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Fall fishing is great in Driftless Wisconsin

September 14th, 2014 by Greg Hoffmann

September annually provides a last chance at good fishing for the season in Driftless Area streams.

As the temperatures start to drop, the water cools from the summer peaks and the trout become more active again.

Vernon County offers the two heavyweights in the area in Timber Coulee and the West Fork, but there are other, small streams that often are fished less in the Fall.

Coon Creek, Bishops, Camp are just some of those in Vernon County. The surface weeds often have died off, providing easier access to fish than in summer.

Crawford County has some beautiful streams to fish in the Fall. Trout Creek can live up to its name on any given day.

Others include Plum, Sugar, Pine, Copper and Knapp. Fishers and environmentalists have fought to keep Copper a good fishing stream. They battled against a commercial well that was proposed in the area.

You do have to make some adjustments to catch trout in the Fall. Terrestrials, such as ants, grasshoppers and crickets, will still work, as they do in late summer.

Insect hatches start winding down, but olives and other surface flies still work at times. Patterns that mimic crayfish and other bottom creatures also can be effective.

The trout start migrating in Fall. Brown trout begin upstream movements into smaller tributary streams to seek spawning habitat, :so there’s an opportunity to catch trophy fish that have spent the summer hiding in deep-water pools and under logjams and are now congregating in smaller tributary streams,” says Mike Miller, a DNR stream ecologist and avid trout angler.

This fisher had a great Fall experience a couple years ago that demonstrates what Miller is saying. While fishing in the West Fork on the last day of September, and that fishing season, I caught a fish in a pool that was about 15 yards wide and maybe 25 yards long.

As I was releasing him, I looked down into the crystal clear water to see about six fish race by my boots. At first I thought they were suckers, since they often hang in groups and move in unison. But, then a group of 8-10 raced by, and this time I could see they were trout, even was able to distinguish between browns and a few brook trout who displayed their reddish bellies as they raced by.

Then, came another group of 8-10, then more and more and more. The exodus lasted for what I would estimate as 2-4 minutes and included dozens of trout, all racing upstream in a frantic manner. I watched in amazement.

I saw nothing that could have scared that many trout into fleeing upstream. A friend/mentor said I might have witnessed a spawning run, which trout some times do almost like the better known runs of salmon. Whatever caused it, I felt privileged to have witnessed it.

You likely will not have this type of experience when fishing in the Fall. But, you can take in some of the colorful beauty of the Driftless Area and catch some trout. So, if you can’t get out before the end of this season, mark your calendar for Fall of next year.

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Gregg Hoffmann, a semi-retired, award-winning journalist, writes the Wet A Fly: In The Driftless Area blog for his web site, www.driftlessimagesinpixelsandprose.com. He has written blogs for Driftless Wisconsin on fly fishing and golf this season.

Autumn Events in Driftless Wisconsin

September 7th, 2014 by Meg Buchner

drifltess

Fall is approaching Driftless Wisconsin. It’s a season where the suns mellows, but still shines brightly. The air is slightly crisp, and the leaves turn orange, scarlet, or gold. The bluffs become a riot of glorious color, framing our winding roads. The harvest begins and it is season of bounty — from apples to pumpkins — on roadside stands to abundant farmer’s markets. It’s a season of celebrations, and the people of the Driftless region know how to celebrate autumn.

If you look at our event calendar, you’ll find something to do every weekend, and you really can’t go wrong. Here are just a few of our family’s favorite fall festivities:

FerrieswheelThe Vernon County Fair is held in Viroqua on September 10 – 14th. This is a true, old-fashioned fair with fun for the whole family. The Grandstand has antique tractor pulls, truck pulls, harness racing and a demo derby. The Midway has a host of rides and games for all ages. In the evening the Ferris wheel lights up the sky for miles. At the top you can see the whole town of Viroqua as well as the family farms, country roads, and rolling bluffs. There is fried, fluffed, and funneled fair food in trucks galore. Save a little room and visit the 4H food stand, staffed by friendly kids and parents and with a menu of farm fresh deliciousness. Be sure to visit all the exhibit halls, too. The Education Building has displays from schools from across the county. You can see prize-winning plants, pickles, sewing, crafts and more. If you visit the commercial buildings, spend a quarter and spin the wheel at the Vernon County Memorial Hospital booth. You can win apples, popcorn, t-shirts, and lip balm, just to name a few. Of course, don’t forget to visit the animal buildings. Area youth take great pride in their animals and look forward all year to showing them at the fair. See horses, cows, pigs, goats, rabbits, and chickens. Don’t miss the fair!

The Driftless Art Festival is September 20-21 in Soldier’s Grove. The amazing scenery of the area provides inspiration for a multitude of artists, and this festival showcases their talents. You’ll find a huge variety of work including pottery, ceramics, pastel drawings, paintings, photography, jewelry, woodworking, glass, fiber, weavings, and sculpture. Stroll from tent to tent and at most displays you’ll meet the artist him or herself. All are friendly and happy to chat about their work. For many years, I’ve done a good portion of my Christmas shopping at the Driftless Art Festival, as there is so much unique and beautiful work.

The KidsArt tent in the middle of the grounds features artwork on display from regional schools. Activities for children take place in the tent, too.

Learning to weave at the Drifless Art Festival

Learning to weave at the Drifless Art Festival

Kids can use toothpicks and corks to build a sculpture creation, paint pictures, or learn to weave on the large communal loom. A host of yellow-shirted volunteers are there to help and provide free snacks. Speaking of snacks, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the other artists of the Driftless Art Festival: the culinary geniuses! You can choose from a variety of delicious treats, from a full meal to a delicious strawberry smoothie, using berries grown locally in Ferryville. Take your food over to the performance tent and enjoy some music. There will be four different groups this year, so music will be playing all day long. Don’t miss the Driftless Art Festival!

Gays Mills Apple OrchardsThe Gays Mills Apple Festival is September 26th – 28th. This festival has all sorts of events spread out across the whole town. In Riverside Park on the banks of the Kickapoo River, you’ll find a selection of arts and crafts. Just up the road at the Crawford County Fairgrounds, there will be a flea market. Participate in a horseshoe tournament, enjoy the kiddie carnival, or try the fun walk/run on Saturday. Don’t forget the parade on Sunday afternoon; the kids enjoy being thrown candy and treats. Of course, apples are the centerpiece of this festival and you’ll want to eat some: freshly picked, drizzled with caramel, or baked into a pie or sugared donut (or one of each) –you can’t go wrong. Be sure to visit every apple orchard in Gays Mills, whether during the Apple Festival or any time this fall. Only going to one orchard in Gays Mills is like going to Mall of America and only going to one store: just wrong. Each orchard is unique with their own specialty and activities. Some offer free apple recipes, others have a free corn maze or animals for the kids to feed and pet. Of course, you’ll leave with a car full of the best fresh apples around. Don’t miss the Gays Mills Apple Festival!

With all of the fall events going on in Driftless Wisconsin, you’ll want to plan a visit for a day, a weekend, or even a month! Luckily, we have you covered with many great places to stay. You won’t be disappointed. Don’t miss Driftless Wisconsin in the fall!

 

Change of seasons in Driftless Wisconsin

September 1st, 2014 by Eric Frydenlund

Fall is still three weeks away and the air is thick with anticipation.  Or maybe that’s the humidity.  Mornings draped with fog are already appearing, showing the first signs of the change of seasons.

