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Driftless Wisconsin: shaped by water

August 8, 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.

More Driftless for less dollars

June 2, 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 6, 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.

Getting ready for winter and the holidays in Driftless Wisconsin

November 4, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The change of seasons in Driftless Wisconsin

October 9, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photographing Scenery in Driftless Wisconsin

April 6, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

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

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

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

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

Favorite subjects while photographing scenery in Driftless Wisconsin

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

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

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

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

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

Dreaming of summer activities in Driftless Wisconsin

February 28, 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.

Soldiers Grove Wisconsin – America’s First Solar Village

January 17, 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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Driftless Wisconsin winter landscapes

December 1, 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.

 

It begins on a river

August 1, 2014 by Eric Frydenlund

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The story begins on a river.

Fall’s season-ending show

October 1, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin

7Out for our evening walk, our dog Riley seems intent on exploring the smells of fall: decaying leaves and animal scents along the trail.  I’m focused on the show. A patch of first color hangs above the canopy, lit up like a sunset. A fluorescent glaze coats the trees, the first hint of fall’s arrival. The show has begun.

Fall’s appeal stems from my earliest memories of hunting; following my father’s footsteps into the woods with anticipation hanging from every branch. Of course, his chance of seeing a deer were somewhat diminished by the noise-maker child he had in tow. We still heard the sounds of deer snorts in the distance, which added to the mystery of the show.

A Driftless Wisconsin fall is full of mystery.  You can explore this mystery from the heights and depths of the Driftless Wisconsin landscape.  If you are looking for an overview of the plot, try one of the overlooks at our state parks.  Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario offers a stunning vista of the Kickapoo River Valley, which sprawls westward from its perch above the river.  Or cross the Wisconsin River from Prairie du Chien and climb the hill leading to Wyalusing State Park and see the color-framed confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers.

If you’re looking to get into the story a little deeper, then take State Highway 27 through Cashton, Westby, Viroqua, and Seneca, which travels the ridge between the Kickapoo and Mississippi like a catwalk above the stage.  Then jump into either valley along one of the many County highways that meander down to the river through coulees bathed in fall color.

The Mississippi Valley offers great panoramas of sheer river bluffs and a big valley dressed up in its Sunday best.  And yes, with a big river to boot.  The Kickapoo Valley presents a more subtle presentation, with smaller hills and remote back roads that give you the sense of discovering paradise lost.

And if you’re looking for an in-depth study of fall color, take a walk.  Fall colors of every hue, from bright yellows to deep reds, will immerse you in a kaleidoscope of changing scenes.  Look down occasionally, so as not to trip over a tree root, but also to witness the culmination of the show; a curtain-dropping display of spent leaves at your feet.

So there you have it, a gallery of landscapes from every seat in the theater. Now it’s time to see it for yourself. Hurry though, the show has already begun.

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Driftless Wisconsin: not an ordinary place

August 1, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin

9The land makes difficult work for city planners and civil engineers.  Straight lines and level ground are in short supply. Trying to find a place to build a house or plot a road is rather like trying to set a beer can on the fender of a ‘59 Cadillac; there are no flat spots to rest your elbows.

River valleys make for the best place to plant a house without tipping over.  Outside of valleys, you’re on your own.  Roads snake across valley floors until they bump up against a bluff, where they either waltz up the slope or stop altogether for a lack of imagination.  Power lines scale the bluffs straight up, which make for sleepless nights for power line workers.

And what does this lack of ordinary do for visitors?  Well, you can imagine.

Imagine leaving your straight streets and six-lane freeways back home.  Imagine letting the land take you to never-before-seen vistas and never-before-experienced outdoor adventures. Imagine a freedom to explore places that just won’t fit anywhere else. Then you can imagine Driftless Wisconsin.

