Category Archives: Driftless Wisconsin

Driftless Dark Skies: Becoming a Stargazer

February 1, 2016 by John Heasley

Astronomy is an awesome way to discover your home in the cosmos.  And it’s easy.  Go outside.  Look up.  You’re a stargazer! 

stargazerEven in cities, you can find stars and planets and the moon, but it’s more fun if you can get away from the light pollution.  We have fine dark skies in the Driftless Area.  I especially enjoy Kickapoo Valley Reserve and Wyalusing State Park.  Come to KVR on Feb 19 for Winter Trails by the Light of the Snow Moon for moongazing and trekking. 

Our eyes are pretty good at seeing in the dark, but you have to allow time for your pupils to dilate and the cones in your retina to become more sensitive.  It might take 20-30 minutes for your eyes to get dark adapted, so the longer you’re out, the more you will see.  Flashlights, headlights, and digital devices can quickly ruin your night vision, so avoid those.  Red light helps to preserve night vision.  A red LED headlamp keeps your hands free.  You can even cover your flashlight with a red filter or even nail polish. 

You’ll stay out longer if you are warm and comfortable.  We get lots of practice with cold weather in the Driftless Area.  Wear layers and keep dry.  You won’t be moving around much, so dress for 20 degrees colder than what the thermometer says.  Your hunting and fishing and birding friends are a great source of advice.  It’s easier if you are lying down.  A blanket or air mattress or reclining chair is great, and you can insulate with blankets or sleeping bag.  Don’t forget snacks and warm beverage. 

I haven’t mentioned anything about buying a telescope.  It’s better to learn the sky before you start spending money.  One of the best and least expensive accessories I have is a planisphere.  It’s a simple wheel that you can set for any day or time, and it will identify the stars and constellations in any direction.  There are also plenty of great apps for your smart phone.  I use astronomy software when I am inside, but when I’m under the stars, I like a low-tech approach. My favorite planisphere is The Night Sky by David Chandler (10 inch/40°-50°).  Some nights I appreciate the larger size (16 inch) and print of David Levy’s Guide to the Stars.  Both are easy to read with a red light.  Your local independent bookstore will have one or can order one for you. 

Keep a simple astronomy bag: hat, gloves, scarf, snack, red light, and planisphere.  When the skies are clear, you’re ready to stargaze!

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley. 

Photo: Stargazing at Kickapoo Valley Reserve with red light and planisphere.

Driftless Wisconsin Birding and Bald Eagle Celebrations

January 11, 2016 by Meg Buchner

Living in the heart of Driftless Wisconsin, it’s easy to take majestic scenery for granted. The soaring bluffs dusted in snow and the icy Mississippi River become the sites of every day life. However, it’s good to be reminded of how extraordinary our area truly is. We recently had visitors from Milwaukee and they were glued to our windows overlooking the Mississippi River. The children were completely captivated by a pair of bald eagles fishing. The eagles were sitting on the ice at the edge of open water. Their patience was rewarded as one eagle scooped a fish and swiftly carried it off in its talons, still flopping.

2014-11-16 10.53.01

Eagles seen from the Great River Road outside of Ferryville.

In the winter, we see bald eagles literally every day while driving the Great River Road (HWY 35) between Stoddard and Prairie du Chien. You can find them perched in trees, soaring overhead, sitting on the ice, or in their nests. Two eagle nests can be easily viewed right from HWY 35. One nest is in the wetland area south of Stoddard (on the right if you are driving north) and the other is newly built this year (you can still watch the eagles working on it). Located across from Buck Creek road, this nest is on the river side just south of Ferryville. Eagles typically lay their eggs in February, so they are busy building and repairing the nests in January.

Of course, we have many more birds than eagles. The topography and vegetation of the Driftless Wisconsin area and the proximity to the Mississippi River Flyway combines for unparalleled year round bird watching. Local birding enthusiast Joanne White of Ferryville told me that in addition to eagles, at this time of year we can expect to see a variety of hawks, cardinals, blue jays, wood peckers and juncos (who winter here coming south from Canada). The Kickapoo Valley Reserve in La Farge has 8,600 acres of forest, wetland, and grassland and is open all year for birding watchers. Winter species sited at the KVR include the Golden Eagle, with occasional reports of Northern Goshawk and rare sightings of Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill, and Bohemian Waxwing. A complete list of bird can be found on the KVR website.

A number of our local communities including De Soto, Prairie du Chien and Ferryville are designated Wisconsin Bird Cities. A Bird City is a community who educates its citizens about birds while implementing sound conservation practices. There is an emphasis on preserving bird habitat, and holding fun and educational events that are centered around birds.

If you want to get up close and personal with eagles and other birds without braving the winter weather we have a number of upcoming events:

Prairie du Chien Bald Eagle Appreciation Days February 26-27, 2016: Birding programs will be held at the AmericInn and Country Inn & Suites Friday evening. Saturday’s activities include: Live bald eagle and raptor programs (featuring six raptors from the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center), new birding and nature educational exhibits & displays, outdoor viewing of bald eagles through spotting scopes, life-sized bald eagle nest, and numerous activities for children. Saturday’s programs & activities will be held at Hoffman Hall, 1600 S Wacouta Ave, Prairie du Chien from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. All programs are free and open to the public Friday evening and Saturday.

Eagle Day program in Ferryville.

Eagle Day program in Ferryville.

Ferryville Eagle Day Saturday, March 5, 2016. 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. at the Ferryville Village Hall/Community Center. This free event features a live raptor program with a bald eagle, falcon, owls and other raptors from the University of MN Raptor Center. Chloris Lowe has a Ho-chunk Nation program, and there is a U.S. Fish & Wildlife program about eagles in the region. There are children’s activities, including crafts, and a hooting contest with awards. Dr. Michael White leads kids in building a life-size eagle nest. There are refreshments, student eagle art, and awards.

2014-03-01 13.42.44

Children building an eagle’s nest at the Ferryville Eagle Day program.

Our family has attended eagle events (my son even won the hooting contest in his age group) and they are fun and educational for all ages. Seeing these birds up close helps remind us to not take nature for granted—even what is right outside the window.

Driftless Wisconsin Winter Fun

January 5, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

After a momentary lapse in memory as to what season comes next, Mother Nature has finally given us winter.  While sunny skies and 50 degree weather in December energized the spirit, it confused the brain, which expects to see snow outside the window this time of year.

Problem solved.  Tree limbs are draped with snow.  Landscapes are framed in white.  A layer of ice creeps across the Mississippi River. Eagles perch in barren treetops eyeing open water for their daily meal. And my barren head is feeling a bit drafty.

Our one-year-old dog Fargo and my son’s new puppy Uecker find another gear in snow, racing and sliding around like kids in a splash pool. They may not have the wherewithal to build a snowman, but they have the right idea: winter is fun.

A Driftless Wisconsin winter is fun. With its towering hills and deep valleys, winter becomes a three-dimensional playground for winter outdoor recreation.

Let’s start with the parks.  My wife and I have been taking Fargo up to Wyalusing Park, near Prairie du Chien, for hikes along Mississippi Ridge Trail.  It follows the bluff top overlooking the Mississippi River, and affords quite a view.  Turkey Hollow Trail is another favorite, routing through a tall stand of pine trees for a nice change of scenery during the winter.

The Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge has a wide variety of trails for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or hiking to those remote locations ideal for spotting and photographing winter wildlife. A designated trial is also available for snowmobile enthusiasts, which is groomed from December 15 to March 31. 

Winter events are another way to experience Driftless Wisconsin.  The Kickapoo Valley Reserve will hold its annual Winter Festival on Saturday, January 9. The family event features skating, sledding, skiing, snow sculpture, ice cave hikes, horse-drawn bobsleds, sled dog races, and, well, just about every conceivable way to enjoy winter!  The Reserve will also hold its popular Dam Phunski cross-country ski event on Saturday, January 23.  Registration is required and has competition for all age groups.

ski jumperThe annual Snowflake Ski Jumping Tournament near Westby will be held on February 5th and 6th.  The competition attracts jumpers from around the world to the 118 meter hill.  Watch as world-class jumpers take off into the air over Timber Coulee Valley at speeds of over 50 mile per hour.  Don’t worry, participation is not required.

The scenery. The parks. The activities.  The events. They all conspire to make a memorable winter getaway to Driftless Wisconsin.  Winter has finally arrived and it’s time to have fun. 

Driftless Dark Skies: Five Worlds at Once

December 31, 2015 by John Heasley

As the New Year begins, we will be able to see all five classical planets at the same time.  The last time we were able to see Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn all at once was eleven years ago when they were also visible in the sky before sunrise. 

moon venus ls 2

Crescent Moon and Venus at dawn above the Driftless Area in early December. Photo by Lynda Schweikert.

