Fall Arrives

October 5th, 2017 by Eric Frydenlund

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.

The Kickapoo River Bluffs

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.


Driftless Dark Skies: Autumnal Dawn

September 8th, 2017 by John Heasley

We think of evening as the ideal time for stargazing. The sun sets, the sky darkens, and one by one the stars and planets emerge. If you look to the east just after sunset, you can see Earth’s shadow just above the horizon. Darkness does not fall—it rises! We spend the night in the shadow of the Earth. You can watch the Crescent Moon as it waxes and passes near Jupiter low in the west on September 21 and 22 and just above Saturn in the southwest on September 26. 

Evening is only part of the show. The days around the autumnal equinox on September 22 are perfect for stargazing at dawn. The sky begins to brighten around 5:15, and the Sun rises around 6:45. Those 90 minutes are the best time. One by one, the stars and planets begin to fade and disappear, just as one by one the birds begin their songs. Morning planets often appear highest above the eastern horizon around the equinox, and you can watch three of them dance as they approach and pass one another. 

Mercury is often challenging to see. It’s the innermost planet and stays pretty close to the Sun, but you can spot it low in the east near the bright star Regulus on September 9 and 10. Mercury is the brighter of the two. Mars, dimmer and redder, is below and to the left of the pair. Your binoculars will help as you scan the sky right above the horizon. Mercury will be its highest above the horizon on September 12. Watch as Mercury moves closer to Mars until they are almost inseparable on September 16. Arcing above them in a line, you will see bluish Regulus, dazzling Venus, and the waning Crescent Moon. On September 17, the Crescent Moon is slimmer and has moved closer to Venus. By September 18, the Moon has waned even more and shines between Venus and Regulus above it and Mars and Mercury below it.  See if you can spot Earthshine on the dark part of the Moon. That’s sunshine reflected from Earth and brightening the night side of the Moon. 

Autumn also means that the Universe in the Park programs come to a close. We have one more opportunity at Governor Dodge State Park on September 23 and two more at Wildcat Mountain State Park on September 2 and 30. UW grad students give a talk in the Amphitheater and then set up telescopes for guests to have a look. Starsplitters of Wyalusing offer public programs on September 16 and 23. If skies are clear, we should be able to see the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and the craters of the Moon. Hope you enjoy the skies at dawn and dusk! 

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: Be Awed!

August 4th, 2017 by John Heasley

I’m told that I use the word awesome a lot. I’m usually content enough with the everyday experiences of hiking in the Driftless Area, biking its back roads, and enjoying outdoor music and plays. But I love those moments of awe when they happen. I’ve been reading some of what psychologists say about awe. They describe it as occurring when we perceive a vastness larger than ourselves as we are taken out of the ordinary. They say that we are often transformed by the experience as our minds reshape a new view of our world. And I’m encouraged to read that awesome experiences often make us more grateful and generous. 

We have a chance to be awed on August 21 when there will be a total eclipse of the Sun across the United States. If you can travel to see totality, do it. It’s as close as Missouri or southern Illinois. I have never seen totality, but I read that it’s something worth doing at least once in a lifetime. We don’t normally see the Moon moving across the sky, but we will see it taking a bigger and bigger bite out of the Sun. As the skies and landscape darken, we’ll get to see sunlight leaking through the ridges on the Moon, the red glow of the chromosphere, and the wispy filaments of the corona. 

Bring the young people along. This has not happened before in their lifetime. The last chance we had to see totality in the continental United States was 1979. This is the first of several they will have a chance to see with more total solar eclipses happening in the U.S. in 2024, 2044, 2045, 2052, and even one in Wisconsin in 2099. It’s a very kid-friendly event. It’s easy to understand what’s happening (the Moon is passing between us and the Sun). You don’t need any special equipment beyond eclipse shades to protect your eyes. It all happens within three hours. Make a memory. Connect them with the cosmos. 

If you can’t make it to totality, then be awed by the partial eclipse happening in the Driftless Area. The Moon takes its first bite out of the Sun around 11:48. By 1:12, the Moon will have covered 88% of the Sun. The eclipse ends at 2:35. You can “party off the path” at many local libraries. Lots of activities. They will have eclipse glasses for safe solar viewing as we are wowed by the syzygy of Sun, Moon, and Earth. One way or another, be awed by The Great American Eclipse. 

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: Shakespeare’s Eclipse

July 25th, 2017 by John Heasley

Eclipses are an amazing coincidence. The Moon needs to orbit between Sun and Earth.  It can’t be too high or too low when it passes between. It needs to be the right distance so that it exactly covers the Sun. And we need to be on the right spot on Earth to stand under the shadow of the Moon and watch the Sun be covered up.