Once you have given up on straight lines, there’s no telling where the road will take you.  Every rise in the road and bend in the centerline holds a new surprise.  The road from Wilton to Wauzeka along the Kickapoo River takes you valley watching. You may have to stop to snap a photo or test a fly rod.  The road from Stoddard to Prairie du Chien along the Mississippi takes you river watching.  You will have to stop to watch a river barge “lock through” one of the Lock and Dams.

State parks are a good place to start for beginners.  Situated along rivers and around land forms, they offer an introduction to the Driftless area geology.  For the more adventuresome, hop on a bike or in that ’59 Cadillac and get lost.  Leave the map in the glove box.  There are back roads that ravel through places only imagined in a good book.  Eventually the road will take you back to civilization, where you can enjoy a relaxing dinner and peaceful sleep, before hitting the explorer’s trail again in the morning.

No, Driftless Wisconsin will not fit into a box or stick to a straight line.  But who wants ordinary?

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Spending time with a river

June 2, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin

Scott Teuber of WI River Outings knows something about the allure of rivers. Scott began paddling in mid 1990’s and has been hooked on it ever since, which led to starting his own canoe rental business in 2003.  Now that his operation is expanding onto the Kickapoo River, he arranged for a demonstration tour of the lower Kickapoo, putting us in the river above Gays Mills. The adventure was on.

 

We boarded the shuttle above the dam in Gays Mills and spent the time heading north getting to know our boat mates. Conversation was lively, full of anticipation of spending time with a river on a sunny day.

Arriving at the Kickapoo River Bridge on County Highway B around 4:30 pm – this short section would take about 90 minutes – Scott gave us instructions on river navigation.  The thing about rivers is that they do most of the navigating; just let the current do its work.  The meandering Kickapoo is somewhat directionally challenged, taking you east and west in equal portions to south, but eventually delivers you to your destination.

We paired off into partners and slipped our canoe gingerly into the current, like explorers into uncharted territory.  After fleeting near the bridge while the rest of the canoes put in, we headed downriver.

The upper Kickapoo is open for canoeing and served by several outfitters.  The lower Kickapoo River is currently being cleared of major debris, thanks to funding by a Community Development Block Grant, which will open it up for recreational use. This section of river has not been cleared yet, but contains no major obstacles that require portaging or extraordinary skills.

No matter.  A low hanging branch and an errant helmsman – that would be me – still managed to roll us over into the chest-high water for a late afternoon bath. It’s humbling to be outwitted by a river that has a better idea where it’s headed than you do. Upright and invigorated by our sudden adventure, we continued downriver; wetter, but soon bathed in warming sunlight.

The river obliges your every curiosity, taking you on a guided tour of attractions in the valley. Your perspective constantly changes.  Forested river bottoms with overhanging canopy suddenly open to pastureland with wide-angle panoramas. River bluffs loom large and then fade from view. Critters on the bank make brief cameo appearances and then return into hiding. Startled geese take flight and do a quick flyover before disappearing into a sun-drenched sky.

Amid laughter and muted conversation from canoes ahead and behind us, Riverfront Park in Gays Mills soon peeked around the next bend. After debarking, we spent some time celebrating with wine and cheese, retelling our adventure.   There’s much to tell.  The Kickapoo River takes you to new places and new experiences without ever leaving its banks.

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Picturing Driftless Wisconsin

May 9, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin

I did that yesterday; abandoned the car for a walk along the Mississippi River bank. The wind was light from the southwest, impacting the bank at an angle so that wave crests darted along the shore like fish exploring the shallows. While the waves chased my feet, the Iowa bluffs shot skyward from the opposite side of the rumpled sheet of water. 

 

I enjoy exploring those bluffs along the Mississippi and Kickapoo Rivers.  Generally speaking, the breathless walk up is rewarded by the breathtaking look down. The entire valley will simply not fit in a camera frame; you need to turn your head to catch where the river is coming from and going to. 

