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Driftless Dark Skies: Home in the Milky Way

September 2nd, 2016 by John Heasley

“Why should I feel lonely?  Is not our planet in the Milky Way?

Henry David Thoreau, Walden 

Photo by Josh Thompson of Driftless Hills Photography

Photo by Josh Thompson of Driftless Hills Photography

Look up into the September sky and you will see our Milky Way flowing across.  It starts in the northwest where you find Perseus the Hero, now safe from the gorgon and sea monster; passes through Cassiopeia the Queen, Perseus’s mother-in-law; flows high overhead where Cygnus the Swan and Aquila the Eagle are flying and Delphinus the Dolphin jumps out of the stream; and arches down to the southwest where Sagittarius, the centaur, still shoots his arrows.  It helps to see Sagittarius as a teapot with handle, lid, and spout.  Look just above where the tea is pouring and you will be looking into the center of our galaxy.  Look just to the right to find ruddy Mars and creamy Saturn, bright planets shining in the Milky Way just as Thoreau reminded us.

Perseus, Cassiopeia, Cygnus, Aquila, Delphinus, and Sagittarius are constellations, patterns of bright stars created by the people of the Fertile Crescent and Mediterranean.  Other people on our planet pictured “dark constellations” in the Great Rift of the Milky Way where the stars are hidden by dust clouds.  The Incas of South American saw llamas and serpents.  The Aborigines of Australia found an emu.  I am looking forward to learning more about these dark constellations at the November 4 meeting of Iowa County Astronomers in Dodgeville.  You can also see the Milky Way at two public programs this month: September 10 (8:30) with Starsplitters of Wyalusing and September 30 (7:00) with Kickapoo Valley Reserve.

For millennia, humans could only see thousands of stars, even under the darkest of skies.  The Milky Way appeared cloudy.   Then in 1610, Galileo turned his telescope to the Milky Way and discovered that the nebulosity was actually millions of stars never before imagined.  In Siderius Nuncius (Starry Messenger) he shares the awe and wonder that comes from resolving the nature of the Milky Way and discovering that “the galaxy is, in fact, nothing but congeries of innumerable stars.”

Now we know that there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy and that it is just one of the hundreds of billions of galaxies in our cosmos.  The beauty of the Scientific Revolution is that you don’t need to trust Galileo.  You can see it for yourself.  While most people now live in places where they cannot see our Milky Way because of light pollution, we still can in the Driftless Area.   Find a dark spot on a clear, moon-free night away from the lights of town.  Make yourself comfortable in a reclining chair or lying on a blanket.  Scan the Milky Way with binoculars and see the millions of stars.  Create your own constellations, find your own animals in the dark rifts, and make your myths.  Be at home in our Milky Way.

Every star we see in the night sky is part of our galaxy.  We are in the Milky Way, so we can never see it all at once, just as we can never see a forest for the trees.  Imagine the Milky Way as a Frisbee.  When we see it streaming across the sky, we are looking into the central disk where the stars are so numerous and distant that they flow together.  When we look in other directions, we are looking out of the disk and can more easily see the individual stars in our neighborhood.

One of my favorite places to enjoy the Milky Way is at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, 8569 acres of public property in Vernon County co-managed by a citizen board on behalf of the Ho-Chunk Nation and State of Wisconsin. Like many places in the Driftless Area, it has dark skies and limited light pollution.   Yet, I observe there with a sense of nostalgia. You can feel the homesickness and yearning to regain what has been lost. I visit the rock shelters and remember that this was home to the Ho-Chunk and others before they were displaced by European arrivals. I look at the names on the wall of the Visitor Center and remember the families who lost their homes to make way for a dam project in the 1960s. I see a little sky glow from La Farge and Ontario and remember that people in urban areas can no longer see our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

But with the nostalgia comes hope.  The Ho-Chunk Nation is now able to protect and share their home on the Reserve.  Many of the displaced farm families are now active in preserving and educating others about their former home.  KVR staff and educators are working to protect and let visitors enjoy the dark skies.  As we move into autumn, I think of it as a homecoming.  Welcome home to our Milky Way.

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 of Milky Way streaming over the Wisconsin River at Lone Rock is courtesy of Driftless Hills Photography. Thanks, Josh! Give his page a like for more amazing photos.

 

Driftless Wisconsin: shaped by water

August 8th, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

In my last newspaper column, I wrote about our trip out west to the National Parks that my wife and I recently completed. About our experience at Yellowstone National Park, I wrote:

“Artist Point, hovering above the rim of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon, reveals sculptures cut from rock by the hand of water.  Yellowstone River at the bottom of the canyon appears to my eye to flow uphill, rivaling any abstractionist’s attempt to create illusion.