For the Driftless Area, around 6 am is a good time to have a look for the planets.  Three things will help you tell planets from stars.  Planets follow the same path as the sun across the southern sky.  Planets twinkle much less than stars. Planets are brighter than most stars.  You can see them with just your eyes and won’t need a telescope or binoculars. 

Our moon makes an excellent guide.  On December 31, the waning gibbous moon is just below Jupiter in the southwest.  Each night, the moon shrinks a bit more and is found further to the east.  The last quarter moon is between Jupiter and Mars on January 1 and 2.  Look for the waning crescent moon just above and to the right of Mars in the south on January 3.  The moon continues to wane and is found between Mars and Venus on January 4 and 5.  On January 6, you’ll see a slim crescent moon just above Venus and Saturn in the southeast.  Venus is the brightest object in the sky after the moon, while Saturn is dimmer and a little below and to the left of Venus.  There’s another chance to see the moon, Venus, and Saturn together on January 7.  Continue to watch as Venus and Saturn move closer together.  They’re at their closest on January 9.  After that, Saturn will be above and to the right of Venus and moving closer to Mars.  Mercury joins the other four planets around January 20.  Look for it below and to the left of Venus in the dawn sky.  Mercury continues to get closer to Venus as January ends and should be visible until February 20. 

You can enjoy an encore when the moon passes near Jupiter on January 27 and 28, Mars on January 31 and February 1, Saturn on February 3 and 4, Venus on February 5, and Mercury on February 6. 

There’s also a chance to see a comet in the dawn skies of January.  Comets are traditionally unpredictable, so it’s hard to say how bright Comet Catalina will be.  But look for it near Arcturus on December 31.  Arcturus is the bright orange star high in the southeast.  By mid-January, Comet Catalina will be near the handle of the Big Dipper.  Hope you enjoy the mix of the predictable and unpredictable as we being a new year. 

You can enjoy some moongazing at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve on January 23, 6-8 pm.  Enjoy the full moon while skiing, snowshoeing, or walking. KVR astronomy educators will have binoculars and telescopes set up along Old Highway 131 Trail for you to stop and enjoy the highlands, maria, craters, and rays of the Wolf Moon. Event is free and open to the public.  Annual or day trail pass required.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley

Christmas Traditions in Driftless Wisconsin

December 2, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

My memories of Christmas begin with lutefisk and lefse, the Norwegian feast my mother made each year to celebrate my father’s Scandinavian heritage.  The smell of lutefisk – a cod cured in lye – wafting through the house on Christmas Eve sent me in the opposite direction in full retreat. While the rest of the family endured the smell of boiled fish with the consistency of pudding, my sister and I sat in the living room enjoying a holiday meal of hotdogs, which at least were chewable.

For those of you who enjoy lutefisk – and there are many of you – rest assured I have not entirely abandoned my Norwegian heritage.  I do love lefse, a potato flatbread rolled to a thin layer and cooked on a large griddle. Served only with butter – I consider the addition of brown sugar to be blasphemy – I have been known to consume lefse as fast as it comes off the griddle. After my wife made it clear that if I wanted the tradition to continue, I would be supplying the labor, I have learned to make a decent batch of lefse.  Never mind the dough stuck to the kitchen counter and the cloud of flour draping my shirt.

The history of our Christmas traditions is rooted in our ethnic customs. Explored by the French and settled by Scandinavians, Bohemians, Irish, and other nationalities; Driftless Wisconsin offers a variety of ethnic traditions to honor our diverse heritage.  In communities across the Driftless Wisconsin region, the Christmas season inspires us to carry forward our traditions to the next generation.

ofc_horsesOn December 5 – 6 the good folks at Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center will help us celebrate an Old-Fashioned Christmas.  Norskedalen, which means Norwegian Valley, “is a nature and heritage center dedicated to preserving, interpreting and sharing the natural environment and cultural heritage of the area surrounding Coon Valley in southwest Wisconsin.”

The Old-Fashioned Christmas offers visitors the opportunity to explore that heritage through the lens of the Christmas holiday, complete with horse-drawn carriage rides, Christmas caroling, a buffet of Norwegian delicacies, and a bake sale – including lefse!  Craft demonstrations in spinning, wood-stove cookery, and kid’s crafts will keep you grounded in the spirit of Christmas. And you’ll have the chance to make your own holiday decorations.

Also on December 5, La Farge will hold its Old-Fashioned Small Town Christmas Celebration.  The community, located near the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, will take you back to your small-town childhood memories with a huge craft fair at the school, a cookie walk at the Reserve, and a soup luncheon.

On December 4 – 6 and 11 – 13, The Villa Louis Historic Site in Prairie du Chien will celebrate Victorian Home for the Holidays.  Held at the Villa Louis, the opulent estate of Hercules Dousman restored to its 1890s splendor, the event recreates the holiday traditions of a Victorian family.  Enter the Dousman parlor for a recital on a restored 1879 Steinway piano.  Visit the kitchen, where the Dousman cook prepares the holiday menu.  Sample some desserts and apple cider.

No holiday would be complete without witnessing the Droppin’ of the Carp in Prairie du Chien on December 31.  Culminating the week-long Carp Fest, the evening includes a bonfire, entertainment, and the countdown starting at 11:40.  Inspired by New York City’s dropping of the Time Square Ball at midnight, this celebration ends with the ‘Droppin’ of a carp taken from the Mississippi River and preserved for this special occasion.

Tradition has it that the Carp King and Queen kiss “Lucky” the fish for good luck in the New Year.  Well, at least they don’t have to eat it.

Driftless Dark Skies: Living in Space

December 1, 2015 by John Heasley

Wash: That sounds like something out of science fiction.

Zoë:  You live in a spaceship, dear.


We have been living in space for over 15 years now.  Since November 2000, over 220 people from 17 countries have continuously crewed the International Space Station.  The ISS is something that we’ve done together as humans with major partners being the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and European Space Agency.

The ISS is easy to see in the dark skies of the Driftless Area.  Because it orbits 250 miles above our planet, it is often in sunlight while we are in darkness.  Its solar panels are as large as a soccer field and reflect the sunlight to those below often making it brighter than any star.  It makes over 15 orbits every day letting its crew enjoy 15 sunrises and 15 sunsets.

There are many websites and apps to tell you when and where to look, but my favorite is  After you enter your location (by name or 43º N and 90º W), you’ll get a chart giving times and location.  When it first rises above the horizon, the ISS appears dimmer and slower.  As it climbs higher in the sky, it gains brightness and speed.  As it passes into Earth’s shadow or sets below the horizon, it again appears to lose speed and brightness.  A typical pass takes about five minutes, so you have plenty of time to enjoy and share the sight.

December is a great time to see the ISS.  Because of its orbit, the ISS can be found at dusk for about three weeks before moving to dawn for three weeks.  The ISS will be in the evening sky December 3-25.  Check Heavens-Above for specific times and remember that its orbit sometimes changes.

You’re watching a spaceship over an acre in size traveling at over 17,000 mph (almost 5 miles every second).  In the five minutes that it’s visible, it will have passed over 1500 miles or halfway across the United States.  It circles the Earth every 93 minutes, so sometimes it’s possible to watch it twice in the same evening.  It is crewed by six astronauts who typically live on the ISS for six months.  At the beginning of December, that’s Scott, Mikhail, Sergey, Kjell, Oleg, and Kimiya.  In mid-December, Kjell, Oleg, and Kimiya are due to return to Earth and be replaced by Yuri, Tim, and Tim.   Give them a wave from our home in the Driftless Area as they pass overhead in their home in the ISS.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.  Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Learning to See

November 12, 2015 by John Heasley

“What do you see?”  I remember that as the opening line of John Logan’s play Red performed at Forward Theater in Madison last year.  It’s the question that the artist Mark Rothko asks of his new assistant Ken.  Maybe to test him.  Maybe to train him.  It caught my attention because it’s the question I have learned to ask viewers when they are looking through my telescope or binoculars.

There’s much to see in the evening sky this November.  Try each of these object first with just your eyes and then with binoculars.

The Big Dipper is low in the sky in the north.  Take a close look at the middle star of the handle.  What do you see?  If your eyesight is good, you might see a fainter star very close to the brighter star at 11 o’clock.  That’s Alcor and Mizar, a double star.  The names are Arabic for the horse and the rider.