Meantime, we’re trying to squeeze every last drop out of summer, before kids turn their attention from fishing to studying, and we turn from summer vacations to raking the yard.

But wait.  The fun isn’t over yet. Outdoor recreation in Driftless Wisconsin has no seasonal boundary and the transition from summer to fall might the most enjoyable.

Last evening I drove up to Pikes Peak Park in Iowa, which looks back at the Driftless Wisconsin landscape.  The overlooks of Driftless Wisconsin – including Pikes Peak, Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario, Wyalusing State Park near Prairie du Chien, and the ridge tops between the Mississippi and Kickapoo Rivers – offer stunning views of the Driftless topography.

Two rivers gather below Pikes Peak; the Mississippi spilling from the north and the Wisconsin coursing from the east. Above, a hawk slides by, quiet as a whisper.  On quiet evenings without wind, even the muddy waters of the Mississippi lay flat as glass; with islands rising from their own reflection.

Below me, a fishing boat plies the river, skittering across the surface like a water bug.  Nearby, a dog barks from an anchored boat, perhaps announcing the landing of a nice bass. The rivers and streams are full of fishermen, catching up after a wet spring and late flooding.  The serious fishers are intent on the perfect cast, while the casual, like me, are caught glancing up at the hills.

A horse trail passes by our house just the other side of the dry wash. Our dog, Riley, announces the coming of riders, who trot by with a wave of their hand. Friends say our golden retriever is as big as a horse, so maybe he’s just giving a shout out to his kin.

I’m not a horseman myself, but I can’t imagine a more relaxing way to explore the Driftless topography. The horses are sure-footed and the scenery just won’t quit.  Horse trails at Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge and La Riviere Park in Prairie du Chien are some of the best around.

The view from the saddle can be equally satisfying on a bike. Last weekend, the Aloha Bike Tour in Viroqua and the Kickapoo Brave Ride in Gays Mills brought bicyclists from afar to enjoy the unmatched beauty and challenging rides of Driftless Wisconsin.  I wondered if the smiles on the faces of returning riders could be traced toDSCN1107b the vistas seen or the challenges met.  But don’t wait for next August; the coming fall offers bike riders stunning views of fall colors with cooler temperatures to boot.

And fall is almost here. Yes, you can take a hike or mount a bike right outside the door from where you’re sitting. But it won’t compare with the change of seasons in Driftless Wisconsin.

Driftless Wisconsin – What Does That Mean?

August 18th, 2014 by Corey A. Edwards

Canoeing the Kickapoo in Driftless Wisconsin

Canoeing the Kickapoo River past tell-tale and
fascinating, Driftless Wisconsin rock formations

If you look for Driftless Wisconsin on a map, you probably wont find it because Driftless Wisconsin is a region – “the Driftless Wisconsin area” – but why “Driftless?” What does that mean?

The Driftless Wisconsin area is geologically unique in many respects and is called “Driftless” because it lacks drift. “Drift” refers to the material left behind by glaciers: an aggregate of gravel, boulders, and other telltale residue.

A lack of drift indicates that an area was skirted by the most recent passage of glaciers. This dodging of the glacial bullet often leaves a landscape that looks radically different from the areas surrounding it – and that describes Driftless Wisconsin to a “t.”

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Summer on the Sandbar in Driftless Wisconsin

August 11th, 2014 by Meg Buchner

Another summer day has dawned with a bright blue sky, puffy clouds and a slight breeze. As the temperature climbs, the sun dances on the Mississippi River outside our door. The river is calling and the children are echoing, “Let’s go on the river! Let’s go to a sandbar!”

Unable to resist, we quickly assemble everything needed for a day on the river. Life jackets, sunscreen, sand toys, towels, and a cooler of snacks and refreshments are loaded into the boat and we head to a dock. On the Great River Road in Driftless Wisconsin, you can find a boat landing literally every few miles. We frequently launch from the boat landing in Ferryville or Black Hawk Park north of De Soto.

Today the children are clamoring for a beach, swimming, and water recreation. Spending the day on a sandbar is a family favorite. Sandbars dot the length of the Upper Mississippi River. They are essentially islands in the river, often covered with trees and other foliage. Some are large and some are small enough for only one boat; all are a fun place to stop and explore or just relax.

Tubing on the Mississippi River

Tubing on the Mississippi River

As we speed down the river, the children clamor to ride in the tube. We slow to attach the towrope and launch the giant river tube. Big enough for three people, it shoots over the waves and cuts through the spray. The kids alternate screaming with laughter and urging us to go faster.

After a few exhilarating turns in the tube, we head for the sand bar. We’ve dubbed one south of De Soto “the cove” because it is just off the main channel, horseshoe shaped, and large enough for at least fifteen boats. The current isn’t strong in the cove and the beach is wide and inviting, big enough to build gigantic castles or bury a willing sibling in sand. A steep climb from the beach leads you to tall trees and quiet paths across the island.

The sandbar is like an ongoing summer party that you don’t need an invitation to attend, just transportation to get there. As we pull up, someone already has music playing and a grill going. The kids spot familiar friends or possibly potential new ones. Everyone is equal on the sandbar. Generation of families arrive on pontoon boats. Jet skis pull up to the shore. Speedboats and fishing boats come and go. A large rental houseboat complete with corkscrew slide leading directly to the water glides by. It is crowded with people who wave and shout hello as they go past.

The day of sun, water and sand passes far too quickly. Soon it’s time to shake out the towels, wash off the plastic buckets, and head back. We’ve made special memories, yet like so many others we’ve spent – it’s summer on the sandbar.

It begins on a river

August 1st, 2014 by Eric Frydenlund

We held a family reunion last weekend at a cabin on the Kickapoo River near Wauzeka. The cabin sits on a ledge overseeing the valley, suspended in the canopy like a tree house.  The river lazily passed by just down the hill from the back porch.

Kickapoo RiverSiblings armed with potato salad, cucumbers, and ham sandwiches arrived to shake hands, grasp shoulders, and sit with elbows on knees to tell our family history; each with their own version. A straw hat sat on the pot belly stove; a proxy for our departed brother.

My own history begins on a river, winding its way up the Kickapoo to the headwaters of my youth. I spent many a summer day in Ontario, waking to the smell of bacon sizzling in an iron skillet and the thundering voice of Ruth Downing. Ruth lived on a street climbing the hill above the river, not far from the switchboard operator who knew everyone by their first name on the telephone party line.

On sun swept days my mother and I would pile into Ruth’s ’41 Chevy, which served as tour bus to explore the winding roads of the Kickapoo Valley. I sat in the backseat; my nose lurking below the windows, listening to Ruth’s rolling narration as the landscape rolled by like a movie in an outdoor theater. The cinematography was hypnotizing, capturing every angle of the valley from the cavernous backseat.

We climbed the highway with hairpin turns to Wildcat Mountain State Park, for family picnics on tables set with a view of the sprawling valley. I remember losing a football over the edge of the overlook. It might be still falling, given the endless drop to the river below.

My history flows down the river like the life line on the palm of my hand. As an adventuresome teenager, I camped in a pup tent near Steuben while canoeing, the river waiting just outside our tent flap.  Later in life I helped with the Driftless Area Art Festival in Soldiers Grove, an event held on the banks of the river that captures the story of the Driftless area on canvas, pottery, fabric, and any number of ways that make you ponder.

