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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.

The fall color celebration

October 3, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

Everyone loves a party.  Whether it’s 50 years of marriage, 25 years of a career, another year among the living, or another workweek among the gainfully employed, we humans gleefully celebrate that which we have accomplished or successfully put behind us.

And so it is with nature in Driftless Wisconsin; the place for a festive end-of-summer bash complete with colorful ornaments hung from branches and confetti streaming from the sky. We call this celebration the fall color season.

The color season represents a remarkable phenomenon; an avalanche of color from every tree top and hilltop, marching through every conceivable color of the spectrum. No one can predict when exactly this party will start; only that it begins in the unfathomable inner workings of a leaf. According to the US Forest Service:

Three factors influence autumn leaf color-leaf pigments, length of night, and weather, but not quite in the way we think. The timing of color change and leaf fall are primarily regulated by the calendar, that is, the increasing length of night. As days grow shorter, and nights grow longer and cooler, biochemical processes in the leaf begin to paint the landscape with Nature’s autumn palette.

A color palette needs pigments, and there are three types that are involved in autumn color: chlorophyll, carotenoids, and anthocyanins. During the growing season, chlorophyll is continually being produced and broken down and leaves appear green. As night length increases in the autumn, chlorophyll production slows down and then stops and eventually all the chlorophyll is destroyed. The carotenoids and anthocyanins that are present in the leaf are then unmasked and show their colors.

Despite this reasoned explanation and our general state of anticipation throughout September, fall color arrives with such splendor we find ourselves awestruck as if witnessing the transformation for the first time. We never tire of the celebration.

And the party has just begun.

I wake each morning to reddening Virginia Creeper unfurling from the trunks of elm trees across the drywash from our house; a flowering plant in the grape family and the first sign of fall color.

The basswood in our driveway shows a hint of yellow, the way we might dab paint on the wall to see if the color suits our taste. A walk in the woods reveals a scattering of early-fallen leaves underfoot; a sign of the thickening carpet yet to come.

Driftless Wisconsin celebrates this transformation in our own special ways.  We like parades, festivals, craft fairs, and other activities to keep pace with nature. And there’s no shortage of opportunities.

apple-festivalThe Gays Mills Apple Festival, normally the last full weekend of September, has been rescheduled for October 7 – 9. Main Street comes alive with a carnival, arts and crafts vendors, music, plenty of food, and a parade.  And be sure to climb Highway 171 to orchard ridge for your annual supply of apples.

Prairie du Chien celebrates Octoberfest on Oct 15 to showcase our German heritage. The event features German food, drink, games, and music at St. Feriole Island’s Memorial Gardens; and a parade in the downtown.

Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center near Coon Valley celebrates the haunted side of October with Ghoulees in the Coulees on October 27 – 29. Dress up in your scariest costume for a walk along a pumpkin-lit trail, complete with hidden goblins; trick or treat at historic homesteads; and gather around storytellers with a cup of hot apple cider.

This party will last a few weeks, until every leaf and party favor has dropped to the ground. Time enough for you to come join the celebration.

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.

Beating cabin fever in Driftless Wisconsin

February 2, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

Well, it’s February and cabin fever has overtaken the household. Our dog Fargo stares out the window hoping for a squirrel to appear just to break the boredom.  I stare at the weather radar to see how much snow we’re expecting. Too much, but at least our snow shoes will be put to good use. Until then, the fever is raging and we may need to seek a homespun remedy.

Driftless Wisconsin to the rescue.  I have used this space to tell you about the wonderful outdoor adventures available in Driftless Wisconsin. Like parks, which have incredible views of the rivers that seem even more expansive during the winter. Like winter sports such as cross-country skiing and ice fishing that turn winter into a vacation.  And yes, snowshoeing.  They’re calling for six inches of snow and those snowshoes will come in handy breaking new trails through virgin snow.

But if you’re the indoor type – and you can count me among ‘em when the temperature drops below wind-chill-advisory levels – we have plenty of ways to beat the fever. Arts and culture for instance.

VIVAYou can begin at the VIVA Gallery in Viroqua and take in the marvelous artwork on display.  VIVA is an artist cooperative featuring some very talented regional artists; including painters, potters, weavers, sculptors, jewelers, and much more.  Some of those wonderful Driftless warm-weather landscapes are on display.  You can pick up a painting and bring spring home early. Or find a piece of jewelry for your Valentine’s Day mate.