Look for Orion rising in the northeast.  Find the three stars of his belt and then the three stars of his sword hanging from the belt.  Look at the middle star of the sword.  What do you see?  If skies are clear it might appear a little fuzzier than the other stars.  That’s the Orion Nebula, a cloud of gas and dust where new stars are being born.  With binoculars, you might even see a hint of color.

While you’re with Orion, check out the stars of his left shoulder and his right knee.  What do you see?  Those two bright stars are Betelgeuse and Rigel.  If your eyes have become dark adapted, you might be able to see that Betelgeuse is red and Rigel is Blue.  They are supergiants and some of the largest single objects that you will ever see.

Look for the “M” of Cassiopeia high in the north.  Follow the left triangle of the “M” until you are looking almost directly overhead.  You might want to grab a chair or blanket for this one.  What do you see?  If you are at a dark site, you might catch a fuzzy patch just at the threshold of your vision.  It’s larger than the Moon but much fainter.  It works better to look at it with your eyes slightly averted rather than directly.  That’s the Andromeda Galaxy home to hundreds of billions of stars whose light has been traveling over two million years to reach us.  It’s the most distant thing you can see with your eyes alone.

Enjoy seeing under the dark skies of the Driftless Area.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.  Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Getting ready for winter and the holidays in Driftless Wisconsin

November 4, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

“Hey John, how ya doing?” I asked a friend we met along the hiking trail out at the park. “I just bought my LP gas for 60 cents cheaper than last year,” he offered. In these parts, “how you doing?” means how are things stacking up for the winter. As in firewood, LP gas, milk house heaters, road salt, wool socks, and other tools of winter survival.

I have my own to-do list of getting ready for winter. It starts with pulling my pontoon out of the river, a job I relish about as much as getting out the snow shovels. But October and early November days have been kind with temperatures in the 60s, making any day on the Mississippi River – even to retrieve the boat – a good one.

I also took my last canoe ride on the Kickapoo River – with less grace than I’d hoped. Entering the canoe from the river bank, I fell forward towards the opposite gunwale, twisting at the last second and landing in the bottom of the canoe like a sack of potatoes. “Nice recovery,” said my canoeing partner. I’ll take “nice recovery” over “clumsy oaf” any day.

geese-in-v-formation bYet end of season does not mean you shut the door and curl up in front of the fire for the rest of the winter. There’s sights and sounds reserved for this time of year alone. The sight of the Driftless Wisconsin landscape, absent its cloak of summer foliage, which takes on a beauty all its own. The sound of geese migrating south; a hypnotic, seasonal sound that marks time like a clock chiming midnight.

And yes, still lots of things to do. Speaking of migration, Ferryville will celebrate its annual Fall Migration Day on Saturday, November 7. Birding experts from the Audubon Society will help visitors find migrating geese, pelicans, white swans, and ducks of many breeds through spotting scopes. Then on Tuesday, November 10, Ferryville will host a commemoration of the Armistice Day Storm of 1940, when many duck hunters were caught on the river as temperatures plummeted 40 degrees in a matter of hours.

The Driftless Folks School, a regional center for the preservation, promotion and training of traditional crafts; has many classes available during November and the holiday season. Learn spoon carving, storytelling, Grain-free holiday baking, home cheese making, and many more crafts that will reconnect you with your own creativity.

On Saturday, December 5, La Farge will hold its annual Small Town Christmas Celebration. The community will celebrate the traditional side of Christmas with a craft fair, “cookie walk” at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, and soup luncheon. La Farge is near the Reserve and will serve as base camp for that walk in the woods to enjoy the late fall landscape.

So how is your winter stacking up? Getting ready for winter and the holidays needn’t be a chore if you mix in the sights and sounds and holiday festivities in Driftless Wisconsin.

The change of seasons in Driftless Wisconsin

October 9, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

Fall is my favorite time of year. Yes, the days do get shorter, yet the fall color and cooler weather make a body feel alive. And there’s no better place to feel the invigorating change of seasons than Driftless Wisconsin.

The fall colors beg to be painted, photographed, and framed for keepsake, yet it’s the more subtle signs that foretell the unfolding of a season. The cool night air stealing through an open window tells us summer is over; the smell of fallen leaves tell us fall has begun, and the cloud of chaff rising above the corn pickers says harvest time is upon us.

My father grew up on a tobacco farm near Westby, I married a farm gal, and my daughter married a farm guy. While I did not grow up with a pitchfork in my hand, it’s safe to say the love of farming (and farmers) weaves through our family.

And so it is with Driftless Wisconsin, where farming weaves its way into our life and blankets our landscape with a living tapestry. The rugged Driftless topography seems almost tamed, wrapped with golden ribbons of corn, speckled with dairy cattle, and punctuated with farm silos.

WSOct5RedDelKnowing that a long winter awaits, farmers rush to harvest their feed corn while apple growers rush their bushels to market. All of this provides a bit of late-season suspense as the harvest bumps up against the limits of what weather allows. But an apple, as crisp and tart as the weather, makes it all worthwhile.

I was recently out canoeing on the Kickapoo River, surveying the location of deadfalls since our last river cleanup. The Kickapoo winds footloose through the heart of Driftless Wisconsin, stitching the land together in a jagged seam. The fall scenery from the bow of a canoe unwinds like a movie in slow motion. It’s easy to be lazy, letting the river be the navigator; until the next obstacle sends you into a frenzy of paddling, steering, and laughing.

Fall is also the beginning of the hunt, when family and friends gather to sit in duck blinds on the river and comb the woods for whitetail deer; but mostly to gather around the kitchen table at night to tell stories about the big one that got away.

Which for me is the rule rather than the exception. Hunting is an excuse to get into the woods with my son. And now my grandson, who sits by my side in the deer blind, fidgeting from the cold, and whispering loud enough for every deer in the county to hear. He drew a picture for school of us hunting, describing that, “On Sunday we saw two 2 bucks,” and then seamlessly, “I beat my grandpa in a game of pool.”

Fall shows us time unwinding into seasons, like the quarter-hour marks on a clock. It’s a time of harvesting corn from the fields and memories from the summer. It’s a time for families – for you – to gather and witness the changing of seasons in Driftless Wisconsin.

Driftless Dark Skies: Planets at Dawn

October 1, 2015 by John Heasley

Early risers in the Driftless Area will be able to see three worlds slowly shifting in the eastern sky before dawn this month: Venus, Mars, and Jupiter.  Look for them an hour or so before sunrise, which is 7:00 at the start of the month and 7:35 at the end of the month.

Venus is the easiest to find.  On October 1, it rises 2 ½ hours before the sun and is the brightest light in the sky.  Look for it high in the east.  Jupiter is the second-brightest object and is 17 degrees below and a little to the left of Venus.  That’s about the distance between your pointer and pinkie when held at arm’s length.  Mars is much dimmer and ruddier and halfway between the two.  There’s a bright star halfway between Mars and Venus.  That’s Regulus.  It’s a nice reference point as you watch the wanderings of the three planets.

Venus, Moon at dawn; photo by Jean Napp, Starsplitters of Wyalusing

Venus, Moon at dawn; photo by Jean Napp, Starsplitters of Wyalusing

A week later, the waning crescent moon joins the show.  Look for it just above Venus on October 8, just to the right of Jupiter and Mars on October 9, and below Jupiter on October 10.  If you want a challenge, you may be able to see a fourth planet, Mercury, on October 11 when it is just above the moon.  You’ll need a clear horizon to the east and maybe binoculars to see the innermost planet.  Best time to look is between 6 and 6:30.  Look for Earthshine on the dark side of the moon.  That’s sunlight being reflected by day side of Earth onto the night side of the moon.

The planets get even closer together in the second half of October.  On October 17, Mars and Jupiter pass by one another less than half a degree apart.  That’s the width of a full moon.  You could cover both with just your little finger.  Venus and Jupiter are closest together on October 25 and 26 when they are just one degree apart.  On October 27 and 28, all three planets are grouped within five degrees and can be enjoyed all at once in your binoculars.  On November 2 and 3, Venus and Mars will be less than one degree apart.

If you are not an early riser, don’t feel left out.  You can see Saturn in the southwestern sky after sunset.  October 15 and 16 are good dates when the moon is just to the right and then the left of Saturn.  You can have a look at Saturn through a telescope at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve Dam Challenge Stargaze on Friday, October 2nd 7-9 pm.  Be sure to enjoy the Friends of KVR Pasta Dinner from 5-8 pm.

In only five weeks this fall, you will have seen these three worlds dance in the dawn shifting position from Venus/Mars/Jupiter to Jupiter/Mars/Venus and maybe even caught a glimpse of a  fourth world, Mercury, all while enjoying the autumnal world of our Driftless Area.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.  Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Top 10 Best Ways to View Fall Color in Driftless Wisconsin!

