We'd been in La Crosse for barely an hour, and everyone we'd met was a certified character.
In Riverside Park, Frank and Faith Rimmert and Jonathan and Barb Rimmert were decked out in top hats, waistcoats and crinolines to meet the Mississippi Queen paddlewheeler, portraying the 19th-century locals who would have assembled.
"If your relatives were coming for a visit, you'd come to greet them," said Faith Rimmert, a volunteer for the La Crosse County Historical Society. "People picked up things being shipped in, or maybe you'd be looking for a servant you'd say, 'I want that person for a servant in my house.'"
For a river town that has everything going for it, Winona is a little hard for a tourist to get to know.
Those who venture off U.S. 61 find a downtown that's long, spread out and a little forlorn on weekends. To find its Mississippi riverfront, they have to cut across train tracks and around a concrete levee wall.
For 50 years, a paddlewheeler sat atop the riverbank, serving as museum, event center and gathering spot. The Julius C. Wilkie was only a replica of a steamboat, but it served as city icon and festival namesake, so when the rotting structure was demolished in 2008, it left a dent in the city's identity.
Eagles don't really have lovable personalities. But, man, are they fun to watch.
Those haughty pale eyes, that 6-foot wing span, those wicked talons and the flesh-shredding beak eagles are just plain cool.
Everything about them is larger than life, right down to their nests, which are so big and sturdy that bears sometimes climb into them to hibernate.
Deep down, every morel hunter believes in divine providence.
There's nothing so providential as baskets overflowing with morels, and the taste is so divine hunters dream about it all winter. In spring, they offer a fervent prayer to the mushroom gods: May the fungus be among us.
Morels do taste heavenly. But it's the hunt that's so addictive it's fun to find something for free that's so expensive in stores and restaurants, and it's fun to beat the odds by finding something so notoriously elusive.
Along the Mississippi River, the fortunes of Wabasha have risen right along with the once-endangered bald eagle.
Eagles reappeared slowly after DDT was banned in 1972, and one of the first places they could be seen was in this Minnesota town, just downriver from the mouth of the Chippewa River, which kept water open in winter so eagles could fish.
The city built a deck downtown and staffed it with spotting scopes and volunteers from November through March.
There are a lot of good views in the world from observation towers, skyscrapers, bluff-top parks.
But the best view always is the one you can admire from your own room.
Many places in the Upper Midwest have a lovely window on the world cabins on lakes, hotels on rivers, B&Bs in the bluffs. But some rise above the others, often literally.
Once, people went through hell to get to Stockholm, Wis.
It's different nowadays. It's only a joy ride away from the Twin Cities, and the streets of this pretty hamlet on Lake Pepin are lined with sports cars and motorcycles on weekends.
There are shops, galleries and inns; it's the place to go for a room with a view or vroom with a brew.
All kinds of paths cross in the Wisconsin village of Trempealeau.
Canoes and cormorants, tugboats and trains, bicyclists and blues fans all are drawn toward this Mississippi River town. Its just a little burg, but its smack in the middle of Mother Natures playground.
Perrot State Park starts at the end of Trempealeaus First Street, with hiking trails that give vistors spectacular views of far-off Winona, the river valley and a hill French explorers called La Montagne Qui Trempe a l'Eau, or "the mountain that soaks in the water.''
Along the shores of Lake Pepin, villages like to play a game called Tempt the Tourist.
The tourists think theyre going to go for a drive and see some scenery. But the villages give them so many places to indulge themselves, they end up mostly eating and shopping not that anyones complaining.
The highway around Lake Pepin is a gantlet of temptations bakeries, bistros, wine bars and gift shops. Some people never make it beyond Stockholm in Wisconsin or Red Wing in Minnesota, just an hour from the Twin Cities.
For many years, Red Wing has been Twin Citians favorite day-trip destination.
Its adorable, with its brick storefronts, flowering planters hung from lampposts and rows of stately Victorian houses in three historic districts.
Sitting on a sharp elbow of the Mississippi, its a small town that still looks the part it has a bakery, a barber shop, a homespun café and it was the first Minnesota town on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of Distinctive Destinations.
If you dont know a birder, you might think they have a severe case of attention-deficit disorder.
They tend to stare off into space. They often stop talking mid-sentence. Its hard to finish conversations with them.
But their enthusiasm for nature is contagious. And in spring, birders know all the best places to go.
It's easy to speed right through the river town of Fountain City, on the way to someplace else, but that would be a mistake.
In Fountain City, all is not as it seems. A Hindu temple sits amid hay fields. One of the world's largest collections of toy pedal cars occupies five barns on a bluff. Dreamlike Santas ride fish in a riverfront studio, models for copies sold around the nation.
On this seemingly ordinary stretch of the Mississippi, people have been inspired by . . . something. Perhaps it's the dramatic bluffs that loom above town.
In the sloughs of the Upper Mississippi, birds of a feather flock together.
Bird-watchers, especially. On chilly days in late fall, they crowd onto wooden platforms to watch tundra swans paddling around sloughs of the Mississippi River.
This big bird needs a lot of fuel for its flight from the Arctic Circle to the marshes of Chesapeake Bay.
In 1805, while Lewis and Clark were making history on the Missouri River, another explorer was heading up the Mississippi.
Sent by a general who was a double agent for Spain, 26-year-old Lt. Zebulon Pike was assigned to find sites for forts, determine the source of the Mississippi, make peace between warring tribes and stop unlicensed British trade on land just acquired by the Americans.
He did find a fort site on 500-foot bluffs in Iowa, but it was scrapped for a more practical site across the river in Prairie du Chien, Wis.
For centuries, blufftop views of the Mississippi have inspired superlatives.
Jonathan Carver called the view from Barn Bluff "the most beautiful prospect that imagination can form.'' Stephen Long said, "The sublime and beautiful (are) here blended in the most enchanting manner.''
Those early explorers embellished their speech to impress folks back home. Nowadays, most people who take in the scenery just say "Wow.''
For people who love nature, winter is a time of opportunity.
When it's cold enough, you can walk onto the Mississippi River. You can see bald eagles up close. You can explore sloughs and backwaters without being eaten alive by insects.
"Most of these places, you'd almost die in a few minutes in summer," says Scott Mehus, education specialist at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha. "So now is a good time to get out there and see things."
The pelicans and cormorants of the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge are used to train whistles and the distant popping of trap guns. But they're even more used to the whir of bicycle gears.
Each fall, birds and bicyclists migrate to the same place along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin.
Here, the 24-mile Great River State Trail starts in the refuge, skirts Perrot State Park and goes through the river town of Trempealeau before entering the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge and then the prairie outside Onalaska.
Sometimes, skiers have a hard time figuring out Mother Nature.
It's supposed to snow across northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, but often, storms have veered to the south instead. It's odd, but what can you do? You have to go with the snow.
One year, at the end of February, my friend Becky and I were just about to make the long drive to the snowy Upper Peninsula of Michigan when the southeast Minnesota town of Winona got blanketed with 30 inches.
In southeast Minnesota, along the Mississippi and in its bluffs, folk and roots music has found a home far from the bright lights of the big city.
In the countryside, music sounds different. In an old general store in
Oak Center, it's toasty warm, like late-afternoon sunlight.
In the airy
loft above a harp-building workshop near Red Wing, it rings out like a
church bell on Sunday morning.