If it’s performance art you’re after, the Temple Theatre in Viroqua has two events coming in March.  Cloud Cult, a local band from Viroqua that takes the performing arts to a new level, will take the stage on March 5th. The band will perform two sets – one acoustic and one electric – from their new album and film entitled, “The Seeker.”  And on March 12, “Ole and Lena’s 50th Wedding Anniversary and Vow Renewal” will bring laughter to the stage.  “Find out in this comedy about love, marriage, and growing old together.”  All of this in a theater restored to its original 1920’s ‘Classical Revival’ splendor.

If you are more interested in participation than observation, then the Driftless Folk School has a class for you. Also located in Viroqua, the school is “a regional center for the preservation, promotion and training of traditional crafts.”  Checkout their website for classes in Blacksmithing, craft, cuisine, farming & gardening, homesteading, and nature building.

And if sitting around the pool reading a good book is in your sights – and if the Gulf of Mexico is not in your budget – then come to Prairie du Chien. An indoor water park, great restaurants, and fabulous shopping will keep you entertained without having to put on snowshoes.

Whether it’s snow or the cold that has you homebound with the fever, Driftless Wisconsin has the cure.  Be sure to make a reservation, plan for a great meal, and get some ideas for shopping. Then come on over to Driftless Wisconsin and beat the fever.

Christmas Traditions in Driftless Wisconsin

December 2, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

My memories of Christmas begin with lutefisk and lefse, the Norwegian feast my mother made each year to celebrate my father’s Scandinavian heritage.  The smell of lutefisk – a cod cured in lye – wafting through the house on Christmas Eve sent me in the opposite direction in full retreat. While the rest of the family endured the smell of boiled fish with the consistency of pudding, my sister and I sat in the living room enjoying a holiday meal of hotdogs, which at least were chewable.

For those of you who enjoy lutefisk – and there are many of you – rest assured I have not entirely abandoned my Norwegian heritage.  I do love lefse, a potato flatbread rolled to a thin layer and cooked on a large griddle. Served only with butter – I consider the addition of brown sugar to be blasphemy – I have been known to consume lefse as fast as it comes off the griddle. After my wife made it clear that if I wanted the tradition to continue, I would be supplying the labor, I have learned to make a decent batch of lefse.  Never mind the dough stuck to the kitchen counter and the cloud of flour draping my shirt.

The history of our Christmas traditions is rooted in our ethnic customs. Explored by the French and settled by Scandinavians, Bohemians, Irish, and other nationalities; Driftless Wisconsin offers a variety of ethnic traditions to honor our diverse heritage.  In communities across the Driftless Wisconsin region, the Christmas season inspires us to carry forward our traditions to the next generation.

ofc_horsesOn December 5 – 6 the good folks at Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center will help us celebrate an Old-Fashioned Christmas.  Norskedalen, which means Norwegian Valley, “is a nature and heritage center dedicated to preserving, interpreting and sharing the natural environment and cultural heritage of the area surrounding Coon Valley in southwest Wisconsin.”

The Old-Fashioned Christmas offers visitors the opportunity to explore that heritage through the lens of the Christmas holiday, complete with horse-drawn carriage rides, Christmas caroling, a buffet of Norwegian delicacies, and a bake sale – including lefse!  Craft demonstrations in spinning, wood-stove cookery, and kid’s crafts will keep you grounded in the spirit of Christmas. And you’ll have the chance to make your own holiday decorations.

Also on December 5, La Farge will hold its Old-Fashioned Small Town Christmas Celebration.  The community, located near the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, will take you back to your small-town childhood memories with a huge craft fair at the school, a cookie walk at the Reserve, and a soup luncheon.

On December 4 – 6 and 11 – 13, The Villa Louis Historic Site in Prairie du Chien will celebrate Victorian Home for the Holidays.  Held at the Villa Louis, the opulent estate of Hercules Dousman restored to its 1890s splendor, the event recreates the holiday traditions of a Victorian family.  Enter the Dousman parlor for a recital on a restored 1879 Steinway piano.  Visit the kitchen, where the Dousman cook prepares the holiday menu.  Sample some desserts and apple cider.

No holiday would be complete without witnessing the Droppin’ of the Carp in Prairie du Chien on December 31.  Culminating the week-long Carp Fest, the evening includes a bonfire, entertainment, and the countdown starting at 11:40.  Inspired by New York City’s dropping of the Time Square Ball at midnight, this celebration ends with the ‘Droppin’ of a carp taken from the Mississippi River and preserved for this special occasion.

