Archives

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer of Saturn

June 6, 2017 by John Heasley

There’s a little bit of showmanship in sharing stargazing. It helps to be mindful that other people might not be quite as wowed as you are by the sight of a faint fuzzy thing in the eyepiece of a telescope (even if it is the combined light of hundreds of billions of stars that has been traveling tens of millions of years before ending the journey on our retinas). So you select what you share with care and save the most awesome for last. This summer, that’s Saturn.

I love hearing the reactions of people when they see Saturn in a telescope: “wow”, “groovy”, “cool”, “boss”, “dope” or “sweet” depending on the generation. Some just curse reverentially while a few check the telescope to see if I snuck in a picture. Saturn is stunning surrounded by its moons and rings. This summer, those rings are at their widest when viewed from our planet. 

Saturn will be its closest to Earth the night of June 14-15. During this opposition, Earth is directly between the Sun and Saturn, so we get to say “Saturnian Syzygy” because all three are in a straight line. Even at its closest, Saturn is still almost a billion miles from Earth. The sunlight we see reflected off Saturn and its rings left 75 minutes before we see it.

Look for Saturn this month in the southeast after sunset, in the south around midnight, and in the southwest before sunrise. It will be the brightest object in its part of the sky except for Antares (to its right) which has an orange-red color and is not quite as bright as Saturn. The viewing gets better as we get further into June. On June 1st, Saturn rises in the southeast at 9:21pm, is highest in the south at 1:56am, and sets in the southwest at 6:35am. By June 30th, Saturn rises, transits, and sets two hours earlier.

Saturn is the slowest of the naked-eye planets. It takes almost 30 years to orbit the Sun and spends about 2 ½ years in each constellation as viewed from Earth. Saturn will be in Ophiuchus the Serpent-Bearer until November when it moves into Sagittarius the Archer. When you are stargazing in 2047, be sure to notice that Saturn has returned to Ophiuchus!

You can have a look at Saturn through a telescope at free public programs. Journey to Kickapoo Valley Reserve on June 8 for Spring Trails by Light of the Strawberry Moon (8-10 pm). Watch the Moon and Saturn rise together and catch a glimpse of Jupiter and its moons. Gather at the visitor center and hike down to Old 131 Trail. Starsplitters of Wyalusing State Park offer a Public Program on June 17 (8:30 pm) and a Star Party on June 24 (8:30 pm).

You won’t be able to see it, but the Cassini spacecraft is nearing the end of its mission. It has been exploring Saturn and its moons and rings since 2004 and is running low on fuel. For its finale, it will make multiple passes through the rings of Saturn to make its closest observations ever. On September 15, it will be deliberately plunged into the atmosphere of Saturn so that any surviving microbes do not contaminate the moons of Saturn where there may be life. Imagine it orbiting the ringed world and enjoy your summer of Saturn.

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: Summer Stargazing

May 5, 2017 by John Heasley

The warm nights ahead are a great time to get to explore our dark skies. There are plenty of opportunities this summer in the Driftless Area to have a look through a telescope. If you have been meaning to explore our starry skies, this is your summer. 

Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers dark skies and three astronomy programs this summer. You can hike the trails and stargaze by light of the Strawberry Moon on June 8 and by light of the Thunder Moon on July 8. Be wowed by the Perseid Meteors on the moonless night of August 12. Enjoy hiking or canoeing during the day and astronomy at night. 

Starsplitters of Wyalusing has public programs at Wyalusing State Park on May 27, June 17, July 15, August 12, September 16, and October 14. The evening begins with an indoor presentation in the Huser Astronomy Center and then goes outdoors to explore the sky with their fine collection of telescopes. They also offer “star parties” on June 24, July 22, and September 23 when you can join them for observing. 

Northwest Suburban Astronomers will be at Wildcat Mountain on July 22, 8-10pm. This friendly group escapes the light pollution of their homes outside Chicago to enjoy the dark skies of our Driftless Area. For over a week, they create an astronomy village in the group campground where they welcome the public for a night of memorable stargazing through their amazing telescopes. This year’s topic is the solar eclipse crossing the United States on August 21. 