I helped set up rest stops for the Kickapoo Brave Ride at Gays Mills, a bike ride that explores every turn of road and crest of hill that frames the valley; and this year, includes a paddle on the river to boot.

I worked on the lower Kickapoo, marking deadfalls to be cleared to open up the river for navigation.  I sat in the front of a canoe expertly piloted by Mark Drake, trying to keep my eye on the map while mallards launched from the river’s surface, sandhill cranes paced the river bottoms, and scenery unfolded around every bend.

My history winds through Driftless Wisconsin as aimlessly as the Kickapoo, never knowing what the next bend will bring.  I invite you to begin your own history in the valley. No matter that you did not spend your youth here. The river and its ways will begin for you a new childhood, ripe with adventure and stories to tell.

The story begins on a river.

Summer trout fishing in Driftless Wisconsin

July 26th, 2014 by Greg Hoffmann

Fishing often becomes more challenging in the dog days of summer in Driftless Area streams.

Driftless 085webThe heat, and in some years shallow water depths, often make it necessary to hunt for the deeper holes and areas of streams where trees and other growth along the stream provide some shade.

This year, with the moist spring and early summer, depths on most streams are good. That’s a break for fishers who come from elsewhere in hopes of finding good fishing.

Terrestrials — flies that look like grasshoppers, crickets and other land loving insects — often work best in mid-summer. They mimic one of those critters who has fallen into the water, and trout love to surface to eat a treat.

Summer fishing is best from dawn into the early morning and late afternoons until dusk. Your shadows aren’t as likely to spook fishing during that time. The majority of the hatches also take place during those times.

The Driftless Angler, a great fly shop in Viroqua, says this about the insects during the summer days: “The major insect available in the summer time is the tiny olive (formerly Pseudocoleon) with some Cahills, Tan Caddis and Midges as well. Later on in the season, some Coulee region streams get a heavy hatch of Tricos; these tiny mayflies can provide some great fishing on summer mornings. Ants, beetles, crickets and hoppers are also very important and readily available sources of food in the summer, and can provide some excellent fishing even when trout do not seem to be interested in anything else.”

Two star streams in Vernon County — Timber Coulee and the West Fork — can be productive in summer. Trout often can be found tucked up against the higher banks and in shaded areas of Timber.

The authors of the second edition of Wisconsin Trout Streams write this about Timber: “Timber Coulee Creek might just be the crown jewel among Wisconsin spring creeks.”

After describing some of the management projects that have been dobe on the creek, Jeff Mayers, Steve Born, Andy Morton and Bill Sonzogni write: “No wonder Trout Unlimited named it one of the top 100 streams in the country.”

When you’re done fishing, try some of the pubs and restaurants in nearby Coon Valley. There also are places to stay near Timber, perhaps most notably Coulee Cabins right across the road from the stream.

The West Fork serves more or less as the “home field stream’ for this blogger. On its north ends, near Bloomingdale, you can find shadier areas that provide good summer fishing. Farther south, in the more popular areas of the stream near Avalanche, you can find some deeper holes.

After fishing the West Fork, you can go to Westby or La Farge to eat. There also is the Rockton Bar, a hangout for outdoors enthusiasts, not far away.

While Timber and the West Fork attract the most attention, and fishers, there are plentiful smaller streams in Vernon and Crawford counties. Matt at the Driftless Angler can help you with these, and even guide you for a fee.

Later in summer, and in September, when the temperatures start to cool down, fishing often picks up. Standing in a stream, surrounded by early autumn colors, and catching trout is an experience that can’t be beat.

For more information on the streams in Vernon and Crawford counties, go to  http://www.driftlessangler.com. For the Wisconsin Trout Streams guidebook, which includes streams around the state, go to http://www.uwpress.wisc.edu.

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Gregg Hoffmann is a semi-retired journalist and avid fly fisherman. He publishes www.driftlessimagesinpixelsandprose.com.

 

 

 

Get a Taste of the Old West at Viroqua Wild West Days

July 19th, 2014 by Corey A. Edwards

2014 Viroqua Wild West Days

If you’re looking for a taste of some 1880’s style, old west fun and excitement, come experience the 17th annual Viroqua Wild West Days in Viroqua, Wisconsin! Held the third weekend of every August since 1997, Viroqua Wild West Days transforms 7 acres east of the Vernon County Fairgrounds into an 1880’s Boom Town.

Stroll the wooden sidewalks and visit the the Marshall in his office. Down a a cold beer or sarsaparilla at the Buckeye Saloon with its dance hall girls. Chat with the Northstar Hotel’s barber or buy some goods at the general store. Check out the fur-traders rendezvous and the Civil War camp of the 1st Wisconsin Company D. Take a ride around the grounds in a carriage or an authentic stagecoach, or hit the gaming street for an opportunity to test your skill, luck, or muscle. Drop by the undertakers to view the recently gunned down outlaw in his coffin. You may even witness a gunfight!

The Viroqua Wild West Days aren’t just for make-believe, either. There are real wild west events to witness or, if you dare, join in on! The popular, crowd pleasing, Hog Wrestling event regularly pulls in over thirty different teams of young men and women just aching to enter a ring of thick muck to try their hand at wrestling a greased pig into a bucket.

Then there’s the Hell On Hooves Ranch Rodeo and Bull Riding Bonanza that truly kicks off the Viroqua Wild West Days weekend. Beginning Saturday at sundown, the Hell On Hooves Ranch Rodeo tests a cowboy’s skills in bull riding, roping, sorting, milking, and more. And don’t miss the Mutton Bustin’ event with kids competing to see who can last the longest atop a running sheep.

Top all of this off with food and craft vendors, parades, concerts, races, and what you’ve got on your hands is one wild, wild west of a good time – guaranteed!

2014 Viroqua Wild West Days

August 15th through the 17th, 2014
925 Nelson Parkway Viroqua, WI 54665
www.thewildwestdays.com

Viroqua Wild West Days Lodging & Dining
Whenever you’re in the Driftless Wisconsin area, whether it’s for Viroqua’s Wild West Days, another event, or just to enjoy the peace of our unique and beautiful countryside, you should treat yourself to a great, local business for your Driftless lodging and dining needs. Driftless Wisconsin’s motels and historic Victorian inns offer you the best in convenience, hospitality, and amenities of both the past and the present, while classic, Driftless dining offers you the kind of local, farm-fresh foods your body and tastebuds deserve. Come vist and see what makes Driftless Wisconsin so special.

Driving the Great River Road in Driftless Wisconsin

July 15th, 2014 by Meg Buchner

Wisconsin Great River RoadThe Great River Road National Scenic Byway is 2,069 miles long and travels along the Mississippi River through ten states. Voted the most scenic drive in America by Huffington Post, the Great River Road is a journey not to be missed, whether by car, bicycle or motorcycle.

In Driftless Wisconsin, summer scenery on the Great River Road is spectacular. The rich green bluffs, dotted with limestone rock faces soar on one side of the road while the bright blue Mississippi stretches out sparkling on the other. As the road gently curves, majestic hills frame both sides of the river, creating a panorama of blues and greens. The view changes daily. Sometimes the far hills are shrouded in a blue mist; other days the water is as smooth as glass, reflecting the white puffy clouds and azure blue sky.

