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Exploring Driftless Wisconsin’s History and Heritage

July 31st, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driftless Area Dark Skies: Pluto

July 10th, 2015 by John Heasley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making music in Driftless Wisconsin

July 2nd, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

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

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

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

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

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Mankwe Ndosi

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

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

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

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

Driftless Wisconsin as seen from the Mississippi River

June 12th, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

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

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

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

Stoddard

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

De Soto

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

Ferryville

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

Lynxville

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

Prairie du Chien

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

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

Driftless Dark Skies: Venus at Twilight

June 1st, 2015 by John Heasley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Velkommen til Syttende Mai in Westby

May 13th, 2015 by Meg Buchner

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

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

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

The Big Syttende Mai Parade begins Sunday at 1:30

The Big Syttende Mai Parade begins Sunday at 1:30

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

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

Friday

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

Saturday

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

Sunday

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

The complete list of events with details, locations and times can be found at: westbysyttendemai.com. You can also follow them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/WestbySyttendeMai.

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer Stargazing

May 10th, 2015 by John Heasley

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

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

A telescope. Someone in every town

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

In Littleton it may as well be me.”

Robert Frost “The Star-Splitter”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisconsin historical attractions open

May 1st, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

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

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

Explore Wisconsin historical attractions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make A Splash at Bear Foot Bay Indoor Water Park

April 18th, 2015 by Corey A. Edwards

Bear Foot Bay Indoor Water ParkOld man winter is on his way out and, in his wake, comes thoughts of warm-weather pastimes – Bear Foot Bay Indoor Water Park in Prairie du Chien offers wet, wild, and affordable family fun and relaxation in Wisconsin’s Driftless region.

As the weather heats us up and out of the winter grays and into those warm and welcoming spring and summer greens, our minds drift towards plans for our well-deserved and rejuvenating getaways and vacations. Wisconsin’s Driftless region offers a number of great things to see and do during your off time: hiking, fishing, shopping, site-seeing, and – of course! – getting soaked at Bear Foot Bay Indoor Water Park.

Wisconsin is known for its water parks – we were the first state in the US to have an indoor water park, after all, and have been known to refer to our great state as the water park capital of the world. While there could be a touch of marketing hyperbole in that, Wisconsin boasts some of the largest and most elaborate indoor (and outdoor) water parks in North America and indoor water parks are some of the most popular vacation destinations in the US.

After a long winter, a water park can be the perfect antidote for cabin fever – and a great way to cool off during those long, hot summer days! Bear Foot Bay Indoor Water Park is all that, offering a number of great attractions, including a 25 foot high body slide, a waterfall spa, an activity pool with water basketball, and tons more.

Bear Foot Bay Water Park also offers a number of safe and entertaining attractions for the kiddies, including a zero depth entry wading pool, and attractions designed with just them in mind: a grizzly bear slide, pool with geysers, spraying fish, bee hives, mushrooms, and other fanciful water activities.

Bear Foot Bay Indoor Waterpark

1801 Cabela’s Lane
Prairie du Chien, WI

Open 7am to 11pm, daily
Be sure to visit www.bearfootbay.com for more information.

Photographing Scenery in Driftless Wisconsin

April 6th, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

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

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

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

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

Favorite subjects while photographing scenery in Driftless Wisconsin

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

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

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

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

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

Driftless Dark Skies: Time Travel with the Winter Hexagon

April 1st, 2015 by John Heasley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Round Barns of Vernon County

March 21st, 2015 by Corey A. Edwards

Round Barns of Vernon County

Tour the Round Barns of Vernon County

Did you know that the Round Barns of Vernon County, Wisconsin are the highest concentration of round barns in the world? While there were only 17 left at last count, not that long ago the number was nearly double that.

Of course, some of the round barns of Vernon County are of newer construction but most of the round barns here were constructed between 1890 and 1930. Used primarily as dairy barns, round barns didn’t appear here until dairy farming did.