Tradition has it that the Carp King and Queen kiss “Lucky” the fish for good luck in the New Year.  Well, at least they don’t have to eat it.

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.

Wisconsin historical attractions open

May 1, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

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

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

Explore Wisconsin historical attractions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make A Splash at Bear Foot Bay Indoor Water Park

April 18, 2015 by Corey A. Edwards

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

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

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

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

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

Bear Foot Bay Indoor Waterpark

1801 Cabela’s Lane
Prairie du Chien, WI

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

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.

Carp Fest and the Droppin’ of the Carp!

December 20, 2014 by Corey A. Edwards

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

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

A carp? They drop a carp?

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

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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.”

Spring’s Arrival

April 6, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin

Just to confirm spring’s arrival, my five-going-on-six-year-old grandson coaxed me out to the backyard for the first game of catch. His arm is stronger this year, which keeps his grandpa on his not-so-nimble toes. And the bicycles have emerged from storage in time for our first bike ride.  The Driftless terrain provides both challenging hills for the serious rider and easier stretches down in the valley for the rest of us.    

The hillside above our house has already exploded in a fluorescent green optimism. As I write this, five deer are browsing on the new growth, and looking very appreciative of the season’s early arrival of dinner. Wildflowers have joined the celebration, sprinkling the hillside with lavender seasoning just for good measure. 

Aside from mowing the lawn, humans are eager to start celebrating too.  Driftless Wisconsin is alive with events to welcome the new season.  On April 20-21, Gays Mills will celebrate the 2012 Kickapoo Earth Day at the new Community Center.  Friday evening’s performance of “Twenty Seven Birds” will combine bird calls and video with bass clarinet, alto flute, and piano in a memorable tribute to the birds of the Driftless region.  Saturday will bring together national speakers, regional performers and presenters, along with workshops and activities that will observe the “collaboration of citizens up and down the valley who care about the natural world.” 

On Saturday, April 21, Prairie du Chien Downtown Revitalization will present, “Girls Day Out,” a day in the Downtown “for you and you alone.”  The day includes activities that will pamper your senses and indulge your creative side, such as hand massages, planting an herb garden, wood working, design wars, pillowcase making, window screen painting, cake decorating, poker run, live entertainment, and free wine tasting.  Just the kind of day that welcomes spring with your favorite pleasures. 

Driftless Wisconsin is filled with activities and events that welcome the season, not to mention the parks, rivers, nature hikes, and overlooks that put spring into perspective.  Check out our event calendar for the dates you plan on being in the area.  It’s never too early to answer the bell and wake up to spring in 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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New Year’s Winter

December 26, 2011 by Driftless Wisconsin

In Driftless Wisconsin, the New Year ushers in more than college football bowl games, New Year’s resolutions, and a new calendar on the wall. It welcomes winter.  Winter arrived officially on December 22, yet with holiday shopping, giving, and celebrating, no one really took notice.  Awaiting colder weather, even the Mississippi River has not frozen completely, causing restless days for ice fishermen itching to get out on the ice. 

On a recent trip up the Great River Road, the warmer river fought with the cooling air, throwing a blanket of fog over its surface. Trees from hidden islands poked up through the mist like a forest in a mystical landscape.  January will not be so subtle.  Winter’s unofficial arrival lays the groundwork for some serious frosty fun.   But not before we welcome the New Year’s arrival. 

Few events will mark the year as uniquely as the Droppin’ of the Carp in Prairie du Chien.  To welcome midnight, the good people of Prairie du Chien have discovered that gravity works just as well on a 25-pound carp in Lucky Park as it does on the crystal ball in New York’s Time Square.  The Droppin’ of Lucky the Carp also marks the culmination of a week-long celebration of Carp Fest.  

In the days leading up to Lucky’s plunge, the community will host swim and walking contests, arts and crafts activities, and a torchlight ski and hike at La Riviere Park on December 30.  New Year’s Eve day features the Carp Run Walk, the annual Carp Bowl Football Game, hot air balloon rides, concluding with the Carp Drop and pyrotechnics show at midnight.  

The Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge welcomes the New Year season with Winter Fest on Saturday, January 7.  The all-day family event offers plenty of winter fun.  The scenic nature area located in the scenic Kickapoo River Valley serves as the perfect setting to host a celebration of winter. 

