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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.

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.

Driftless Wisconsin gives you perspective

October 31, 2014 by Eric Frydenlund

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snowflake Ski and Golf Club features more than ski jumping

October 19, 2014 by Greg Hoffmann

Snowflake Ski and Golf Club outside Westby is known much more for the former than the latter.

Each winter, ski jumpers from all over the globe gather for a competition that draws hundreds of spectators. The ski jump structure and hill tower over the golf course.

That doesn’t mean what you can’t have a great time playing golf on the nine-hole course that sits at the bottom of that hill.

golf001The course is a Par 30 layout with six Par 3s and three Par 4s. The headwaters of Timber Coulee stream, one of the best trout fishing waterways in the state, wind through the course and add a challenge. So do some well-placed trees and undulating greens.

Probably the most undulating of those greens is on the 165-yard, No. 6 hole. If you don’t knock your tee shot on to the back of the putting surface, you are likely to watch your ball trickle back down hill on the green, which has a slope that rivals the grade of the ski jump. The hole is the No. 1 handicap hole on the course.

On the 164-yard No. 3 hole, you have to drive the ball over the stream. The green has more subtle, but still tricky breaks on it.

Numbers 7 and 8, both par 4s, can be challenging depending on what direction the wind is blowing from. You can get some pretty good breezes coming off the hills. No. 7, listed at 237 yards can play longer if the wind comes from the north. Some trees on the right also add obstacles.

No. 8, listed at 250 yards plays much longer if there is a stiff breeze from the south — which there was the day my partner and I played it. The hole is the No. 2 handicap hole on the course.

On most days, the course is well groomed overall and the greens well maintained. There are exceptions when it gets a lot of rain. Right now, some major re-grading is being done to the main ski jump hill, but that doesn’t interfere with your golf.

The course clubhouse offers daily food specials and a variety of beverages to wet your whistle after a round. Make sure you check out the photos of the ski jump competition. It’s been going on for more than 90 years.

Greens fees are under $10. If you play on a day when the clubhouse is not open, you are asked to deposit your fee on the honor system.

That informality, the beauty of the surrounding hills — dominated by the big jump — and the natural layout of the course make a round at Snowflake a lot of fun.

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Gregg Hoffmann, a semi-retired, award-winning journalist, writes the Wet A Fly: In The Driftless Area blog for his web site, www.driftlessimagesinpixelsandprose.com. He has written blogs for Driftless Wisconsin on fly fishing and golf this season.

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.

 

 

 

Snowflake Ski Jumping Tournament

January 13, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin

These are the options for competitors at the 89th Annual Snowflake Ski Jumping Tournament to be held near Westby on February 3 – 4.  The tournament will attract some of the best jumpers in the world to this 118-meter hill nestled in Timber Coulee.  And given the option, they don’t imagine jumping.  They jump.  

What possesses a person to leap head first from a 150-foot high scaffold, mortal men can only guess.  Yet that is precisely what energizes the spectacle of ski jumping, watching highly trained athletes discard reason and leap with a grace reserved for our winged friends.  What the ski jumper lacks in common sense, they make up with courage. 

My father knew this.  He took up this risky pastime as a young boy growing up on a farm near Westby, where the winds of winter and the shape of the land drew boys to the fantasy of taking flight.  Apparently the prospect of defying gravity appealed to young teenagers looking for escape from farm chores.   When the tobacco fields surrendered to snow, ski jumping became their passion. 

By the time I was a teenager in the 1960’s, dad had given up jumping for downhill skiing – that pedestrian form of transportation that jumpers rely upon when they return to earth.  He took me to a coulee not far from our house and imparted to me the ski jumper’s version of downhill: point your skis into the fall line and let gravity do the rest.  But ski jumping was still in his blood.  Every year in February, he would take me on the pilgrimage back to his roots, back to Timber Coulee.  

Many spectators sat in their cars down in the valley and honked their horns at the sight of a good jump, filling the valley with the sound of chrome-bumpered geese.  Not content with this secondhand view from the valley floor, dad and I would climb the steep steps along with the jumpers, turning our heads in unison to admire the last jump.  We would then stand near the scaffold takeoff to judge the jump by the shape of skier’s winged body and the utterances both hopeful and frightful that leapt from their mouths.   We could not see the landing from where we stood, but dad seemed to jump with them into the abyss and applaud with a knowing nod.   

This year’s event kicks off with Breakfast on Friday morning at Borgen’s Café, where dad and I once sat as jumpers described their daring feats with gesturing arms and a Norwegian brogue.  Competitors will practice on Thursday and Friday, with opening ceremonies for competition on Friday night at 7 pm and Saturday at noon.  Fireworks will fill the sky on Friday night between jumping rounds, and there will be live music at the Rod and Gun Club following the competition on both days.  And of course plenty of good eats and drinks on the grounds.

As I write this, snow is falling outside my window in a coulee not far from that first exhilarating dash down the hill.  Time to get out the skis.  And time for you to make plans for watching jumpers take flight at the Snowflake Ski Jumping Tournament. 

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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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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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