Iowa County Astronomers have monthly meetings on May 26, June 23, July 21, August 25, September 22, and October 20. 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 donated by Mike Wolkomir. Everyone is always welcome. It’s an excellent time to try out different telescopes and ask questions. ICA will also be sharing a public program at Governor Dodge on July 1. 

Universe in the Park expands the Wisconsin Idea by making the boundaries of the university not just the boundaries of the state but the boundaries of the universe. UW-Madison astronomy students visit state parks to give talks, answer questions, and share telescope viewing. They will do programs at Governor Dodge on June 17, July 15, August 12, and September 23. 

The most spectacular astronomy event this summer happens during the day rather than at night.  Or rather, when day turns into night!  In just three months on August 21, the New Moon will pass between the Sun and Earth blocking out sunlight during a total solar eclipse.  You can learn all about the Great American Eclipse and how to be awed by it when I share a presentation at Spring Green Community Library at 6:30 on May 16. 

Don’t miss the astronomy highlights of May. The Moon is near Jupiter on the 7th (all night), near Saturn on the 12th and 13th  (late night), and Venus on the 22nd  (before sunrise). 

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

Driftless Dark Skies: Spring Planets

April 3, 2017 by John Heasley

You can see all five classical planets this month. A telescope lets you enjoy more of the details. Binoculars help you spot them. But you can see all five with your eyes alone. 

Mercury makes its best appearance of 2017 in the evening sky of early April. The innermost planet is a challenge because it never appears too far from the Sun. Find a place with a clear western horizon and scan for it with your binoculars. Best time is between 8:15 and 8:45 the first week of April. It will be the brightest object in that part of the sky. 

Mars is also low in the western sky after sunset though not as bright as Mercury. It’s far from Earth this spring, so you won’t see much detail. Binoculars will bring out its ruddy complexion.  Watch for Mars the third week of April when it passes by the Pleiades star cluster low in the WNW. You should be able to see them together in your binoculars. Best time to look is between 9:00 and 9:30. Check back on the evenings of April 27 and 28 to see the waxing crescent Moon pass close by Mars in the west after sunset. Best time to look is between 8:30 and 9:00. Don’t be confused by a slightly brighter orangey star to the left of Mars. That’s Aldebaran. Remember that stars twinkle. Planets don’t. 

Jupiter will be much easier to find. It’s in opposition this month which means that it’s at its closest to Earth and brightest in the sky. Sun, Earth, and Jupiter are in a straight line, so it rises in the east as the Sun is setting in the west, passes high in the south at midnight, and sets in the west as the Sun is rising in the east. With a small telescope, you can see its cloud bands and four largest moons. Watch for Jupiter on April 10 when it travels across the sky close to the Full Moon. 

Saturn rises after midnight and can be seen in the south around 5am. It will be the brightest object in that part of the sky. On the morning of April 16, look for the waning gibbous Moon just to the right of Saturn. The next morning, the moon will be just to the left of Saturn. A small telescope will give you a memorable view of its rings. 

Venus was bright and brilliant all fall and winter in the southwestern sky. This spring, you can find Venus low in the eastern sky before sunrise. On April 23, Venus and the waning crescent moon make a stunning pair between 5:00 and 5:30. 

There will be stargazing with telescope and binoculars at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on April 29 as part of Spring Fling.   

Enjoy your spring tour of our solar system! 

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

Driftless Dark Skies: Creating Constellations

March 2, 2017 by John Heasley

Years ago I went with the Cub Scouts to visit the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.  I definitely enjoyed being a blood cell and circulating through the Giant Heart there, but what really wowed me was the Fels Planetarium.  The lights went down, the stars came out, and I was hooked.  I loved the way the presenter not only named the stars but connected them with lines and created people and animals and things and told the tales that went with them. 

There is something very comforting about the constellations.  As long as you don’t travel too far north or south, you see the same constellations at night wherever you go.  They follow a reassuring pattern with Orion and Taurus and Gemini in the winter, Leo and Corvus and Virgo in the spring, Scorpius and Hercules and Cygnus in the summer, and Pegasus and Andromeda and Perseus in the fall.  They become familiar friends.  We can trace out their shapes, give them names, and retell their stories.  They take us back to an earlier time when we were protected by a two-dimensional sheltering sky. 