September 29, 2015 by Meg Buchner

Fall color in Driftless Wisconsin is majestic and breathtaking! The bluffs become a riot of orange, red, yellow and brown. If you want the inside scoop on the 10 best ways to enjoy fall color in the Driftless region, read on…

10. In a Vineyard

Many people don’t realize that Vernon County alone boasts 32 vineyards and 68 acres of grapes. The farmers who plant these vineyards and create bold regional wines with cold-climate grapes are renewing the countryside and the rural landscape. Vineyards are a great place to view fall color because they are located in the rolling hills and overlook acres of grape vines and bluffs. Most of our vineyards have food and outdoor seating where you can relax, sip, and enjoy the autumn view. Branches Winery and Vernon Vineyards are two great destinations.


September 27, 2015 view from the Kickapoo Valley Ranch in La Farge.

9. A Cabin in the Woods

There’s nothing like waking up on a cool fall morning to a misty haze hanging over the bright bluffs. Or, you can watch the sunset over the Mississippi River from an outdoor hot tub on a cabin deck. Fall asleep listening to the sounds of the Kickapoo River and delight in the warmth of a fire before bed.  From rustic to upscale, the Driftless area has many unique cabins to stay in.

8. At a Farmer’s Market

The Driftless Area has a large selection of Farmer’s Markets where you can enjoy the local color as well as the fall harvest. Multi-colored pumpkins, squash, apples, plants and vegetables are all available now. Many of our markets have Amish vendors, such as Ferryville Market in the Park and the Viroqua Farmer’s Market.  These artisans offer unique hand-made items and baked goods. Plus, it’s a beautiful drive just getting to a Farmer’s Market, either along the Great River Road, or on a highway through rolling hills.

7. In an Orchard

The historical marker and overlook.

The historical marker and overlook on HWY 171 in Gays Mills.

No color sight-seeing trip is complete without a visit to the local orchards. Our area is dotted with them, especially in Gays Mills. Most are located on ridge tops (there is a spectacular overlook on HWY 171). Plus, there’s so much more than apples at the orchards. You can get pumpkins, squash, baked goods, Wisconsin meats and cheese, locally made wine, and even pick your own grapes (and apples!) You can even pet animals or get lost in a corn maze.

6. In a Park

Crawford and Vernon County have three state parks, and just across the Mississippi River, the neighboring state of Iowa offers two more. The Kickapoo Valley Reserve is an 8,569-acre natural area located between the villages of La Farge and Ontario. Wildcat Mountain State Park is located on a steep ridge overlooking the Kickapoo River, offering spectacular views. The 3,603 acres in the park are mostly wooded. Just south of Prairie du Chien is Wyalusing State Park. The park’s 2,628 acres includes hardwood forests, pine plantations, bluffs, springs, waterfalls, wetlands, and backwaters, providing habitat for wildlife and 90 species of birds. There are also eight county parks and forests where the leaves are changing and the fall foliage looks different every day.

5. On a Bike

DSCN0274_1152x864Get up close and personal with the rolling hills and enjoy autumn scenery from your bike. We have a wide variety of mapped routes for you that wind past tranquil farmland and up and down hills. Crawford County has charted nine tours using “roads as routes,” a combination of country and township roads. Vernon County has mapped five routes from Westby. If off-road biking is your preference, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve boasts 24 miles of trails and Wyalusing State Park has 4.9 miles of trails.

4. On  a Trail

Many of our parks and natural areas have trails for hiking or horseback riding. If you want to watch leaves flutter down, spot deer or other wildlife, enjoy a trail. Many trails climb the bluff and lead to spectacular view (see #1).  In Coon Valley, Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center offers six miles of nature trails, an arboretum, and a pioneer log homestead.

3. From the Road


Great River Road, HWY 35, north of Prairie du Chien.

There’s a reason the Great River Road was voted the Prettiest Drive in America by the Huffington Post in 2012. In the autumn, the sunlight bounces of the Mississippi River, framed by colored bluffs on either side. In a car or on a motorcycle, people love to experience the sites of fall from the road. Wisconsin created the Rustic Road program, a “great step backwards,” to preserve what is left of the state’s scenic, lightly-traveled country roads. Two are in the Driftless area and fall is a great time to experience them.

2. From the Water

Take a “color cruise” and spot all kinds of color from a river! Paddling down the Kickapoo River is breathtaking in the autumn, as it is framed by limestone bluffs and foliage. If you’d prefer that someone else does the driving, you can take a fall color cruise down on the Mississippi River. These cruises depart from Prairie du Chien.

1. From the Top of the Bluff


Fall view from Wyalusing State Park. Photo by Nancy Nygaard.

The limestone bluffs are what make the Driftless region so unique and there is no better place to see fall color than from the top of one! The Overlook Point at Wyalusing Park offers an unparalleled view of the Mississippi River. Across the river in McGregor Iowa, you can visit Pike’s Peak and gaze at Prairie du Chien. North on HWY 35, a short hike south of Ferryville will take you to the top of Sugar Creek Bluff, part of the Mississippi Valley Conservancy. Across the river in Lansing, Iowa, Mount Hosmer offers an overlook with a view of both Vernon and Crawford County. The Kickapoo Valley Reserve and Wildcat Mountain State Park have spectacular bluff views of the Kickapoo River Valley.

Keep up to date on autumn color with Travel Wisconsin’s Fall Color Report. Peak color for Driftless Wisconsin is predicted to be between the second and third week in October! We also have FREE map available for visitors or to help you plan a trip. You can request it here and we’ll mail it to you.

Driftless Dark Skies: Harvest Moon Eclipse in the Driftless area

September 21, 2015 by John Heasley

photo by Lynda Schweikert, Iowa County Astronomers

photo by Lynda Schweikert, Iowa County Astronomers

On September 27, the Full Moon will darken as it passes through the shadow of the Earth.  This lunar eclipse is the fourth and final in a series (tetrad) we have been enjoying every six months since April 2014.   The next lunar eclipse visible in the Driftless Area will not be until Jan 2019.  This one coincides with the Harvest Moon, the name we give to the Full Moon that is closest to the Autumnal Equinox (September 23).

Unlike the previous three eclipses that had us staying up really late or rising really early in the morning, this eclipse happens conveniently in the evening.  Watch for the Harvest Moon rising in the east at 6:45 just as the Sun is setting in the west.  You may notice a golden color to the Moon when it is close to the horizon.  You’ll start to see the Moon entering Earth’s shadow at 8:07 when it looks like something is taking a bite out of the Moon.  The Moon is totally eclipsed from 9:11 until 10:23.  The Moon slowly leaves Earth’s shadow and will fully emerge at 11:27.

Three memories stay with me from previous eclipses.  First was the unexpectedly odd shape of the Moon, neither crescent nor gibbous.  I was awed by how the familiar was made strange.  Second was how Earth’s shadow was first black, but then took on a reddish hue as more of the Moon was engulfed.  Sometimes there’s even a hint of blue leading the dark area.  Third was how the stars emerged as the Moon was dimmed.  The light from the Full Moon usually chases away all but the brightest stars.  The darkening of the Moon is a second nightfall.  During the eclipse, it may be possible to see our Milky Way arching from the southwest to the northeast and the Great Square of Pegasus above the Moon.

The Harvest Moon Eclipse occurs the same night as the “Super Moon”.  I had never heard this term until a few years ago when different media began reporting on it.  The Moon’s orbit around the Earth is slightly elliptical, and its distance varies.  A “Super Moon” occurs when the Full Moon is closest to Earth.  The Moon will be 7% larger than average on September 27.  That’s the difference between a 14-inch and 15-inch pizza.  It’s nothing that is obviously noticeable, but it gives us all a fun chance to use the mighty phrase “perigee syzygy”.  That’s when Sun, Moon, and Earth all align with the Moon closest to Earth.

You are invited to enjoy the eclipse with your fellow moongazers at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve Visitor Center.   (8-11:30 pm).  Grab a chair, your favorite beverage, your binoculars, and enjoy the show on September 27.  It will take you out of the ordinary.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.  Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

A Perfect Driftless Weekend: The Kickapoo BRAVE Ride, the Driftless Art Festival and more!

September 11, 2015 by Meg Buchner

The best place to be in Driftless Wisconsin in the fall is outside. The air has a new crispness to it, the sun has mellowed, and colored leaves flutter past carried by a cool breeze. The people of the Driftless region celebrate autumn with fairs, farmer’s markets, festivals, and all types of fun. Take a look at our event calendar and you will find every weekend in September and October is packed with things to do for the whole family.