On August 21, the shadow of the Moon will cross the United States. If you travel to the 60-mile wide eclipse path that extends from Oregon to South Carolina, you will be awed by totality.  Closest places from our area are in Missouri and southern Illinois. Totality is something to be experienced at least once in a lifetime. If you can’t make it to totality, you can still experience a very cool partial eclipse right here in the Driftless Area. The Moon takes its first bite out of the Sun at 11:49. By 1:14, the Moon will have covered 88% of the Sun. The eclipse ends for us at 2:37.

Not only do we get a chance to say syzygy again, we also get to marvel at another amazing coincidence involving the two greatest Shakespearean playhouses. On October 2, 1605 (O.S.), a partial solar eclipse was visible over The Globe Theatre outside London from 11:32 until 2:03 (local time), almost the same time as the solar eclipse over American Players Theatre outside Spring Green. The Sun covered 88% of the Moon for Shakespeare’s Eclipse just as it will on August 21 for The Great American Eclipse.

Did Shakespeare see this eclipse? I hope so, just as he might have seen the lunar eclipse two weeks earlier on September 17. It’s challenging to establish biographical facts about Shakespeare, but he did refer to eclipses at least a dozen times in his poems and plays, most notably in his tragedies written around 1605. In King Lear, Gloucester sees a correspondence between heavenly events and the unraveling of the kingdom: “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us.” As he confronts the horror of what he has done, Othello imagines a celestial event: “Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse/Of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe/Should yawn at alteration.”

Whether you’re on the eclipse path or partying off the path, I hope you are awed by the coincidences of The Great American Eclipse next month.

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.

Fishing on a Driftless Summer Day

June 30th, 2017 by Eric Frydenlund

Authors note: I wrote this story for Tapestry Magazine ten years ago, but it could have happened yesterday.


Rivers have had their say again, and seldom have they spoken so loudly.  Halfway through summer, people throughout the Midwest are still wrangling with the aftermath of June flooding.  As rivers return to their banks, life, as it must, returns to summer.

Children, of course, have summer’s best perspective. While the rest of us lift our responsibilities and tote our problems, children actually get around to living.  Two teenagers with nothing of importance pressing on their young lives, other than a life and death struggle with a virtual villain, while away a sultry afternoon in Gays Mills playing computer games.  “Ridiculous” says one to a sinister-looking warrior in a virtual forest that materializes on his 14-inch screen.

When I was his age – yes, I can remember that long ago – I recall fighting an equally fearsome but imaginary battle among friends in a real forest behind my house.  White pines provided cover for our gorilla warfare, with the winner securing bragging rights for having captured our fort with a “ridiculous” but crafty move.  Whether in virtual or real forests, thirteen-year-old warriors don’t like to be beaten, unless properly compensated for such ignominious defeat with pizza and soda.

Perhaps it was the child in me that set aside my worldly concerns on a recent summer weekend and went fly fishing with my son.  Guided by Daniel Boggs of the Driftless Angler in Viroqua, we descended from Highway 27 into Timber Coulee to do battle with brown trout.  Descending might be too generous of word, for it felt like we were plummeting.  Besides having a nose for trout, Dan has the foot and feel for navigating narrow, steep roads that lead to fish.  We flew by the Snowflake Ski Jumping hill, which might be the only quicker way to the bottom of Timer Coulee than Dan’s jeep.

But the drive along coulee roads, notched into verdant hillsides that drop like table linen into meandering creek beds filled with trout and lined with pastureland, might be as stunning as any in the Driftless area.  Never will you find such balance with the world as when lost among the myriad coulees coursing through the Driftless area.  Trivial concerns vanish behind impenetrable horizons as you reach deeper into these pockets of paradise.

Explaining that a trout stream can be broken down into the kitchen, dining, living, and bed room; each room serving a different purpose for resident fish, Dan took me to trout school.  And showed amazing patience for someone incapable of casting across the bathroom.  As a novice fly fisherman, I did more battle with my rod and line than with any lurking trout.  Looking like a little leaguer flailing at high-and-away pitches, I eventually succeeded in casting my fly in the general vicinity of the dining room, and was rewarded with a nice-sized brown trout.  Dan stuck the successful fly in my cap as a sign of fishermen’s rank, but I’ve not noticed anyone saluting me of late.

Two weeks later and armed with a new sense of self worth – I have a notorious reputation among family and friends as a bad fisherman – I decided to cast my luck on the backwaters of the Mississippi River.  My wife and I set out from the landing on our sixteen-footer for “Dillman’s Pit,” a backwater stretch with a precipitous drop off where fish have been known to hangout in the basement of this multistory “house.”  My first cast netted a 14-inch large mouth bass, and judging by the look on its face, was as surprised as me at my good fortune.  I released him so that he might spread my reputation far and wide, telling his kin of a crafty fishermen lurking on the surface with more fishing tackle than he knows how to use.

