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The Great Wisconsin Bucket List

February 13, 2017 by Eric Frydenlund

Editor’s note: I found this blog written by Owen Gibson to be inspiring and hope you do too.

Don't Blink Trailer | The Great Wisconsin Adventure Story from Don't Blink on Vimeo.

In April of 2014 my best friend, Gregory, lost his Mom to cancer. She was just 51 years old and we were all devastated. It changed us, and we knew it would. But we didn’t realize how much it would, nor did we foresee the incredible journey that it would set us on.

We realized we weren’t guaranteed 80 years to live. And even if we did, my 80 year old Grandma can attest how time flies by. The four of us did not want to simply exist– we wanted to feel alive.

So Gregory showed all of us his mother’s dream board that she had created and left behind. On it was listed numerous items and activities that his Mom had wanted to complete before her time passed. Some items were checked off while many others were left untouched. We added some of our own ideas to the list, forming a bucket list and decided to complete it in his mother’s honor.

It began small, and we started locally. We didn’t have much money so we’d just hop in the truck and drive around the state of Wisconsin. We rode an elephant at the Baraboo Circus, milked a cow, sent a message in a bottle, explored the Cave of the Mounds, jumped off a bridge and much more.

We created a vlog to share our adventures and the response was incredible. In fact when a former PBS producer and Wisconsin filmmaker who worked for my Mom caught wind of what we were doing and our plans for next summer he thought we really had something. Over the following months we worked with him to shoot a trailer and develop a proposal for an 8-episode documentary series. We shared this with Wisconsin Public Television who not only loved it and wanted to be apart of it, but are interested in broadcasting the series.

The series will follow us as we chase our 14 biggest Wisconsin bucket list items. Yet it’s more than that. It’s a series that is not only fun, entertaining, and inspiring but it will challenge the viewers to get creative, to adventure, and to explore what is possible in this incredible state. Among our planned destinations for next summer are the scenic, rolling valleys of Driftless Wisconsin. In one of our episodes we will be rafting down the entire Wisconsin border of the Mississippi River stretching through the heart of the Driftless Wisconsin Area. Along the journey we hope to meet locals and immerse ourselves into the river culture as we go. We also plan to live with the Amish and dance in an Indian Pow Wow — both of which open our eyes to new experiences and people we may not ordinarily meet.

Yet, to make this happen, we need financial help. If you are interested in sponsoring or supporting this incredible show in anyway send us an email at Gregory@beforeweblink.com and we’d love to talk with you. Otherwise, we’d greatly appreciate it if you would share our story and our trailer.

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.

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.

Driftless Wisconsin as seen from the Mississippi River

June 12, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

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

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

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

Stoddard

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

De Soto

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

Ferryville

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

Lynxville

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

Prairie du Chien

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

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

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.

Wisconsin winter scenery and eagle watching in the Driftless region

January 31, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

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

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

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

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

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

My Favorite Wisconsin Winter Scenery

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

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

Events Celebrating the Eagles Place in Wisconsin Winter Scenery

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Driftless Wisconsin gives you perspective

October 31, 2014 by Eric Frydenlund

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer on the Sandbar in Driftless Wisconsin

August 11, 2014 by Meg Buchner

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

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

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

Tubing on the Mississippi River

Tubing on the Mississippi River

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

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

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

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

Driving the Great River Road in Driftless Wisconsin

July 15, 2014 by Meg Buchner

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

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

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

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

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

A Driftless Wisconsin Christmas Gift

December 18, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin

5I don’t know if I arrived on time or the crows left on cue, but the crossroad of events involves some sort of synchronicity that defies reasoning. Reasoning is best left at home for such occasions; left for our clocks, laptops, and logical minds.

Children have a way of inventing reality that grownups have altogether lost. My six-year-old grandson finds adventures every day by constructing them from the fruits of his fertile mind. He uses cardboard boxes, recycled paper, and tape that he assembles with his imagination.

He recently left on a fishing trip in his pickup truck, arriving safely at his cabin “about 70 miles from home,” to go fishing for “big mama’s.” He prefaced all this with, “this is just pretend,” but went anyway, not wanting to miss the adventure.

