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Driftless Dark Skies: Summer of Saturn

June 6, 2017 by John Heasley

There’s a little bit of showmanship in sharing stargazing. It helps to be mindful that other people might not be quite as wowed as you are by the sight of a faint fuzzy thing in the eyepiece of a telescope (even if it is the combined light of hundreds of billions of stars that has been traveling tens of millions of years before ending the journey on our retinas). So you select what you share with care and save the most awesome for last. This summer, that’s Saturn.

I love hearing the reactions of people when they see Saturn in a telescope: “wow”, “groovy”, “cool”, “boss”, “dope” or “sweet” depending on the generation. Some just curse reverentially while a few check the telescope to see if I snuck in a picture. Saturn is stunning surrounded by its moons and rings. This summer, those rings are at their widest when viewed from our planet. 

Saturn will be its closest to Earth the night of June 14-15. During this opposition, Earth is directly between the Sun and Saturn, so we get to say “Saturnian Syzygy” because all three are in a straight line. Even at its closest, Saturn is still almost a billion miles from Earth. The sunlight we see reflected off Saturn and its rings left 75 minutes before we see it.

Look for Saturn this month in the southeast after sunset, in the south around midnight, and in the southwest before sunrise. It will be the brightest object in its part of the sky except for Antares (to its right) which has an orange-red color and is not quite as bright as Saturn. The viewing gets better as we get further into June. On June 1st, Saturn rises in the southeast at 9:21pm, is highest in the south at 1:56am, and sets in the southwest at 6:35am. By June 30th, Saturn rises, transits, and sets two hours earlier.

Saturn is the slowest of the naked-eye planets. It takes almost 30 years to orbit the Sun and spends about 2 ½ years in each constellation as viewed from Earth. Saturn will be in Ophiuchus the Serpent-Bearer until November when it moves into Sagittarius the Archer. When you are stargazing in 2047, be sure to notice that Saturn has returned to Ophiuchus!

You can have a look at Saturn through a telescope at free public programs. Journey to Kickapoo Valley Reserve on June 8 for Spring Trails by Light of the Strawberry Moon (8-10 pm). Watch the Moon and Saturn rise together and catch a glimpse of Jupiter and its moons. Gather at the visitor center and hike down to Old 131 Trail. Starsplitters of Wyalusing State Park offer a Public Program on June 17 (8:30 pm) and a Star Party on June 24 (8:30 pm).

You won’t be able to see it, but the Cassini spacecraft is nearing the end of its mission. It has been exploring Saturn and its moons and rings since 2004 and is running low on fuel. For its finale, it will make multiple passes through the rings of Saturn to make its closest observations ever. On September 15, it will be deliberately plunged into the atmosphere of Saturn so that any surviving microbes do not contaminate the moons of Saturn where there may be life. Imagine it orbiting the ringed world and enjoy your summer of Saturn.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.

Driftless Dark Skies: Walk When the Moon is Full

October 8, 2016 by John Heasley

This fall is a marvelous time for a moonwalk.  The next three months, our calendar and lunar months align.  The new moon falls near the beginning of the month.  First quarter moon is a week later.  Full moon is mid-month.  Last quarter moon is the third week.  And then the cycle repeats.  It has been a real challenge for calendar creators to get the solar and lunar cycles to line up.  Our solar year is just under 365¼ days.  A lunation, time between new moons, is just over 29½ days.  So you get twelve moons in a year with 11 days left over.  Our Gregorian calendar is solar and ignores the lunar cycle.  Even though “month” comes from “moonth”, we have random months of 28-31 days.  The Islamic calendar is more lunar.  The month begins when the crescent moon is first sighted, and the year is 354 days long.  The Jewish calendar is a compromise.  The months are the length of a lunation, but an extra month is added about every other year to keep the lunar and solar cycles in sync.

moonrisefrankshillIt’s easy to spot the full moon rising.  Be outside when the sun is setting.  Turn your back to the sun, and watch the direction of your really long shadow.  That’s where the moon will rise.  It can be anywhere between northeast to southeast.  This fall, the moon rises between east and southeast.  Full moon happens when the Earth is between the moon and sun, so watch for moonrise about the same time as sunset.  It’s a time of balance.  While you’re facing east, you’ll see a pinkish glow called the “Belt of Venus” just above the horizon and the darker shadow of Earth below the pink.   There’s only one moment when the moon is 100% full, but the moon will appear almost as full the day before and after.  That gives us some slack for when it’s cloudy.