There are numerous places to enjoy this vantage.  Wildcat State Park near Ontario overlooks the meandering Kickapoo in Northern Driftless Wisconsin, while Wyalusing State Park oversees the Mississippi in the South.  County parks, waysides, and overlooks are scattered in between, where you can get out of the car and venture a look.  

For that walk along the river, consider the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge, a defunct dam project now converted into a nature preserve.  Or visit Readstown, Soldiers Grove, Gays Mills, or Wauzeka, some of the many tranquil communities tucked along the Kickapoo.  

My walk along the river was on St. Feriole Island in Prairie du Chien, a slice of land overflowing with frontier history. Equally compelling views of the Mississippi from water level can be captured along the Great River Road, as it winds north along the river through Ferryville, De Soto, and Genoa

While you’re indulging your senses, be sure to explore the many events happening in Driftless Wisconsin.  Gays Mills will hold its annual Folk Festival of Music on May 11 – 13.  The Folk Festival ventures across the musical spectrum from traditional Eastern European to bluegrass.  And it’s not just for sittin’ and listenin.’ Friday starts with a square dance and Saturday includes dancing and a fiddle bee. 

Westby is the stage for the Syttenda Mai on May 18 – 20, the annual celebration of Norwegian Constitution Day. This year’s event includes arts and crafts, a kiddie parade, a 5K walk/run, a bicycle tour ranging from 30K to 100K, and much more. 

On May 19, the Villa Louis on St. Feriole Island in Prairie du Chien will offer “a culinary tour of the late 19th century through the preparation and consumption of a Victorian breakfast – using the foods, utensils and technology of the time.”  A tour of the Victorian Estate will follow; reservations are required. 

Whether viewing or doing, there’s an experience in Driftless Wisconsin to meet every perspective.  Time to put down the camera and step into the scene. 

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Driftless – what’s in a name

February 29, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin

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Eagle Watching

January 31, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin

Certainly no glimpse compares in sheer grandeur to the sight of a bald eagle soaring over the river valley.  Sitting on a breeze like royalty on a throne, the bald eagle reigns supreme over its river kingdom.  

The overlook at Pikes Peak Park across from Prairie du Chien is one of my favorite spots for viewing eagles. Standing above the Mississippi River Valley, eagles can often be seen sailing on the wind overhead. 

Eagles are plentiful throughout the region.  Bald eagles can be seen cruising the skies over the Kickapoo River, shopping for their next meal.  They can also be seen along Highway 27, which dissects the two river valleys, sometimes feasting on fish entrails dumped in farmer’s fields by commercial fishermen.  

Two events coming in late February and early March help celebrate this rich heritage of eagle watching.  On February 25, Prairie du Chien observes Bald Eagle Appreciation Day, an event filled with activities that shed light on the life of an eagle. Programs include live eagle demonstrations, an American Eagle Documentary from the PBS Nature Series, live raptors, craft activities for children, puppet shows, with birding experts on hand all day. And oh yes, outdoor viewing through spotting scopes.  Downtown Prairie du Chien will also feature a walking eagle gallery.  

On March 3, Ferryville will celebrate Bald Eagle Day.  Ferryville sits on a wide expanse of the Mississippi River known as Lake Winneshiek, where the river unfolds below your feet from the Observation Deck in the downtown.  At the Village Hall, regional experts will present live eagle programs, a presentation by the US Fish and Wildlife, and a talk by Chloris Lowe of the Ho Chunk Nation. Be sure to meet Lois the owl, who will be supervising a hooting contest for all ages. And take in the Kids Crafts and a photo exhibit by local photographer Larry Knutson.  

I can’t imagine a better weekend spent than eyeing some eagles.  You may not possess their keen eyesight, but you’ll discover an appreciation for their place atop the world. 

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The Driftless Area Art Festival

August 31, 2011 by

Sometimes, though, you need more than a photo to tug at those memories.  The Driftless Area Art Festival, held in Soldiers Grove on September 17 and 18 of this year, offers you just such an opportunity.  Artists of the Driftless area are able to capture the character of the land in their artistry and render it in wood, metal, paint, glass, fabric, food, and song. 