The weekend of September 19-20th offers some very popular events where you can get up close and personal with the scenery and the artists of Driftless Wisconsin. Two of these events are the Kickapoo BRAVE Ride and the Driftless Art Festival.

DSCN0274_1152x864The Kickapoo BRAVE Ride begins Saturday morning. Check-in opens at 6:30 am with an 8:00 am start. This popular bicycle ride offers four different clover leaf style looping routes that all originate at the Stump Dodger Campground in Gays Mills. The routes vary in length from 15 miles to 100 miles so there are options for beginner, intermediate, and advanced riders. Every route has breathtaking scenery: ridge tops with distinctive views and deep, lush valley roads. Cycling up the bluffs is demanding: your heart will be pumping and your thighs may be burning, but the panoramic view at the top is worth the challenge. You’ll also pass small family farms, serene pastures with grazing cows, trout streams, apple orchards and the meandering Kickapoo River. Some routes even have the option to ride along the Great River Road (HWY 35) and take in the majestic Mississippi River. No matter what route you select, you’ll find the winding county roads and soaring limestone bluffs that make the Driftless region completely unique.

2014-09-21 13.32.21Once your ride is over, take the short trip on HWY 131 to Soldier’s Grove, where the 11th Annual Driftless Art Festival is held. 80 artists from all over the area exhibit their creations nestled among the bluffs at Beauford T. Anderson Park. It runs Saturday from 10:00-5:00 and Sunday from 10:00-4:00. (Admission and parking are free!) You’ll find all types of arts: visual, culinary, musical. This year the Artisan Edibles tent will feature culinary artists who offer samples, demonstrations or foods to take home including the American Hazelnut Company, Austin’s Rush Creek Farm, Fizzeology, Got2HavPie, Nami Chips, Sugar Creek Winery and Tea for the People – just to name a few! Live music will be playing (you can find the full performance schedule online). Of course, there is a huge variety of amazing pottery, ceramics, pastel drawings, paintings, photography, jewelry, woodworking, glass, fiber, weavings, sculpture and more. Stroll from tent to tent and you’ll likely meet the artist. Take in the KidsArt Gallery which celebrates the next generation of artists and is a popular destination where youngsters can enjoy free crafts and snacks, while admiring local student artwork.

Want more to do? Here are some other events taking place September 19-20th:

Vernon County Fair in Viroqua

• Viroqua Farmers Market

• Prairie Street Farmers Market in Prairie du Chien.

• Cannons at the Fort in Prairie du Chien. This is a popular living history event. Historic interpreters present life in Prairie du Chien from the time of the fur trade through the Civil War with Native American storytelling, craft demonstrations, and musket and cannon firing. 9 a.m.-3 p.m.

• Breakfast in a Victorian Kitchen at the Villa Louis Historic Site in Prairie du Chien (Saturday @ 8:30 am – 1:00 pm)

2nd Annual Driftless Outdoor Fall Festival in Ontario. Experience a canoe race down the Kickapoo River, bike ride through the hills and valleys, and a whitetail deer classic. There will also be music in the evening for everyone to enjoy.

•  Ferryville Fall Fest including a farmer’s market and Amish goods.

• The Harvest Costume Charity Ball at Kickapoo Stump Dodger Campground in Gays Mills (Saturday evening)

Outdoor recreation in Driftless Wisconsin

September 2, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

Driftless Wisconsin is known for its outdoor recreation. For someone like me that calls Driftless Wisconsin home, this seems less a reason to boast and more an invitation to get outside and have some fun.

Yet, we are so in love with our electronic devices and in “like” with our social media, we sometime fail to heed the invitation, filing it away with those promises to our friends to “get together soon.”

I write this blog – yes, upon my electronic device – sitting in my favorite chair looking out the window where the leafy ornaments of the great outdoors sway in a gentle breeze. Perhaps it’s time to set down my keyboard and, well, step outside.

If you take that leap across the threshold into the outer limits of Driftless Wisconsin, you will find this is no ordinary backyard. If we could describe the offerings of Driftless Wisconsin, it would not be flatbread on a plate. It would be Grandma’s homemade bread, risen for the occasion, heaping with texture, dwarfing everything on the table.

We’re talking ridges and valleys, steep climbs and gentle foothills, secluded ravines and expansive overlooks. We’re talking a variety of riches, savored one slice at a time.

The best way to experience this variation in the land is to feel it beneath your feet. Sidewalks just won’t do the trick. You need a trail that follows the contours, eroded by water over eons, to get the feel for the land and how it was shaped.

There’s a horse trail across the drywash from our house that I often walk with our dog, Fargo. Cut into the hillside by a logger to harvest lumber, the path now serves horses; and hikers like me.

While Fargo explores the smells of recent four-legged passersby, I explore the trail. A hard rain has cut ruts in the path, littered with limestone rubble formed in some ancient ocean, requiring one eye on the ground to navigate.

We stop and sit a spell at my favorite rock along the logging road; a limestone slab jutting out from the hill to form a bench. I dutifully replace a piece of rock broken off from the seat, snapping it into place like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s a losing battle. Weather and water will eventually sculpt this rock into a different shape over time.

Fargo sits by my side, his nose twitching; taking in a slice of Driftless Wisconsin that I can only imagine.

Other Outdoor RecreationDriftless 085web

Hiking boots are not required to experience the outdoors in Driftless Wisconsin. You can trade them in for hip boots and try your hand at fly fishing on one of our world-class trout streams.

Or you can step into a boat, whether powered by paddle or outboard motor, and take in the sights from the grip of river currents that shaped this land.

About those horses that frequent our trail: they most likely carry people that spend afternoons swaying in the saddle while exploring our back country. They offer up a friendly wave going by our house; the kind of wave that’s meant to share their good fortune.

And if horse saddles are not to your liking, climb aboard a bike saddle and experience the land along our many routes and trails, earning every summit view with your legs.

We have so much outdoor fun, it takes several pages to describe. So rather than me yammering on, go here to learn more.

Don’t just read about it. Come, take it all in. it only requires that you step outside.

Driftless Area Dark Skies: Perseids

August 8, 2015 by John Heasley

Some days we journey to other worlds.  Other days these worlds come to us.  On the night of Aug 12/13, pieces of Comet Swift-Tuttle will streak through our atmosphere.  We call this annual meteor perseids_bruenjes bshower the Perseids.  During its 133-year journey from beyond Pluto in the Kuiper Belt to the Sun, Comet Swift-Tuttle leaves behind a stream of comet dust.  Every year our world passes through this stream, and we see meteors seeming to radiate back to the constellation Perseus.

2015 is an especially good year to enjoy the Perseids since there will be no moonlight to interfere.  The best time will be between midnight when our planet turns into the debris stream and 4 am when dawn begins.  The forecast is for meteors to peak around 3 am.

It’s easy to enjoy the Perseids.  Find a dark spot away from town lights.  We are lucky to enjoy many areas of dark skies here in the Driftless Area.  I’ve watched meteor showers from Wyalusing State Park as well as from a sandbar in the Wisconsin River.  The Kickapoo Valley Reserve has especially dark skies and will be hosting a Perseids Party on August 12 with an indoor program at 8pm and outdoor viewing at 9pm.

You don’t need any special equipment such as binoculars, just your eyes.  Keep the flashlights off and let your eyes dark adapt so you can see more.  It’s best to be comfortable and looking up, so bring a reclining chair or blanket or inflatable mattress.  Remember to dress warmly.  Temperatures can drop even in the summer, and you won’t be moving around much.  Don’t forget snacks.  The direction you face really doesn’t matter since meteors can appear in any part of the sky.  I like facing the northeast, so I can keep an eye on Perseus just below the “W” of Cassiopeia.  If you face away from Perseus, you should see meteors with longer trails.  Bring friends to see all the meteors you miss.  You can expect to see a meteor every couple of minutes and maybe more often.

If the late night hours don’t suit you, you can also catch the Perseids in the evening.  Sunset is a little after 8 and the sky is fully dark by 10.  There are fewer meteors during this time, but the ones you see can be impressive.  They are called “Earthgrazers” and they move more slowly and leave longer trails across the sky.  You can also see the Perseids on the nights before and after August 12.

The meteors we see are only the size of seeds.  They are so bright because they are coming in at over 100,000 mph.  From our world here in the Driftless Area, we can watch these pieces of another world arriving and lighting up our skies.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.  Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Exploring Driftless Wisconsin’s History and Heritage

July 31, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

My last blog explored the music scene this summer in Driftless Wisconsin. Yet no trip to Driftless Wisconsin would be complete without discovering the natural and human history that shaped this unique region.