Stargazers often avoid the full moon because it dims so many stars.  Others fear the dark.  But the moonlight eases the transition from day to night, and there’s a wonder there worth seeing.  My favorite places for moonwalking in the Driftless Area are Wyalusing State Park, Wildcat Mountain State Park, and Kickapoo Valley Reserve.  KVR continues their popular program from last winter and offers four evenings this fall and winter to “Walk When the Moon is Full”.  We will gather at sunset/moonrise at the Visitor Center and hike down to Old 131 Trail.  KVR astronomy educators will have binoculars and telescopes set up for you to enjoy the highlands, maria, craters, and rays of the full moon.  We will also take a look at the planets and constellations while we enjoy the other sights, sounds, and smells of the moonlit world.  This will involve some moderate hiking in the dark on uneven and possibly slippery surfaces.  Participants have the option of remaining at the Visitor Center for stargazing.  Event is free, but please register so that we can send you weather updates.  Dates are October 15 (Hunter’s Moon), November 12 (Frosty Moon), February 10 (Snow Moon), and March 11 (Crust Moon)

I took my title from the children’s book by Wisconsin ornithologist and naturalist Frances Hamerstrom.  She tells the true story of taking her two children to walk every month when the moon is full.  Depending on the season, they meet up with deer, rabbits, possums, woodcocks, owls, fireflies, frogs, foxes, weasels and the other crepuscular creatures that live in the twilight time between day and night. 

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley. 

Thanks to Barbara Duerksen for sharing Frances Hamerstrom’s book with me.

Driftless Dark Skies: Home in the Milky Way

September 2, 2016 by John Heasley

“Why should I feel lonely?  Is not our planet in the Milky Way?

Henry David Thoreau, Walden 

Photo by Josh Thompson of Driftless Hills Photography

Photo by Josh Thompson of Driftless Hills Photography

Look up into the September sky and you will see our Milky Way flowing across.  It starts in the northwest where you find Perseus the Hero, now safe from the gorgon and sea monster; passes through Cassiopeia the Queen, Perseus’s mother-in-law; flows high overhead where Cygnus the Swan and Aquila the Eagle are flying and Delphinus the Dolphin jumps out of the stream; and arches down to the southwest where Sagittarius, the centaur, still shoots his arrows.  It helps to see Sagittarius as a teapot with handle, lid, and spout.  Look just above where the tea is pouring and you will be looking into the center of our galaxy.  Look just to the right to find ruddy Mars and creamy Saturn, bright planets shining in the Milky Way just as Thoreau reminded us.

Perseus, Cassiopeia, Cygnus, Aquila, Delphinus, and Sagittarius are constellations, patterns of bright stars created by the people of the Fertile Crescent and Mediterranean.  Other people on our planet pictured “dark constellations” in the Great Rift of the Milky Way where the stars are hidden by dust clouds.  The Incas of South American saw llamas and serpents.  The Aborigines of Australia found an emu.  I am looking forward to learning more about these dark constellations at the November 4 meeting of Iowa County Astronomers in Dodgeville.  You can also see the Milky Way at two public programs this month: September 10 (8:30) with Starsplitters of Wyalusing and September 30 (7:00) with Kickapoo Valley Reserve.

For millennia, humans could only see thousands of stars, even under the darkest of skies.  The Milky Way appeared cloudy.   Then in 1610, Galileo turned his telescope to the Milky Way and discovered that the nebulosity was actually millions of stars never before imagined.  In Siderius Nuncius (Starry Messenger) he shares the awe and wonder that comes from resolving the nature of the Milky Way and discovering that “the galaxy is, in fact, nothing but congeries of innumerable stars.”

Now we know that there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy and that it is just one of the hundreds of billions of galaxies in our cosmos.  The beauty of the Scientific Revolution is that you don’t need to trust Galileo.  You can see it for yourself.  While most people now live in places where they cannot see our Milky Way because of light pollution, we still can in the Driftless Area.   Find a dark spot on a clear, moon-free night away from the lights of town.  Make yourself comfortable in a reclining chair or lying on a blanket.  Scan the Milky Way with binoculars and see the millions of stars.  Create your own constellations, find your own animals in the dark rifts, and make your myths.  Be at home in our Milky Way.

Every star we see in the night sky is part of our galaxy.  We are in the Milky Way, so we can never see it all at once, just as we can never see a forest for the trees.  Imagine the Milky Way as a Frisbee.  When we see it streaming across the sky, we are looking into the central disk where the stars are so numerous and distant that they flow together.  When we look in other directions, we are looking out of the disk and can more easily see the individual stars in our neighborhood.

One of my favorite places to enjoy the Milky Way is at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, 8569 acres of public property in Vernon County co-managed by a citizen board on behalf of the Ho-Chunk Nation and State of Wisconsin. Like many places in the Driftless Area, it has dark skies and limited light pollution.   Yet, I observe there with a sense of nostalgia. You can feel the homesickness and yearning to regain what has been lost. I visit the rock shelters and remember that this was home to the Ho-Chunk and others before they were displaced by European arrivals. I look at the names on the wall of the Visitor Center and remember the families who lost their homes to make way for a dam project in the 1960s. I see a little sky glow from La Farge and Ontario and remember that people in urban areas can no longer see our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

But with the nostalgia comes hope.  The Ho-Chunk Nation is now able to protect and share their home on the Reserve.  Many of the displaced farm families are now active in preserving and educating others about their former home.  KVR staff and educators are working to protect and let visitors enjoy the dark skies.  As we move into autumn, I think of it as a homecoming.  Welcome home to our Milky Way.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley. 

Photo of Milky Way streaming over the Wisconsin River at Lone Rock is courtesy of Driftless Hills Photography. Thanks, Josh! Give his page a like for more amazing photos.

 

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer Triangle

July 6, 2016 by John Heasley

As darkness falls this month, watch for three shining stars emerging in the east.   They are the brightest stars in three separate constellations, but together they form an asterism (a star pattern) known as the Summer Triangle.  They cover an area of sky larger than your outstretched hand. 

Milkyway_Swan_PanoramaVega is the highest of the three and is the main star of the constellation Lyra the Lyre.  The light you see left Vega back in the spring of 1991.  Below and to the right of Vega is Altair in the constellation Aquila the Eagle.  It is closer to Earth, and its light has been journeying since the fall of 1999.  As the sky darkens, watch for our home galaxy, the Milky Way, passing between the two stars. 

There is a story of the two stars told in Japan, China, and Korea.  Altair, a poor herdsman, falls in love with Vega, a princess.  Vega’s father places them on opposite sides of the heavenly river, the Milky Way.  Once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month, the Emperor shows mercy and Altair is allowed to cross the river to visit with Vega. 

The third star of the Summer Triangle is Deneb.  Look for it between and to the left of Vega and Altair.  Deneb is the tail of Cygnus the Swan.  You can make out the outstretched wings of the Swan just to the right of Deneb reaching up and down.  Its long neck reaches almost as far as a line traced between Vega and Altair.  I imagine Cygnus as flying over the Milky Way.  Deneb is one of the farthest and most luminous stars you can see with your naked eyes.   It is over 200 times larger and 250,000 times brighter than our Sun.  The light you see left Deneb at least 1425 years ago. 

There are three planets to go along with the three stars.  Jupiter is bright in the southwest as night falls.  The Waxing Crescent Moon passes by Jupiter on July 8 and 9.  Mars and Saturn are glowing in the south just above Scorpius the Scorpion.  The Waxing Gibbous Moon passes by Mars on July 14 and by Saturn on July 15.  Just below Saturn, look for Antares whose name means “rival of Mars”. 

You will have a chance to see these stars and planets through a telescope when Starsplitters have a public program at Wyalusing State Park on July 9 (8:30pm) and Northwest Suburban Astronomers have a public program at Wildcat Mountain State Park on July 30 (8:00pm).  Or just enjoy the sight of the three stars and three planets coming out in the dark skies over the Driftless Area. 

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer Stargazing

May 3, 2016 by John Heasley

The warm nights ahead are a great time to get to know the night sky.  There are plenty of stargazers in the Lower Wisconsin Valley and beyond who keep telescopes and would be happy to share a look with you.  If you have been meaning to explore our starry skies, this is your summer. 

Iowa County Astronomers have monthly meetings on May 6, June 3, July 1, August 5, September 2, and October 7.  There’s usually an indoor presentation, and then we head over to Bethel Horizons to view the skies with a wonderful 17 inch Dobsonian telescope.  Everyone is always welcome.  It’s an excellent time to try out different telescopes and ask questions.  See icastro.org for monthly updates.  ICA will also be sharing a public program at Governor Dodge in August. 

Universe in the Park expands the Wisconsin Idea by making the boundaries of the university not just the boundaries of the state but the boundaries of the universe.  UW-Madison astronomy students visit state parks to give talks, answer questions, and share telescope viewing.  They will do several programs at Governor Dodge and Blue Mounds and at state parks across the state.  Full schedule is at their website. 

Northwest Suburban Astronomers will be at Wildcat Mountain on July 30, 8-10pm.  This friendly group escapes the light pollution of their homes outside Chicago to enjoy the dark skies of our Driftless Area.  For over a week, they create an astronomy village in the group campground where they welcome the public for a night of memorable stargazing through their amazing telescopes,  This year’s topic is solar eclipses, especially the solar eclipse visible in the United States in August 2017. 

Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers dark skies and will be having a Solstice Stargaze on June 18 and a Perseid Meteor Shower Party on August 12.  Enjoy hiking or canoeing during the day and astronomy at night. 

Starsplitters of Wyalusing has public programs at Wyalusing State Park on May 28, June 4, July 9, August 6, September 10, and October 1.  The evening begins with an indoor presentation in the Huser Astronomy Center and then goes outdoors to explore the sky with their fine collection of telescopes.   

While you are looking ahead to summer stargazing, don’t miss the sky events of May.  There will be a meteor shower (Eta Aquarids) on May 5.  That’s close to the New Moon, so skies should be dark.  Mercury crosses the face of the Sun on May 9.  You can marvel at this transit with Iowa County Astronomers at Governor Dodge (Twin Valley Picnic Site) from sunrise to 2pm.  Look for Jupiter near the Waxing Gibbous Moon on May 14.  Mars and Earth will be at their closest (just 47 million miles on May 30) since 2005.  Mars rises with Scorpius just after dusk and is bright and beautiful all night long.  Mars, Saturn, and the Moon will all be clustered together the nights of May 21 and 22.  Enjoy the views! 

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

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.

Driftless Dark Skies: Becoming a Stargazer

February 1, 2016 by John Heasley

Astronomy is an awesome way to discover your home in the cosmos.  And it’s easy.  Go outside.  Look up.  You’re a stargazer! 

stargazerEven in cities, you can find stars and planets and the moon, but it’s more fun if you can get away from the light pollution.  We have fine dark skies in the Driftless Area.  I especially enjoy Kickapoo Valley Reserve and Wyalusing State Park.  Come to KVR on Feb 19 for Winter Trails by the Light of the Snow Moon for moongazing and trekking. 

Our eyes are pretty good at seeing in the dark, but you have to allow time for your pupils to dilate and the cones in your retina to become more sensitive.  It might take 20-30 minutes for your eyes to get dark adapted, so the longer you’re out, the more you will see.  Flashlights, headlights, and digital devices can quickly ruin your night vision, so avoid those.  Red light helps to preserve night vision.  A red LED headlamp keeps your hands free.  You can even cover your flashlight with a red filter or even nail polish. 

You’ll stay out longer if you are warm and comfortable.  We get lots of practice with cold weather in the Driftless Area.  Wear layers and keep dry.  You won’t be moving around much, so dress for 20 degrees colder than what the thermometer says.  Your hunting and fishing and birding friends are a great source of advice.  It’s easier if you are lying down.  A blanket or air mattress or reclining chair is great, and you can insulate with blankets or sleeping bag.  Don’t forget snacks and warm beverage. 

I haven’t mentioned anything about buying a telescope.  It’s better to learn the sky before you start spending money.  One of the best and least expensive accessories I have is a planisphere.  It’s a simple wheel that you can set for any day or time, and it will identify the stars and constellations in any direction.  There are also plenty of great apps for your smart phone.  I use astronomy software when I am inside, but when I’m under the stars, I like a low-tech approach. My favorite planisphere is The Night Sky by David Chandler (10 inch/40°-50°).  Some nights I appreciate the larger size (16 inch) and print of David Levy’s Guide to the Stars.  Both are easy to read with a red light.  Your local independent bookstore will have one or can order one for you. 

Keep a simple astronomy bag: hat, gloves, scarf, snack, red light, and planisphere.  When the skies are clear, you’re ready to stargaze!

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley. 

Photo: Stargazing at Kickapoo Valley Reserve with red light and planisphere.

Driftless Area Dark Skies: Perseids

August 8, 2015 by John Heasley

Some days we journey to other worlds.  Other days these worlds come to us.  On the night of Aug 12/13, pieces of Comet Swift-Tuttle will streak through our atmosphere.  We call this annual meteor perseids_bruenjes bshower the Perseids.  During its 133-year journey from beyond Pluto in the Kuiper Belt to the Sun, Comet Swift-Tuttle leaves behind a stream of comet dust.  Every year our world passes through this stream, and we see meteors seeming to radiate back to the constellation Perseus.

2015 is an especially good year to enjoy the Perseids since there will be no moonlight to interfere.  The best time will be between midnight when our planet turns into the debris stream and 4 am when dawn begins.  The forecast is for meteors to peak around 3 am.

It’s easy to enjoy the Perseids.  Find a dark spot away from town lights.  We are lucky to enjoy many areas of dark skies here in the Driftless Area.  I’ve watched meteor showers from Wyalusing State Park as well as from a sandbar in the Wisconsin River.  The Kickapoo Valley Reserve has especially dark skies and will be hosting a Perseids Party on August 12 with an indoor program at 8pm and outdoor viewing at 9pm.

You don’t need any special equipment such as binoculars, just your eyes.  Keep the flashlights off and let your eyes dark adapt so you can see more.  It’s best to be comfortable and looking up, so bring a reclining chair or blanket or inflatable mattress.  Remember to dress warmly.  Temperatures can drop even in the summer, and you won’t be moving around much.  Don’t forget snacks.  The direction you face really doesn’t matter since meteors can appear in any part of the sky.  I like facing the northeast, so I can keep an eye on Perseus just below the “W” of Cassiopeia.  If you face away from Perseus, you should see meteors with longer trails.  Bring friends to see all the meteors you miss.  You can expect to see a meteor every couple of minutes and maybe more often.

If the late night hours don’t suit you, you can also catch the Perseids in the evening.  Sunset is a little after 8 and the sky is fully dark by 10.  There are fewer meteors during this time, but the ones you see can be impressive.  They are called “Earthgrazers” and they move more slowly and leave longer trails across the sky.  You can also see the Perseids on the nights before and after August 12.

The meteors we see are only the size of seeds.  They are so bright because they are coming in at over 100,000 mph.  From our world here in the Driftless Area, we can watch these pieces of another world arriving and lighting up our skies.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.  Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Photographing Scenery in Driftless Wisconsin

April 6, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

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

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

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

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

Favorite subjects while photographing scenery in Driftless Wisconsin

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

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

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

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

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

Driftless Winter Sports

February 21, 2015 by Corey A. Edwards

Driftless Winter Sports - snowshoeing and cross country skiingWinter time in the Driftless Wisconsin region means outdoor activities. Once the snow flies, a Driftless winter is filled with skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling opportunities.

Some places just about plumb shut down once that heavy, white blanket of snow hits – but not in Wisconsin’s Driftless region! We love the outdoors, no matter the season, and each season brings with it its own special activities. What follows is a short list of just some of the activities and the places you can experience the great outdoors of a Driftless winter.

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Revealing the next season

November 10, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin

6Just because the leaves have fallen does not mean the show has ended.  If anything, Driftless Wisconsin’s stunning beauty is accentuated, revealing limestone outcroppings, subtle contours of the land, meandering creeks, and other new vistas previously hidden.

Deer, typically concealed behind a curtain of foliage, can be seen scampering across naked hillsides. Squirrels, gathering groceries to stock their pantry before the onset of winter, can be heard scurrying about in the freshly fallen leaves like children raiding a potato chip bag. It all steps into view come November.

Absent fall’s cool winds and fluttering leaves, the forest stands mute, a stillness as deep as a tranquil lake begging for you to jump in.  And jump in you must.

There are many ways to enter this season of tranquility descending on Driftless Wisconsin; many ways to experience and enjoy this prelude to the holiday season.

If a brisk walk in the woods still beckons you, as it does me, then Driftless Wisconsin’s parks await discovery.  Kickapoo Valley Reserve’s trails explore the Kickapoo Valley landscape adjoining the river.  Wildcat Mountain State Park trails overview the Kickapoo River while the trails of Wyalusing State Park overlook the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers.

If shopping before the holiday rush and without the frenzy of shopping mall parking lots appeals to you, as it does me, then Driftless Wisconsin’s main street stores with friendly clerks await your curiosity.  General stores and specialty shops, reminiscent of the era of bustling downtowns, are scattered throughout the region in our laid-back but vibrant small communities.

And if a quiet, romantic dinner and comfy Bed & Breakfast or Inn tickles your sensibilities, as it does mine, then Driftless Wisconsin’s inviting restaurants and lodges awaits your indulgence. Restaurants and bars, filled with the banter of locals recalling the day’s amusing encounters; and lodges tucked into secluded valleys and scenic landscapes, are sprinkled throughout the region.

The trees may know something we don’t: the less you have to show, the more you reveal of what’s behind you.  Best to jump in and take a hard look.

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Fall’s season-ending show

October 1, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin

7Out for our evening walk, our dog Riley seems intent on exploring the smells of fall: decaying leaves and animal scents along the trail.  I’m focused on the show. A patch of first color hangs above the canopy, lit up like a sunset. A fluorescent glaze coats the trees, the first hint of fall’s arrival. The show has begun.

Fall’s appeal stems from my earliest memories of hunting; following my father’s footsteps into the woods with anticipation hanging from every branch. Of course, his chance of seeing a deer were somewhat diminished by the noise-maker child he had in tow. We still heard the sounds of deer snorts in the distance, which added to the mystery of the show.

A Driftless Wisconsin fall is full of mystery.  You can explore this mystery from the heights and depths of the Driftless Wisconsin landscape.  If you are looking for an overview of the plot, try one of the overlooks at our state parks.  Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario offers a stunning vista of the Kickapoo River Valley, which sprawls westward from its perch above the river.  Or cross the Wisconsin River from Prairie du Chien and climb the hill leading to Wyalusing State Park and see the color-framed confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers.

If you’re looking to get into the story a little deeper, then take State Highway 27 through Cashton, Westby, Viroqua, and Seneca, which travels the ridge between the Kickapoo and Mississippi like a catwalk above the stage.  Then jump into either valley along one of the many County highways that meander down to the river through coulees bathed in fall color.

The Mississippi Valley offers great panoramas of sheer river bluffs and a big valley dressed up in its Sunday best.  And yes, with a big river to boot.  The Kickapoo Valley presents a more subtle presentation, with smaller hills and remote back roads that give you the sense of discovering paradise lost.

And if you’re looking for an in-depth study of fall color, take a walk.  Fall colors of every hue, from bright yellows to deep reds, will immerse you in a kaleidoscope of changing scenes.  Look down occasionally, so as not to trip over a tree root, but also to witness the culmination of the show; a curtain-dropping display of spent leaves at your feet.

So there you have it, a gallery of landscapes from every seat in the theater. Now it’s time to see it for yourself. Hurry though, the show has already begun.

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Picturing Driftless Wisconsin

May 9, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin

I did that yesterday; abandoned the car for a walk along the Mississippi River bank. The wind was light from the southwest, impacting the bank at an angle so that wave crests darted along the shore like fish exploring the shallows. While the waves chased my feet, the Iowa bluffs shot skyward from the opposite side of the rumpled sheet of water. 

 

I enjoy exploring those bluffs along the Mississippi and Kickapoo Rivers.  Generally speaking, the breathless walk up is rewarded by the breathtaking look down. The entire valley will simply not fit in a camera frame; you need to turn your head to catch where the river is coming from and going to. 

There are numerous places to enjoy this vantage.  Wildcat State Park near Ontario overlooks the meandering Kickapoo in Northern Driftless Wisconsin, while Wyalusing State Park oversees the Mississippi in the South.  County parks, waysides, and overlooks are scattered in between, where you can get out of the car and venture a look.  

For that walk along the river, consider the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge, a defunct dam project now converted into a nature preserve.  Or visit Readstown, Soldiers Grove, Gays Mills, or Wauzeka, some of the many tranquil communities tucked along the Kickapoo.  

My walk along the river was on St. Feriole Island in Prairie du Chien, a slice of land overflowing with frontier history. Equally compelling views of the Mississippi from water level can be captured along the Great River Road, as it winds north along the river through Ferryville, De Soto, and Genoa

While you’re indulging your senses, be sure to explore the many events happening in Driftless Wisconsin.  Gays Mills will hold its annual Folk Festival of Music on May 11 – 13.  The Folk Festival ventures across the musical spectrum from traditional Eastern European to bluegrass.  And it’s not just for sittin’ and listenin.’ Friday starts with a square dance and Saturday includes dancing and a fiddle bee. 

Westby is the stage for the Syttenda Mai on May 18 – 20, the annual celebration of Norwegian Constitution Day. This year’s event includes arts and crafts, a kiddie parade, a 5K walk/run, a bicycle tour ranging from 30K to 100K, and much more. 

On May 19, the Villa Louis on St. Feriole Island in Prairie du Chien will offer “a culinary tour of the late 19th century through the preparation and consumption of a Victorian breakfast – using the foods, utensils and technology of the time.”  A tour of the Victorian Estate will follow; reservations are required. 

Whether viewing or doing, there’s an experience in Driftless Wisconsin to meet every perspective.  Time to put down the camera and step into the scene. 

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Wildlife Sightings

November 1, 2011 by

A fox dashes through the underbrush with his nose down, apparently late for a dinner appointment.  A coyote stands perk-eared, listening for her next meal.  A flock of turkeys parades across the frame like a crowd exiting a theater. And a doe and her yearling pose for several shots, nuzzling and hamming it up for a family portrait.  

With trees stripped of leafy concealments, late fall offers one of the best times to view wildlife in Driftless Wisconsin.  In fact, decaying leaves on the ground are more likely to warn you of approaching critters.  Just sit quietly on a trail and listen for the telltale rattle of leaves.  Or drive slowly through Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario or Wyalusing State Park near Prairie du Chien and scan the forest for deer on the move. 

If birds are your focus, Mississippi Explorer Cruises will host Fall Migration Cruises on November 5 & 6 and 12 & 13.  The cruises depart from Lansing, Iowa, right across the river from Ferryville and De Soto.  The excursions will tour the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, where you can view the migration of Tundra Swans, Bald Eagles, and numerous species of waterfowl. Naturalists and birders are on board to narrate the cruise and answer your questions. 

The Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge is another great place to observe wildlife in its natural habitat. Numerous animals and over 100 species of nesting birds make the reserve their home.  My wife and I recently enjoyed a 3-mile hike that loops above the Kickapoo River through standing pines, rust-colored oak trees, and open prairies.  Hunters were combing the fields for pheasant, which can be hunted in the reserve by permit.  Judging by their wagging tails, I think the hunting dogs were having more fun than their masters.  

One of my favorite sights is watching Bald Eagles soar over the river valley, which can be seen along both the Mississippi and Kickapoo Rivers.  Scouting for fish and rodents below, the eagles can hang on a breeze or slide windward on a graceful glide over one of the many overlooks available for viewing.  

Whether watching through the lens of a camera or your own eyes, the excitement of wildlife sightings awaits you.  It only takes time and patience, which are also in plentiful supply in Driftless Wisconsin.

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Happy Trails

July 12, 2011 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Winter in Driftless Wisconsin

December 17, 2010 by

A recent snowstorm has rendered our secluded valley virtually unrecognizable and every trip home seems like a tour to an exotic land. Snow laden branches drape over the road, forming crystal-walled tunnels, while the hillsides are decorated with a phosphorescent white that illuminates the darkest of nights.  The landscape serves as a playground where childhood memories of snow forts, snowmen, and snow days when school and work surrender to fun. 

To start off your snow day in Driftless Wisconsin, try a walk.  Or if you prefer something more graceful than trudging through snow drifts, try snowshoeing or cross-country skiingWyalusing State Park across the Wisconsin River has Whitetail Meadows trail groomed for skiing, meandering across snowbound prairies and though serene forests.  The Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge permits snowshoeing off-trail, allowing close-up observations of the many critters out and about during winter. 

On January 8, the Reserve celebrates its Winter Festival, a family event featuring skating, sledding, skiing, archery, snow sculpture, ice cave hikes, wildlife presentations, horse-drawn bobsleds, sled dog race, snowshoe exhibit, horse-drawn tours, and all things winter. 

For fishing enthusiasts not willing to let six inches of ice separate you from your passion, ice fishing along the backwaters of the Mississippi River will tide you over till the spring thaw. Ice shacks and ice fishers bundled against the elements can be seen hovering over ice holes from Prairie du Chien to Ferryville to De Soto and Genoa

If you prefer your fish hanging from a crane rather than a fishing pole, the annual “Droppin’ of the Carp” in Prairie du Chien qualifies as one strange fish story.  You’ll not find a more novel celebration of the New Year west of Time Square, as Lucky the Carp descends toward midnight from high above the crowd counting down to the magic moment.  December 31st kicks off with Carp Fest, including a Run/Walk, games, ice fishing, dance, and the evening bonfire. 

If you have experienced our summer fun and fall colors, you might be pleasantly surprised by winter’s sublime transformation. So come; be surprised.

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