It all begins with the setting.  Situated near the banks of the Kickapoo River, the Driftless Area Art Festival flows from the very landscape that inspires its artists.  Having begun on the Mississippi River in Ferryville in 2004 before moving to Soldiers Grove, the Art Festival and rivers have become constant companions.  

On the grounds you will find local foods and inspired music.  One of my favorite stops is Mary’s Berries, an Art Festival mainstay serving up strawberry desserts that take me back to my childhood days of stalking my mother’s kitchen. Then take your treats to the Main State and listen to those soothing strings and soaring lyrics that will lift your spirits.  

You will find people circulating in yellow shirts and big smiles; Art Festival volunteers who will greet you, answer your questions, and show you the hospitality that has become the lifeblood of the Driftless Area Art Festival.

And, oh yes, you will find artists. Stop and visit Kay Campbell, a potter and one of the original artists from Ferryville who is able to fashion a bowl or vase out of her affection for the land.  Chat with painter Anne Tedeschi, who captures the natural world in her spacious landscapes.  

We have a Deb Conlon oil painting in our cabin entitled “Mississippi Meditation” that brings the tranquility of the Mississippi backwaters into our living room.  And as I write this, a small wooden vase from woodworker Lawrence Gehl holds my pens.  

Each year, the Driftless Area Art Festival gathers 80 artists along the Kickapoo River, mainstays and new artists representing the very best the Driftless area has to offer.  Amid the setting, the ambiance, and the artistry, you will find a piece of the Driftless area begging to go home with you. 

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Canoe the Kickapoo River

July 22, 2011 by

We were there to inspect a project to clear the lower Kickapoo River of debris as part of a flood mitigation project.  The effort will also open the river to improved canoeing.  We launched just north of a recently cleared section.  

As much as I tried to focus on the work, the river kept drawing me elsewhere.  It wanders lazily between the bluffs of the Kickapoo Valley and lulls you into casual sightseeing – until an approaching deadfall sets you to paddling and you realize this river has some spunk.  

The river’s wayward path sent my GPS navigator into a state of confusion, first telling us that we’re approaching a waypoint, and then retreating.  Make up your mind.   

But the meandering route allows you to explore more of the valley, from giant sugar maples and black walnuts leaning over the water to open pastures that reveal the surrounding landscape. Rounding a bend, a flock of geese spotted us and danced across the water before taking flight. 

 The upper Kickapoo River is known for spectacular canoeing, wandering from Wilton past the peaks of Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario and through the forests of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve at La Farge.  The river’s abrupt turns offers the canoeist a new perspective of the valley at every bend.  Ontario and La Farge boast several canoe outfitters eager to make your experience on the river a memorable one. 

The lower Kickapoo River is more challenging and just as rewarding, as it snakes through numerous deadfalls.  The river visits the communities of Readstown, Soldiers Grove, Gays Mills, and Wauzeka on its way to join the Wisconsin River.  Wauzeka Canoe Rental serves the lower end of the river.  

For those of you with your own canoe or kayak, you’ll find boat landings, picnic areas, and campgrounds at most river towns.  So now it’s your turn to put in – to launch and let the river take you. 

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Cruising Driftless Wisconsin

June 25, 2011 by

My wife and I were invited by her sister and brother-in-law to tour the back roads of Vernon County north of Viroqua.   I was riding shotgun, which involves the strenuous duty of returning the waves of admiring spectators.  If there’s a better way to experience the back roads of Driftless Wisconsin, perhaps it comes from the saddle of a motorcycle.  It’s been 40 years since I straddled my Honda 360, but I found myself reaching for the handlebars. 

The open-air scenery flies by uninterrupted; unframed by car windows or your imagination.  The wind blows in your face and the fresh-cut hay finds your nostrils.  The road rises and turns with a landscape that unfurls from every ridge top.