Through Vernon and Crawford Counties, the road encompasses 52-miles of highway, winding through the towns of Stoddard, Genoa, De Soto, Ferryville, Lynxville, and Prairie du Chien. Boat landings, fishing guides, watering holes, lodging, quaint restaurants and friendly folk can be found along the entire route.

Barge traffic, fishermen, and pleasure craft travel down the Mississippi daily. Visitors can watch boats and barges lock through in both Genoa (Lock & Dam #8) and Lynxville (Lock & Dam #9). People can enjoy a rest or a picnic at any of the parks adjacent to the River Road. Bird and nature lovers will enjoy the nearby state natural areas, such as Rush Creek near Ferryville. Those interested in history can stop at any of the roadside markers along the way that detail the history of the area, including the Battle of the Bad Axe near Victory. History buffs will also enjoy the museums and historic buildings of Prairie du Chien, the second oldest city in Wisconsin, established as a fur trading center in 1783.

The Great River Road in Driftless Wisconsin is more than just a simple drive. It’s a way to experience the breathtaking splendor of nature and America’s greatest river. As Mark Twain once said, “Along the Upper Mississippi every hour brings something new.”

Summer fun in Driftless Wisconsin

July 1st, 2014 by Eric Frydenlund

The hillside out my window is awash in green. Every curve of the land and limestone outcropping, visible only a few weeks ago, now hides behind a lush summer foliage. A hike up the hill with our dog Riley finds plenty of new growth to explore.

Wyalusing3The drywash running by the house has been scoured clean by a recent heavy rainfall.  The topography of Driftless Wisconsin lends excitement to any storm, channeling water from ridge top to river through winding ravines like a giant waterslide. The Mississippi River is high and impressive, filled with early summer rains, burying islands under water and stretched wide like an inland lake.

It is summer in Driftless Wisconsin.  The land is alive. Crops burst from the rich black earth into neat rows of corn and soybeans.  Fun, cooped up under roofs during the long winter and spring, has been let outside. Children can be heard hollering at swimming pools and baseball fields; and seen gawking at Fourth of July parades.

Grownups are having fun too.  My wife and I took a bike ride yesterday into the valley, where the hot summer sun gave way to a cool valley breeze.  We’re not the road touring types, but the Driftless area is well known among bikers as a place that gives back far more than it takes, rewarding each climb with stunning scenery; and oh, that exhilarating ride down the backside.

And the attractions are open for tours. Major historic attractions, such as Norskedalen in Coon Valley, Vernon County Museum in Viroqua, and the Villa Louis and Fort Crawford Museum in Prairie du Chien; give perspective to the Native Americans, explorers, military, and immigrants who shaped the story of this historic region.

Driftless Wisconsin is blessed with parks that give the visitor an unparalleled view of the unique Driftless topography.  Whether from a ridge top overlooking the Mississippi or Kickapoo Rivers, or from a native prairie set in the valley; the parks and natural areas add memories and more than a few photos to your summer vacation.

Summer fun in Driftless Wisconsin has many faces.  Time to add your face to those family photos set against the Driftless backdrop.

Disconnect to Reconnect: Outdoor Exploring in Driftless Wisconsin

June 12th, 2014 by Meg Buchner

In our family, sometimes a text message from the kitchen to the living room is the only way to get our teenage girl to the dinner table. Like much of society, every member of our family often seems to have an electronic device in hand.

To combat the electronic addiction, we frequently plan mini-escapes into nature. Wyalusing State Park near Bagley,Wyalusing Park Wisconsin is a great destination for family friendly fun. A visit there can be for a few hours, a weekend, or an extended trip. Wyalusing offers camping, hiking, picnic areas, biking, canoeing, limestone caves, amazing views, and more.

During a recent excursion, we had only an afternoon to explore. Jumping from the mini van, our 7-year old boy immediately discovered a frog hopping by and followed it down the trail towards Point Lookout. After just a short walk down a paved trail, we found ourselves marveling at the view of Prairie du Chien, the Mississippi River, and the Wisconsin River. We watched an eagle circling overhead, standing on top of the bluff in the circular stone lookout, about 500 feet above the water below.

Never still for long, the children continued to explore, running up and finding a historical marker noting “At the foot of this eminence Marquette and Joliet entered the Mississippi River on June 17, 1673.” This lead to a spirited discussion about the history of America and if we could walk on the same trail as the famous explorers. The kids speculated if any of the giant trees in the woods were old enough to have been small saplings in 1673.

Soon we followed the wide trail into the woods. Shaded by a canopy of trees and hearing only bird calls, the children ran ahead towards Sentinel Ridge Trail and Loop. This trail is 1.6 miles and turns the corner from the Wisconsin River to the Mississippi River. It also features Indian mounds, prompting more discussion about the history of the area. The trail descends sharply, leading towards the backwaters of the Mississippi River, where we watched people paddling downriver on a canoe trip. After a short rest, we headed back to the Point Lookout Shelter where we enjoyed a picnic lunch in a shelter that looked as if it were made of the same limestone rocks at the huge bluffs around us. The only time anyone used an electronic device was to take picture of the natural beauty.

All too soon it was time to pack up and leave, but the kids continued pouring over the map of the park we received at the entrance. They happily planned another visit, where we could explore a different trail (Wyalusing has 23.7 miles of trails, including 22.2 miles of hiking trails , 2.4 miles of interpretive nature trails, and 0.8 mile of trail accessible for people with disabilities). They were very excited to try the Sand Cave trail, which travels past Big Sand Cave and Little Sand Cave. Both are washed out areas of limestone with small waterfalls. It was wonderful to have an outdoor adventure together, as well as something to look forward to for a return trip.

History stirs the imagination in Driftless Wisconsin

June 1st, 2014 by Eric Frydenlund

Brisbois House

Brisbois House

My first exposure to history as a child was courtesy of Michael Brisbois. He was buried on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River Valley, as the story goes, “so he could look down upon his intense business rival, Joseph Rolette, in death as he did in life.” Talk about carrying a grudge.

Whether fact or fiction, this intriguing story opened an avenue to explore my past beyond my young memory, a story woven into the present day.  I remember standing in the driveway of our family business and pointing toward the graves atop the bluff.  Customers would squint and gesture toward the white monument, as if they had discovered a new land for the first time.

My childhood friends and I would visit the graves often on our explorations of the river bluffs.  Located on the highest hill, the grave site offered an extraordinary vantage of the river valley and my hometown. From there, we could glimpse the shape of history that Brisbois, as a fur trader and local businessman, helped form.  We could also see our own history laid out before us in the grid of streets and homes that formed our childhood memories.  History took shape before our eyes.

This glimpse of the past awaits visitors to Driftless Wisconsin at every turn. Whether following the trail of early Native American inhabitants, marked by burial mounds and artifacts; or touring the relics of European explorers and settlers, the past becomes something recognizable.  In the History Day Trip, we offer a way to explore the past while enjoying the spectacular scenery along the way.

The day trip starts at Effigy Mounds National Monument, where the mound builders left behind an extraordinary legacy, still preserved today.  Walking among the burial mounds, many in the shapes of birds and animals, piques our imagination of what it might have been like to live among a people who honored their dead in this remarkable way.  The mounds, in their sacred and artful shapes, speak to us in ways their builders might have hoped.