In 1928, the International Astronomical Union divided up the sky into 88 official constellations.  This made it easier for stargazers to talk with one another, but we also lost a lot of variety.  Different cultures see different constellations.  Not all of us see a hunter when we look at the stars of Orion.  The Egyptians saw Osiris, the Ojibwe see a paddler (Biboonkeonini the Wintermaker), the Lakota see the hand of a chief, and the Mayan see the Turtle of Creation.  Those seven brightest stars that we call Orion are not as tightly grouped as they appear, but vary in distance from 240 to 1360 light years.  We are not even seeing them at the same time because their starlight left years apart over the span of a millennium.  What we like to think of as a dome is three dimensional space with vast distances between stars. 

Once we learn to “see” a constellation, it is challenging to “unsee” it.  Our familiarity with constellations inhibits us from seeing the stars in other ways.   But it’s rewarding to try.  Here’s how.  Go out on any clear night.  Choose a dozen or so of the brighter stars.  Connect the dots and make a pattern that is pleasing to you.  It could be a person or animal or object.  Give it a name, and it’s yours.   Spin a tale to go with your pattern, and you have created a constellation.  It’s not officially recognized, but it’s no more or less real than those of the IAU.  Best of all, you have seen the starry sky anew! 

Hiking by Light of the Snow Moon at KVR in February

You can discover some traditional constellations or create your own at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on March 11 (6-8pm) when we walk by Light of the Full Crust Moon.  Attendees will gather at the Visitor Center and hike down to Old 131 Trail. KVR astronomy educators will have binoculars and a telescope for you to see the maria, craters, and rays of the Full Moon.  We will also look at planets and constellations while enjoying the other sights, sounds, and smells of the moonlit world.  Involves moderate hiking in the dark on uneven and possibly slippery surfaces. Participants have the option of remaining at the Visitor Center for stargazing. Please register (608-625-2960) to receive weather updates. Annual or day trail pass required.  

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

Driftless Dark Skies: The Great American Eclipse of 2017

February 7, 2017 by John Heasley

On August 21, the sky will darken and the planets and stars will be visible in the middle of the day as our moon covers our sun.  This is a relatively rare event.  The last time a total solar eclipse was visible in the continental United States was 1979.  You won’t see another in the United States until 2024.  I have watched a handful of partial eclipses, but like most us, I have never experienced the awesome sight of the sun disappearing with only its corona visible.  From the stories I’ve heard, we don’t want to miss it. 

This one is all about alignment.  The moon’s path takes it near the sun every month, but it’s usually a little high or a little low to eclipse the sun.  This August, sun and moon and Earth are all aligned.  There’s also the wonderful coincidence of the moon and sun appearing the same size when viewed from Earth.  The moon is 400 hundred times smaller than the sun, but it is also 400 times closer—just the perfect size.  On average, there’s a solar eclipse somewhere on the planet every 18 months, but they are often over remote locations.  This one is just a day’s drive away. 

I love how astronomical events are a wonderful mix of the random and the predictable.  We can never know precisely when auroras or meteors might appear.  We do know that on the third Monday of August 2017, the moon’s shadow will cross the United States in just 93 minutes starting on the Pacific coast of Oregon at 10:16 am (PDT) and ending on the Atlantic coast of South Carolina at 2:49 pm (EDT).  The last time an eclipse crossed the United States from coast to coast was 1918.  Anyone along the 60-mile-wide path will be awed by the moon blotting out the sun and two minutes of totality. 

You need to be aligned with that path to experience totality.  If you stay in the Driftless Area, you will experience a 90% partial eclipse but not 90% of the awesomeness of a total eclipse.  Totality is as close as southern Illinois or Missouri.  If you wait for a total solar eclipse to come to Wisconsin, you will be waiting until 2099.  Many motels and campgrounds along the path are already booked, but there are still places available in easy range near the path.  It’s hard to predict how much excitement or traffic there will be as tens of millions of Americans travel to see the sight.  Stay flexible as the weather forecasts become clearer and be willing to relocate.  So plan ahead and don’t miss it. More in future blogs on what you’ll see and how to enjoy it safely. 