The land east of Westby and Cashton is Amish Country (see my March 25 blog), where life slows to a pace set by one-horse buggies.  I left the navigating to my brother-in-law and was soon lost among hairpin corners and U-turned intersections. We left the modern world back at the highway and didn’t miss it a bit. 

We passed a doe and her two fawns drinking from a brook that feeds the Kickapoo River.  We craned our necks to pick them out amid the underbrush lining the stream.  Mother did not return our attention as she was busy keeping track of her spindle-legged youngsters.

We found ourselves swiveling our heads to admire the Amish backcountry; the pleated rows of Amish crops, the one-room school houses that center every settlement, the friendly waves of Amish farmers.

We stopped for dinner at the Blue Goose, a pizza and ice cream parlor located just the other side of nowhere.  Occupying a renovated barn, it suddenly appeared around a bend in the road like a country oasis.  Not to be confused with the color of the barn, the Blue Goose is named after the goose sculpture sitting in the yard.  The owners are friendly – she refers to herself as the “Blue Goose Lady” – and the pizza is superb.  A 12” pizza heaped high with cheese and fixings easily fed the four of us.

Fully fed, we showed great discipline in avoiding the ice cream counter.  Then we came to our senses and ordered a scoop of cookie dough on a waffle cone.  So much for discipline.

Then we climbed back into the Mustang and made our way back to Viroqua via the back streets of Westby, where we made acquaintance with Mr. “Nice Car.”  He’s a good judge of classic cars.  But nothing compares to the sights we saw on the back roads of Driftless Wisconsin. 

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Sights and sounds of Driftless Wisconsin

May 20, 2011 by

The full moon hung above the river bluffs like a stage light casting a soft glow on the river’s surface.  I expected dancers to enter stage right, but only the tugboats were moving, guiding their cargo-laden barges between the buoys with amazing precision.  

The irresistible charm of Driftless Wisconsin lies in the variety of landscapes seen from every possible angle, whether hiking up a bluff or paddling down a river. 

I hiked with my four-year-old grandson up the bluff to what he calls “the top of the world.” He followed close behind on the narrow horse trail, carrying a rifle-shaped stick and backpack of provisions – Goldfish crackers.  I’m not sure if he was big-game hunting or “fishing,” but he seemed prepared for either. 

The valley was aflame with an emerging green as buds and blossoms exploded with life.  We sat on a limestone rock sharing Goldfish crackers and watching over the valley from which sights and sounds rose like a fine smoke. 

From up there, anything is possible.  You can imagine boating down the Mississippi, casting for bass hidden in the weeds or cruising the backwaters looking for a spot to anchor for lunch.  You can imagine canoeing down the Kickapoo River taking in the scenic backdrop of the valley or stopping in one of the small towns nestled along its banks. 

Or you can imagine exploring the river valleys for places to hunker down for the night, much as the French and Indian explorers did hundreds of years ago.  These days you can camp along the river or take refuge in one of the many B&B’s, cabins, or motels tucked into your favorite Driftless nook. 

Better than imagine, you can do these things in Driftless Wisconsin.  If you need an excuse to begin your exploration, check out our events, attractions, and shopping experiences; then hop in the car and come. 

When you arrive, hike to “the top of the world” and see all this special place has to offer.  Be sure to bring your backpack of provisions for a long stay in Driftless Wisconsin. 

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Exploring the Driftless Wisconsin Map

February 22, 2011 by

After sharing the prize with her co-conspirator – her dog Rox, looking a little droopy-eared from indigestion – Reese greeted mom at the bathroom door.  Face, fingers, and pajamas plastered in Cheeto dust, Reese gave mom a grin like a prospector who had just struck the mother lode.  We should all be so successful in our adventures.

 

If you have a bent for discovery, Driftless Wisconsin has ridge tops to climb and mischief to find; just as rewarding as Reese’s venture and perhaps less precarious.  It all starts with the Driftless Wisconsin Map, hot off the press.

