I’m in the La Crosse area for a few days waiting to pick up copies of my newest book: The Mississippi Valley Traveler Guide to the Driftless Area. It’s been a real treat to enjoy the region at a more leisurely pace than when I was researching the guide book. No rushing around from sunrise to sunset, filling up my backseat with plastic boxes full of half-eaten meals and stacks of tourist brochures.

After lunch in Winona yesterday with a couple of friends, I took a quick trip to Minneiska (Minnesota) to try to find the town’s famed fish-shaped weather vane. Putnam Gray, the town’s best known (though not only) eccentric built a wooden vane in the late 1800s that was shaped like a fish and was a pretty handy navigation marker for riverboats. It was later replaced with a tin version that has been repeatedly repaired because some folks think it makes for good target practice; I can see their point.

In the summer, the vane is hidden behind the dense foliage of surrounding trees. Now that the trees have shed their leaves, I figured I might be able to spot the vane. I had no idea where to look—other than up—so I drove slowly along Minneiska’s main street (truthfully, Minneiska really has but one street) but didn’t have much luck. On the second pass through town a full minute later, I spotted a guy in hunting fatigues in his front yard and stopped to ask him about it. He pointed me in the right direction and sent me to talk to Harvey the woodcarver to find out more. He then asked why I was interested, but when I told him I write about travel, he seemed downright grumpy at the prospect of more people visiting Minneiska. I told him not to worry because nobody is buying my books, anyway, but you’d think the mayor would be a little more excited about encouraging tourism.

Minneiska’s fish-shaped weather vane

I drove downhill to find Harvey the woodcarver, fully expecting to find a closed shop since that’s the way it appeared a minute earlier when I drove by on my first pass through town, but the door was open this time. Harvey was there, and I quickly realized that we had met before, but I was pretty sure he let me call him Hans the first time. Harvey didn’t remember meeting me—I wasn’t wearing my signature hat, so why would he?—but he was curious about my work, so we chatted for a while. Harvey told me a few stories about folks he met who are traveling the length of the river, some on the water and a few by bicycle, plus a couple of other folks who passed through Minneiska that are writing books. One of these authors is writing a book about every incorporated community in Minnesota that has a population under 100. And I thought my books had a limited market. The author is apparently going to include Minneiska, even though the last census counted 116 residents. I pointed out that Minneiska’s mayor must be in very select company, as he lords over a village that stretches across two counties. (The old part of town is in Wabasha County but the newer section, built after highway construction wiped out most of the old section, is in Winona County.)

About that fish vane, Harvey told me that it is on private property and, while the owner would probably give me permission to cross his land, the vane is not easy to reach. The muddy road that gets close to it would probably swallow my Prius. I could see the vane from the bottom of the hill, so, in the end, I settled for taking a picture of the weather vane from the highway.

© Dean Klinkenberg, 2010