While you are waiting for the New Moon to eclipse the Sun, you can enjoy the Full Moon being dimmed a bit by Earth’s shadow during a penumbral lunar eclipse.  Join us at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on Friday February 10 (5-7pm) when we walk by Light of the Full Snow Moon.  Attendees will gather at the Visitor Center and hike down to Old 131 Trail. KVR astronomy educators will have binoculars and a telescope for you to see the maria, craters, and rays of the Full Moon.  We will also look at planets and constellations while enjoying the other sights, sounds, and smells of the moonlit world. Involves moderate hiking in the dark on uneven and possibly slippery surfaces. Participants have the option of remaining at the Visitor Center for stargazing. Please register to receive weather updates. Annual or day trail pass required. Call the KVR Visitor Center to register 608-625-2960. 

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

Spring arrives as a state of mind in Driftless Wisconsin

February 2, 2017 by Eric Frydenlund

If you’re like me, spring arrives first as a state of mind rather than a season. With two months still to go on the calendar, my mind wandered into the boating season with a trip to Cabela’s in Prairie du Chien to look at depth finders for my boat.  Ice on the Mississippi River presents no obstacle to my imagination. And Cabela’s will most certainly get you thinking about spring.

Along those lines, you can hasten the arrival of spring and summer through film and presentations at our State and National Parks. Just across the Mississippi River at Effigy Mounds National Monument, you can stir your imagination at their 54th annual film festival held each weekend from January through March. My wife and I launched our idea to visit the National Parks out west after watching a film on the National Parks.

Likewise, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge hosts the Ralph Nuzum Lecture Series that bring the natural world into focus. “The Turkey Vulture: Profit of our Time,” will be the topic on February 15.  Mike Mossman, Retired DNR Ecologist; and Lisa Hartman: Wildlife Educator, will talk about “This tough species that enjoys the largest breeding range of any bird in the New World, thanks to fascinating adaptations that allow it to thrive in almost every habitat from forest to coast, farmland, desert and city.”

For the more adventuresome, Driftless Wisconsin offers plenty of activities for both spectators and participants alike without waiting for spring. On February 3 and 4, the Snowflake Ski Club near Westby will hold its annual Ski Jump Tournament featuring international competition. This event, thankfully, is of the spectator variety.  No need for you to jump off the scaffold at speeds exceeding 50 mph to appreciate the courage and grace of some of the world’s best jumpers as they leap into the crisp air of Timber Coulee.

On February 18 and 25, experience the beauty of Driftless Wisconsin winters yourself at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve on an Ice Cave Hike. “Visit several spectacular ice caves and frozen waterfalls. Participants will also have the chance to try traditional and modern snowshoes. There will be lots of outdoor discoveries.”

Whatever state of mind that February finds you in, Driftless Wisconsin will satisfy your curiosity and sense of adventure. Just need to change your state of mind and begin planning your trip. You can start here for lodging, dining, and shopping options.

Driftless Dark Skies: Walk When the Moon is Full

October 8, 2016 by John Heasley

This fall is a marvelous time for a moonwalk.  The next three months, our calendar and lunar months align.  The new moon falls near the beginning of the month.  First quarter moon is a week later.  Full moon is mid-month.  Last quarter moon is the third week.  And then the cycle repeats.  It has been a real challenge for calendar creators to get the solar and lunar cycles to line up.  Our solar year is just under 365¼ days.  A lunation, time between new moons, is just over 29½ days.  So you get twelve moons in a year with 11 days left over.  Our Gregorian calendar is solar and ignores the lunar cycle.  Even though “month” comes from “moonth”, we have random months of 28-31 days.  The Islamic calendar is more lunar.  The month begins when the crescent moon is first sighted, and the year is 354 days long.  The Jewish calendar is a compromise.  The months are the length of a lunation, but an extra month is added about every other year to keep the lunar and solar cycles in sync.

moonrisefrankshillIt’s easy to spot the full moon rising.  Be outside when the sun is setting.  Turn your back to the sun, and watch the direction of your really long shadow.  That’s where the moon will rise.  It can be anywhere between northeast to southeast.  This fall, the moon rises between east and southeast.  Full moon happens when the Earth is between the moon and sun, so watch for moonrise about the same time as sunset.  It’s a time of balance.  While you’re facing east, you’ll see a pinkish glow called the “Belt of Venus” just above the horizon and the darker shadow of Earth below the pink.   There’s only one moment when the moon is 100% full, but the moon will appear almost as full the day before and after.  That gives us some slack for when it’s cloudy.

