, would collapse during the spring thaw in a magnificent explosion of wood splinters, water, chunks of ice, and fragmented timbers. Bets were made and taken on the exact date and hour and when it appeared collapse was imminent, the town would turn out to watch.
Lest you misunderstand, it was no small structure even back in the 40s and 50s. No, this is a large piece of construction some two hundred feet long and a good forty feet high. Each spring, they would rebuild the dam after water levels subsided.
The dam, it turned out, was a place of passage. An adventure waiting to happen. A place to dare one's self (and peers) into doing something rather dangerous and scary. Something so frightening that one's knees might be made a little weak just thinking about it.
Allow me to explain.
This dam was immobile. It had no moving parts. It existed then (and still does) to raise water levels high enough to produce lots of energy to turn the turbines to make the electricity that powered the paper mill and kept the town running. There are lots of such dams on the river, and just a few miles upstream is another dam and another paper mill. And if water levels grew so high they threatened that dam, the operators would open the chutes and the water would rush downstream very quickly. They say you could see it coming. In order to warn boats of the impending rush of water, sirens sounded at the upstream and downstream dams. Five minutes later, the upper dam opened and rush of water began.
Across the top of the wooden stationary dam ran a beam just four inches wide. Most of the time, the water lapped a comfortable six inches below the top. If water levels rose it would spill over the top until enough water went over the spillways in the other dam to lower the level. It was not a perfect system, but it worked.
Imagine the dare. "Bet you can't walk the rail."
"Bet I can."
"Bet you can't."
Imagine five or six or eight friends, deciding to walk the rail. Just four inches of lumber. Just forty feet to the rocks. Ten minutes to cross if you're quick. Maybe fifteen if you're not.
One slip and dead. Drowned on the upstream side or sucked over the dam and tumbled over those rocks. One slip and fall forty feet down to the jagged boulders.
Would you take the dare?
Imagine being halfway across and the siren sounded.
Imagine knowing you had to hurry or you'd be swept off the dam.
Imagine being the one leading the group, and knowing if you didn't hurry, your friends might not make it.
Who would be crazy enough to try such a stunt? Certainly not your intrepid author, who on more than one occasion laughed at the Grim Reaper or helped one of his friends do so. Who would do this?
And having done it successfully, who would try again, and again, and again.
Just for fun?
Even today, the adventure related to me by others, but one I never experienced, I shudder at the thought of crossing that dam. I've stood there and looked at the steel and concrete structure that does not blow up with the spring thaw. The ends are blocked off by high fencing and barbed wire (imagine that) and signs that warn against trespass.
I used to wonder where I got my lust for adventure. What made me do things that weakened the knees of other, less manly men. Where did that come from?
I remember when we moved near another river. There was a dam. People fished beneath it. I wanted to fish there too because there were plenty of fish caught there.
I was strictly forbidden to go there by my mother out of some imagined worry, some fear of losing her eldest son. Often at night the thought of the fish to be caught, my friends fishing there, giant, leaping pike and mighty salmon and even the ginormous sturgeon kept my eyes open.
And yes, word of my visit to the fishing hole beneath the dam beat me home and I was indeed in trouble.
What on earth would make my mother forbid me to fish in such a fishing nirvana?
Four inches of beam is what, because it was my mother that led the others across. My mother took the dare and others followed.
Can you imagine?
My mom. Unbelievable.
So now you know, Dear Reader, where the lust for heart thudding adventure originated.
A true story by MJ Logan