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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.

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.

Exploring Driftless Wisconsin’s History and Heritage

July 31, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

My last blog explored the music scene this summer in Driftless Wisconsin. Yet no trip to Driftless Wisconsin would be complete without discovering the natural and human history that shaped this unique region.

There are many upcoming events and activities that explore that history and heritage, and of course, the stunning scenery of Driftless Wisconsin.

While water shaped the Driftless landscape over eons, humans have left their cultural mark upon the region, through its captivating history of exploration and settlement and its rich farming heritage.

harvest photoLet’s begin with farming. On Saturday, August 22, Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center in Coon Valley hold its annual Threshing Bee. The event takes you back to times when chores were done by hand, including threshing oats, corn shelling, rope making, blacksmithing, butter churning, and cutting lumber. There are also pioneer craft demonstrations, antique farm machinery, and activities for the kids. Be sure to call ahead for reservations to the threshing dinner.

On August 14 and 15, Hillsboro will host its Charity Tractor Pull. Pulling classes include super farm tractors, pro stock tractors, super modified tractors, and all sorts of powerful machines that will provide plenty of excitement for the fans.

An event that celebrates our pioneer past takes place in Viroqua on August 15 – 18. Wild West Days celebrates the adventuresome spirit that opened the new frontier during the 1800s. Enjoy hog wrestling, a rodeo, and an authentically recreated western boomtown. An elegant horse-drawn parade kicks off the event on the evening of the 14th.

And there’s plenty of outdoor activities to explore the topography that Driftless Wisconsin is known for. Bike rides allow participants to experience the landscape at a leisurely pace; time enough to soak in the scenery you might miss at 60 mph. The Aloha Bike Tour on August 22 visits the rolling farm land around Viroqua, while the Kickapoo BRAVE Ride on September 19 in Gays Mills travels the ridges and valleys along the Kickapoo River.

Be sure to travel the rivers that shaped Driftless Wisconsin over the centuries. Mississippi River Cruises in Prairie du Chien explores the wildlife and waterways that make the Upper Mississippi River one of most scenic destinations in America. Guided tours will take you into the backwaters and show you the river you have never seen from the road.

Check out our calendar of events for many more opportunities to experience Driftless Wisconsin from different perspectives. Each perspective offers a new look on how Driftless Wisconsin was shaped by the forces of nature and the people who settled its land.

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.

The Round Barns of Vernon County

March 21, 2015 by Corey A. Edwards

Round Barns of Vernon County

Tour the Round Barns of Vernon County

Did you know that the Round Barns of Vernon County, Wisconsin are the highest concentration of round barns in the world? While there were only 17 left at last count, not that long ago the number was nearly double that.

Of course, some of the round barns of Vernon County are of newer construction but most of the round barns here were constructed between 1890 and 1930. Used primarily as dairy barns, round barns didn’t appear here until dairy farming did.

Indiana may call itself the “round barn capital of the world” but they did so before anyone realized that Wisconsin actually has more round barns than any other state, Indiana included. Wisconsin could have cried foul over the situation but decided to let Indiana have the motto, seeing as how it was an honest mistake and they’d already spent so much money getting it emblazoned on things. That’s just how we roll in Wisconsin.

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Summer trout fishing in Driftless Wisconsin

July 26, 2014 by Greg Hoffmann

Fishing often becomes more challenging in the dog days of summer in Driftless Area streams.

Driftless 085webThe heat, and in some years shallow water depths, often make it necessary to hunt for the deeper holes and areas of streams where trees and other growth along the stream provide some shade.

This year, with the moist spring and early summer, depths on most streams are good. That’s a break for fishers who come from elsewhere in hopes of finding good fishing.

Terrestrials — flies that look like grasshoppers, crickets and other land loving insects — often work best in mid-summer. They mimic one of those critters who has fallen into the water, and trout love to surface to eat a treat.

Summer fishing is best from dawn into the early morning and late afternoons until dusk. Your shadows aren’t as likely to spook fishing during that time. The majority of the hatches also take place during those times.

The Driftless Angler, a great fly shop in Viroqua, says this about the insects during the summer days: “The major insect available in the summer time is the tiny olive (formerly Pseudocoleon) with some Cahills, Tan Caddis and Midges as well. Later on in the season, some Coulee region streams get a heavy hatch of Tricos; these tiny mayflies can provide some great fishing on summer mornings. Ants, beetles, crickets and hoppers are also very important and readily available sources of food in the summer, and can provide some excellent fishing even when trout do not seem to be interested in anything else.”

Two star streams in Vernon County — Timber Coulee and the West Fork — can be productive in summer. Trout often can be found tucked up against the higher banks and in shaded areas of Timber.

The authors of the second edition of Wisconsin Trout Streams write this about Timber: “Timber Coulee Creek might just be the crown jewel among Wisconsin spring creeks.”

After describing some of the management projects that have been dobe on the creek, Jeff Mayers, Steve Born, Andy Morton and Bill Sonzogni write: “No wonder Trout Unlimited named it one of the top 100 streams in the country.”

When you’re done fishing, try some of the pubs and restaurants in nearby Coon Valley. There also are places to stay near Timber, perhaps most notably Coulee Cabins right across the road from the stream.

The West Fork serves more or less as the “home field stream’ for this blogger. On its north ends, near Bloomingdale, you can find shadier areas that provide good summer fishing. Farther south, in the more popular areas of the stream near Avalanche, you can find some deeper holes.

After fishing the West Fork, you can go to Westby or La Farge to eat. There also is the Rockton Bar, a hangout for outdoors enthusiasts, not far away.

While Timber and the West Fork attract the most attention, and fishers, there are plentiful smaller streams in Vernon and Crawford counties. Matt at the Driftless Angler can help you with these, and even guide you for a fee.

Later in summer, and in September, when the temperatures start to cool down, fishing often picks up. Standing in a stream, surrounded by early autumn colors, and catching trout is an experience that can’t be beat.

For more information on the streams in Vernon and Crawford counties, go to  http://www.driftlessangler.com. For the Wisconsin Trout Streams guidebook, which includes streams around the state, go to http://www.uwpress.wisc.edu.

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Gregg Hoffmann is a semi-retired journalist and avid fly fisherman. He publishes www.driftlessimagesinpixelsandprose.com.

 

 

 

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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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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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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Cruising Driftless Wisconsin

June 25, 2011 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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Getting Lost and Finding Apples

October 15, 2010 by

Touring the labyrinth of county and township roads that wind their way along shifting rivers, through intersecting ravines, and around plunging hillsides leads to eventual departure from the world as you know it.  As your compass needle spins in utter confusion and you reach for a map, you look around and realize you have discovered some lost paradise never before seen by man; at least not on this day.  

I found myself in this pleasurable quandary not long ago while on a guided fly fishing trip with Driftless Angler Fly Shop out of Viroqua.  Their expert guide and novice chauffer took me to Timber Coulee north of Westby off County P.  My father grew up in rural Westby, a Scandinavian community that knows its way around its heritage.  Dregne’s Scandinavian Gifts on Main Street claims “You won’t believe what is in our store!”  But a quick look around will find glassware, collectibles, flatware, gifts, clothing, clogs, and all things Norwegian this side of Norway.

 On the way to Timber Coulee, I soon lost my sense of direction and location while hurtling along township roads wedged between lush hillsides and meandering streams that peek luminescent through intermittent clearings in the trees.  I’d never seen this place before and probably could not find my way back, owing to my directional incompetence and my guide’s sworn secrecy for hot fishing spots. 

It was this surefire way of discovery that I found Johnstown Road in the Kickapoo Valley.  I was setting up a rest stop for the Kickapoo Brave (bicycle) Ride a couple of weeks ago at Star Valley, a whimsically named place near the junctions of County Roads B and C, which seem to head in eight different directions at once. I took a wrong turn onto Johnstown Road on the way back to Gays Mills, and ended up 20 miles in the opposite direction in Fairview – yes, the view is more than fair – one of the most delightfully scenic diversions I have ever stumbled upon.   

Getting lost has its rewards, especially around Gays Mills, which fancies itself as the Apple Capital of Wisconsin.  The title fits considering the seven orchards perched along Highway 171 and Orchard Ridge. Cool weather, fall colors, and apple orchards go nicely together this time of year with a warm cup of apple cider.  Along with cider you will find 50 varieties of apples, jams, jellies, syrups, specialty foods, and Driftless area arts and crafts. 

It’s always a good idea to have a bag of apples in the back seat when you get lost.  You’ll have something good to munch on while warding off starvation and admiring the scenery.  At least until you swallow your pride along with the apple and get out a map. 

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Celebrating Our Heritage in Vernon County

July 31, 2010 by

Their stoic faces and austere surroundings brought to mind the rugged character of frontier life.  It’s not unlike the image brought to life at Skumsrud Heritage Farm in Coon Valley, the site of the Ice Cream Social & Chicken Q on Sunday, August 8 from 11 am to 5 pm. 

The social takes place on the grounds of the Farm, a collection of a dozen buildings dating back to before the turn of the 20th century, including the oldest log building in Vernon County and the area’s first school house.  My wife and I toured the buildings during an art fair on July 3 and it felt like walking into the backdrop of my grandparent’s 1910 photo.  

The social will bring back the simple pleasures of summer afternoons when families gathered for ice cream and games.  In addition to frozen custard treats (make your own cones, sundaes, and floats) children can find fun in yard games, checkers, and face painting.  But before dessert comes the main course; a Chicken Q beginning at 11 am. 

Viroqua will celebrate a frontier heritage of a different sort on August 20 – 22.  Wild West Days will commence on Friday evening with a Horse Parade through downtown, featuring over 50 entries in the largest horse parade in Wisconsin.  The parade includes Cody II the buffalo, who might suffer from an identity crisis in this “all-horse” parade.

Spend the weekend strolling an 1880’s Wild West Boomtown, including a hotel, saloon, general store, marshal’s office, bank, livery store, and other frontier vendors. You might want to take cover during the gun fight staged on Main Street.  And you’ll find plenty to see and do in a Civil War encampment, Fur Trade Rendezvous, stage coach rides, and a ranch rodeo.  

In conjunction with Wild West Days, the Temple Theater in Viroqua will present a concert by the “High Riders,” a band anchored by Roy (Dusty) Rogers Jr. and named by his mother, Dale Evans.  Shows are at 7:30 pm on Thursday and Friday.  “Wild West Days is a great event,” says Emily Joy Rozeske, Executive Director of the Viroqua Chamber Main Street.  “It’s a full weekend of thrills from the 1800’s and today.” 

Any August day in Driftless Wisconsin offers a glimpse of life’s simpler pleasures: a walk along the river or hike through the hills. But this August offers something more; a chance to experience the frontier that comes to life from hundred-year-old photographs.

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