Stargazers often avoid the full moon because it dims so many stars.  Others fear the dark.  But the moonlight eases the transition from day to night, and there’s a wonder there worth seeing.  My favorite places for moonwalking in the Driftless Area are Wyalusing State Park, Wildcat Mountain State Park, and Kickapoo Valley Reserve.  KVR continues their popular program from last winter and offers four evenings this fall and winter to “Walk When the Moon is Full”.  We will gather at sunset/moonrise at the Visitor Center and hike down to Old 131 Trail.  KVR astronomy educators will have binoculars and telescopes set up for you to enjoy the highlands, maria, craters, and rays of the full moon.  We will also take a look at the planets and constellations while we enjoy the other sights, sounds, and smells of the moonlit world.  This will involve some moderate hiking in the dark on uneven and possibly slippery surfaces.  Participants have the option of remaining at the Visitor Center for stargazing.  Event is free, but please register so that we can send you weather updates.  Dates are October 15 (Hunter’s Moon), November 12 (Frosty Moon), February 10 (Snow Moon), and March 11 (Crust Moon)

I took my title from the children’s book by Wisconsin ornithologist and naturalist Frances Hamerstrom.  She tells the true story of taking her two children to walk every month when the moon is full.  Depending on the season, they meet up with deer, rabbits, possums, woodcocks, owls, fireflies, frogs, foxes, weasels and the other crepuscular creatures that live in the twilight time between day and night. 

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. 

Thanks to Barbara Duerksen for sharing Frances Hamerstrom’s book with me.

Driftless Dark Skies: Home in the Milky Way

September 2, 2016 by John Heasley

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

Henry David Thoreau, Walden 

Photo by Josh Thompson of Driftless Hills Photography

Photo by Josh Thompson of Driftless Hills Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer Stargazing

May 3, 2016 by John Heasley

The warm nights ahead are a great time to get to know the night sky.  There are plenty of stargazers in the Lower Wisconsin Valley and beyond who keep telescopes and would be happy to share a look with you.  If you have been meaning to explore our starry skies, this is your summer. 

Iowa County Astronomers have monthly meetings on May 6, June 3, July 1, August 5, September 2, and October 7.  There’s usually an indoor presentation, and then we head over to Bethel Horizons to view the skies with a wonderful 17 inch Dobsonian telescope.  Everyone is always welcome.  It’s an excellent time to try out different telescopes and ask questions.  See icastro.org for monthly updates.  ICA will also be sharing a public program at Governor Dodge in August. 

Universe in the Park expands the Wisconsin Idea by making the boundaries of the university not just the boundaries of the state but the boundaries of the universe.  UW-Madison astronomy students visit state parks to give talks, answer questions, and share telescope viewing.  They will do several programs at Governor Dodge and Blue Mounds and at state parks across the state.  Full schedule is at their website. 

Northwest Suburban Astronomers will be at Wildcat Mountain on July 30, 8-10pm.  This friendly group escapes the light pollution of their homes outside Chicago to enjoy the dark skies of our Driftless Area.  For over a week, they create an astronomy village in the group campground where they welcome the public for a night of memorable stargazing through their amazing telescopes,  This year’s topic is solar eclipses, especially the solar eclipse visible in the United States in August 2017. 

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

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

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

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

Spring has arrived in Driftless Wisconsin

April 7, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

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

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

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

photo by Betty Frydenlund

photo by Betty Frydenlund

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driftless Dark Skies: Becoming a Stargazer

February 1, 2016 by John Heasley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driftless Wisconsin Winter Fun

January 5, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Driftless Dark Skies: Planets at Dawn

October 1, 2015 by John Heasley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driftless Dark Skies: Harvest Moon Eclipse in the Driftless area

September 21, 2015 by John Heasley

photo by Lynda Schweikert, Iowa County Astronomers

photo by Lynda Schweikert, Iowa County Astronomers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer Stargazing

May 10, 2015 by John Heasley

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

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

A telescope. Someone in every town

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

In Littleton it may as well be me.”

Robert Frost “The Star-Splitter”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driftless Winter Sports

February 21, 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.

Read the rest of this page »

New Experiences in Driftless Wisconsin

December 31, 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.