Back home and looking out my window at the Driftless “mountains” of Southwest Wisconsin, I am reminded that we do not need to fly anywhere to witness nature’s grandeur. The largeness of nature’s wonder lies just outside our door.”

Driftless Wisconsin is shaped by water.  Thousands of years ago when the last glacier retreated from Driftless Wisconsin’s doorstep, glacial runoff began carving the deep river valleys that define our landscape. Water rushed swiftly downhill, sculpting deep-seated valleys, exposing dramatic limestone outcroppings, and cutting from the land the rivers we know today.

And the process continues. We have a drywash outside our house – its name taken from the fact that the ditch remains absent of water for most of the year. Introduce four inches of rain, however, and the ditch rages like the Yellowstone River.  An exaggeration perhaps, yet the sound of rushing water tells the story of its power.  The drywash deepens and widens, giving the valley a new shape.

And in the process of shaping land, water shapes its human inhabitants.  Not long after the last glacial period ended, the first American Indians migrated to the Driftless area, drawn by the rivers and the opportunities for fishing and hunting that the rivers brought.  Beginning in the 1600s, European Explores came to the confluence of rivers looking for new lands to discover and new trade routes to ply.  Fur traders and settlers soon came, following the flow of water. 

Kickapoo deadfallI am shaped by water. I was out on the Kickapoo River yesterday, surveying deadfalls; trees that have fallen in the river as the banks continue to erode from the river’s force.  Ahead of our canoe, a flock of geese launches downstream, their wings beating the water like a wind storm at sea. The Kickapoo River valley opens before us in a panorama of wetlands and bluffs, floodlit by the afternoon sun.

A herd of dairy cattle has come to the river for an afternoon drink. Startled by our sudden presence, they retreat to the bank.  “Howdy,” I say in a friendly voice.  Reassured, one comes back for a closer look at me.  On the opposite bank, a muskrat, less assured, dives for the bottom leaving a trail of bubbles.

The river arranges all sorts of encounters with cattle, wildlife, waterfowl, and jaw-dropping scenery.  In the process, I am forever changed.  A day on the river, whether the Kickapoo or the Mississippi, somehow reassures me of my connection to all things real.

Rivers bring us closer to who we are and where we came from.  And it all starts with water.  Here, in Driftless Wisconsin.

Driftless Dark Skies: Planets and Perseids

August 5th, 2016 by John Heasley

I remember bundling up mornings back in February to enjoy the sight of five planets at once in the predawn skies.  This month, we can do it without bundling or rising early.  All five visible planets will be in the evening sky starting around 9pm.  The Moon is an excellent guide to help pick them out. 

Mercury is the most challenging of the planets.  It never rises very high above the horizon and is never far from the Sun, so pick a spot with a clear view to the west.  Farm fields and ridgetops work well.  On August 4, Mercury will be just to the right of a slim crescent Moon.  Venus will be even lower in the sky to the right of Mercury and the Moon. Binoculars will help you to see them in the twilight.  On August 5, the Moon has waxed a little fuller and will be just to the right of Jupiter.  By August 11, the waxing gibbous Moon is right above Mars with Saturn to the left. 

Once you have identified all five worlds, it can be exciting to watch them shift position in the sky from night to night.  Jupiter moves closer to Mercury and Venus this month.  Don’t miss the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus on August 27 just after sunset when they will be just a tenth of a degree apart and appear as one “star”.  Saturn starts the month to the left of Mars, but by the end of August it is to the right of Mars.  Mar is directly below Saturn the evening of August 25. 

photo by NASA

photo by NASA

August is also an excellent month to enjoy meteors.  Our planet will be orbiting through the dust trails left behind by several comets.  These grains and small rocks leave bright trails in the sky as they enter our atmosphere.    The first week of August is a good time to look.  The Moon sets early and the sky is dark.  The most famous meteor shower, the Perseids, will peak the morning of August 12.  You will probably see the most meteors between moonset (around 1am) and dawn (around 4 am).  The time after sunset can also be good.  There are fewer meteors, but they tend to be brighter and leave longer trails. 

There are two chances to gather with your fellow stargazers this month.  Starsplitters will be having a public program at Wyalusing State Park on August 6.  There is a Perseids Party at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on August 12.  Wherever you are, take time to look up and enjoy the planets and Perseids in 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.

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer Triangle

July 6th, 2016 by John Heasley

As darkness falls this month, watch for three shining stars emerging in the east.   They are the brightest stars in three separate constellations, but together they form an asterism (a star pattern) known as the Summer Triangle.  They cover an area of sky larger than your outstretched hand. 

Milkyway_Swan_PanoramaVega is the highest of the three and is the main star of the constellation Lyra the Lyre.  The light you see left Vega back in the spring of 1991.  Below and to the right of Vega is Altair in the constellation Aquila the Eagle.  It is closer to Earth, and its light has been journeying since the fall of 1999.  As the sky darkens, watch for our home galaxy, the Milky Way, passing between the two stars. 