Marquette and Joliet were the first European explorers to set eyes upon the Mississippi River, reaching the confluence of rivers by way of the Wisconsin River in 1673.  “Once upon the Mississippi, Marquette described ‘a monster with the head of a tiger, the nose of a wildcat, and whisker’—a large species of catfish,” according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.  Viewing the Mississippi from a bluff top or an excursion boat creates the same sense of wonder today.

More explorers, fur traders, and settlers followed Marquette and Joliet to this land rich with promise. Immigrants settled the land in the late 1800s; a large contingent from Norway settling near Westby and Coon Valley.  The rugged life of early Norwegian settlers is chronicled at Norskedalen, which means “Norwegian Valley,” one of the suggested stops on the History Day Trip.

My own grandparents came to Westby in the early 1900s after a failed attempt at homesteading in South Dakota.  They are buried in a cemetery at Newry, a curve in the road between Westby and Cashton.  Just across the road from the cemetery is the small house where they retired from farming; where I would sit in the kitchen as a small boy as my grandmother prepared a meal of homemade bread and cheese.

That bread and cheese – and my grandfather’s face, as rugged as the Driftless topography – tie me to a history I can only imagine.  Michael Brisbois first stirred that imagination.  Allow Driftless Wisconsin to awaken yours.

Bird watching in Driftless Wisconsin

April 30th, 2014 by Eric Frydenlund

The most memorable moments I’ve experienced in the natural world have come courtesy of birds. A year ago I wrote of exiting my home in the late afternoon to the sound of a hundred crow wings beating the air above my head, as they launched from a nearby stand of cedar trees.

Last week I walked with our dog Riley across a field at La Riviere Park near Prairie du Chien, listed as birding hotspot by the Great Wisconsin Birding & Nature Trail.  On the edge of the field stood a small oak tree clad in last year’s rust-colored robe of spent leaves.  I could not see its inner branches.

As Riley and I walked underneath the tree exploded in a flight of birds, like a dandelion scattering its seeds on a gust of wind.  Riley and I stopped to admire this sudden commotion, while overhead, a flock of geese headed north to reclaim their homeland.  In an instant the remnants of winter gave way to the signs of spring.

Spring arrives on the wings of birds.  Whether it’s the robin out our kitchen window or the goose overhead, we watch for their delivery of good news.

Driftless Wisconsin draws bird watchers from across the Midwest.  According to The Great River Road, “Over 40% of North America’s ducks, geese, swans and other waterfowl use the Mississippi River flyway during their annual spring and fall migrations.”  Over 300 species of birds travel the Flyway or call the corridor their home.

bird_photo_getThe Great Wisconsin Birding & Nature Trail records eleven birding sites in Driftless Wisconsin, including the Kickapoo River State Natural Area near Wauzeka, which lists the Sandhill Crane, Turkey, and Savanna Sparrow as signature species.  The Eastern Wood Pewee & Great Crested Flycatcher are featured species at Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario.

Ferryville will celebrate Spring Bird Migration Day on Saturday, May 10, which will include a guided hike at Sugar Creek Bluff Natural area.  Please RSVP by May 7.  And be sure to visit the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge, a regional haven for bird watching enthusiasts.  The 8600-acre Reserve serves as habitat for hundreds of species, meticulously cataloged on their Bird Website.

While you’re here enjoying the wildlife, spend some time roaming the Farmers Markets that open in May. And on May 16 – 18, Westby will celebrate Syttende Mai, its annual commemoration of Norway’s Constitution Day complete with ethnic foods, heritage displays, and a parade.

Experience some memorable moments in Driftless Wisconsin, perhaps brought to you courtesy of our native birds.

The optimism of spring

April 1st, 2014 by Eric Frydenlund

The optimism of spring arrived early for me this year, showing up before the weather offered a reason.  I started planning the launch of my boat on the Mississippi before nature had even scraped the ice off the water. Still it’s best to wait till the icebergs clear the channel.

The long winter offered up plenty to complain about, which requires a bit of perspective.  I just finished reading “The Ice Passage” about the HMS Investigator, a British ship and her crew of 75 that launched in 1849 in search of the infamous Northwest Passage.

Outfitted for only two years, the Investigator ended up trapped in the ice of the Arctic Sea for four years. Unable to escape the ice during the infinitesimally short summers, the crew endured 50 degree below zero temperatures, constant starvation, and regular assaults on their sanity.  Suddenly, Midwest winters seem downright mild.

So we watch as the ice recedes, the snow melts, and the water begins flowing in the ravines. And with that, the multitude of human activity begins to thaw. Walleye fishers head to the dams below Lynxville and GenoaHikers exit their winter barracks with a renewed purpose in their step. Soon the valley will be filled with the sounds of children playing baseball, farmers plowing the soil, and tugboats plying the river.

Wildlife watchers find new subjects to watch. I still have not seen that fox residing in the brush pgeese-in-v-formation bile near our house, mentioned in my last blog.  But a raccoon scours our backyard for something to eat and squirrels can be heard rummaging through last fall’s leaves.  The sound of geese fills the warming air as they head north to reclaim their homeland.

Humans looking to shake off winter need only look to our calendar of events. The Driftless Folk School in Viroqua offers a number of classes in crafts during the spring and summer to get our hands involved in the season.  And the annual Brueggen Bash Polka Fest in Cashton on April 11 will get our feet moving again.

Those looking for more grandeur in Driftless Wisconsin need only look up.  No Driftless topography would be complete without the night sky draping the stage.  To learn more about the polar caps of Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and the rings of Saturn, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge will host Voyage to the Planets on Saturday, May 3.  Presenter John Heasley will also tour the spring constellations.

The Starsplitters of Wyalusing, named after the Robert Frost poem that espoused the value of a “telescope in every town,” holds programming throughout the spring and summer at the Lawrence L. Huser Astronomy Center in Wyalusing State Park near Prairie du Chien.

Optimism is not just in the air.  It has a foothold in the hills, valleys, and night sky of Driftless Wisconsin.

 

A cure for the winter doldrums

February 28th, 2014 by Eric Frydenlund

A furry red creature has taken up residence in our backyard. Our dog was the first to discover our new neighbor while searching the backyard for a place to transact his business. Riley stumbled upon the scent and tracks of an animal leading into a large brush pile on the edge of our yard, showing the excitement you might expect in finding a distant relative.

Outside the entrance to the den, a smooth indentation lined with red fur lay atop a snow bank; a front porch from which our visitor could survey her new neighborhood.  The mystery was solved when my wfoxife saw and photographed a red fox trotting up our driveway like a neighbor coming for dinner.

A case of shyness has set in, for we have not seen her since.  Aside from tracks found in fresh snow or an occasional flash from our motion sensor light, she remains aloof.  Given the wintry weather, she has made herself scarce, preferring the comforts of her new log-pile home.

Winter seems unending. Along ridge roads exposed to crosswinds, snow drifts replace hilltops as the new horizon.  Rivers take on a different dimension during the winter. Sealed with ice and capped with snow, they stretch the valley floor from bluff to bluff like a desert painted white.

Driftless Wisconsin offers relief from winter’s doldrums.  The brush strokes of snow and ice create landscapes worthy of any photographer’s lens. The beauty of the land will warm the hearts of any traveler seeking to ward off winter’s chill.

Those looking for indoor refuge will not be disappointed. Our state and federal parks and attractions are open for the winter and offer exceptional educational programming.  Just across that white desert we call the Mississippi River, Effigy Mounds National Park presents their annual Winter Film Festival from January 4 to March 31.  Upcoming topics include, “Untamed America: Forests” and “Wild America: Deadly Beauty.”