November Quiet Reveals Driftless Beauty

November 10, 2014 by Meg Buchner

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.

Revealing the next season

November 10, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin

6Just because the leaves have fallen does not mean the show has ended.  If anything, Driftless Wisconsin’s stunning beauty is accentuated, revealing limestone outcroppings, subtle contours of the land, meandering creeks, and other new vistas previously hidden.

Deer, typically concealed behind a curtain of foliage, can be seen scampering across naked hillsides. Squirrels, gathering groceries to stock their pantry before the onset of winter, can be heard scurrying about in the freshly fallen leaves like children raiding a potato chip bag. It all steps into view come November.

Absent fall’s cool winds and fluttering leaves, the forest stands mute, a stillness as deep as a tranquil lake begging for you to jump in.  And jump in you must.

There are many ways to enter this season of tranquility descending on Driftless Wisconsin; many ways to experience and enjoy this prelude to the holiday season.

If a brisk walk in the woods still beckons you, as it does me, then Driftless Wisconsin’s parks await discovery.  Kickapoo Valley Reserve’s trails explore the Kickapoo Valley landscape adjoining the river.  Wildcat Mountain State Park trails overview the Kickapoo River while the trails of Wyalusing State Park overlook the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers.

If shopping before the holiday rush and without the frenzy of shopping mall parking lots appeals to you, as it does me, then Driftless Wisconsin’s main street stores with friendly clerks await your curiosity.  General stores and specialty shops, reminiscent of the era of bustling downtowns, are scattered throughout the region in our laid-back but vibrant small communities.

And if a quiet, romantic dinner and comfy Bed & Breakfast or Inn tickles your sensibilities, as it does mine, then Driftless Wisconsin’s inviting restaurants and lodges awaits your indulgence. Restaurants and bars, filled with the banter of locals recalling the day’s amusing encounters; and lodges tucked into secluded valleys and scenic landscapes, are sprinkled throughout the region.

The trees may know something we don’t: the less you have to show, the more you reveal of what’s behind you.  Best to jump in and take a hard look.

>

Many ways to experience Driftless Wisconsin

September 1, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin

8So we headed up the hill under a twilighted sky, summiting around dusk and descending in the dark.  I know this trail well.  Each deadfall, tree root, and protruding rock fixed in my mind. But in the dark, things get misplaced.  As two weeks ago when I tripped over a freshly fallen tree and planted my nose in the horse trail.

As my eyes adjusted to the dark on this night, I could faintly pick out the black earth of the hoof-worn trail that lay like a ribbon against the lighter background. I felt the steep slope fall away from my next step.  Riley’s shapeless form moved ahead of me, leading me home. During the day, this bluff cuts an imposing line against the horizon.  During the night, the land weaves its way into your senses.

So it is with Driftless Wisconsin.  Take a look around you at the stunning photos on this website, and you will only know part of the story.  It’s one thing to see Driftless Wisconsin in photos.  It’s quite another to experience it with your senses.

There are many ways to experience Driftless Wisconsin.

You can ride it on a bike.  The Kickapoo Brave Ride on September 15 begins in Gays Mills and takes you on a rolling tour of the back roads, visiting quaint villages and rural farmland along the way.  Along the 60-mile route, visit Ferryville for their Fall Fest and Market in the Park on the Mississippi River.  A Harvest Dinner with locally grown food awaits you back at Riverside Park on the Kickapoo River.

You can ride it on a horse. The 9th Annual Fall Trail Ride at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge on September 28 – 30 takes you along equestrian trails that will visit the fall colors.  Enjoy the special equestrian campsite with Saturday evening dinner and Sunday morning coffee and rolls. Registration is limited and required by September 16.

You can experience it through art.  The Driftless Area Art Festival on September 15 – 16 in Soldiers Grove will take you on a tour of the artist’s imagination.  Discover Driftless creativity through wood, ceramics, fiber, painting, photography, jewelry, sculpture, food, and music.

You can live it through history.  The Norskedalen Threshing Bee on September 22 at the Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center near Coon Valley relives the pioneer spirit.  See demonstrations in threshing, corn shelling, rope making, blacksmithing, butter churning, lumber cutting and all the skills that tamed the land for our ancestors.

