The fall season arrived officially on September 22, but fall colors arrive on their own time. I am out on the Kickapoo River to survey for a deadfall removal project. I am in the front of the canoe, mapping and fidgeting with my GPS locator. Then I look up and realize I’m smack in the middle of paradise. The leaves are just beginning to change on the bluffs, spread like dust from the fairy’s wand. Sunlight sets them aflame.
Descending into the Kickapoo Valley from the ridge road, you feel as though you are entering a lost world. Another world, where herons take flight from the river’s edge and eagles float on air currents swirling above the valley. The river itself seems lost, wandering from one bluff to the other, as if looking for a way out. Finding none, the river turns sharply and cuts a path through tranquil pastureland.
The Kickapoo Valley tucks into the hills of Driftless Wisconsin like the secret hiding place we had as children. Amish children still walk barefoot along Driftless Wisconsin roads, their calloused feet impervious to stones or other cares. Their wide smiles betray an innocence where simple pleasures rule the day. They recall my own childhood, when a day spent exploring the Mississippi River bluffs left all my cares at the front door.
Walking is still the best way to experience Driftless Wisconsin. My dog and I hike La Riviere Park near Prairie du Chien. Fargo finds sticks to carry around like prized steak bones. I find the scenery more to my liking. The trail explores the park and its topography in ways that photos can only approximate. You feel the Driftless landscape rise and fall below your feet. You look down into bottomless ravines; too steep to walk and too deep to ignore. The spectacle pulls you in like gravity. You wonder how such a mountainous slope arrived here in Southwest Wisconsin.
Whether by canoe or by foot, you can explore the enchanted world of Driftless Wisconsin. It’s not too late to schedule that canoe or kayak trip on the Kickapoo. Outfitters in Ontario are open through the end of October, providing you transportation and the essentials to make your day on the river memorable. Best to call ahead for reservations. The lower Kickapoo River is now more accessible if you have your own canoe or kayak. New landings await your arrival at County B above Gays Mills, and County S, just off Highway 131 on the way to Steuben.
If you prefer walking to paddling, explore one of the many parks or natural areas that populate Driftless Wisconsin. Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario overlooks the Kickapoo Valley. Wyalusing State Park near Prairie du Chien oversees the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. And the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge explores 3600 acres of plants, birds, and animals of the Kickapoo Valley. All have excellent hiking trails to explore the Driftless landscape.
Just remember to look up from the trail occasionally. You’ll find yourself smack in the middle of paradise.