There is a story of the two stars told in Japan, China, and Korea.  Altair, a poor herdsman, falls in love with Vega, a princess.  Vega’s father places them on opposite sides of the heavenly river, the Milky Way.  Once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month, the Emperor shows mercy and Altair is allowed to cross the river to visit with Vega. 

The third star of the Summer Triangle is Deneb.  Look for it between and to the left of Vega and Altair.  Deneb is the tail of Cygnus the Swan.  You can make out the outstretched wings of the Swan just to the right of Deneb reaching up and down.  Its long neck reaches almost as far as a line traced between Vega and Altair.  I imagine Cygnus as flying over the Milky Way.  Deneb is one of the farthest and most luminous stars you can see with your naked eyes.   It is over 200 times larger and 250,000 times brighter than our Sun.  The light you see left Deneb at least 1425 years ago. 

There are three planets to go along with the three stars.  Jupiter is bright in the southwest as night falls.  The Waxing Crescent Moon passes by Jupiter on July 8 and 9.  Mars and Saturn are glowing in the south just above Scorpius the Scorpion.  The Waxing Gibbous Moon passes by Mars on July 14 and by Saturn on July 15.  Just below Saturn, look for Antares whose name means “rival of Mars”. 

You will have a chance to see these stars and planets through a telescope when Starsplitters have a public program at Wyalusing State Park on July 9 (8:30pm) and Northwest Suburban Astronomers have a public program at Wildcat Mountain State Park on July 30 (8:00pm).  Or just enjoy the sight of the three stars and three planets coming out in the dark skies over 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.

Small-town events in Driftless Wisconsin

July 1st, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

Small-town events are the life blood of our communities. You won’t find big-town parade floats fashioned from roses or 30-foot high balloons shaped like Mickey Mouse. You will find small-town excitement, built from a community pride that draws folks to Main Street from miles around.

Eastman parade 4Small-town events begin with a few volunteers and end with a community-wide party. You can see the excitement in the faces.  The little girl in pigtails, mouth agape, watching the fire engine pass with sirens howling. The three-year-old farmer, hands on hips, inspecting a procession of John Deere tractors. The County Dairy Queen smiling and waving – not the mechanical elbow to wrist wave, but the both-arms flapping wave to someone in the crowd she actually recognizes.

Once the parade finds the end of Main Street, then comes more fun, food and fireworks.  And maybe a local baseball tournament or horseshoe contest. The cook flips the burgers with a spatula in one hand and a beer in the other.  And the thank you from the volunteer who hands you your burger and beer is genuine because it’s their club’s annual fundraiser.

And did I mention music?  The musicians span from the local high school bands marching the parades, tubas blaring and snare drums rattling; to professional bands rocking the stage of local music festivals.

There are several communities that celebrate the 4th of July with parades and fireworks with all sorts of activities in between. Eastman holds the quintessential farm-town 4th of July, with parade, ball games, food, and fireworks; while the La Farge 4th of July hosts a parade, ball tournament, bake sale, beer tent, and yes, spectacular fireworks.

Community gatherings are not confined to the 4th of July.  Several communities host farmers markets, typically on Saturdays, an easy way to celebrate food from farm to table. Coon Valley will host the Coon Creek Trout Fest on July 23, offering up a kid’s trout derby, a bobber race, classic car show, fly tying and fishing lessons, food, beverages, and music at night.

The calendar is full with summer music festivals. The Stump Dodger Bash in Gays Mills kicks things off on July 1st and 2nd, a country music happening featuring headliners Erica Nicole on Friday and Logan Mize on Saturday.  The 14th Annual Bluegrass Gospel Music Festival takes the stage in Viroqua on July 8 – 10, an opportunity to enjoy family entertainment, great music, and fellowship with six traditional bluegrass and gospel bands.

Viroqua also hosts the Driftless Music Festival on July 9, a free event offering five bands from 1 – 10pm, closing with Christie Knapp, who’s been “accused of singing in the style of Rosemary Clooney.” The Prairie Dog Blues Festival transforms St. Feriole Island in Prairie du Chien into a mecca for blues lovers, offering blues and roots music ranging “from Chicago Blues to West Coast Jump, hard-driving Mississippi Hill Country Blues, New Orleans horns and Texas Boogie.”

August begins with the annual Country on the River Music Fest in Prairie du Chien on August 4 – 6, featuring notable headliners such as Kid Rock. And don’t forget the County Fairs, Crawford County on August 24 – 28 and Vernon County on September 14 – 18, which offer a little bit of everything.

Small towns know how to celebrate in a big way. They’d be more than pleased if you joined them.