On March 8, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge is offering “Creative Communities Art Demonstrations & Sale,” a day of “viewing and discussing art with a wide range of talented area artists.”  Then on March 22, learn and listen to “The call of the frog,” a program that explores the exotic language of 12 Wisconsin frogs.

In Prairie du Chien, the famed Villa Louis Historic Site, the Victorian home of the Dousman family during the 1800’s, is open for intimate viewings of the mansion.  On March 21 – 22, “Villa Louis behind the scenes” will present visitors with an up-close perspective of living in the elegantly appointed mansion.  And coming on April 26, the Villa will present “Breakfast in a Victorian Kitchen,” its popular series on the preparation of meals using period utensils and technology.

There are ways to shorten winter other than waiting for the groundhog’s forecast to play out.  Like our red fox, you can sit on Driftless Wisconsin’s front porch and just take it all in.

Looking for outdoor fun in Driftless Wisconsin

January 20th, 2014 by Eric Frydenlund

imagegetThe holidays are over and winter has taken hold.  Save for a passing snow plow, it’s quiet outside.  Even a walk down a rocky horse trail near our home is muffled by a carpet of snow.

The woods feel like an empty park after all the kids have gone home for supper. But look a little closer and the forest will come alive.

A walk in the woods, albeit quiet, reveals footprints other than your own.  Hoof prints and paw prints gather along well-worn trails, forming a labyrinth of streets and alleyways through the snow.  Riley, our golden retriever, understands this. Every intersection requires a stop to check for traffic with his nose.

Entering the park yesterday we saw two whitetail deer bounding across a cornfield, their graceful leaps silhouetted against the snow. Riley wanted to meet and greet, but they had more pressing matters. He picked up their scent further down the trail, which was sociable enough for him.

You don’t have to be a dog to appreciate a Driftless Wisconsin winter.  When not checking the weather report or shoveling snow, you’ll find humans congregating around friendly people and outdoor fun.

You’ll find both at the Dam Phunski, a cross country ski event at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve this coming weekend, on January 25.  It offers courses for youth, juniors, and adults, with the proceeds going toward the Kickapoo Valle Reserve Education Program.

Other outdoor events at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, near La Farge, include an Ice Cave Hike on February 8. The hike will tour caves and frozen waterfalls, while participants learn more about the geology, biology, and history of the Reserve.  Registration deadline is February 1.

One of Driftless Wisconsin’s most legendary winter residents, the Bald Eagle, can be seen perched in trees near dams and other open water.  Prairie du Chien will celebrate Bald Eagle Appreciation Day on February 21 and22, offering live eagle and raptor programs, educational exhibits and displays, and outdoor viewing of eagles through spotting scopes.

Ferryville observes Bald Eagle Day on March 1, featuring an eagle from the University of Minnesota Raptor Center, and Lois the Owl.  Chloris Lowe from the Ho Chunk Nation will talk about the honored place of the eagle in the Native American culture.

We don’t need to wait till spring to enjoy Driftless Wisconsin’s outdoors and wildlife. We just have to bundle up; and look a little harder.

The season of celebration

December 11th, 2013 by Eric Frydenlund

winter hillsideThe season of thanking and giving is upon us, so it’s time to make a list. Mine is short, yet long on importance: my family, my friends, and living in Driftless Wisconsin.  The month of celebration from Thanksgiving through Christmas offers a break from the world at large. We make time to look at the small things that grace our lives.

The season bridges harvest and winter; between plenty and few. A stubble of corn stalks stand in the farm fields, a sign of the completed harvest.  Spent leaves litter the ground like confetti, mementos of fall’s parade of colors.  And now the corn is in the silos and the photos of color-clad trees are in the camera.

The hoopla is over.  Let the real celebration begin.

There’s no place on earth quite so ready for winter’s celebration. Thanksgiving is over and the people of Driftless Wisconsin are ready for Christmas; ready to give. And if we are observant, the land gives back.

It gives us scenery unending.  Shed of its fall foliage, the landscape reveals at once its blemishes and beauty. Limestone outcroppings show themselves, assuming shapes of faces and places offered up by our imagination. The barren land rolls and folds as if flapping in a gentle breeze.

It gives us pleasure. The land and water of Driftless Wisconsin offers a playground of outdoor activities. Hiking, biking, camping, fishing, hunting, and birding beckon from every corner of Driftless Wisconsin. And winter does not stop the fun. The ice is on the river and ice fishermen are already drilling for pan fish.  A brisk walk in the bracing cold makes you feel alive. It’s quiet in the woods.  No leaves to flutter or squirrels to scamper.  Wildlife settles into winter’s routine, ready for the patient photographer.

It gives us people, generous and welcoming.  Nothing warms the heart like the hospitality of our innkeepers, shopkeepers, and barkeepers. The people of Driftless Wisconsin are also keepers of our good fortune and ready to share it with visitors.

So come to Driftless Wisconsin, and share in this season of celebration with the land and its people.

A nose for discovery in Driftless Wisconsin

October 31st, 2013 by Eric Frydenlund

When you can’t see the prize, follow your nose.  This seems to be the general philosophy of Riley, our five-year old golden retriever, who relies on his snout to find his way in life.pile-of-leaves

We were out for a walk in La Riviere Park when Riley flushed a deer out of a thicket. While I watched the large doe as it bound up an adjacent hillside, Riley was content to follow it with his nose. He found every bit of excitement out of that fresh-from-the-oven trail as you or I would out of the sight of a white tail bouncing through the woods.

As the fall days grow shorter and the light wanes, it’s good to follow your nose. The smell of fall rivals the colors. Stirred with your feet, the odor of spent leaves rises like vapors from a fine stew.  The odor marks this season as surely as cut grass pegs summer.  It stirs memories as well.

I remember hunting with my father in the fall, the chill of early mornings warmed by the sight of a stalking buck.  I remember jumping like paratroopers with my childhood friends into freshly piled leaves. I remember hunting for the biggest pumpkin with my children and dressing them in outlandish costumes for Halloween.

Fresh memories are still for the taking in Driftless Wisconsin.  The orchards are still open in Gays Mills, and the smell of fresh apples, baked pies, and hot apple cider cuts the air.

For those with a nose for discovery, Driftless Wisconsin will lead you there.  Dr. James Lattis, Director of UW Space Place, will lead observes on a tour of constellations, star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies at Observing the Dark Sky, at the Kickapoo Reserve near La Farge on November 2.

On November 9, Dan Jackson, president of the Coulee Region Audubon Society, will help birders identify the many water fowl along the Mississippi Flyway at Fall Migration Day in Ferryville.  And of course, all the state parks and natural areas are open to pursue the exploration of the fall season.  Peak color has passed, yet the slow march of Driftless Wisconsin’s foliage through the spectrum of fall colors continues.

Back at La Riviere Park, I made the way home following my shadow cast by a half moon.  Riley followed his nose.

 

Driftless Wisconsin in the fall

October 1st, 2013 by Eric Frydenlund

There’s no place on earth quite like Driftless Wisconsin in the fall. The bluffs rising from the river gives autumn another dimension in which to paint. She does not waste a good canvas.overlook fall

As the “color season” nears, we find ourselves peeking around the corner to see what comes next. Tips of trees are already turning yellow and orange, giving us a tantalizing glimpse of things to come.