Activities include skating, sledding, skiing, archery, snow sculpture, chain saw carving, birds of prey demos, and horse-drawn bobsled rides. The Tristate Alaskan Malamute Club will host a Sled Dog Race & Weight Pull between 10 am and 4 pm.  You can also tour the pristine Kickapoo Reserve on the Natural Ice Caves Guided Hike at 10:30 am. 

The New Year is upon us.  Grab the kids – and the grandkids too – and come celebrates winter’s offerings with us in Driftless Wisconsin. 

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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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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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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.

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Experience Driftless Wisconsin

October 1, 2011 by

Walk up to the edge of the ridge top and take in the view.  Feel the breadth of the Mississippi River from the bench seat of a boat.  Smell the aromas of autumn hiking along a remote trail.  Taste the flavor of seasonal foods in the kitchen of a Victorian mansion.  Hear a shrieking hawk while walking a family farm. 

 

Upcoming October events offer you a sampling of all of these experiences in a variety of venues and activities that give you an intimate feel of Driftless Wisconsin.  

On Saturdays and Sundays during the fall, Mississippi Explorer Cruises embarks from St. Feriole Island in Prairie du Chien for a spectacular Fall Foliage Cruise of the river.  The best view of the river bluffs is from the river’s level.  Colored with autumn and accented with limestone outcroppings, the bluffs rise steeply from the river’s edge to create a dazzling amphitheater. 

The Driftless Film Festival on October 6 – 9 at the Temple Theatre in Viroqua offers a screening of films made in Wisconsin, including short films, documentaries, horror films, dramas, and animation.  The films will be shown in the historic Temple Theatre, a restored movie palace built in 1922.  The theatre was restored to its “original Classical Revival interior design” and reopened in 2002, offering patrons the ambiance of early twentieth century architecture. 

The historic Villa Louis in Prairie du Chien will host Breakfast in a Victorian Kitchen on October 8 – 9.  The staff of the carefully restored 19th century mansion will provide a hands-on cooking workshop for adults.  It includes preparation of a meal using foods and utensils of the era, that yes, culminates with consumption of the meal!  A tour of the estate will follow the meal.  Reservations are required. 

As mentioned in my last blog, Gays Mills will host Flavor of the Kickapoo on the same weekend, October 7 – 9.  The event will feature outdoor cooking competitions and silent sports demonstrations, as well as a geocache special hunt.  The event will present many ways you can experience and connect with the Driftless area.

 On October 22, the Mississippi Valley Conservancy will host Seldom Seen Farm Hike near Gays Mills.  Seldom Seen Farm was the setting for “The Land Remembers: the story of a farm and its people,” made famous by local author Ben Logan.  The event will honor Logan with the dedication of a monument, followed by a tour of the farm. The tour will allow you to hike the natural settings of Logan’s memorable story; as well as walk into the experience of a Driftless Wisconsin autumn.

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Signs of Fall

September 20, 2011 by

The first cold snap arrived just last week, adding vigor to those morning walks. All the signs add up to announce the coming of fall, a time when Driftless Wisconsin unfurls the colors of autumn.  

More than a spectacle of color – although that’s reason enough for a visit – fall ushers in a celebration of harvest time.  Combines ply the corn fields, apples ripen on the trees, and people gather to celebrate the work behind them. 

The people of Gays Mills welcome the Apple Festival on September 24 and 25.  Always the last full weekend of September, the Apple Festival brings together people from around the county eager to shop for crafts, enjoy a meal, and of course, buy some apples.  There will be a horseshoe tournament, kiddie carnival, rummage sales, book sales, walk and run contests, and the Apple Festival Parade on Sunday. 

The village is also eager to show its new face, a new housing and retail development being built on higher ground in response to annual flooding.  Gays Mils will also host Flavor of the Kickapoo on October 7 – 9, a new event staged by “foodies” that highlights local organic and sustainable foods. 

Elsewhere, Norskedalen near Coon Valley will hold its Threshing Bee on September 24.  The event offers an authentic threshing bee in a pioneer setting, including “threshing oats, corn shelling, rope making, blacksmithing, butter churning, and cutting lumber with a portable sawmill.”  Pioneer craft demonstrations, antique engines, and farm machinery will also be on display.  

Fort Crawford Museum in Prairie du Chien will host “Visiting Our Ancestors” on Saturday, October 1. Costumed guides will narrate a guided tour of six historic cemeteries, beginning with the Old French Cemetery – the oldest in the Upper Mississippi Valley – and ending with the Brisbois Cemetery overlooking Prairie du Chien.  Also in Prairie du Chien, Mississippi Explorer Cruises will offer Fall Foliage Cruises on the river on weekends starting Sept 24, departing from Lawler Park on the riverfront.  

