photo of sandstone bluffs along the Wisconsin River
A view of the Dells of the Wisconsin River from the river

We spent the past week or so being tourists in and around the Wisconsin Dells.

The name “Dells” comes from a French word, dalles, that means “narrows.” It refers to the place where the Wisconsin River more or less squeezes through spectacular bluffs of layered sandstone on either side. They are really narrow in places.  The 90-degree bend in the river known as the “Devil’s Elbow” was so dangerous back in the days when loggers used to raft timber down the river that they hired “standing pilots” to help steer the rafts around that part of the river gorge. So they wouldn’t lose their logs, or their lives.

This was according to our tour guide, a congenial student at the University of Wisconsin who was spending her summer on the boat tours. She also told us that the sandstone in the rocks is rare Cambrian sandstone, that formed when Wisconsin was at the bottom of a shallow, tropical sea, around 500 million years ago, and it took hundreds of thousands years to lay down all those layers of sand. Much later, at the end of the last ice age, after the area had been pushed northwards by continental drift and clash, the ice dam holding back the water of a glacial lake melted through, which let the water rush out, carving its way through the sandstone in a period of days and leaving the Dells behind. The whole thing is an epic geological story that embraces awe-inspiring stretches of time, patient layering of sand into towering pillars that represent hundreds of thousands of years, ingenious and fantastic natural processes … it’s a breath-taking, mind-boggling story.

(More on that story is in Marcia Bjornerud’s meditation on the Dells in the New Yorker)

More than once on this trip, I thought: this is so amazing – so vast – so awe-inspiring – so breath-taking and imagination-capturing – I don’t know why I would want to tell this story any other way. Geologic time, like astronomic distances, seems eminently worthy of the “Creator of the all that is, seen and unseen.”

I do know that there are people who believe we ought to tell the story a different way, that if we don’t we somehow impugn the veracity and authority of scripture. I only live 2 hours from the Creation Museum, after all. But floating along the Wisconsin River, looking up at towering Cambrian sandstone bluffs that represent a hundred-million-year artwork, since each millimeter of those towers took several thousand years to create, it was impossible to feel that isn’t revelation, too, and revelation that says something profound about time and eternity.