Driftless Dark Skies: Solstice Full Moon

June 8th, 2016 by John Heasley

photo by NASA

photo by NASA

We get to enjoy a Full Moon on the Summer Solstice this year on June 20.  A Solstice Full Moon is a relatively rare event happening about once every 19 years.  The exact moment of the solstice is 5:34 pm.  That’s when Earth’s axis is tilted exactly towards the Sun.  You’ve already noticed how this has led to longer days.  On the Winter Solstice we were down to just over nine hours of sunlight.  Now we have almost 15 ½ hours.  The Sun is tracking higher in the sky, rising more in the northeast, and setting more in the northwest. 

It’s the opposite for the Full Moon in the summer.  It is only visible for 10 hours, tracks low in the sky, rises in the southeast, and sets in the southwest.  Because the Moon is lower in the sky, its light passes through more of our atmosphere.  The blues get scattered while the yellows reach our eyes giving the moonlight more of a golden color—honeymoon! 

Besides Honey Moon, this month’s moon is also known as the Rose Moon (because they start blooming) and the Strawberry Moon (because they are so fresh and tasty here in the Driftless Area).  The Ho-Chunk, who have long made this area home, call it Mąįna’ųwira (Earth Cultivating or Hoeing Moon).  The Moon is 100% full at 5:04 am on June 20, so it should appear equally full the evenings of the 19th and 20th.  Watch for it rising in the southeast on Sunday at 7:55 pm, setting in the southwest on Monday at 5:48 am, and rising again on Monday in the southeast at 8:47 pm. 

Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn are all bright and beautiful this month.  Look for Jupiter in the southwest after sunset.  It’s brighter than any star and does not set until after midnight.  Mars is closer to Earth than it has been for 11 years.  Watch for its amber color in the south as the sky darkens.  If you can get a look through a telescope, you should be able to see the polar cap and other surface features.  Saturn is just to the east of Mars and a paler shade of yellow.  Its rings are magnificent through a telescope.  The red supergiant star Antares is just below Mars and Saturn.  I think of it as the beating heart of the Scorpion. 

The Waxing Crescent Moon is just below Jupiter on June 11 and the Waxing Gibbous Moon is nicely clustered with Mars and Saturn on June 16-18.  Enjoy the many moons over 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.

More Driftless for less dollars

June 2nd, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

More Driftless for less dollars.  So says our promotion, which offers visitors many of our most popular activities and attractions at discounted prices through June 15. 

An observant reader pointed out that it should read “fewer dollars” or “less money.” As an English major, I felt the grammar lesson hit home; as when our history teacher in seventh grade threw a chalkboard eraser at those of us who were not paying attention.  Suddenly, history made an “impression” on us.

And so – grammatically correct – “with fewer dollars, you can experience more Driftless.”  The important word here is “more.” 

Fishing 144x144As in more of the incomparable scenery of a region shaped by rivers and left untouched by glaciers.  More fishing on world-class rivers and trout streams.  More history of early exploration and settlement.  More canoeing and kayaking on the Kickapoo River.  More shopping in our small-town, big-hospitality stores.  And more family fun for the kids and the child in all of us.

As someone who has lived in Driftless Wisconsin most of my life, I find the prospect of more Driftless appealing.  I can’t get enough. I have fished the Mississippi, cast a fly on a trout stream, canoed the Kickapoo, woken up in a cabin overlooking the river, shopped in a Scandinavian store, and discovered my Norwegian heritage at Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center.  Yet there are always new discoveries awaiting. 

I spent all yesterday fishing and boating on the Mississippi River, enjoying every last minute of daylight squeezed between the Wisconsin and Iowa bluffs. Every passing boater offered a wave of the hand, a sort of secret-handshake sharing of our good fortune of a day on the river.

Indeed, if you search our discounted itineraries, you’ll find as many ways to spend a day as there are days in the week. Seven itineraries, each with a different focus, each in a different region of Driftless Wisconsin. 

Whether it’s with less money or fewer dollars, you’ll get more of what makes Driftless Wisconsin such a special place.

Boating and fishing in Driftless Wisconsin

May 6th, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

Time to get my boat in the water. Driftless Wisconsin may be best known for its soaring bluffs and plunging valleys, yet it’s the tranquil rivers and streams that tame this rugged land; and offer its most popular recreation; boating and fishing.

Boating, canoeing, kayaking, game fishing, and fly fishing attract enthusiasts from across the country. And for locals like me, from across town.

Sliding the boat off the trailer marks for me the “official” start of summer. Like planting the garden or mowing the lawn, launching the boat sticks a bookmark into the pages of my calendar through which winter cannot return. Just seeing my boat sitting in the driveway, retrieved from winter storage; presents a seasonal sign as welcome as the leaves unfurling on the trees outside our window.