I’m walking along a logging road that descends from the top of the bluff to a rock quarry.  I notice what seem to be fluorescent flags marking the trail, which turn out to be yellow-tipped leaves illuminated by the setting sun.  I follow these footlights to the overlook where the sun sinks into the Iowa bluffs. The season never ceases to amaze.

Fall is my favorite season; perhaps because this is the time of year my father put down his work and took up hunting. Excitement barely describes the feeling of walking into the woods on a crisp October morning.

The woods drops its guard along with its leaves and you get to know the land more intimately. With less to hide behind, deer betray their presence by the tattletale rustle of spent leaves. Of course, you need to learn the difference in sound between the rhythmic march of a deer and the chaotic romp of a squirrel. Many a heart-thumping encounter ended with a squirrel staring at me bug-eyed from a tree branch.

Or perhaps it’s my favorite season because the hurried pace of summer slows to a trot. The wind, no longer driven by summer’s heat, calms to a slow breeze. A walk in the woods after a rain allows you to hear your own breath. Or hear the sudden shriek of a blue jay announcing your presence.

Of course you needn’t climb our hill to enjoy the Driftless Wisconsin colors. Major parks are within a short drive from anywhere in Driftless Wisconsin. And on the way you’ll enjoy the kaleidoscope of colors along secluded back roads that turn a lazy afternoon into an adventure.

After sunset, I descend from the bluff top into the steep arms of my valley. No place on earth feels more welcoming.

September Celebration

September 2nd, 2013 by Eric Frydenlund

harvest photoA heat wave persists, bridging the short jump from August to September.  Summer refuses to yield without one last performance to remember her by. Even our 18-year-old cat has bowed to the dog days of summer.  Sprawled out on the baked concrete of our front porch, he’s barely able to lift a paw to order a Margarita.

September is upon us and we yearn for that first coulee breeze sliding down the valley like water from a cool rain. Temperatures drop a little further each night, gathering momentum for the fall plunge. Corn tassels wave in the breeze to signal that harvest time is near.  The sun sinks below the horizon earlier, shrinking evenings down to whatever can fit between the river bluffs.

September performs these subtle theatrics as it prepares for our fall production of The Color Season in October.  Anticipation hangs from every branch. The stage crew adjusts the lighting.   The actors practice their lines: “The trees are starting to turn along County C,” we’ll say knowingly.

The stage is set.  But first comes the celebration of September.

Having had their summer fun, Driftless Wisconsin “locals” move through September in a festive mood.  A number of events will give visitors the chance to celebrate along with them. On September 6 – 8, the Villa Louis Carriage Classic in Prairie du Chien will stage one of the finest shows in the Midwest.  You would have to travel thousands of miles to see a better display of handsome horses and elegant carriages than those assembled on the stately lawns of the Villa Louis historic site.

Then on September 14 and 15, artisans will gather along the Kickapoo River in Soldiers Grove for the ninth annual Driftless Area Art Festival.  Extraordinary art, inspired by and created within the confines of the Driftless area, including parts of neighboring Iowa and Minnesota, will show visitors the creative side of living in the Driftless region.

On September 21, you can revisit our farming heritage at the annual Threshing Bee at Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center, near Coon Valley. Watch our Midwestern rural history come alive with demonstrations in threshing oats, corn shelling, rope making, blacksmithing, butter churning, and cutting lumber.

On September 27 – 29, Gays Mills will host the 55th annual Apple Festival, a celebration of the fall harvest, the transition of seasons and, oh yes, the memorable crunch and drool of biting into a fresh home-grown apple.

The colors can wait until October. Meanwhile, Driftless Wisconsin will celebrate September.

History’s Trail

August 6th, 2013 by Eric Frydenlund

ekern_houseAs children we hiked to the top of the Mississippi River bluff, where legend has it that Michael Brisbois was buried so that he “could look down upon his intense business rival in death as he did in life.”

Or maybe he just enjoyed the view. History works that way, embedding its trail into the fabric of the landscape on whatever piece of land that pulls it in that direction. The land shapes history as surely as it directs the flow of rivers. And in Driftless Wisconsin, we find the abundance of natural resources and ever-present challenges that attracted its first inhabitants.

The first Native Americans were drawn to the Upper Mississippi River Valley by a land rich in game, fish, and life-sustaining water. Their footprints through early human history are now marked by Indian burial mounds that crown the tops of area bluff tops.  Effigy Mounds National Monument, just across the river from Driftless Wisconsin in Marquette, Iowa, has preserved over 200 burial mounds in the shapes of animals.

It was to this mecca of natural resources that the first European explorers and settlers were drawn, coming to trade furs and explore the new frontier. Farmers and shopkeepers followed, who like my grandfather, tilled the rolling land and planted towns in sheltered river valleys and on windblown ridge tops.

Driftless Wisconsin forms a mosaic of this layered history.  Every road follows the trail of settlement. Numerous historic markers tell this story, and you would do well, on your journey through this compelling landscape, to stop and read a chapter of the story. There are 21 markers throughout Crawford and Vernon counties, listed here on the Wisconsin Historical Marker blog.

The best way to step back through that portal of time is to visit one of our many historic attractions.  Those visits should start with Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center near Coon Valley, which is “dedicated to preserving, interpreting and sharing the natural environment and cultural heritage of the area;” and Villa Louis Historic Site at Prairie du Chien, a Victorian mansion restored to its original 1880’s splendor.

The narrative of history has been written by nature as well as humans. The Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge has a visitor center and miles of hiking trails that will acquaint you with the natural forces at work in the Kickapoo River watershed. And at Wyalusing Park at the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers, where Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet first set eyes on the Mississippi, you can witness the deep river valleys cut over time by water.

You don’t need to be a child to enjoy the excitement of discovery.  You just need to rediscover a child’s curiosity. And along the way, maybe enjoy the view.

Memories Fresh from Farmers Markets

July 1st, 2013 by Eric Frydenlund

Market2Farmers Markets whet my appetite for garden vegetables and childhood memories. As a child I would sneak into my mother’s garden with my sister and pilfer fresh peas from their pods.  We would sit hunched in the garden, snapping the pods from the stem with one hand and unzipping them with the other.  The peas would spill onto our tongues like balls down the drain of a pinball machine.

Our next door neighbor had a strawberry garden with rows so long you had to turn your head to take it all in. At harvest time, they always shared some with us.  Seeing that bowl of strawberries approach from across the road set my mouth to salivating at first sight.

On Saturday mornings in Driftless Wisconsin, the best treats still travel the shortest distance.  Produce appearing at your favorite market is fresh from that short jaunt across the road from a local farmer, not “bleary-eyed” from a thousand-mile trek on interstate highways from processing plants in the big city. Just try to look fresh after a thousand-mile bus ride.

They say the sun brings out the best in the garden, but by my reckoning, it’s the other way around. On this rainy Saturday morning in June, a mixture of fresh food and smiley-eyed people has brought out the sun, arriving just in time for the music. Dan Harwood strums his guitar and plays the crowd and all is right with the world.

Including the world of farmers. You see, farmers bring more than product to market.  They bring with them their pride and love of good food. The pride shows up on their faces. The love oozes from every bite of their offerings.