There are many upcoming events and activities that explore that history and heritage, and of course, the stunning scenery of Driftless Wisconsin.

While water shaped the Driftless landscape over eons, humans have left their cultural mark upon the region, through its captivating history of exploration and settlement and its rich farming heritage.

harvest photoLet’s begin with farming. On Saturday, August 22, Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center in Coon Valley hold its annual Threshing Bee. The event takes you back to times when chores were done by hand, including threshing oats, corn shelling, rope making, blacksmithing, butter churning, and cutting lumber. There are also pioneer craft demonstrations, antique farm machinery, and activities for the kids. Be sure to call ahead for reservations to the threshing dinner.

On August 14 and 15, Hillsboro will host its Charity Tractor Pull. Pulling classes include super farm tractors, pro stock tractors, super modified tractors, and all sorts of powerful machines that will provide plenty of excitement for the fans.

An event that celebrates our pioneer past takes place in Viroqua on August 15 – 18. Wild West Days celebrates the adventuresome spirit that opened the new frontier during the 1800s. Enjoy hog wrestling, a rodeo, and an authentically recreated western boomtown. An elegant horse-drawn parade kicks off the event on the evening of the 14th.

And there’s plenty of outdoor activities to explore the topography that Driftless Wisconsin is known for. Bike rides allow participants to experience the landscape at a leisurely pace; time enough to soak in the scenery you might miss at 60 mph. The Aloha Bike Tour on August 22 visits the rolling farm land around Viroqua, while the Kickapoo BRAVE Ride on September 19 in Gays Mills travels the ridges and valleys along the Kickapoo River.

Be sure to travel the rivers that shaped Driftless Wisconsin over the centuries. Mississippi River Cruises in Prairie du Chien explores the wildlife and waterways that make the Upper Mississippi River one of most scenic destinations in America. Guided tours will take you into the backwaters and show you the river you have never seen from the road.

Check out our calendar of events for many more opportunities to experience Driftless Wisconsin from different perspectives. Each perspective offers a new look on how Driftless Wisconsin was shaped by the forces of nature and the people who settled its land.

Driftless Area Dark Skies: Pluto

July 10, 2015 by John Heasley

We are going to Pluto.  On July 14th, NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft will fly by Pluto and send home the first detailed photos of this world.  And Pluto is a perfect match for our Driftless Area.  When UW Space Place constructed their Planet Trek scale model of the Solar System, they placed the Sun at Monona Terrace in Madison and the marker for Pluto 22 miles away in Mt. Horeb at the edge of the Driftless Area.

Pluto and the Driftless Area are both eccentric.  We’ve all had those conversations trying to explain to people where we are from.  We are off the map.  Rand McNally’s Universal Map of Outer Space from my childhood still hangs on my wall.  There’s Pluto, a weird shade of green, on the fringes, with a question mark.

Like the Driftless Area, Pluto has been difficult to classify.  Planet?  Dwarf Planet?  Minor Planet?  Plutino?  Plutoid?  Kuiper Belt Object?  Trans-Neptunian Object?  It’s like trying to decide when a brook becomes a creek and when a creek becomes a river.  I try to avoid the debate by saying it’s a world, one we are about to see for the first time.  Just as the Driftless Area preserves ancient landscapes and rare species, Pluto preserves some of the oldest material in the Solar System with ices billions of years old.

Thanks to low mass, a powerful booster, and a gravity assist from Jupiter, New Horizons is now cruising at over 30,000 mph.  That’s 8 1/2 miles every second.  At that speed, it could journey the Lower Wisconsin Riverway from Prairie du Sac to Prairie du Chien in 11 seconds, though I suspect the Riverway Board might have something to say about the wake it would leave.  Even at that speed, it has taken 9 ½ years since its January 2006 launch to reach Pluto.  Pluto, like the Driftless Area, teaches patience.

I love how the Driftless Area has attracted its share of amateurs and enthusiasts.  Madison and Milwaukee have their universities and museums, but we have the visions of Dr. Evermor’s Forevertron and Alex Jordan’s Infinity Room.  Pluto’s discovery in 1930 is a story of amateurs and enthusiasts.  Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff had no university affiliation, and Percival Lowell, who took on the quest for “Planet X”, had no formal astronomy education.  Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto, was a 24-year-old high school graduate and amateur astronomer from Streator IL and Burdett KS who was hired on the basis of some sketches he sent to Lowell Observatory.  He spent hundreds of hours guiding a telescope as it took long exposure photos, and even more hundreds of hours examining those plates for a point of light that moved from night to night.  His discovery earned him a scholarship to the University of Kansas to get his degrees in astronomy.  It’s fitting that some of his ashes are aboard New Horizons and making their way to Pluto for all of us.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.  Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Making music in Driftless Wisconsin

July 2, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

The summer landscapes of Driftless Wisconsin want to be set to music.  Its deep river valleys and lofty ridge tops inspire a song that hits every note from base to tenor.

The Driftless Wisconsin region has long been known as a place that lifts your creative spirit.  Whether it’s firing pottery, capturing landscapes, or carving wood; the hills give shape to your creation.  And aim to your lyrics.

Summer finds many talented artists making music in Driftless Wisconsin. Add an enthusiastic crowd and you have an event you’ll be telling friends about when you get home. Better yet, bring them along.

July and August is prime time. It begins with the Stump Dodger Bash in Gays Mills on July 3 and 4.  The Bash is a Country music spectacle held on the banks of the Kickapoo River at the Kickapoo Stump Dodger Campground. This year’s Saturday headliner is multi-platinum Blackhawk, a band that has spun out 12 top-ten hits and sold 7 million albums. Friday culminates with Jared Blake, a native of Arkansas who made his mark on the hit NBC show, “The Voice.” Six other bands perform throughout Saturday and Sunday.


Mankwe Ndosi

On July 18, the Driftless Music Festival in Viroqua will kick off with its eclectic mix of performers, including Cris Plata with Extra Hot, Cajun Strangers, Chicago Afrobeat Project, and Bumpus.  The evening closes with Mankwe Ndosi, who has worked stages in Chicago and the Twin Cities as “a musicmaker, performer, educator and culture weaver focused on sound, story, and expanding the vocabulary of singing.”

A different genre takes stage at the Prairie Dog Blues Festival in Prairie du Chien on July 31 – Aug 1.  Twelve bands will perform over two days on this venue located on St. Feriole Island on the Mississippi River.  The festival features “Chicago Blues to West Coast Jump, hard-driving Mississippi Hill Country Blues, New Orleans horns and Texas Boogie, Zydeco, Gospel, Blues Rock.”  Girls with Guitars leads off on Friday, culminating on Saturday with Davy Knowles, former lead guitarist & vocalist for Back Door Slam.

The next weekend brings us full circle back to country music at the Country on the River Music Fest in Prairie du Chien on August 6 – 8.  Now in its fifth year, the festival will include star performances by legendary Alabama, Jake Owen, and Dierks Bentley.

The music does not stop there.  The fall will bring talented regional artists to the Driftless Area Art Festival on September 19 – 20, the Hillsboro Brewing Company’s Octoberfest on October 3, and other venues throughout the area.  Just check out our calendar of events and sort on the music category to see the full slate.  The hills and valleys of Driftless Wisconsin will reverberate with music this summer, lifting your spirits as only a song can.

Driftless Wisconsin as seen from the Mississippi River

June 12, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

If there’s a more relaxing way to take in the scenery of Southwest Wisconsin than from a boat on the Mississippi River, I’d challenge you to find it. Towering bluffs and shear limestone outcroppings rise from the river’s edge like cathedrals that frame the Driftless area topography.

River barge bA variety of river craft cruise by, from powerful tugboats pushing their products to market, fishing boats headed to secret fishing holes, and pleasure boats headed to the beach party. You can make your own party. A number of sand bars located along the river bank or islands make for easy access and a place to set up a grill or build a campfire.

And you needn’t roll down the window to see the bald eagles soaring overhead. The entire river opens wide over the bow of your boat.  As Mark Twain said, “Piloting on the Mississippi River was not work to me; it was play — delightful play, vigorous play, adventurous play — and I loved it.”


So let’s begin our adventure with play; and some good food along the way.  Heading downstream from La Crosse, make Stoddard your first way stop. The friendly Village has a boat dock from which you can access the eateries along Main Street, all within walking distance. Visit the Thirsty Turtle, a traditional small-town tavern with a big-flavor menu.  Try the turtle burger, a local treat served with grilled onions and green peppers.  For the less adventuresome, ask for their Italian Beef, a staple of their Chicago-born owners.

