One of my former teachers, the late Don Koestner, was the first person I know of to do a painting of this bluff along the south shore of Lake Pepin, just west of Frontenac, Minnesota (view it here) I thrilled at his painting the first time I saw a reproduction of it, about thirty years ago, because it was a fine example of the sort of subject I aspired to approach myself (Don painted it in 1982 – as it happens, he was just a little older then than I am now). Thirty years ago my great inspiration was to do paintings of the upper Mississippi valley and the steep, rugged bluffs and limestone cliff faces that characterize it. Don was there before me and showed a way to go.
The cliff face is the west end of a ridge, a sort of archipelago in the river valley. In pre-glacial times, the river flowed to the south of it. Since the last glacial melt, the river flows through Lake Pepin on the north side of this bluff (Frontenac State Park occupies the east end of the bluff and commands a famous downstream view of Lake Pepin). I have never seen rattlesnakes here, but I have no doubt they are there. The habitat is right: sunny rocky ledges, where the snakes like to warm themselves and make dens in the crevices, adjacent to upland meadows with lots of insects and rodents, which they eat. I have encountered rattlesnakes in the flesh as far north as the Kinnickinnic River, at its confluence with the St. Croix, between Prescott and Hudson, WI (at Kinnickinnic State Park). Apparently the early settlers saw them in numbers at Rattlesnake Bluff, hence the name.
As an aside, Rattlesnake Bluff and the “archipelago” to which it belongs are unique geological features in the Mississippi River Valley. They occur in only two other places. Barn Bluff in Red Wing, Minnesota is one. Thoreau hiked there and an ancient petroform on the Wisconsin bluffs – an arrow or bird shape laid out with stones on the steep hillside and pointing toward Lake Pepin - is visible from its crest. The other archipelago is just upstream from Trempeleau, Wisconsin, consisting of Trempeleau Mountain, Brady’s Bluff and Eagle Bluff (there are rattlesnakes there too): all steep craggy hills jutting above the Mississippi Valley and entirely separated from the main bodies of steep ridges on each side of the valley.
|Photo copyright Nora L.Koch, 2010|
|Rattlesnake Bluff, oil on panel, 7 x 12, 2010|
copyright Peter J. Bougie, 2010
I was there, preparing to paint what Don had once painted. He is gone, but he had instructed me, and I remembered. All of this was in my mind and heart as I painted; I don’t know how to describe it otherwise.
|Wacouta Cemetery, copyright Nora L.Koch, 2010|
|Repose, oil on panel, 12 x 16, Copyright Peter J. Bougie, 2011|
|Photo copyright Nora L. Koch, 2011|
|Emerald, oil on panel, 12 x 18, private collection|
Copyright Peter J. Bougie 2012