So, I’m kinda old. Not huge old, but… you know, early-medium old.  In a span of years beginning fifty years ago through an excited age that continued to around forty years ago, which was me ages four to fourteen, on Sundays, after church, we would go for a family drive. We lived in La Crosse, Wisconsin, our family owned a beige sedan Chevy of some sort, and then later owned a green and brown classic station wagon with wood paneling. “Why”, I ask rhetorically aloud to my son these days, now that I’m medium-lightly old and more likely to talk aloud randomly, “…why did people think they needed fake wood paneling on car doors? It’s a car. Wood is not an essential component! Right?” My son (now driving me around, because he prefers it) lets these rants slide with his facial expression drawn tight as he thinks about young-person things like “Instagram” and “Cosplay.” “What the hell were people in the 70’s thinking?” I invariably answer my own rant: “Probably some unconscious yearn to connect back to the days of covered wagons,” I mutter to myself.

Photo Sourced From Matthew Schumann

Anyway, back to the 70s and early 80s. Church, if you recall, can be a lot for kids. Adults too, I suppose. A half-hour lead-in, a ninety-minute-ish event, a fifteen-minute exit, and lots of “Behave! Sit still!” Sure, Sunday school was alright. When you talked about cool things like Noah’s Ark and stuff. Outgrowing Sunday school was harsh. Another side note: perhaps counter-intuitively, learning to stay mentally engaged in the grown-up’s Pastor sermon was good practice for college lecture hall classes … who knew? Like I said: it was a lot.

What to do in La Crosse post-church? Decompress and drive. Drive to the brand new Valley View Mall? (And check out what… Waldenbooks?! Sam Goody?!) Get a late lunch at Hungry Peddler? Embers? (Remember Embers?!) Go home and watch televised professional bowling? This time of year, post-football season, in the cold of February, we would drive to La Crescent, MN and see the fabulous frozen bluff side Ice Formations.

Apologies for the overlarge intro. THE LA CRESCENT ICE FLOWS! (Or floes.) Fascinating! Awe-inspiring. Colorful. Surprising (there could be a new one around every corner.) Rubber necking! (Don’t rubberneck.) You could only ever witness them going 55 miles per hour. Sorry drivers. Natural wonders (though somewhat man-made wonders) of the Great Minnesota Mississippi River Road. Why can’t Wisconsin have these? (Oh, the morning sun can’t find them.) So, they’re… shrouded in shadow and mystery!

Actually, I think Wisconsin had (or has) some on the road to Stoddard, but those were much smaller and formed by the runoff from a highly situated trailer court parking lot.

We would drive first over the Big Blue Bridge (always a treat) from downtown La Crosse, WI to La Crescent, MN and then north from La Crescent to Dresbach. “We” included some combination of either my mom or dad or both, me and my two sisters. We three children would argue who had which best window position for the viewing. Sometimes we would go all the way to Winona, (so far away!) but this might have been parental “strategery” … a trip from La Crescent to Winona lulls kids to sleep after the frozen waterfall formations are done. The phenomena taper off around Dakota as those bluffs turn inward and the river bends. Our family weekend car trip typically turned around at the Lock and Dam. (Wait for it…) We’d go once through the Lock and Dam parking lot, possibly stop, then back to La Crosse.

Photo Sourced From P. Reimer

The pale blue, white, cream white, pink, and green frozen runoffs are colored by the passing of snow melt over rocks and vegetation on the Mississippi facing bluff sides along Hwy 61. They resemble frozen waterfalls and begin on the northside of La Crescent at Eagles Bluff and end near King and Queen’s Bluff before Winona. Queen’s Bluff is the really unique looking one. In the summer it resembles a half giant, green, upended macaron. The western face is so steep, it is referred to informally as a “goat prairie” as it’s too steep for trees to hang on, and only goats could make it up there to graze. Mark Twain once referred to Queen’s Bluff as “just as imposing a spectacle as you can find anywhere.

LOCK AND DAM NUMBER 7!! God, if you were lucky, you could catch a barge going through. On second thought, this time of year, barge traffic is light, if any at all. Sometimes in the Spring – March specifically – the river would open up while the wall of bluff ice formations would hold on and not melt until mid-April. But at the Lock and Dam, attentions turned to the big whooshing spillways, in particular the first five roller gates. Could Burt Reynolds drive a motorboat through there and live? Evel Knievel? Possibly. Possibly. Normal humans would certainly wipe out. Looking in on the ice fishermen was always fascinating as well.