De Soto

Just downriver at De Soto, take a break at Blackhawk Park, named after the renowned Sauk Indian Chief who encountered a major battle with the US Military near here.  The park features a boat launch, 11 campsites, picnic area, and a concession stand and bait shop where you can pick up lures to entice those walleyes, bass, catfish and pan fish that the Mississippi is famous for. About a half mile south, accessible from the beach across the highway, you’ll find the Great River Roadhouse. They specialize in pizzas that are as big in taste as they are in size.


Ferryville is a small Village tucked against the river bluff known for its famous son, Patrick Lucey. The former Governor of Wisconsin and Ambassador to Mexico now has a Historic Marker in his honor at the Observation Deck overlooking the wide expanse of the river. Dock at the landing and walk to the Wooden Nickel; favored by motorcyclists who love their charcoal burgers, but a welcome respite for motor boaters too.


At Lynxville, pull over at the boat landing and enjoy a “world famous” Chicago Style Hot Dog at the Dawg House. They also serve Corn Dogs, Burgers, Tacos, Fresh Mississippi Catfish, and their “Dawg Curds,” the best cheese curds in Wisconsin. Just below the Lynxville dam, the Falling Rock landing serves as a favorite put in for anglers fishing for walleye below the dam. The Falling Rock tavern is a favorite haunt for fishers sharing their fishing stories along with a beer and burger.

Prairie du Chien

Prairie du Chien’s St. Feriole Island is a must stop for history buffs. The island hosts the annual Prairie Villa Rendezvous in June, a re-creation of the fur trade rendezvous that occurred in centuries past. It’s also home to the famed Villa Louis historic site, a 19th century Victorian mansion billed as the most authentically restored Victorian House Museum in America. Pull up to the boat dock on the south end of Lawler Park and quench your thirst and appetite at the Depot, a bar & grill located in a restored railroad depot, built in 1864.

The stretch of river along the Driftless region of southwest Wisconsin never ceases to amaze; from a distance or from the seat of your cruiser. Launch your boat and let the river take you to sights and settings you’ll never forget.

Driftless Dark Skies: Venus at Twilight

June 1, 2015 by John Heasley

Stargazers love the dark, which makes June a challenging month.  By the time of the summer solstice on June 21, there are only 8 ½ hours between sunset and sunrise.  If you leave out twilight, there are just four hours between 11pm and 3am when the sky is fully dark.  But don’t leave out twilight; it’s the perfect time to watch the planets come out.

Venus is the *star* of June.  You have probably noticed our sister planet all spring in the western sky, bright and beautiful and the first light to emerge after sunset.  On June 1, Venus forms a straight line to the left of Gemini’s Castor and Pollux.  On June 11 to 14, Venus passes in front of the Beehive Cluster, a lovely sprinkling of stars.  This is best enjoyed with binoculars or spotting scope.

Watch how Venus gets closer to Jupiter during the month.  Jupiter is one-tenth the brightness of Venus but still the second light to appear after sunset.  As the month opens, Jupiter and Venus are 20 degrees apart.  If you hold out your left hand and make the “rock on” sign, your pinkie should be touching Jupiter and your index finger should be at Venus.  By June 19 and 20, they are just 7 degrees apart (four fingers) and are joined by the waxing crescent Moon.  As June ends, Jupiter and Venus are only 1/3 degree apart, less than the width of the Full Moon.

If you have a telescope or a way to hold your binoculars steady, you can see Venus growing larger as it approaches Earth.  At the same time, its phase is waning (like the Moon) and goes from 1/2 lit at the start of the month to 1/3 lit at the end of the month.  Turn your telescope to Jupiter to see its four largest moons changing position from night to night.

June’s Full Moon is called the Strawberry Moon.  Watch for it rising in the ESE on June 2 just as the Sun is setting in the WNW.  It passes low across the southern sky and takes on a luscious honey color.  On June 28, look for Saturn just to the right of the waxing gibbous Moon.  A telescope will let you be wowed by its rings.

In grade school, I learned to divide creatures into diurnal (active during the day) and nocturnal (active at night).  More recently, I was happy to learn of a third category: crepuscular (active at twilight).  It is the crepuscular creatures who get to enjoy the planets at twilight this June.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.  Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Velkommen til Syttende Mai in Westby

May 13, 2015 by Meg Buchner

Westby is a small town nestled in the rolling hills of Vernon County. Each May, Westby celebrates the town’s Scandinavian heritage with the annual Syttende Mai festival. The 47th Annual Celebration will be held May 15 – 17th, 2015.

At Syttende Mai, prepare to immerse yourself in Norwegian history and culture with traditional food, music and art. You’ll find a host of fun activities for the entire family from a kiddie parade to a living history exhibition.

If you’ve never had a chance to sample Norwegian delicacies, prepare your taste buds to be delighted. Be sure to try some rommegrot, which is a white cream pudding. It is served piping hot, usually with butter and a bit of cinnamon sprinkled on the top. Rommegrot is rich, delicious, and creamy, but don’t eat too much because you need to save room for lefsa. This Norwegian flat bread is made with potatoes, flour, butter, and milk. It requires a special lefsa iron and other tools to make including a long handled spoon for turning. Lefsa is mouthwatering hot or cold, but my family loves watching the lefsa making demonstrations, where we get to eat lefsa warm from the griddle with just a little butter. Don’t pass by the Norwegian desserts either, even though the sandbakkels, krumkake and rosettes are almost too pretty to eat.

The Big Syttende Mai Parade begins Sunday at 1:30

The Big Syttende Mai Parade begins Sunday at 1:30

Once your stomach is full, stroll through the Heritage tent, Arts, Crafts & Vintage Commercial tents that are open Saturday and Sunday from 8 am until 6 pm on Market Street. You’ll see Norwegian rosemaling, which is traditional decorative painting, usually on wood, that uses stylized flowers, scrolls, lines, and geometric patterns. You’ll also find intricate needlework, woodworking and weaving.

Don’t miss the big parade on Sunday, with people in traditional Norwegian dress, bands, floats and much more. Here’s a short summary of events at this year’s Syttende Mai:


  • Kickoff Breakfast
  • Westby Locker & Meats Cookout
  • Old-Time Music Show
  • Chicken-Q, Raffle and Silent Auction
  • Westby High School Art Exhibit
  • Westby High School Choral Concert


  • Arts, Crafts &Vintage Commercial Tents
  • Bunads (Live models with Norwegian Folk Costumes)
  • Frøkøst (Breakfast)
  • A Walk Through History
  • Westby Syttende Mai History Display
  • Bicycle Tour
  • Syttende Mai 5K Walk/Run & 1/2 Marathon
  • Golf Tournament
  • Kiddie Tractor Pull
  • Rømmegrøt Eating Contest
  • Syttende Mai Car and Bike Show
  • Western Wisconsin Bubble Soccer
  • Viking Bowl Bubble Soccer Tournament
  • Tractor Pull


  • Church Services
  • Arts, Crafts &Vintage Commercial Tents
  • Church Dinners
  • Kids Bike Race
  • Westby High School Jazz Band
  • Raffle Drawings
  • Big Syttende Mai Parade

The complete list of events with details, locations and times can be found at: You can also follow them on Facebook at

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer Stargazing

May 10, 2015 by John Heasley

“The best thing that we’re put here for’s to see;

The strongest thing that’s given us to see with’s

A telescope. Someone in every town

Seems to me owes it to the town to keep one.

In Littleton it may as well be me.”

Robert Frost “The Star-Splitter”

There are plenty of stargazers in the Driftless Area who keep telescopes and would be happy to share a look with you. If you have been meaning to explore our starry skies, this is your summer.

Starsplitters of Wyalusing has public programs at Wyalusing State Park on May 23, June 13 and 27, July 11 and 25, August 15 and 29, September 12, and October 10. The evening begins with an indoor presentation in the Huser Astronomy Center and then goes outdoor to explore the sky with their fine collection of telescopes. They take their name from the Robert Frost poem, though no houses were burned down to get the insurance money to acquire their telescopes.

Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers dark skies and will be having a Solstice Stargaze on June 20 and a Perseid Meteor Shower Party on August 12. Enjoy hiking or canoeing during the day and astronomy at night.

Northwest Suburban Astronomers will be at Wildcat Mountain State Park on August 8. This friendly group escapes the light pollution of their homes outside Chicago to enjoy the dark skies of our Driftless Area. For over a week, they create an astronomy village in the group campground where they welcome the public for a night of memorable stargazing through their amazing telescopes.