Indiana may call itself the “round barn capital of the world” but they did so before anyone realized that Wisconsin actually has more round barns than any other state, Indiana included. Wisconsin could have cried foul over the situation but decided to let Indiana have the motto, seeing as how it was an honest mistake and they’d already spent so much money getting it emblazoned on things. That’s just how we roll in Wisconsin.

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Driftless Dark Skies: Equinox on Frank’s Hill

March 14th, 2015 by John Heasley

Back in the day, people were closer to the sky. Distances were not yet being measured in astronomical units or light years or parsecs. People had every reason to believe that they could get closer to the stars by climbing a mound or temple or ziggurat. 

In these days, we still build our observatories high in the mountains of Arizona, Hawaii, Chile, and South Africa. They are no closer to the stars, but they are above much of the atmosphere that scatters and distorts the starlight. I remember spending a few nights on one such mountaintop, Kitt Peak west of Tucson, and thinking how much like a monastery it was with astronomers quietly contemplating the heavens. Even better than a mountaintop is to put our telescopes outside our atmosphere as we’ve done with the Hubble Space Telescope.

 A spectacular high place here in the Driftless Area is Frank’s Hill just a few miles northwest of Muscoda. It gives a dramatic view of the Lower Wisconsin River Valley. Along the top of the ridge are several effigy mounds constructed a millenium ago. They include one identified as Corn Woman as well as a water serpent, a beaver, a bison, and a coyote. On the ridge just to the west are a series of conical mounds. 

The public is invited to gather on the hill to celebrate the 2015 Vernal Equinox on March 20.  This year, the equinox coincides with a New Moon, so we should have a great view of the Milky Way as the sky darkens, Three planets will also be visible: Mars low in the west, Venus a little higher and much brighter in the west, and Jupiter high in the south. On March 21, look for Mars just one degree (the width of your little finger) to the right of a smiling crescent moon. Mars and the moon will set just one hour after the sun. On the following night, watch for Venus just two fingers to the right of a waxing crescent moon. Venus and the moon will set two hours after the sun. Frank’s Hill, or any other ridgetop, provides the perfect spot to enjoy these pairings. 

From 1998 to his death in 2013, Frank Shadewald was the owner and keeper of the mounds. What I admired most about Frank is how he welcomed people of so many different traditions to the ridgetop to enjoy the sight of the valley below and the sky above. Here we can experience not only the deep time of the mound builders, but we also rediscover our home in the cosmos. 

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, see Driftless Stargaziing LLC on Facebook, Iowa County Astronomers Facebook group, and  Iowa County Astronomers website. 

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

 

Dreaming of summer activities in Driftless Wisconsin

February 28th, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

It’s usually February when I start dreaming about summer. Maybe it’s the noticeably longer days that prompt me to look out the window expecting to see leaves unfolding on the trees. Or maybe, having just fallen on the ice last week and landed on my head, I’m just a little confused.

Fortunately, with so many things to see and do just a click away on our Driftless Wisconsin website, we don’t need to be dreaming; we can start planning for summer activities in Driftless Wisconsin. Ask for a Driftless Wisconsin Map to plot your course through the region.  Because hey, spring is almost here!  And summer is never too far behind.

Summer activities in Driftless Wisconsin

Do you like fishing? Three major rivers and their tributaries in Driftless Wisconsin lay claim to some of the best trout fishing and game fishing in the world. The region is sewn together by a myriad of small streams offering up brown and brook trout to fly fishers amid stunning scenery. Ask Mat at Driftless Angler for a guided day trip to that little-known hotspot for trout.  And the Mississippi River and its backwaters provide perfect habitat for smallmouth bass, white bass, walleye, catfish, northern pike, and pan fish.

summer activities in Driftless WisconsinDo you like boating?  The Mississippi River presents boaters with wide-open waterways for cruising, water skiing, or camping on islands.  Drop anchor, pull out that fishing rod, and watch the tugboats rumble by.  Meanwhile, the Kickapoo and Wisconsin Rivers provide canoeists and kayakers unforgettable days on the river, with the serenity broken only by the stroke of your paddle.

