Driftless Wisconsin: shaped by water

August 8th, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

In my last newspaper column, I wrote about our trip out west to the National Parks that my wife and I recently completed. About our experience at Yellowstone National Park, I wrote:

“Artist Point, hovering above the rim of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon, reveals sculptures cut from rock by the hand of water.  Yellowstone River at the bottom of the canyon appears to my eye to flow uphill, rivaling any abstractionist’s attempt to create illusion.

Back home and looking out my window at the Driftless “mountains” of Southwest Wisconsin, I am reminded that we do not need to fly anywhere to witness nature’s grandeur. The largeness of nature’s wonder lies just outside our door.”

Driftless Wisconsin is shaped by water.  Thousands of years ago when the last glacier retreated from Driftless Wisconsin’s doorstep, glacial runoff began carving the deep river valleys that define our landscape. Water rushed swiftly downhill, sculpting deep-seated valleys, exposing dramatic limestone outcroppings, and cutting from the land the rivers we know today.

And the process continues. We have a drywash outside our house – its name taken from the fact that the ditch remains absent of water for most of the year. Introduce four inches of rain, however, and the ditch rages like the Yellowstone River.  An exaggeration perhaps, yet the sound of rushing water tells the story of its power.  The drywash deepens and widens, giving the valley a new shape.

And in the process of shaping land, water shapes its human inhabitants.  Not long after the last glacial period ended, the first American Indians migrated to the Driftless area, drawn by the rivers and the opportunities for fishing and hunting that the rivers brought.  Beginning in the 1600s, European Explores came to the confluence of rivers looking for new lands to discover and new trade routes to ply.  Fur traders and settlers soon came, following the flow of water. 

Kickapoo deadfallI am shaped by water. I was out on the Kickapoo River yesterday, surveying deadfalls; trees that have fallen in the river as the banks continue to erode from the river’s force.  Ahead of our canoe, a flock of geese launches downstream, their wings beating the water like a wind storm at sea. The Kickapoo River valley opens before us in a panorama of wetlands and bluffs, floodlit by the afternoon sun.

A herd of dairy cattle has come to the river for an afternoon drink. Startled by our sudden presence, they retreat to the bank.  “Howdy,” I say in a friendly voice.  Reassured, one comes back for a closer look at me.  On the opposite bank, a muskrat, less assured, dives for the bottom leaving a trail of bubbles.

The river arranges all sorts of encounters with cattle, wildlife, waterfowl, and jaw-dropping scenery.  In the process, I am forever changed.  A day on the river, whether the Kickapoo or the Mississippi, somehow reassures me of my connection to all things real.

Rivers bring us closer to who we are and where we came from.  And it all starts with water.  Here, in Driftless Wisconsin.