Universe in the Park expands the Wisconsin Idea by making the boundaries of the university not just the boundaries of the state but the boundaries of the universe. UW-Madison astronomy students visit state parks to give talks, answer questions, and share telescope viewing. They will be at Governor Dodge on May 23, July 4, September 5, and October 13 and at Blue Mounds on June 13 and August 1.

Iowa County Astronomers have monthly meetings on May 15, June 12, July 10, August 7, September 11, and October 9. There’s usually an indoor presentation, and then we head over to Bethel Horizons to view the skies with a wonderful 17 inch Dobsonian telescope. Everyone is always welcome. It’s a great time to try out different telescopes and ask questions.  ICA will also be sharing a public program at Governor Dodge on August 22.

Don’t miss Mercury making an appearance in the western sky the first two weeks of May and Venus close to the waxing crescent moon on May 21.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.

“Driftless Dark Skies” appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Wisconsin historical attractions open

May 1, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

May brings thoughts of summer to Driftless Wisconsin.  It also brings the opening of Wisconsin historical attractions throughout the region.  In turn, these fascinating sites open our understanding of the new frontier that beckoned our ancestors to Driftless Wisconsin.  Drawn by the Mississippi River Valley and its rich natural resources, Native Americans, European Explorers, and immigrant settlers came to fish, farm, hunt, and trade in this land of plenty.

Along the way, they left a trail of stories and artifacts waiting for your own exploration. There’s nothing quite like learning history by standing in the very spot it took place.

Explore Wisconsin historical attractions

You might begin your exploration of Driftless Wisconsin’s past at Norskedalen, which means “Norwegian Valley.”  Here you will find the story of Norwegian immigrants preserved at the Bekkum Homesteadhomestead_view_enhanced Open Air Museum, consisting of a log home, summer kitchen, barn, granary, blacksmith shop, and other buildings that comprised an 1800’s farmstead.  Farm implements and other artifacts trace the rugged life of settlers who worked the land for a living and expressed an appreciation for the landscape through their crafts.

Norskedalen is located near Coon Valley and is open seven days a week during the summer from May 1 – October 31. Check here for hours of operation and admission fees.

Further south along the scenic drive on Highway 14 to Viroqua, the Vernon County Museum tells the story of local farming history and notable people, including the tobacco exhibit and the Astronaut Mark Lee Space exhibit. The museum is located in the former “County Normal School,” a Teacher’s College built in 1918 for the purpose of training new teachers. Visit the Museum website for days and hours of operation.

Stepping deeper into time, a trip to Prairie du Chien reveals a glimpse of life when European Explorers first came down the Wisconsin River to open trade routes.  The Fort Crawford Museum chronicles the establishment of a military presence in the region as well as the exploits of Dr. William Beaumont, a fort surgeon who performed groundbreaking research on the human digestive system. While in Prairie du Chien, visit the Villa Louis, an authentically preserved Victorian country home built by H. Louis Dousman in 1870; later expanded and remodeled in the style of the British Arts and Crafts Movement. Visit the Fort Crawford and Villa Louis page for hours of operation.

Your journey back through history continues across the Mississippi River at Effigy Mounds National Monument. There you will see preserved burial mounds constructed 750 to 1400 years ago by Effigy Moundbuilders, Native Americans who are culturally associated with 18 modern-day Indian tribes.  The sacred mounds are shaped in the form of birds and animals; remarkable in their size and artistry, yet still not fully understood after years of research. The National Park is open seven days per week during the summer, with hours posted here.

Driftless Wisconsin stood on the frontier of human exploration and habitation.  Plan your visit to explore Wisconsin historical attractions and retrace our ancestor’s march through history.

Photographing Scenery in Driftless Wisconsin

April 6, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

We had arrived home after our vacation when we first saw it standing on the western horizon; a shaft of light rising skyward from where the sun had just set. The Driftless area, with a topography sculpted from earth by water over time, generally needs no further visual enhancement. Yet there it stood, an arrow of fire stuck in the Iowa bluffs as if slung from Greek mythology.

Many would be satisfied with the show without further explanation, but curiosity got the best of me. Spoiler alert: looking up the phenomena on Google, I discovered this was a solar pillar, caused by the reflection of light from ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere. Sun Pilar

“Was it meant just for us?” I wondered, given most of the town was hiding inside from single digit temperatures on that cold winter day. Then we saw a neighbor rush outside and frantically snap photos, while we sat in our car.

I recovered my senses and got out of the car to take the accompanying photo.  I took the photo with my smart phone, since I did not have my camera with me.  That was a mistake; I’m learning to have my camera in the car while traveling Driftless Wisconsin.  With its high bluffs and deep valleys, the topography lends a three-dimensional backdrop to any setting.

Favorite subjects while photographing scenery in Driftless Wisconsin

When it comes to photographing scenery in Driftless Wisconsin, sunsets are my favorite subject; as well as for many others. Traveling the Great River Road along the Mississippi River on Highway 35, it’s not unusual to see a photographer set up along the road at sunset.  You just can’t resist a photo of the sun setting over the Iowa bluffs across the wide expanse of the Mississippi. There’s several overlooks and waysides where you can pull over out of traffic and set up your tripod.

If you’re lucky, you might catch an eagle hovering over the river looking for his next meal. And of course during spring and fall migration, hundreds of thousands of migrating birds use the river corridor as a flyway.  According to the Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge website, April and May is prime time for photographing song bird migration.

The backroads of Driftless Wisconsin offer a chance to get away from traffic and immerse yourself in nature and rural settings. Rustic barns, rolling farmland, foggy mornings, and secluded valleys offer the photographer unforgettable subjects; and a quiet getaway to boot. Highway 131 along the Kickapoo River presents many such opportunities, with the winding river appearing and disappearing amid the valley flora. Take any side road and you’re immediately lost in a forgotten land, ripe for capturing through a camera lens.

The most tempting subjects are the Driftless landscape taken from one of the many overlooks.  Something about the undulating land that begs to be remembered in your photo album of places you’ve been.  The parks offer the most accessible overlooks; the best at Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario and Wyalusing State Park near Prairie du Chien.

Solar pillars are pretty rare; it’s the first one I’ve seen in my long life.  Yet the Driftless landscape always offer the photographer something rare; a place where the land rises and falls as surely as the sun.

Driftless Dark Skies: Time Travel with the Winter Hexagon

April 1, 2015 by John Heasley

We know about deep time in the Driftless Region. Because the landscape was never smoothed by glaciers or filled with drift, the older rock layers are there for us to read and explore. Along with the ancient landscape, we enjoy the darkest skies in southern Wisconsin. It’s a perfect place for time travel. 

Orion is a good guide. Look for him in the west in the evenings this month. The shiniest stars in and around Orion form an asterism called the Winter Hexagon. They will be the first stars to appear after sunset. These six stars are roughly 25 degrees apart. That’s the distance between your pinkie and thumb when your fingers are fully extended and your hand is held out before you. 

You can use these six stars to travel back in time. The light from Sirius (the brightest) left in the fall of 2006. Above Sirius and going clockwise is Procyon whose light left in the fall of 2003. Photons from Pollux have been traveling since 1981. The light from Capella goes back to 1973, and the light from Aldebaran goes back to 1950. It’s fun to consider what we (or our ancestors) might have been doing in each of those years. The light from Rigel is far older and is from the vintage year of 1155. 

Or you can imagine our music traveling out in an ever-widening sphere at the speed of light. We are broadcasting photons in the form of radio waves. Sirius is just now hearing Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack”; Procyon is giving a listen to Beyonce’s “Baby Boy”; Kim Carnes’ “Betty Davis Eyes” has reached Pollux; Capella is enjoying Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia”; Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa” has made it all the way to Aldebaran; and Rigel is missing out on some really great troubadour music. 

While you are looking to the west and reminiscing about fine songs from the past, be sure to catch some other great sights. Venus will be just to the left of the Pleiades (“the seven sisters”) on April 10-12. The waxing crescent moon forms a nice cluster with the Hyades, the Pleiades and Venus on April 20. The moon is alongside Venus on April 21 and passes through the Winter Hexagon on April 22 and 23. If you are an early riser, watch for a total lunar eclipse in the west on Saturday, April 4. The moon starts entering Earth’s shadow at 5:15 and will continue to darken until it sets at 6:45 just as our sun is rising in the east. 

Enjoy the old light from the old rocks of our Driftless Region. 

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, see Driftless Stargazing LLC , Kickapoo Valley ReserveIowa County Astronomers, and Starsplitters of Wyalusing. 

“Driftless Dark Skies” appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley