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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.

Photographing Scenery in Driftless Wisconsin

April 6, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

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

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

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

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

Favorite subjects while photographing scenery in Driftless Wisconsin

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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Happy Trails

July 12, 2011 by

Three baby raccoons hung from a nearby tree, clinging like ripe fruit from the branches.  Riley never saw them.  Momma had performed a “bait and switch” to protect her babies and Riley had taken the bait and missed the switch.  

Riley and I never lack for discovery on the trails in Driftless Wisconsin.  He discovered his new-found passion for chasing raccoons on the horse trails that run by our house. 

Horse trails are in abundance in Driftless Wisconsin.  The topography lends to an unforgettable equestrian experience that matches developed trails with unmatched scenery.  The trail system near Prairie du Chien meanders through the bluffs and backcountry and connects with a horse camping area near La Riviere Park

In the northern reaches of Driftless Wisconsin near Lafarge and Ontario, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers horse trails, as does Wildcat Mountain State Park.  Several miles of developed trails explore the Kickapoo Valley and the ridge lines above the river.  

Hiking trails are also in abundance. Wyalusing Park near Prairie du Chien, and both Pikes Peak and Effigy Mounds across the Mississippi River provide unrivaled vistas from the bluff tops. The best birds-eye view of Driftless Wisconsin comes from the summit of the Iowa bluffs overlooking the valley.  

Discovery awaits you along the trail. I once “discovered” the Kickapoo River while hiking the trails of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, stumbling upon the river that wanders aimlessly through the valley.  If you find a quiet spot to sit, perhaps you’ll discover some wildlife scurrying through the underbrush. 

On the horse trail, Riley sits by my side taking in the sights and smells.  The silence is broken by blue jays quarreling, squirrels foraging, and insects buzzing.  Above us, Virginia Creeper wraps around the trunk of a basswood tree, shooting skyward like the contrail of an errant rocket.  The woods are alive and the trail is your guide. 

Whether you’re a horseman or a hiker, pick a trail and let the exploration begin.  As Dale Evens Rogers once crooned, “Happy trails to you, until we meet again.”

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State and County Parks

October 28, 2010 by

I wrote in a previous post that fall is my favorite time of year and that holds true well beyond the threshold of peak color.  When more leaves are underfoot than overhead, the forest opens up, revealing details otherwise hidden from view.  And absent the leafy wind chimes, the forest takes on a calming silence. 

You might start your tour at Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario and overlooking the Kickapoo River Valley.  This time of year offers a splendid view of the surrounding area from the overlook, and the river might oblige with a few more appearances through the canopy. According to recent reports, the trails are in great shape and the deer are moving, making for an optimum chance of wildlife sightings in the sparsely foliated woods. 

A few miles downriver near La Farge, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve invites closer inspection of the valley.  The Reserve features an extensive trail system for hiking, including six miles of hiking-only trails and 50 miles of mixed-use trails.  Check out the park calendar for “Introduction to Geocaching” on Nov 6, which includes a presentation, hands on exercises, and a prize hunt.  On Nov 17, Rhonda Funmaker, a Ho-Chunk tribal cook, will demonstrate her traditional methods of preparing wild game. 

At the south end of Driftless Wisconsin, across the Wisconsin River from Prairie du Chien and overlooking the Mississippi River, Wyalusing State Park towers above the confluence of rivers.  Looking north from Wyalusing’s popular overlooks provides a stunning panorama of the Driftless landscape and the forces that shaped it – the Wisconsin River coursing from the East and the Mississippi powering from the North.  The park features 14 miles of trails that explore 2600 acres of parkland. 

Eight county parks scattered throughout Driftless Wisconsin present an intimate look at nature worthy of a stop along the way. Crowley Ridge County Park sits on County E off State Highway 179 about five miles northwest from Steuben.    I stopped one day to see what lurked below the icon on my map and discovered a small but idyllic picnic area surrounded by a woods and brook.  The brook flows from a small pond nestled at the base of a hillside, filled with fallen trees that form mosaics in the water and fed from a spring heard gurgling nearby.  

Send for a map and spend an afternoon, a day, or a week touring Driftless Wisconsin’s state and county parks.  Whether exploring a patch of woods or an entire preserve, the trail of discovery never ends.

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