Most people understand that the River Road is a great drive in the summer. Few are willing to drive its northern reaches in the winter, however. What a shame. Last week I spent a few days driving around sections that I explored in balmier times. Even though some tourist sites are closed for the season, January is still a great time to explore the River Road. Hey, I even chalked up visits to my first two festivals of 2008.

One of the big winter draws in the Upper Mississippi Valley is the annual southerly migration of bald eagles. In a cold winter, like this one, the eagles find easy pickins in the open water below the locks and dams from St. Paul to St. Louis. With so many eagles around, bird watchers and photographers are not far behind, so these spots make for good eagle and people watching. Just bring binoculars and warm clothing.

With an abundance of bald eagles comes an abundance of eagle festivals. The Quad Cities Bald Eagle Days is two days of conservation exhibits, nature art, animal shows, and Native American folklore inside the cozy confines of the Quad City Conservation Alliance Expo Center. My personal highlight: the arctic wolf show, even if it doesn’t have much to do with eagles. The 15,000 people who showed up on Saturday obviously felt that this is not a bad way to spend a few hours on a cold day in January.

IceFest in Dubuque, while well-intentioned, was a bit of a bore. Maybe I arrived too early, just a half hour after they opened on Saturday morning, but there was hardly a visitor in sight. Activities such as ice bowling and traditional Indian snow games sounded more appealing than they turned out to be. At least you get to tour the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, a great visit any time of year. Click here for a list of other bald eagle events along the River Road.

My other agenda for this trip involved visiting sites associated with Father Samuel Mazzuchelli. Born to a privileged Milanese family, he joined the Dominican Order at age 18 and gave up life’s material comforts. Before his ordination, he moved to America where he would serve as a missionary for most of his life in what was then the American frontier. Talk about extremes. One day he’s worshipping in one of the world’s great churches, the exquisite Milan Cathedral, and a short time later he’s worshipping on grass mats in the forest. His missionary life kicked off in 1830 when he was sent to the fur trading centers at Mackinac Island, Green Bay, and Sault Sainte Marie.

Eventually, his ministry shifted to the Upper Mississippi River Valley where he worked in a number of river towns, including Galena, Dubuque, and Prairie du Chien. A self-taught architect, he designed and built more than twenty churches and a handful of civic buildings in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. At least five of his churches still stand. He was also the first chaplain of the Wisconsin Legislature, in spite of virulent anti-Catholic views that dominated the United States in that era.

I am working on an essay about Father Sam and his legacy in the Upper Mississippi Valley, so I wanted to tour some of the sites where he left his mark. With the help of an exceptionally early start on Friday morning, I drove a 300 mile loop north of Dubuque and visited: St. Gabriel in Prairie du Chien; St. Patrick in Benton, which is also where he is buried; St. Augustine in New Diggings; the museum dedicated to him at Sinsinawa Mound; and St. Michael in Galena. On Sunday, I also stopped at St. Mathias in Muscatine. Some of the buildings were open, but advance planning is apparently a good idea to see the church interiors and to tour the rectory museum in Benton (WI). Hey, it gives me an excuse to go back – like I need one!

Today’s Bad Decision, Part 1: Waking up too damn early. I had to cut short my drive on Thursday night when the 20 miles from Bellevue to Dubuque took nearly 45 minutes to drive because a mere nuisance snow produced near white-out conditions. Even though it only accumulated 2-3 inches, driving in the dark in the snow on a hilly, winding road was slow going. So, instead of reaching McGregor like I had hoped, I stopped about 70 miles short and spent the night in Dubuque. I wanted to make up for lost time, so the next morning I was in the shower by 6am. Unfortunately, January mornings up here don’t see much daylight before 7:30. It wasn’t all bad, though. Because of my early start, I had enough daylight to reach the Mazzuchelli sites in southwest Wisconsin before the sun set around 4:30.

Today’s Bad Decision, Part 2: When an Episcopal minister asked if I was Catholic, I responded “I was, but I gave it up for Lent.” He wasn’t exactly offended, but he didn’t laugh, either. Oops. He had been exceptionally gracious in giving me a tour of the small art gallery in the parish house and then of the church itself. We got to talking about my interest in Father Mazzuchelli, which led to his question. You have to know your audience when it comes to humor.