A blueberry turnover from the Local Oven satiates my appetite, while a strawberry smoothie conjures up memories of that bowl walking across the street.  Jars of strawberry-rhubarb jam sit in rows, teasing passersby.  Fresh garlic, beets, and onions sit in baskets waiting for a dinner date.  I take home a couple of grass-fed tenderloins for a date with my wife.

Farmers Markets can be enjoyed all across Driftless Wisconsin, including the Viroqua Farmers Market in downtown Viroqua, the Prairie Street Farmers Market in downtown Prairie du Chien, Market in the Park at Sugar Creek Park in Ferryville, all on Saturdays; and the Gays Mills Farmers Market on Wednesdays.

Best of all, Farmers Markets transport you back to times when fresh food was the norm; whether hunched down on your knees in your mother’s garden, or eyeing that row of strawberries across the street.

Springtime’s promise

May 24th, 2013 by Driftless Wisconsin

1My wife and I live in a coulee along a drywash, a meager contributor to the Mississippi River and yet a topographical tributary to the Mississippi Valley.  We live in shadow until midmorning, when the sun finally appears to resume its work on spring, as an artist arrives late to her workshop.

Riley, our three-year old golden retriever, revels in spring the way a child wanders awe-struck through a toy store.  His senses are my entrance.  His nose twitches to a new odor, his ears perk to a new sound, and I look toward their origin.  Unlike the hollow clatter coming from the vacant streets of winter, sounds have a home in spring.  They dwell in the lush construction of new growth.

Two of my three children were born in spring, while the third wedged spring into the midst of a cold January morning.  I stood wobble-kneed, draped in a green hospital gown, until a nurse noticed the color of my complexion drifting toward my wardrobe like a startled chameleon, and ordered me to sit down.  I sat, dumbfounded, as spring arrived.

A new arrival to this world searches for familiar reference points like a circus visitor in a house of mirrors.  The nurse places the tiny traveler in your arms, and their eyes soon find yours, and you can’t leave them.

And so it is springtime in the Driftless area.  The sun shines through freshly-minted leaves that hang like mobiles above a newborn’s crib.  Each time the wind blows, the mobiles move, and the spaces between them open and close. The sun’s gaze parses into a dozen eyes that open with each breath of wind. I stand, wobble-kneed, transfixed on these eyes of spring.

My knees fixed, I begin walking through the undeveloped canopy still under construction.  Last year’s remnants litter the ground, dead and decomposing leaves from which this year’s growth rises.  Life has come full cycle, and whatever has been taken in the past, nature has given back.

A buck has etched a scrape into the middle of the logging road, still exercising his territorial rights from last year’s rut.  Each time I walk past, the leaves have been pushed aside and strident hoof prints leave their mark upon the barren earth.  The marks are linear and cross-hatched, as if signing his primitive intent.

In my last visit, pollen-laden catkins from a nearby birch tree have dropped on the buck scrape.  They dropped and scattered and skewed, forming strange hieroglyphics upon the earth. The buck’s best intentions have been overwritten.

Leave it to arrogance to think we can leave our mark.  Spring returns to reclaim its dominion, again and again.  We are not just fathers of children and owners of land, but stewards of nature, witness to miracles unending.  Spring returns to Driftless Wisconsin, resilient, full of promise for the future, laden with gifts from the past.

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Waiting for spring in Driftless Wisconsin

April 15th, 2013 by Driftless Wisconsin

2The spring of 2012 flew early.  I remember my then one-year-old granddaughter watching the St. Patrick’s Day parade in shorts.  Our family picnicked on a balmy Easter Sunday, complaining only about our mud-caked dogs who had snuck away for a swim at the beach.

This spring of 2013 continues to sit. Determined not to break our Easter Sunday picnic tradition, we huddled around a fledging campfire, complaining about spring’s late arrival to the party.

The snow in our valley finally gave up waiting, melting into the nearest stream and taking leave to the river.  Yet other signs of spring – budding trees and the emergence of green – wait for a sign that it’s OK to come out.

I may have happened last night. A thundering announcement accompanied by a penetrating rainstorm, woke up the entire valley, my wife and I included. The entire house shook as if spring could no longer contain itself.  This morning, green grass appears where snow banks stood a week ago, and green undergrowth squeezes out of the adjacent hillside. The bird of spring has flown.

With spring’s arrival comes outdoor adventure. My wife gave me a Wisconsin Park sticker for Christmas and it’s time to put it to good use.  Open year ‘round, state parks offer a splendid view to monitor the progress of spring.

Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario overlooks the sprawling Kickapoo Valley with the Kickapoo River meandering along the foot of the bluff below the park.  South of Prairie du Chien, Wyalusing State Park oversees the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers and the wide valley that holds the rivers.  Each offers tantalizing glimpses of spring’s arrival, from the explosion of budding trees to the fast-flowing rivers that signal the retreat of winter.

The Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge will celebrate spring’s arrival with the “Spring Fling Benefit” on April 27.  “Activities include: geology & nature hike, craft demonstrations, hula hooping, Sister City presentation, music by Dan Sebranek & Mary, silent auction, raffle, grilled brats & burgers, salads, desserts, soft drinks, and brew canoe.”

Other celebrations of spring include the Gays Mills Spring Festival on May 10 – 12, “a festival commemorating the traditions of the valley,” which features the Folk Festival of Music and Dance, the Ridge and Valley Rodeo, and plenty of good food coming your way in a Bake Sale and Pancake Breakfast.

You may want to wait for that soon-arriving warm day to stage your first picnic, but I can think of no better place to witness spring take flight.  Time for spring to leap!

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Jump into Driftless Wisconsin

March 9th, 2013 by Driftless Wisconsin

3Our golden retrievers Riley and Finn – the latter belonging to my daughter – are not impressed with the scenery, preferring to jump in the action. Riley buries his snout in the snow like he’s rifling for spare change under the couch cushion. Finn, who takes a liking to diving off fishing piers during the summer, enjoys “swimming” in the white waves; squirming and rolling to form doggie angels in the snow.

Dogs have it right. The scenery is nice but let’s dive into it.

So it is with Driftless Wisconsin; you come for the scenery, but eventually you need to dive in.  And contrary to perception, there’s much to do in Driftless Wisconsin during the “off-season.”

My wife and I enjoy snowshoeing at our local park. It’s the closest we’ll get to leading a polar expedition, striking a new web-footed trail across a field after a fresh snowfall. Once you get used to the footwork and cadence, there’s no territory too remote to go undiscovered.

For the ice fishers among you, the backwaters of the Mississippi offer plenty of opportunities to walk on water.  A trip along Highway 35 on a sunny day will find any number of hearty souls performing the miracle, and catching some nice pan fish to boot. Shanty towns of ice fishing shelters can be seen springing up over those fishing hotspots only accessible by boat during the summer.

Wildlife comes into view during the winter, as deer, turkey, squirrels, and birds – those that have not booked a flight south – can be seen carrying out their winter routines. Without a leaf or a corn stalk to hide behind, wildlife can be easily seen crossing farm fields, or with a patient eye, meandering across forested hillsides.

If indoor events suit your taste and temperature preferences, Driftless Wisconsin has theaters, film festivals, art galleries, and indoor water parks to keep the cold at bay. And small-town stores and specialty shops will warm you up instantly with their small-town hospitality.

Spring is just around the corner. But before we make the turn, might as well jump in the fun along this stretch of season.

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