With the first of May behind me, I’m watching the thermometer and river depth with the passion of an amateur meteorologist. Of course the hardcore fishermen pay no attention to cold weather and spring flooding, having already launched their boats and tried their luck fishing the cold waters below the lock & dams for walleye.

General trout fishing season opens on May 7, giving fly fishermen an opportunity to test their skills. Walking a trout stream in springtime in a pair of hip boots offers a communion with nature just short of religion. Something about feeling the tug of a fish against the pull of the current that puts life’s struggles into perspective.

Back to my boat. As good as it looks in the driveway, it looks better in the water. Fortunately, Driftless Wisconsin has more boat landings than I have hairs on my balding head. Every village along the Kickapoo River has a landing, and several are scattered along the Mississippi.

The Kickapoo is known for its canoeing and kayaking adventures. No need to bring your own.  There are excellent outfitters in Ontario, Readstown, Gays Mills, and Boscobel that will provide you the gear.  You provide the fun, which is not hard to find on a river snaking through some of the most scenic settings in the Midwest. 

tugboat 2I’ll be finding some of that fun along the Kickapoo soon. But my pontoon is best suited for the river, and there’s no shortage of entertainment on the Mississippi.  Cruising the river framed by the bluffs, watching the tugboats glide by; anchoring in a quiet backwater while eagles soar overhead; pulling up to a snag and dropping a hook and worm to coax in a pan fish.  An evening on the river settles in your mind as peaceful as the sun sinking into the Iowa bluffs.

It all seems too good to be true, as if we didn’t deserve this much of the good life. But true it is.  If you don’t believe me, time to get your boat in the water.

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer Stargazing

May 3rd, 2016 by John Heasley

The warm nights ahead are a great time to get to know the night sky.  There are plenty of stargazers in the Lower Wisconsin Valley and beyond 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. 

Iowa County Astronomers have monthly meetings on May 6, June 3, July 1, August 5, September 2, and October 7.  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 an excellent time to try out different telescopes and ask questions.  See icastro.org for monthly updates.  ICA will also be sharing a public program at Governor Dodge in August. 

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 do several programs at Governor Dodge and Blue Mounds and at state parks across the state.  Full schedule is at their website. 

Northwest Suburban Astronomers will be at Wildcat Mountain on July 30, 8-10pm.  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,  This year’s topic is solar eclipses, especially the solar eclipse visible in the United States in August 2017. 

Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers dark skies and will be having a Solstice Stargaze on June 18 and a Perseid Meteor Shower Party on August 12.  Enjoy hiking or canoeing during the day and astronomy at night. 

Starsplitters of Wyalusing has public programs at Wyalusing State Park on May 28, June 4, July 9, August 6, September 10, and October 1.  The evening begins with an indoor presentation in the Huser Astronomy Center and then goes outdoors to explore the sky with their fine collection of telescopes.   

While you are looking ahead to summer stargazing, don’t miss the sky events of May.  There will be a meteor shower (Eta Aquarids) on May 5.  That’s close to the New Moon, so skies should be dark.  Mercury crosses the face of the Sun on May 9.  You can marvel at this transit with Iowa County Astronomers at Governor Dodge (Twin Valley Picnic Site) from sunrise to 2pm.  Look for Jupiter near the Waxing Gibbous Moon on May 14.  Mars and Earth will be at their closest (just 47 million miles on May 30) since 2005.  Mars rises with Scorpius just after dusk and is bright and beautiful all night long.  Mars, Saturn, and the Moon will all be clustered together the nights of May 21 and 22.  Enjoy the views! 

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.

Spring has arrived in Driftless Wisconsin

April 7th, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

Spring has arrived in Driftless Wisconsin.  Yes, the calendar has turned to April, but nature shows little obligation to schedules. We have seen winter sneak into April before. So we look for signs.

Out for my walk up the hill, I found sufficient evidence of spring’s arrival for optimism. While oak, elm, and basswood are still budding; the leafing of multi-flora rose and blackberry – those thorny bushes that snag your clothing on hikes – covers the ground with a fine, greenish mist. Spring launches from the ground up, with grasses, then bushes, then tree tops filling the valley with color.

Nestled among their roots, I find a golf ball planted there by an errant shot from a backyard golfer at the top of the hill.  The spike-shoed golfer often makes its seasonal appearance in Driftless Wisconsin before the orange-breasted robin.

photo by Betty Frydenlund

photo by Betty Frydenlund

Speaking of birds, a cardinal has taken up residence in our yard, its bright red feathers accenting the still muted valley.  Between knocking on our front door window – apparent attempts to ward off the handsome fellow he sees in its reflection – he sits on a nearby branch and announces the new season with a chirp.

Along with spring’s arrival, comes a variety of events and activities to coax us out of hibernation. As does the cardinal in our yard, the season marks the return of birds to their native habitat.  Traveling highway 35 along the Great River Road is a great venue for observing the spring migration.  According to the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge website, “April and May are some of the best times to see songbird migration.”  Red-winged blackbirds have returned to the refuge, along with great blue herons; a majestic sign of spring.

The rivers and streams coursing through the Driftless region will be the topic of “Crossing the Driftless.”  On April 13, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve will host author Lynne Diebel as part of their Ralph Nuzem Lecture Series.  Diebel will talk about exploring 359 river miles of the Driftless by canoe; a trip with her husband from Faribault, Minnesota to their home in Stoughton, Wisconsin.

Driftless Wisconsin parks offer a fresh perspective of nature’s seasonal pageant.  Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario and Wyalusing State Park near Prairie du Chien offer hiking trails into the very heart of spring.  High on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi, Wisconsin, and Kickapoo Rivers that flow at their feet, the parks provide an overview of spring returning to the land.

And for those spike-shoed golfers, several golf courses have opened their doors, including the Viroqua Hills Golf Course; the Snowflake Ski Club, near Westby; the Prairie du Chien Country Club; and the Barnyard 9, north of Prairie du Chien.

Spring also brings the opening of area attractions, many of which show the march of human history through Driftless Wisconsin.  The Villa Louis Historic Site in Prairie du Chien will open its doors on April 15 – 16 for its “Villa Louis Behind the Scenes,” offering visitors an intimate glimpse of life during the 1890s in a Victorian home.  On that Saturday, the Villa will present “Breakfast in a Victorian Kitchen,” a hands-on cooking workshop.

As hats, gloves, and boots go back in the closet; hiking shoes, birding binoculars, and golf clubs make their appearance.  The only thing missing from spring’s arrival in Driftless Wisconsin is you.  Join us, with or without your golf shoes.

Driftless Dark Skies: Binoculars

April 1st, 2016 by John Heasley

When it comes to stargazing, two eyes are better than one.  If we imagine an astronomer, we probably picture a person looking into a thin tube mounted on a tripod.  My experience is that many telescopes go unused because they are complicated to set up, difficult to use, heavy to move, or disappointing to look through.  Binoculars make stargazing fun and easy. 

Many of us already own binoculars, so there’s no cost.  If you do buy binoculars and lose interest in stargazing, you can use them for birds or wildlife or landscapes.  That’s great news for parents who may not want to add to that collection of things tried and abandoned.  I have learned from public programs than younger children can have trouble using a telescope.  They look at the eyepiece rather than through the eyepiece.  Binoculars are more intuitive for them. 

Binoculars help us to see more.  You want to be able to hold them comfortably, so the largest size I recommend is 7×50 or 10×50.  The first number tells you the magnification (7x or 10x).  The second number is the width of the lens in millimeters (about 2 inches).  More important than making small objects bigger, binoculars make dim objects 10-100x brighter.  On a dark night in the Driftless Area, you might be able to see 1000 stars with your eyes alone.  With binoculars you increase that to 50,000 stars.  Lying on a blanket, air mattress, or reclining chair keeps your view steady. 

Binoculars let us see the colors in the night sky.  At night, we are mostly using the rods in our retinas and the world is monochromatic.  Binoculars gather enough photons to activate the cones in our retinas.  We get to see the red of Betelgeuse, the orange of Arcturus, the yellow of Capella, the green of the Orion Nebula, and the blue of Rigel. 

The Pleiades star cluster consists of 3000 stars at a distance of 400 light years. NASA image.

The Pleiades star cluster consists of 3000 stars at a distance of 400 light years. NASA image.

Many sights are better in binoculars than in a telescope.  The seven sisters of the Pleiades become dozens of stars.  The Andromeda Galaxy is nicely framed by the blackness of space.  The middle “star” of Orion’s sword is revealed as a nebula.  The hazy path of the Milky Way turns out to be stars too many to count.  The Moon is transformed to a world with craters and mountains and valleys.

There’s plenty to enjoy with your binoculars this April.  Look for the crescent moon in the southwest April 8-13.  Scan above the western horizon after sunset April 11-25 for Mercury. Jupiter is near the waxing gibbous moon the evening of April 17.  On the morning of April 25, Mars, Saturn, Antares, and the Moon will be clustered together in the southern sky from midnight to 5am.  Enjoy your double vision! 

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.

Driftless Dark Skies: Jupiter

March 4th, 2016 by John Heasley

 Jupiter is at opposition on March 8 when it’s at its closest to Earth.  It will rise in the east at sunset, pass high overhead in the south at midnight, and set in the west at sunrise.  Jupiter blazes brighter than any star (twice the brilliance of Sirius) which makes it very easy to spot in the night sky. 

hotspot_cover_1280With a small telescope or binoculars on a tripod, you can make out some of the darker cloud belts in Jupiter’s atmosphere and maybe even the Great Red Spot.  You should also be able to spot small “stars” off to the side of Jupiter.  These are the four largest of Jupiter’s 67 moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.  Ganymede is the largest moon in our solar system, even bigger than the planet Mercury.  Europa is especially intriguing since its one of the leading candidates for finding life beyond Earth.  It may have all three of the necessary requirements for life: liquid water, energy source, and organic compounds.  We might know better by the 2020s when NASA has plans to send a robot to orbit and land on Europa. 

Galileo was the first to turn a telescope to Jupiter.  He was astounded by what he saw.  In just one week in January 1610, he saw four “stars” in a line by Jupiter appearing and disappearing as they changed position.  The astronomical writings of Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton are important works, but I don’t usually recommend them for recreational reading.  Galileo’s Starry Messenger (Siderius Nuncius) is an exciting story to read.  Galileo tells how his “confusion was transformed to amazement” as he figured out what he was seeing: “Now we have not just once planet rotating around another while both run through a great orbit around our Sun; our own eyes show us the four stars which wander around Jupiter as does the Moon around the Earth, while all together trace out a grand revolution about the Sun in the space of twelve years.” 

Jupiter has been visited by robot explorers such as Pioneer, Voyager, Ulysses, Galileo, Cassini, and New Horizons.  Juno is on its way and will arrive at Jupiter on July 4 this summer.  But you can visit Jupiter any spring night in the Driftless Area and see it with your own eyes as Galileo did.  Kickapoo Valley Reserve astronomy educators will have a telescope set up on March 18 as part of the Equinox Stargaze.  Look for Jupiter just above the waxing gibbous Moon on March 21.  On the evenings of March 7 and 14, you can watch the shadows of Europa and Io crossing the cloud tops of Jupiter.  It gives us a chance to imagine the volcanoes erupting on Io and to ponder the strange creatures that might be dwelling in the seas of Europa. 

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.

Late-winter days in Driftless Wisconsin

February 25th, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

“Kitty!,” my two-year-old grandson declares looking out the window.  The excitement rises in his voice.  Closer inspection by my wife reveals a squirrel bounding through the snow, perhaps lured out of its nest by the gathering warmth and light of late winter.

Unlike groundhogs, squirrels are no prognosticators of spring; but a sunny day will find them scampering about looking for food or enjoying whatever squirrels enjoy on spring-like winter days.

Warm, late-winter days bring hope of spring’s arrival. Meltwater trickles down from Driftless Wisconsin’s steep slopes and heads for the river; a sign of winter’s impermanence. Barren patches of hillside appear, pulling back the blanket of snow to reveal a still slumbering land.

Not for long. The brittle ground cover of dead leaves from last fall, which rattled with every step three months ago, has marinated into a soft mulch from which wild flowers will soon sprout.

In Driftless Wisconsin, seasons defer to the land. Winter hides from spring in the shadowed recesses of deep valleys.  Spring pushes back winter on sunbaked ridge tops. Seasons play tricks on this uneven playing field, as if each valley and ridge top was a world and a season onto itself.

We live in the trough of a Driftless Wisconsin coulee; a topographical tributary of the Mississippi River Valley. Our house nestles into the south slope, giving us an eagle’s-eye panorama of the opposing slope, still covered in snow. During the winter, sunlight does not find our windows until late morning.

DSC01502As spring approaches, our “first light” comes earlier.  Like opening the blinds on a sunlit day, the sun peeks over the ridge top around 9 am and washes our home with warmth and optimism. 

People emerge from their winter slumber to enjoy a late-winter reprieve from the cold. The trail parking lot fills with hikers. The street busies with walkers. The post office lobby buzzes with sunny conversation.

Late winter presents a fashion dilemma. Do I wear my ear-warming Wisconsin Badger stocking cap or my head-cooling Field of Dreams baseball cap?  Do I don my winter coat or my spring vest? Do I accessorize with ice cleats or snowshoes? 

On our daily walk in the park, a friend in the parking lot suggests a viable alternative.  “Hip boots” she offers with a smile.

True enough. Low spots along the trail serve up a seasonal snow cone of slush layered on water. Yet the sun-drenched day invites me to unzip my vest, making it all worthwhile. Time for squirrels – masquerading as kittens – and people to emerge from their winter nests and celebrate spring a little early. In Driftless Wisconsin.

Step Into the Past in Tug Hollow

February 15th, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

Editor’s Note: Guest blogger and author Nancy Schroeder writes about her family’s history in the Driftless area, which she made into a book.

Step Into the Past in Tug Hollow, by Nancy Schroeder

Tug Hollow.  A strange name?  It was not at all peculiar to the immigrants who brought their families and possessions in ox-drawn wagons to this part of Driftless Wisconsin in the last half of the 19th century.  In their view, it was straight to the point.

It was difficult pulling their wagons over the steep hills near the hollow, or valley, that attracted them, and they broke a lot of tugs.  The tug, or tug pole, was fastened to the bottom of the yoke that rested on the necks of the oxen.  Depending on its length, the tug had a hook or a chain at the other end for hauling.

The soil was rich, woods and water were plentiful, and the people were ready to settle down to farming in America after their long journey from Europe, across the Atlantic, and finally to Wisconsin.  They had to shelter their families and livestock, clear the land, and establish crops.

By late October 1867, the new community was ready to open a school, and 22 pupils enrolled.  The demand for education grew quickly, and by 1870 a new building was needed to accommodate an enrollment of 49 pupils ranging in age from 4 to 18.  The third and last schoolhouse was built in 1897; Tug Hollow children were educated in it until 1964.

Four generations of our family walked down the road from our 80-acre farm to the Tug Hollow School.  My siblings and I were the third generation, and our mother had been one of the teachers.

In 1970, Amish men bought the schoolhouse, took it apart, and reassembled it in their own community nearby.  On our old farm, the house and barn built in 1875 still stand, in use and surrounded by such Driftless Area features as a creek, a cave, ancient soil, prolific woods and other natural vegetation, valleys, springs, forested hills, Indian Ridge, and rock formations in the Mill Bluff Park area.

The community is still known as Tug Hollow.  Lying within Monroe County, it honors the boundaries of the former Tug Hollow School District.

 

Beating cabin fever in Driftless Wisconsin

February 2nd, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

Well, it’s February and cabin fever has overtaken the household. Our dog Fargo stares out the window hoping for a squirrel to appear just to break the boredom.  I stare at the weather radar to see how much snow we’re expecting. Too much, but at least our snow shoes will be put to good use. Until then, the fever is raging and we may need to seek a homespun remedy.

Driftless Wisconsin to the rescue.  I have used this space to tell you about the wonderful outdoor adventures available in Driftless Wisconsin. Like parks, which have incredible views of the rivers that seem even more expansive during the winter. Like winter sports such as cross-country skiing and ice fishing that turn winter into a vacation.  And yes, snowshoeing.  They’re calling for six inches of snow and those snowshoes will come in handy breaking new trails through virgin snow.

But if you’re the indoor type – and you can count me among ‘em when the temperature drops below wind-chill-advisory levels – we have plenty of ways to beat the fever. Arts and culture for instance.

VIVAYou can begin at the VIVA Gallery in Viroqua and take in the marvelous artwork on display.  VIVA is an artist cooperative featuring some very talented regional artists; including painters, potters, weavers, sculptors, jewelers, and much more.  Some of those wonderful Driftless warm-weather landscapes are on display.  You can pick up a painting and bring spring home early. Or find a piece of jewelry for your Valentine’s Day mate.

If it’s performance art you’re after, the Temple Theatre in Viroqua has two events coming in March.  Cloud Cult, a local band from Viroqua that takes the performing arts to a new level, will take the stage on March 5th. The band will perform two sets – one acoustic and one electric – from their new album and film entitled, “The Seeker.”  And on March 12, “Ole and Lena’s 50th Wedding Anniversary and Vow Renewal” will bring laughter to the stage.  “Find out in this comedy about love, marriage, and growing old together.”  All of this in a theater restored to its original 1920’s ‘Classical Revival’ splendor.

If you are more interested in participation than observation, then the Driftless Folk School has a class for you. Also located in Viroqua, the school is “a regional center for the preservation, promotion and training of traditional crafts.”  Checkout their website for classes in Blacksmithing, craft, cuisine, farming & gardening, homesteading, and nature building.

And if sitting around the pool reading a good book is in your sights – and if the Gulf of Mexico is not in your budget – then come to Prairie du Chien. An indoor water park, great restaurants, and fabulous shopping will keep you entertained without having to put on snowshoes.

Whether it’s snow or the cold that has you homebound with the fever, Driftless Wisconsin has the cure.  Be sure to make a reservation, plan for a great meal, and get some ideas for shopping. Then come on over to Driftless Wisconsin and beat the fever.

Driftless Dark Skies: Becoming a Stargazer

February 1st, 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 11th, 2016 by Meg Buchner

Eagles seen from the Great River Road outside of Ferryville.

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.

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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 5th, 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 31st, 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 2nd, 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 1st, 2015 by John Heasley

Wash: That sounds like something out of science fiction.

Zoë:  You live in a spaceship, dear.

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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 heavens-above.com.  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 12th, 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 4th, 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 9th, 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 1st, 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.

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