Do you enjoy exploring history?  Driftless Wisconsin presents an intersection of history, where the story of Native Americans, European explorers and traders, the American military, riverboat gamblers, frontiersmen, and immigrants give us a cross section of our past.  Visit Norskedalen, near Coon Valley, that preserves the heritage of 19th century Scandinavian immigration and settlement. See the Villa Louis, in Prairie du Chien, an authentically restored Victorian mansion where the Dousman family made their fortune in trading and real estate.

Do you revel in local food and culture?  Farmers Markets will be opening in May, offering fresh local foods and crafts.  The Farmers Market in Viroqua is one of the finest and largest around, with over 50 vendors on display. Explore the Amish culture, which is well-established in Driftless Wisconsin. The Amish enjoy a simple life that reminds us of our own simpler times.  Take home some Amish crafts to keep the memory fresh.  A number of artists also make Driftless Wisconsin their home. Inspired by the topography, they display their creations in studios, stores, and the annual Driftless Area Art Festival in September.

To complete your planning, I suspect you’ll be looking for a place to stay and eat.  Check out our lodging and dining pages. With the Driftless topography as a backdrop, our inns provide cozy comforts for the weary traveler.  And our eateries offer hospitality second to none.

So the thermometer shows it’s still cold outside. Warm your hearts with a little warm-weather dreaming.  And planning.

Driftless Winter Sports

February 21st, 2015 by Corey A. Edwards

Driftless Winter Sports - snowshoeing and cross country skiingWinter time in the Driftless Wisconsin region means outdoor activities. Once the snow flies, a Driftless winter is filled with skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling opportunities.

Some places just about plumb shut down once that heavy, white blanket of snow hits – but not in Wisconsin’s Driftless region! We love the outdoors, no matter the season, and each season brings with it its own special activities. What follows is a short list of just some of the activities and the places you can experience the great outdoors of a Driftless winter.

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Wisconsin winter scenery and eagle watching in the Driftless region

January 31st, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

Looking out my window at the Wisconsin winter scenery, the snow has stopped and the squirrels are celebrating.  One is descending a tree limb, snow flying in his wake like a snowboarder on a rail.  Our new puppy, Fargo, having met snow for the first time, has his nose buried in a snow bank, prospecting for sticks and other hidden treasures.

Fresh snow adds depth to the Driftless Wisconsin landscape.  I’m not talking about white stuff up to your ankles. I’m talking contrast.  Suddenly that deer hiding in the woods pops out, as if painted there on white canvas.

Reminds me of the days of my youth when televisions still had a contrast button.  You could turn the knob and sharpen the image of the Lone Ranger chasing bad guys on his white horse every Saturday morning.

No adjustment needed for winter in Driftless Wisconsin.  The contrast is just fine, thank you.

Wisconsin Winter Scenery along the Mississippi RiverUnlike the flatlands where winter landscapes stretch to the horizon, Driftless Wisconsin offers another dimension. Towering bluffs, wooded hillsides, and rolling farm fields, draped in white linen, rise up and insist you take notice.

My Favorite Wisconsin Winter Scenery

My favorite winter scenes are on the river roads; highway 35 along the Mississippi and highway 131 following the Kickapoo. The rivers look deceptively calm this time of year, covered with ice and broken by occasional stretches of open water. River bluffs rise from either bank, offering overlooks of the river to visitors and eagles alike.

We can imagine the “bird’s eye” view of the eagle soaring over these magnificent landscapes. Or we can simply watch the eagles instead.  Eagles, absent of summer’s foliage, are also more visible this time of year.  They can be seen perched along the river near open water, waiting for their next meal.