We build the world with our imagination. We build the world given to us by our good fortune to be present at this very moment.

In the Mississippi Valley, we have good fortune come our way often, and we don’t need metaphor to give push to our imagination. “Fiscal cliffs,” from which we can only fall to our economic demise, give way to real cliffs from which the entire river valley opens below us like a finely-wrapped Christmas gift.

The Mississippi River enters right and exits left and we were meant to be here in between, witness to whatever the river brings our way.

Before and after the crows launched, two people entered my life, moving on the periphery where you take notice only if you are paying attention. A woman, bundled against the cold on a brisk Christmas shopping day, walks across a busy parking lot with head bowed, oblivious to everyone around her, looking down at the contents streaming from her smart phone.

A burly man, built for heavy lifting and hearty laughs, stands in the cold dressed only in a flannel shirt, head bowed and arms crossed, looking down at a freshly placed grave stone.

We have all done this. I have done both. One is a distraction, giving us electronic hints of what we are missing. The other is a reflection, giving us appreciation for what remains in this life for the taking.

They say, “Life is what you make it,” but give no instructions as to how to assemble the pieces. I think my grandson has it right. The pieces are all around us; cardboard boxes, paper, pencils, and tape. Family, friends, and extraordinary moments in Driftless Wisconsin.

After my walk up the hill, I came home at dusk, the path lost in the waning light. The crows were silent now, but another gift offered itself. Upturned leaves left in the wake of deer that frequent this trail were glistening in the moonlit night. My dog Riley and I followed them home.

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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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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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Springtime in Driftless Wisconsin

March 21, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Driftless Wisconsin Holiday

December 5, 2011 by Driftless Wisconsin

Trees have been stripped of all semblance of the seasonal rush from spring budding to fall foliage and the march of colors through the spectrum.  Even the oak trees have given up the chase, having shed their golden-brown leaves.  It inspires a scene ripe for the holidays; a quiet place waiting for winter, where pine boughs and barren limbs form the decorations ready to receive the first snow. 

At our house, the Driftless Wisconsin landscape becomes part of the Christmas setting (as I write this a doe stands outside my window shopping for morsels in my wife’s dormant flower garden).  In addition to our family Christmas tree, usually a Frasier, we hike across the drywash to find a spindly sapling to adorn our deck and hang our lighted greetings.  Lights on the other houses in our secluded coulee shine like beacons that lead us into the heart of the valley

Similar greetings await you throughout Driftless Wisconsin.  Quaint shops, decked in festive ornaments, display holiday gifts ready to anchor your Christmas tree.  VIVA Gallery in Viroqua offers some of the finest art in the region, tempting you to take home a piece of Driftless inspiration. 

Viroqua is one of Wisconsin’s first “Main Street” Communities.  A walk down Viroqua’s Main Street will tell you why it’s important to savor the cultural wellspring of our downtowns, where shopkeepers still greet you at the jingle of door bells.  At the other end of Highway 27, Prairie du Chien stands as one of the newest Main Street Communities; its streets filled with traditional shops and new additions with a creative flair.  

Small towns dot the Kickapoo Valley, offering comfy B&Bs, remote shopping treasures, and small-town hospitality. The Valley settles down into the season this time of year, offering visitors an intimate glimpse of rural life.  On the Mississippi, the river shuts down to barge traffic while the vistas open up.  A long look across Lake Winneshiek at Ferryville might find an eagle hovering over this wide expanse of the river searching for its next meal. 

Driftless Wisconsin invites you to come and prepare for the Holidays in our welcoming communities. Bring your good cheer to share.  And leave behind those hectic holiday schedules. 

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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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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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Opening Day

May 6, 2011 by

Not coincidentally, Driftless Wisconsin is ready too.  May 1 marks the opening day for attractions, trails, and all things outdoors. Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, and Father’s Day are just around the corner and Driftless Wisconsin can pack more into every day than any holiday can hold. 

Inland trout season begins the first Saturday in May – the catch and release season began in March, but let’s not quibble over details – so now you can stalk a brook trout without worrying about snow flurries.  On the Mississippi River, bass and pan fish seasons are continuous, but be careful where you fish; your favorite ice-fishing hole has disappeared.  A safe bet would be Clements Fishing Barge in Genoa, located just below Lock and Dam #8 on a prime fishing location. 

In Westby, the Syttende Mai Celebration and Parade on May 13 – 15 kicks off many summer festivals and parades. You don’t need to be Norwegian to enjoy this celebration of Westby’s Scandinavian heritage.  Afterwards, you can travel to Vernon Vineyards, near Viroqua to sample their wine while enjoying a spectacular view of Newton Valley.   On the way, stop at the Viroqua Farmer’s Market, held each Saturday morning from May to October in historic downtown Viroqua. 

As mentioned in a previous blog post, the bike, equestrian, and hiking trails in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve opened on May 1. There’s no better way to experience the serenity of the Kickapoo Valley than up close and personal on a backwoods trail.  Some trails might be closed due to wet condition, so check their website for details.  

In Prairie du Chien, the Villa Louis Historic Site opened on April 30, and the highlight of May will be “Breakfast in a Victorian Kitchen” on May 21.  Billed as a “culinary tour of the late 19th century,” the event will offer an intimate look inside the Victorian mansion. Reservations are required.  Also in Prairie du Chien, the Fort Crawford Museum opened on May 1 and provides a glimpse into City and regional history in the reconstructed Fort Hospital. 

Once the Mississippi River settles down and returns to its banks after spring flooding, river excursions will also be opening in May.  The Mississippi Explorer out of Prairie du Chien hopes to be operating by May 14 with a “Bald Eagle Watching on the River” tour, while the Maiden Voyage, a Mississippi River excursion docking in McGregor, Iowa, opens on May 28.  Best to check ahead to confirm times.  

Our family met for an Easter Sunday picnic in what is becoming an annual tradition. My four-year-old grandson, Devin, brought his bat, ball, and glove to play what passes as baseball without rules. Every grounder is a home run and the opposing team never gets to bat.  But the season is upon us and it’s time to “play ball,” wherever that takes you in Driftless Wisconsin. 

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The Mississippi River in spring

April 23, 2011 by

            While the media tends to focus on the debilitating effects of flooding – and there are many – the villages and cities along the river in Driftless Wisconsin remain open for business. For example, while “Main Street” – a residential street running along the river’s backwaters – lies partly under water, the shopping district in Prairie du Chien on Blackhawk Avenue remains high and dry and waiting for you to jingle their door bells.  All we ask is that you avoid flooded areas and admire the river’s mischief from a distance.

            I did just that recently, traveling to Pikes Peak above McGregor, Iowa, which keeps watch over Driftless Wisconsin from its southwest corner.  It was a calm day with little wind to ripple the water or keep eagles aloft.  A solitary cardinal greeted me with a perky melody at the park’s spectacular overlook.  From up there, the river appeared relentless as it spilled across the valley floor, coating every low-lying island and flood plain in its path. 

            There are plenty of such places along the Great River Road from which to admire the river.  Highway 35 extends along the river’s eastern bank with waysides and overlooks scattered along the way.  Ferryville’s Observation Deck oversees Lake Winneshiek, one of the widest expanses of the Mississippi River in Driftless Wisconsin.  It features a historical marker commemorating native son Patrick J. Lucey, Wisconsin’s 38th Governor. 

            Once the water recedes by early May, Blackhawk Park near De Soto offers an intimate up-close look at the river and her backwaters.  A favorite of fishers and campers, Blackhawk Lake features 173 campsites and a boat launch in the heart of the Mississippi bottoms.

            Further upriver, Genoa gives you a working knowledge of the river’s most frequent travelers: fish and tug boats. The Genoa National Fish Hatchery offers public viewing of its fish restoration and stocking facilities on Monday through Friday from 8 am to 3:30 pm.  Nearby Genoa, Lock & Dam # 8 provides a bird’s eye view of tugboats and barges in the process of “locking through” one of Driftless Wisconsin’s two dams operated by the Corp of Engineers.

            Back at Pikes Peak, I ventured down to Bridal Veil Falls, which contributes a meager trickle to the flooding down in the valley.  A lonely snow bank sat hidden behind the veil of water.  The Driftless landscape collects these last remnants of winter and sends them on their way down to the Gulf of Mexico. 

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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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