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Autumn Beauty in Hiawatha's Land

September 28, 1986|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

WABASHA, Minn. — "That this peace may last forever, give me as my wife this maiden, Minnehaha, Laughing Water. . . ."

Those words from Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha" were spoken by Hiawatha as the legendary young Indian brave wooed and won his lovely Minnehaha.

They are being read with new meaning this autumn as travelers rediscover the peaceful Valley of Hiawatha on the travel route along the northern Mississippi River between Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Many travelers who didn't go abroad this year have headed for U.S. 61, the Great River Road through Hiawatha's valley.

The Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul have been booming because of their own tourist attractions, and that increase in travel has overflowed south along the river route.

Other travelers have been introduced to the forested hills and towering cliffs along the river from the observation decks of the Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen, which now make regular stops at the valley port of Wabasha while cruising between St. Louis and St. Paul. The Hiawatha paddle-wheeler based in this scenic river valley has been heavily booked since springtime.

The Great River Road extends about 125 miles through the Hiawatha Valley. It's a leisurely drive between La Crosse on the Wisconsin side of the river and Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis.

Not even the bald eagle hurries past a river town such as Wabasha, as any bird watcher could tell you. Our national symbol for 200 years, and official mascot of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, this proud bird considered an endangered species in most states is making a dramatic comeback just across the Mississippi River from Wabasha.

The bald eagle spends the early winter here from mid-November to mid-February, and is expected to arrive in such great numbers that this winter could be the Winter of the Eagle.

Just south of Wabasha, at the old Indian camping ground of Sand Prairie, where Hiawatha and Minnehaha may once have shared the moonlight, the rare blanding turtle lives in tranquillity. It is found in only two other states.

Golf Course, Ski Area

For golfers, the public Coffee Mill Golf and Country Club high above Wabasha is a rare kind of course. Crested along the hilltops overlooking the Mississippi, every hole poses decisions as to whether to reach for a club or a camera.

When it's snow time, the groomed slopes down from the fairways to the edge of town become the runs of the Coffee Mill Ski Area. Each is sheltered from the other by birch trees, oaks and pines. The runs are not long, but challenging enough to be sought out for training by collegiate and pro competitors. Chippewa is easiest of the 10 runs; Augie's Chute one of the toughest.

Until the snow takes over from autumn foliage, greens fees at Coffee Mill are $7 for nine holes, $10 for 18. Chairlift tickets on the slopes are $10 weekends. Coffee Mill gets its name from a historic navigational point along the Mississippi.

The bridge that arches so gracefully across the Mississippi from Wabasha to the Wisconsin shore has long been another landmark for navigation. We crossed it this time to make another kind of discovery in the Valley of Hiawatha.

A 15-minute drive north from the the bridge took us to the village of Pepin, population 890, at the widening of the Mississippi called Lake Pepin. This was the birthplace in 1867 of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author who became internationally known for the series of books that began with "Little House in the Big Woods," written for young readers but also treasured by adults.

There's a Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Park in the village of Pepin and a Little House Wayside made of logs at her birthplace. Her words beseech today's travelers to slow down, because "now is now" and will never be again.

At Lake City back on the Minnesota side of Lake Pepin, we came upon the story of Ralph Samuelson who wasn't necessarily interested in slowing people down. In 1922 he reasoned that if people could ski on snow they ought to be able to ski on water. So he invented the sport of water-skiing.

In past years we've visited the Anderson House in Wabasha, but this was our first chance to overnight there. Opened in 1858, it's the oldest operating hotel in Minnesota. The antique furnishings and quilted bed covering transported us in fantasy back to 1858, which was just three years after Longfellow wrote about the romance of Hiawatha and Minnehaha. A white squirrel played in front of our window.

The Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine served at dinner comes from Grandma Anderson's recipes. Have you tried chicken with Dutch dumplings lately? Or how about a Bread Bar at breakfast that features at least a dozen kinds of bread, including blueberry Streusel and banana black walnut? The rate for our corner room was $55.

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