Events Celebrating the Eagles Place in Wisconsin Winter Scenery

Two upcoming events celebrate the eagle’s prominent place in Driftless Wisconsin.  Prairie du Chien will observe its annual Bald Eagle Appreciation Days on February 27 – 28.  You’ll be able to see six raptors from the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center; impressive from a distance, even more so up close and personal. See a life-size eagle’s nest and take a look for eagles outside through one of the spotting scopes.

Ferryville, situated on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, will celebrate Bald Eagle Day on March 7.  The annual event will feature a live eagle program and plenty of activities for the kids. Lois the Owl will also be present, supervising the always popular hooting contest. And Chloris Lowe of the Ho-Chunk Nation will talk about the importance of the eagle to Native American culture.

Of course there are birds of all kinds visible during the winter in Driftless Wisconsin.  The Kickapoo Valley Reserve Bird Club will welcome all to the Reserve’s Visitor Center on February 14 for the Great Backyard Bird Count. Club members will explain the world-wide event, help count birds at the feeder, and assist with identification of birds observed through binoculars and spotting scopes.

With so many things to see and do during the winter in Driftless Wisconsin, you’ll hate to see spring arrive.  Well, maybe not, but it makes the wait more enjoyable.

Soldiers Grove Wisconsin – America’s First Solar Village

January 17th, 2015 by Corey A. Edwards

Soldiers Grove - America's First Solar VillageSoldiers Grove, on the banks of the Kickapoo River in Wisconsin’s Driftless Region, is known for lots of things – awesome outdoor adventures like hiking, camping, fishing, and canoeing the Kickapoo River; fun festivities, like the annual Driftless Area Art Festival; and much more – but did you know it’s also America’s first Solar Village?

Originally settled in the 1850’s and known as Pine Grove, due to the profuse stands of white pine that dominated the land, Soldiers Grove was renamed in 1867 as a tribute to those who camped in the area during the Black Hawk War of the 1830’s – but not only that.

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New Experiences in Driftless Wisconsin

December 31st, 2014 by Eric Frydenlund

Our new golden retriever, Fargo, has a tail-wagging enthusiasm for all things new.  Which for a 12-week-old puppy, amounts to just about anything appearing before his nose.   This includes Christmas tree ornaments, house plants, shoe laces – especially those attached to moving feet – fallen leaves, sticks, and stairways.

Going outdoors presents boundless possibilities, requiring Fargo to navigate a flight of stairs down to our front door; which he usually takes two steps at a time, complete with a belly flop at the bottom. Undaunted, he then leaps outside like a jailbird on parole.

We should all have such passion for life.  Given the opportunity to shed our daily routines, we just might find a new experience we can take two steps at a time.  Driftless Wisconsin offers us such opportunities.

Have you ever toured an ice cave?  On alternate Saturdays from January 31 to March 7, experienced guides will take you on such a journey at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge.  On the afternoon hike you will see “rarely visited” ice caves and frozen waterfalls.  Along the way, you might learn about winter wildlife, the ecology of the Kickapoo Valley, or the fascinating history behind the formation of the Reserve.  You can experience the hike on snow shoes, a great way to navigate the Driftless Wisconsin landscape during the winter.

Have you ever watched a ski jump?  I say watch, since you are not required to abandon your good senses and take the leap yourself.  The 92nd Annual Snowflake Ski Jumping Tournament will be held outside Westby on January 30 – 31, attracting top talent from around the world.  Growing up in Norwegian household with a father who jumped as a young man, I attended many Snowflake Tournaments as a boy.  I watched in awe as highly trained athletes took their “leap of faith” into the abyss of beautiful Timber Coulee.

Ever go fishing through a hole in the ice?  One of the area’s most popular winter activities might be a new experience for you.  On February 7 – 8, the Annual Fisheree on the backwaters of the Mississippi River north of Prairie du Chien will give you the chance to test your ice-fishing skills or try something new.  Mostly, it’s an excuse to get together with friends and tell fishing jokes that can be seen riding your breath into the crisp February air.