See it in the light; feel it in the dark; take it all in through any means possible.  There are so many ways to experience Driftless Wisconsin.

>

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. 

>

Wildlife Sightings

November 1, 2011 by

A fox dashes through the underbrush with his nose down, apparently late for a dinner appointment.  A coyote stands perk-eared, listening for her next meal.  A flock of turkeys parades across the frame like a crowd exiting a theater. And a doe and her yearling pose for several shots, nuzzling and hamming it up for a family portrait.  

With trees stripped of leafy concealments, late fall offers one of the best times to view wildlife in Driftless Wisconsin.  In fact, decaying leaves on the ground are more likely to warn you of approaching critters.  Just sit quietly on a trail and listen for the telltale rattle of leaves.  Or drive slowly through Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario or Wyalusing State Park near Prairie du Chien and scan the forest for deer on the move. 

If birds are your focus, Mississippi Explorer Cruises will host Fall Migration Cruises on November 5 & 6 and 12 & 13.  The cruises depart from Lansing, Iowa, right across the river from Ferryville and De Soto.  The excursions will tour the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, where you can view the migration of Tundra Swans, Bald Eagles, and numerous species of waterfowl. Naturalists and birders are on board to narrate the cruise and answer your questions. 

The Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge is another great place to observe wildlife in its natural habitat. Numerous animals and over 100 species of nesting birds make the reserve their home.  My wife and I recently enjoyed a 3-mile hike that loops above the Kickapoo River through standing pines, rust-colored oak trees, and open prairies.  Hunters were combing the fields for pheasant, which can be hunted in the reserve by permit.  Judging by their wagging tails, I think the hunting dogs were having more fun than their masters.  

One of my favorite sights is watching Bald Eagles soar over the river valley, which can be seen along both the Mississippi and Kickapoo Rivers.  Scouting for fish and rodents below, the eagles can hang on a breeze or slide windward on a graceful glide over one of the many overlooks available for viewing.  

Whether watching through the lens of a camera or your own eyes, the excitement of wildlife sightings awaits you.  It only takes time and patience, which are also in plentiful supply in Driftless Wisconsin.

>

Season of Change

October 20, 2011 by

Driftless Wisconsin is in transition, which gives us more to look forward to than a mere chill.  Autumn leaves, plucked from branches by recent rains and scattered by the wind, now blanket the land in a muted second color season.  Late fall has arrived and there’s much to do and see.  Farmers are busy harvesting crops in the narrow time frame allowed by nature, while the rest of us catch up on those put-off chores.  But visitors can leave that to do list at home and simply enjoy the show. 

Mississippi River Cruises out of Prairie du Chien will be showing the fall foliage of the river valley from the deck of their excursion boat. The bluffs and colors leap from the river bank, providing many opportunities for photographers.  Fall foliage tours leave from the Lawler Park dock on Saturday and Sunday, October 22 and 23.  On Saturday at 4:30, enjoy a Haunted River Cruise with “spooktacular” scenery and stories of haunted river boats and river lore.  Costumes are optional.

On the following three weekends, October 29, 30 and November 5, 6 and 12, 13; Mississippi River Cruises will host Fall Migration Tours from their Lansing, Iowa location – across the river from Ferryville and De Soto.  The cruises will tour the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, guided by experienced birders and river naturalists.  See Tundra Swans, Bald Eagles, and thousands of waterfowl in their natural habitats and migration patterns.  Reservations are required. 

The approach of the Halloween season provides the perfect excuse to enjoy the history of Driftless Wisconsin. The Villa Louis in Prairie du Chien will host a Victorian Trick and Treat on October 22, a review of American Halloween customs featuring period games, apple cider, and other seasonal treats.  And the Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center in Coon Valley will present Ghoulee in the Coulees on October 26 – 28, a “super scary” hike along their trails lined with lit pumpkins. Treats and hot apple cider will be provided after your hike, along with other activities such as storytelling.  Reservations are required. 

On November 5 and 6, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge will host a hands-on workshop on how the Native Americans survived the elements of the approaching winter.  The Ciporoke Construction Workshop will show attendees how the Ho-Chunk People constructed their traditional long house made from bent poles. Check their website for details.  

Change is in the air.  Come to Driftless Wisconsin to experience the season of change, both past and present.

>

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. 

>

»