“Look at that guy! He’s way out in the middle! He must be nuts!” 

Me in 1979: “That must be where all the big fish are.” 

Me responding in the ‘90s: “No, the big fish are near the shore where those fifteen ice fishermen are. The guy way out in the middle is a social outcast.”

The big Whoosh and Roar of the dam was and is SUPERCOOL. We live near a dam. Dams are awesome. I can say “Dam!” and not get in trouble.

If it wasn’t too cold, like, ten degrees or below, Mom might let us get out of the car and sprint to the observation deck, the nylon fabric on our snow pants legs zipping against themselves as we ran. They have a metal button and a metal box speaker that, when you push the button, plays a five-minute pre-recorded message from the Army Corps of Engineers welcoming you to Lock and Dam Number 7. Who is the Army Corps of Engineers? Do they carry guns? (My thoughts at age eight.)

I would put both mitten’d hands on the cold metal rail. (Do not put your tongue on the cold metal rail… you know what happens.) I would look out across the dam, and I would close one eye, then the other, then back and forth again… and try to gauge how far the river dropped from way up to the left, to way down on the right. Nine feet? Give or take. Check out the water marks inside the lock.

After church, this was refreshing.

The Upper Mississippi doesn’t feel Upper to a West Central Wisconsinite or a South Eastern Minnesotan. It just feels super big and wide. Lock and Dam Number 6 is smaller and Lock and Dam Number 8 is a snooze. Lock and Dam Number 7 is definitely the best. After an optional bathroom break at the visitor’s center, we would make the return trip. The voice on the speaker said the facility was built in 1939. How long ago were the bathrooms built? The 50s maybe? That tracks.

Time for those that called “Shotgun” to get their just rewards: The frozen falls are right outside the car windows. You could roll down the windows and smell the frozen ice sculptures for a few seconds before mom or dad crabbed at you to roll the window up. They smelled like earth and super clean blue ice. And a little like highway.

As a child, I noted these “ice formations” that dot the steep bluff bases in and around Lock and Dam #7, north La Crescent, and the Hwy 61/Interstate 90 interchange only number at most three dozen. That’s the bulk of them, then there are small pockets on the way north to Queen’s Bluff. 

On her blog “Minnesota Prairie Roots,” writer Audrey Kletscher Helbling has some fine snaps of the ice formations and describes them thusly: “The flip side of my mind views the ice formations as powdered sugar icing dripping down the sides of a homemade chocolate birthday cake…” 

Photo Sourced From Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Keep a sharp eye out, because a small number of these are unique and kind of magical. A select few are not just on the outer face of the bluff wall, some form inside and around steep creek runoff spots – deeper cuts in the rock – and create fairytale-looking icicle shrouded grottos. These aren’t just frozen waterfalls, but steep and embedded key-hole cut passageways going up-and-in at some 40-degree angle, before disappearing not long after. These are absolutely not accessible by humans, to climb inside would be to risk destroying the Faberge Egg quality of the scene, and no doubt, catch some sort of Troll curse in the process. In fact, climbing down from the roadway and under or among these formations looks incredibly dangerous. These areas already have “Watch for Falling Rocks” signs posted.

Me as a child in 1979: “Whoa, I wonder if you could crawl up and under one of those.”

Me in the 90’s answering: “No dude, you would totally die.”

Photo Sourced From John Weeks

In the 70’s and 80’s the Hwy 61 and I-90 intersection (including the “non-blue bridge” bridge running east across the river to French Island and Onalaska) had a dangerous reputation. Motorists took to the zone too fast from any of three directions. But thankfully, it was rebuilt in the last twenty years to be safer. As part of the La Crescent Bike Trail project, there is a walkway and secure path around the first section of these formations, newly constructed. In the recent past, on the far side of the highway, I was able to pull over into an observation spot and take some pictures. Still, a cautionary word to motorists: Don’t rubberneck the ice-wall formations if you’re driving. Keep your eyes on the road. These are for your passengers to enjoy as you are speeding by.

I’m in Madison now as I write this and it’s nearing the end of March 2024. April is upon us. Are the formations still there? Was winter cold enough this year to form a healthy crop of frozen waterfalls? I hope so.

Thanks for reading.

PS: My son doesn’t think about Cosplay. He’s an early-medium grown-up now and thinks mostly about automobile maintenance.


Writing and Feature Image By: Matthew Schumann