The map represents three organizations – the counties of Vernon and Crawford and the Kickapoo Valley Association – that have collaborated to bring you one of the most distinctive experiences in the Midwest.  Unfolding the map presents a three-part tour: the Mississippi River Valley along the western border, the Kickapoo Valley to the east, and the ridge country that joins the two watersheds.

The Great River Road offers the “grand tour” of the great river and all that describes her; the barges that ply the main channel, the backwaters that hold her secrets, and the towns that hold the history of human settlement.

Highway 131 explores the heart of the Kickapoo Valley and a more intimate view of the Driftless topography.  Both river and road wander aimlessly through the valley visiting every bend in the river and each small village on its banks.

Highway 27 explores the uplands between rivers, affording the traveler unparalleled vistas of the river valleys cascading to either side. The towns along the highway enjoy the blend of farm and commerce, where farmers come to town to buy a wrench or a cup of coffee.

You will find the map a great resource on your journey, with icons showing the way to orchards, parks, trails, natural areas, and many other places. Be sure to visit the businesses on the front and back that have generously brought you the map and have much to offer.

Go the Partners page to request a copy of the map from one of our parent organizations.  Use it to plan your trip and explore Driftless Wisconsin.  And like Reese, leave no corner unexplored.

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Eagle Watching in Driftless Wisconsin

February 15, 2011 by

The regal gathering has the feel of a formal affair, with the proud birds dressed in white-feathered headdresses and tails befitting royal heads of state.  The occasion for this stately dinner – a farmer has spread fish remains on his cornfield for spring planting – lacks a certain royal elegance, but let’s not quibble over details.  The sight of so many beautiful birds at one setting sends your spirits soaring.

Driftless Wisconsin, especially the Mississippi River corridor along its western border, is renowned for eagle watching.  During the summer the birds remain elusive, perched in trees high above the water peering with their telescopic eyes for the day’s meal.  Boaters, if they are quiet, can sometimes glimpse baby eaglets poking their heads above giant nests hidden in the backwaters.

Wintertime offers better viewing, with the bluffs stripped of concealing foliage and the eagles tending to congregate around open water in the otherwise ice-covered river.  I’ve been fortunate to see a half-dozen eagles holding court in a barren tree overlooking open water like so many ice fishermen peering into their fishing holes.  Dennis Kirschbaum, former DNR warden and now with Effigy Mounds National Monument, told me he’s seen hundreds of eagles gather during migration time in March, depending on weather conditions. 

To celebrate the Driftless area’s rich heritage of eagle habitat, two communities are planning their annual eagle watching events.  On February 26, Prairie du Chien will host Eagle Appreciation Day from 9 am to 3 pm at the Regional Tourism Center and adjacent AmericInn Lodge & Suites.  Activities will include Live Bald Eagle Programs throughout the day, an American Eagle Documentary from the PBS Nature Series, a Bald Eagles on the Refuge presentation, a puppet show for the kids, and a Raptor Resource Project presentation.  Outdoor viewing with spotting scopes and binoculars will be available along with a reproduction of a bald eagle nest.

Then on March 5, Ferryville will present Bald Eagle Watching Day at the Ferryville Community Center beginning at 10 am.  The event will feature a Live Eagle and Raptor Program at 11 am and 1 pm.  Additional programs include presentations by the US Fish & Wildlife Refuge and Cloris Lowe of the Oneida Tribe.  Photographer Larry Knutson will exhibit his award winning photo art and the De Soto Middle School will display their Eagle Art Project.  Outdoor observing will take place at the River Park Observation Deck overlooking Lake Winneshiek from downtown Ferryville.

Spend the rest of the weekend exploring the Great River Road along the Mississippi or one of the county roads that climb the ridge.  If you’re lucky, you might happen upon an eagle convention.  No need to dress up for the gathering; we’re all casual around here.

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