Check our outdoor activities and event calendar, and you will find experiences that will slay the winter doldrums. Whether a new experience or an old habit, Driftless Wisconsin offers you the chance to see it for the first time amid this stunning landscape.  Like Fargo, you’ll find a new enthusiasm for everything in front of your nose.

Carp Fest and the Droppin’ of the Carp!

December 20th, 2014 by Corey A. Edwards

Prairie du Chien's Carp Fest and the Droppin' of the Carp 2015Hard as it may be to believe, 2014 is all but gone – which, here in the Driftless Region, can mean only one thing: Carp Fest and the Droppin’ of the Carp!

We all know about the big crystal ball that drops in New York’s Times Square but, in Wisconsin’s Prairie du Chien, it’s the Droppin’ of the Carp and Carp Fest that folks wait for to mark the end of their year.

A carp? They drop a carp?

Yep: starting at 11:59 on New Year’s Eve, a whole, frozen, gussied-up, 20 to 30 pound carp named “Lucky” is slowly lowered by crane onto its throne for Prairie du Chien’s Droppin’ of the Carp countdown.

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Winter Festival & Activities at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve

December 12th, 2014 by Meg Buchner

Crawling through the ice out of a smaller cave.

The Holiday season is rapidly approaching and it is a busy, busy, busy time of year for many people. After you’ve enjoyed the annual New Year’s Dropping of the Carp in Prairie du Chien and welcomed in 2015, make a resolution to explore something new and enjoy winter at the same time.

A wonderful way to delve into winter in the Driftless area is to attend the Winter Festival at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. In 2015 the festival will be on Saturday, January 10th. The event is fun for people of all ages and many of the activities are free. The no-cost activities typically include horse-drawn bobsled rides, ice skating, sledding, skiing, archery, snow sculpture, ice cave hikes, chain saw carving, animal presentations, face painting and a sled dog race.  The La Farge Lions Club hosts an annual chili and bread contest for the public. An silent auction of goods and services produced in the Kickapoo Valley is held, and the proceeds benefit the KVR Education Program.

"Resting" in the snow near the covered bridge while snowshoeing.

“Resting” in the snow near the covered bridge while snowshoeing.

Last year our family tried snowshoeing for the first time. A KVR volunteer helped us strap them on and gave us basic instruction on how to walk in them. Having been walking moderately successfully for over 30 years, I assured my children I would be a pro at this. All three of them enjoyed seeing me step on my own snowshoes and fall into a snow bank near the covered bridge. However, once you get the hang of it, snowshoes are a delightful way to explore the outdoors. Our amazing KVR volunteer was not only an expert guide, but shared his wonder at the nature around us. Before we even set off, he had us close our eyes, be still, and listen. I typically think of the winter landscape as being silent and slumbering. However, in just those few moments my 7-year-old was able to identify three different birdcalls. It heightened the sense that nature is still thriving around us, we just have to look a little harder in winter.

Crawling out of a smaller ice cave.

Crawling out of a smaller ice cave.

Next we took a guided hike and visited the ice caves (not on snowshoes!) We were warned that the hiking could be difficult, steep, slippery (you are going up a bluff after all), but it was worth the challenge. A winding path took us through the woods to a series of ice caves. Simply walking in the woods was majestic. The sun shone brightly through the trees creating prisms on the snow. We walked on a path that twisted and turned and seemed to be going nowhere when suddenly an ice cave would  appear carved into the side of the bluff. Some were so small that you had to crawl through icicles to enter, being careful not to disturb the delicate structures. The last cave was large enough for dozens of people to stand upright and walk around in. As we gazed through a massive, bluish sheet of ice, my older son commented that it felt prehistoric and he expected to see cave paintings on the walls behind him. The guide confirmed that these caves very well could have been dwellings or shelter for ancient people.

insidecave

Inside a large ice cave.

You can experience your own adventure all winter at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. The KVR maintains approximately ten miles of groomed cross-country ski trails, for both classic and skate skiing. A segment of Wisconsin’s self-funded snowmobile trail system winds its way through the Reserve.  A local snowmobile club grooms and maintains the trail from December 15 through March 31, snow cover permitting.  Whatever you decide to do, you will enjoy winter like never before!

Driftless Wisconsin winter landscapes

December 1st, 2014 by Eric Frydenlund

Winter arrived early this year.  Snow boots, shovels, rock salt, and other trappings of winter have already made their way out of storage. I found my ice cleats in the back of the closet so could walk down to get the newspaper without ending up on my backside. The Driftless Wisconsin landscape tends to puts a slant on anything you do during the winter.

But the winter backdrop makes up for the cold and inconvenience.  Against this white canvas, every landscape takes on a new look.bald eagle winter 2008b

I live in a coulee of the Mississippi Valley, a smaller valley extending from the larger.  During the wet spring, the ditch in the middle of our ravine feeds the Mississippi with its contribution of water run-off from the top of the bluff.  In the winter, the ditch sits dry, a mere wrinkle separating the steep hillsides to either side.

During winter, the hillside come alive.  Looking out my window, a lone buck walks a trail about half way up the hill, his nose to the wind in search of a mate during this annual ritual.  Otherwise hidden during the three seasons of foliage, his sleek body moves in contrast to the freshly fallen snow.

My eight-year-old grandson may have spotted this buck earlier in the season while deer hunting with grandpa.  Facing opposite directions in our deer stand, he whispered, “Grandpa, I see a deer. He’s a ten pointer!”  By the time I slowly turned around to look, this ten pointer had morphed into a two point spike buck.  But the excitement never lessened. He still claims we saw two different deer – one ten pointer and one spike buck – and who am I to argue with an eight-year-old with eyesight eight times better than mine.

Each morning when I wake I’m treated to high-wire acrobatics outside our window. Two squirrels race across leafless tree branches suspended thirty feet above the dry wash.  Like circus daredevils, they work without a net.  Watching them scamper across branches and jump to adjacent trees, I’m reminded of a Cirque du Soleil performance I saw a couple of years ago, with acrobats and gymnasts performing feats that seemed to defy gravity.

My wife and one-year-old grandson saw ten turkeys cross the ravine just the other day.  What one-year-olds lack in words, they make up with sheer amazement written in their eyes.  Turkeys can often be seen strutting across farm fields or navigating open stretches of woodlots during the winter. I did not see this rafter of turkeys, but the three-pronged tracks in the snow across our lawn told the story.

Another treasure of the winter landscape, eagles can be seen soaring hundreds of feet above the river valleys.  Eagles are year-round residents of Driftless Wisconsin, but they congregate around open water during the winter and can be more easily seen perched in barren trees.  Pick an overlook of either the Mississippi or Kickapoo River valleys, and spend a few minutes watching one of nature’s most graceful creatures.

We are lucky to have such inspirational landscapes and wildlife to view the year round in Driftless Wisconsin; especially in winter when short days and cold weather get you to thinking about spring.  Then you see an eagle silhouetted against a blue sky or a deer bounding across an open field, and you realize we don’t have it so bad.

 

You don’t have to live in Driftless Wisconsin to experience an inspirational winter moment.  Send for a Driftless Wisconsin Map to find your way here.  Plenty of time left to find that perfect photo of a Driftless Wisconsin winter landscape.

 

30th Annual Norskedalen Old-Fashioned Christmas

November 17th, 2014 by Corey A. Edwards

Norskedalen Old-Fashioned Christmas 2014Looking for a fun, traditional way to celebrate the holidays? The 30th Annual Norskedalen Old-Fashioned Christmas is the prefect escape for family fun and shopping!

It’s hard to remember how much more slowly time once moved, allowing us to not just experience but savor those special times and seasons, such as Christmas, with friends and family. Now you can relive a little bit of those slower times at the 30th Annual Norskedalen Old-Fashioned Christmas in the Driftless, Wisconsin region.

Tour the quaintly decorated grounds of the 1860’s Bekkum Homestead in a horse-drawn wagon to the sound of area musicians sharing Christmas carols and other traditional, seasonal music. Tour the buildings of the homestead to see how Christmas was celebrated around the turn of the 20th century.

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November Quiet Reveals Driftless Beauty

November 10th, 2014 by Meg Buchner

NovSunset2
The Mississippi River is more visible when hiking the bluffs.

Without leaves, the Mississippi River can be clearly seen when hiking the bluffs.

November in the Driftless region is often referred to as the beginning of the “off-season”. The lush greens of summer have given way to the vibrant hues of autumn. In November leaves are underfoot, the color palette is muted and naked tree branches are visible in stark contrast to the sky. Temperatures reach downward and the land starts to settle into winter hibernation. But bounty and beauty can still be found in the quiet colors of November.

People who enjoy hunting will attest to the rich wildlife of Driftless Wisconsin in November. Deer hunters (bow and gun) find the area a popular destination. The fall turkey hunt season is underway. Duck hunters find waterfowl on the Mississippi River or Wisconsin River. In fact, Mariah Haberman, one of the hosts of Discover Wisconsin, lists this area as one of the best places to hunt in her Travel Wisconsin blog. There are also many public hunting areas and natural areas available. The Wisconsin DNR web site lists state natural areas by county.

November view from the top of the bluff near Stoddard.

November view from the top of the bluff near Stoddard.

For non-hunting outdoor enthusiasts, November uncovers new adventures. Hiking trails are blanketed with fallen leaves. The newly revealed forest has a changed view. Animals are more visible when not hidden by foliage. On most hikes the bright colors of blue jays and cardinals are easily spotted. On top of the bluffs you can see for miles as the rivers and valleys spread out below you. The limestone rock faces are more pronounced and majestic. A popular place for hiking is the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, where the equestrian and mountain bike trails are open through November 15, as weather permits. Hiking is permitted on all trails, all year and the landscape is ever-changing.

For bird watchers, fall migration is still underway. The Great River Road that stretches along the Mississippi River is a wonderful place to view eagles and other birds. In fact, 40% of America’s ducks, geese, swans, and other waterfowl fly along the Mississippi River on their fall migrations. In Vernon County north of Stoddard, you’ll find an excellent overlook with a handicapped accessible observation area, interpretive signs, spotting scopes and a bench. In Crawford County, Ferryville is a designated “Bird City” with an observation deck and spotting scope immediately adjacent to HWY 35. You can also view a list of “birding hotspots” on Wisconsin’s Great River Road web site or download a Wisconsin Great River Road birding checklist.

November sunset in Ferryville, WI

November sunset in Ferryville, WI

As the November days grow shorter the sun sets earlier over the bluffs and west of the Mississippi River. As if to compensate for the stark colors of the landscape, the sunsets grow more brilliant. As the sun slips over the bluffs, the clouds light up with brilliant orange and fuchsia hues that are reflected in the darkening waters. Winter is coming and the landscape of the Driftless region will soon be painted with sparkling white. For now, the quiet beauty of November is something to be thankful for.

Driftless Wisconsin gives you perspective

October 31st, 2014 by Eric Frydenlund

I was in La Crosse for a meeting the other day when a driver ahead of me on 4th Street became upset with the pedestrian pace of the car in front of her. She darted right around him and darted left if front of him as quick as a fish swimming downstream.

The drivers around her, guardians of their own place in the swimming lane hierarchy, began honking their horns. In the chaos of lane shuffling and horns blaring, I ended up directly behind her. Thinking I was the source of her misery, she set about her revenge, driving as slow as a rubber necker passing a car wreck.

I tried passing on the right and she quickly changed lanes. I tried passing on the left and she beat me to the hole. Finally, tiring of this snail’s race, she allowed me to pass, whereupon she greeted me with the one-finger salute. That greeting we reserve for the special people in our lives.