Visitors often ask when the color season peaks, which is rather like asking when the pot will boil.  The first two weeks of October are a good bet, depending on temperature, the arrival of rain, and other mysterious factors.  Regardless, don’t delay, because the first signs of fall are already creeping into view. 

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Fun at Summer’s End

August 13, 2011 by

Downtown, people seemed to glide along the sidewalks with a cool wind at their backs and at the post office, weather reports crossed the counter faster than stamps.  Along with the weather, everyone is talking about what they did last weekend and “what are you up to this weekend?”  Summer is nearing end and everyone is trying to squeeze as much fun out of her as possible.  

In Driftless Wisconsin, fun comes with the territory.  Where else in the world can you wake up and find blue sky held aloft by river bluffs decorated with red oak and white oak.  This sets people in the right mood before they’ve read the headlines and has them looking forward to the day at hand and the weekend ahead. 

Our weekends are populated with events that keep the fun coming. The folks in Viroqua will be celebrating Wild West Days on August 19 – 21, an opportunity to roll back the calendar to times when horses ran the roads and didn’t require $4 gas to keep running.  The weekend starts with an all Horse Parade – no motorized vehicles allowed! – and includes a concert by Sons of the Pioneers on Thursday and Friday nights, a hog wrassling contest, and Ranch Rodeo. 

If you haven’t figured out by now, history plays a big part in Driftless Wisconsin events, since this area holds some of the state’s earliest settlements. Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin’s second oldest community, hosts Breakfast in a Victorian Kitchen, at the historic Villa Louis on August 27.  Reservations are required for this intimate look at 19th century cuisine and cooking technology.  

Two weeks later on Sept 10 and 11, the Villa Louis will again host the Villa Louis Carriage Classic, an elegant event showcasing some of the nation’s finest trotting horses and restored carriages on the mansion grounds.  There’s no grander sight than a finely groomed horse parading proudly in the afternoon sun.  

Before then, Labor Day celebrations take center stage around Driftless Wisconsin.  Stoddard, Hillsboro, and Readstown all plan activities around the holiday that marks the unofficial end of summer. Interspersed with music, games, and hometown food, this tribute to labor offers farmers to get out of the field and ‘towners’ to get out from behind the desk.  And visitors the chance to experience some genuine small-town hospitality. 

So let’s ride that cool breeze for awhile – the real cold stuff is well down the road – and get together for some Driftless Wisconsin fun.  See you soon. 

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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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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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A Road Trip through Amish Country

March 25, 2011 by

A road trip through Driftless Wisconsin represents a casual excursion of discovery.  On this particular day, I set out to see some of the northern stretches of Driftless Wisconsin.  Even for someone who lives here, every day in Driftless Wisconsin is an adventure. 

I turned right off State Highway 27, which dissects Driftless Wisconsin into watersheds, onto County Road P, just north of Westby. County P meanders like an amusement ride through the bluffs of the back country, sandwiched between galloping landscapes and a brook running clear from snowmelt. 

This is the heart of Amish Country.  Handmade signs abound touting blacksmithing, upholstery, horseshoeing, custom-made furniture, hand-woven baskets, and the other hand crafts and trades for which the Amish are famous.  Road signs seem to mark the branches of a family tree, with names like Pa’s Road and Andy Miller Road.  

Attracted by a sign advertising “Mini-Barns, Furniture & Toys,” I turned right onto Pa’s Road, past a one-room school house and an Amish buggy whose driver raised his hand in greeting.  I turned into the crafter’s barnyard, where a shy young boy showed me to the woodworking shop.  There, stylish walnut buckboard benches and sleek cherry wood coffee tables sat like orphans waiting for a new home.  My host was quick to point out the children’s toys arranged neatly on shelves, demonstrating a wood duck that waddled web-footed as he pushed it along the floor. 

The Amish do not sell on Sundays and shun attention – this family did not want their names to appear in my story – but if you’re looking for a collection of Amish Crafts, try “Down a County Road” Amish Shops and Tours in Cashton.  They also offer Amish tours by appointment.  I once heard owner Kathy Kuderer give a talk on Amish culture and she knows her stuff.  

Take a road trip through the Amish Country of Driftless Wisconsin and you’ll soon get to know the Amish landscape as well; in unforgettable, albeit aimless ways. 

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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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