I smiled. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders at her knowing the greeting was intended for the green Chevy ahead of her. Or perhaps for some other misery left behind her that day.

desoto 2For perspective, she might have glanced over at the Mississippi River bluffs. She lives in a land as deep as the blue sky. The topography follows our disposition. It has its ups and downs; but summit a ridge and everything becomes clearer.

Farmers, who generally wave from their tractor seats with all five fingers, have this perspective. My son-in-law, who farms up on the ridge, sets upon his chores with a sense of humor. You have to when you’re living depends on rain and the random movements of weather patterns. His good nature is as endless as a 16-hour day.

That’s not to say that the Driftless area inhabitants don’t know hardship as well as Flatlanders. The folks up on the ridge peer warily at the clouds during windstorms, while valley dwellers keep one eye on the creek in rainstorms. Yet my grandfather, who farmed near Westby and built a barn out of the remnants of a cyclone, would suggest that optimism is built from the loose ends of pessimism.

It is perhaps the rugged slopes of our resiliency that define us more than the topography. We are Driftless in our resolve.

Resolve takes the shape of patience, waiting in line at the post office for the lady at the window to find her checkbook buried in her purse amid Shopko coupons. Our fingers are preoccupied grasping packages addressed to loved ones who have moved from the Driftless, and our horns are muted, talking to the person next in line about the unpredictable nature of weather and grandchildren.

Resolve in the form of tenacity, as when the winds shred our barns and the rains fill our valleys. We pitch in and help. Or we commiserate, knowing that the random movements of funnel clouds and ten-inch rains could just as easily chosen our piece of the world.

So if sluggish cars and one-fingered drivers have you mumbling to yourself, or life takes a sudden turn down the slopes of adversity; look to the hills. That chiseled bluff and its cohorts up and down the valley, give rise to a sense of perspective.

Snowflake Ski and Golf Club features more than ski jumping

October 19th, 2014 by Greg Hoffmann

Snowflake Ski and Golf Club outside Westby is known much more for the former than the latter.

Each winter, ski jumpers from all over the globe gather for a competition that draws hundreds of spectators. The ski jump structure and hill tower over the golf course.

That doesn’t mean what you can’t have a great time playing golf on the nine-hole course that sits at the bottom of that hill.

golf001The course is a Par 30 layout with six Par 3s and three Par 4s. The headwaters of Timber Coulee stream, one of the best trout fishing waterways in the state, wind through the course and add a challenge. So do some well-placed trees and undulating greens.

Probably the most undulating of those greens is on the 165-yard, No. 6 hole. If you don’t knock your tee shot on to the back of the putting surface, you are likely to watch your ball trickle back down hill on the green, which has a slope that rivals the grade of the ski jump. The hole is the No. 1 handicap hole on the course.

On the 164-yard No. 3 hole, you have to drive the ball over the stream. The green has more subtle, but still tricky breaks on it.

Numbers 7 and 8, both par 4s, can be challenging depending on what direction the wind is blowing from. You can get some pretty good breezes coming off the hills. No. 7, listed at 237 yards can play longer if the wind comes from the north. Some trees on the right also add obstacles.

No. 8, listed at 250 yards plays much longer if there is a stiff breeze from the south — which there was the day my partner and I played it. The hole is the No. 2 handicap hole on the course.

On most days, the course is well groomed overall and the greens well maintained. There are exceptions when it gets a lot of rain. Right now, some major re-grading is being done to the main ski jump hill, but that doesn’t interfere with your golf.

The course clubhouse offers daily food specials and a variety of beverages to wet your whistle after a round. Make sure you check out the photos of the ski jump competition. It’s been going on for more than 90 years.

Greens fees are under $10. If you play on a day when the clubhouse is not open, you are asked to deposit your fee on the honor system.

That informality, the beauty of the surrounding hills — dominated by the big jump — and the natural layout of the course make a round at Snowflake a lot of fun.

……………………………………

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.

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