Luck or skill – I make no judgment here – prevailed that evening, until I went to start the motor.  The 40-horse Johnson apparently failed to recognize my growing repute as a no-nonsense river man, and refused to go back to work.  It protested my pleas for cooperation with each turn of the key with an indifferent cough.  My wife, who had spent the last hour casting for words in her crossword puzzle, was unimpressed.  “Where are the oars?” she dubiously asked.  “I think they’re hanging in the garage,” I sheepishly replied.  Silence.  There’s not a lot to talk about when seated in a boat lacking necessities and half-full of ignorance.

But if necessity is the mother of invention, then ignorance is the father of desperation. Two quick pulls of a starter rope fashioned from our anchor line sent me back to good graces and us back to shore.  Relief begets appreciation as I surveyed my rediscovered luck; and the sun setting over the Iowa hillside.  The entire western horizon had been set afire, and the embers were still glowing.  I could have sat beside that fire all evening had the fire stoker allowed me.  Summer is the time for celebration in the Driftless area, whether it’s battles won with dumb luck, or paradise found with luck given.

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer of Saturn

June 6th, 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: Summer Stargazing

May 5th, 2017 by John Heasley

The warm nights ahead are a great time to get to explore our dark skies. There are plenty of opportunities this summer in the Driftless Area to have a look through a telescope. If you have been meaning to explore our starry skies, this is your summer. 

Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers dark skies and three astronomy programs this summer. You can hike the trails and stargaze by light of the Strawberry Moon on June 8 and by light of the Thunder Moon on July 8. Be wowed by the Perseid Meteors on the moonless night of 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 27, June 17, July 15, August 12, September 16, and October 14. 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. They also offer “star parties” on June 24, July 22, and September 23 when you can join them for observing. 

Northwest Suburban Astronomers will be at Wildcat Mountain on July 22, 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 the solar eclipse crossing the United States on August 21. 

Iowa County Astronomers have monthly meetings on May 26, June 23, July 21, August 25, September 22, and October 20. 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 donated by Mike Wolkomir. Everyone is always welcome. It’s an excellent time to try out different telescopes and ask questions. ICA will also be sharing a public program at Governor Dodge on July 1. 

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 programs at Governor Dodge on June 17, July 15, August 12, and September 23. 

The most spectacular astronomy event this summer happens during the day rather than at night.  Or rather, when day turns into night!  In just three months on August 21, the New Moon will pass between the Sun and Earth blocking out sunlight during a total solar eclipse.  You can learn all about the Great American Eclipse and how to be awed by it when I share a presentation at Spring Green Community Library at 6:30 on May 16. 

Don’t miss the astronomy highlights of May. The Moon is near Jupiter on the 7th (all night), near Saturn on the 12th and 13th  (late night), and Venus on the 22nd  (before sunrise). 

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.

The Driftless

May 1st, 2017 by Eric Frydenlund

Editors Note: This column is republished from the December 2004 issue of Tapestry Magazine

Whoever said the shortest distance between two points is a straight line never lived in the Driftless area.  Steep-faced bluffs and winding river valleys simply do not permit direct routes to wherever you are going.

As adults, we make accommodations to slopes of more than thirty degrees, surrendering to logging roads and more circuitous routes. We drive two miles around a ravine to get to the neighbor whose house – perched on the adjacent hill – is clearly visible out the front window.

To children however, straight lines are more achievable.  As a child, I would hike straight up the steep bluff towards the Brisbois graves overlooking Prairie du Chien.  Of course, I made concessions to the limestone cliffs, choosing to circumvent the forty-foot walls through the narrow stepped passageways leading between them.  Then it was straight up the hill, past Sandstone Rock – where childhood sweethearts were etched deeply into the soft rock’s surface – and on to the Brisbois graves.

According to legend, the gravesite offered Michael Brisbois a place to “look down upon his intense rival, Joseph Rolette, in death as he did in life.”  Without judging Brisbois’ worldly dealings, perhaps there is some truth to that otherworldly claim.  Standing, as I did, atop the highest point of the bluff, with the entire Mississippi Valley unfolding before me, the command over the valley from that lofty place seemed undeniable.

There was a brashness to my outlook, a feeling that the world stretched before me could be grasped as easily as it was from atop that hill.  I remember looking down on my house and neighborhood, able to place it all upon my outstretched hand.  Yet I was also aware, if not fully respectful, as I navigated the sometimes precarious footholds leading back down the hill, that I was one slip from eternity.

Herein lies the contradiction of the Driftless area, a land rich with topographical variation.  One moment you’re scraping the bottom of the ravine, unable to see around the next bend, the next you’re hurtling over the ridge top overlooking cornrows marching toward eternity.  Perspective.

Ridges offer the best perspective, holding sway over lesser elevations.  Ridge dwellers may complain about the relentless wind and drifting snow, but they are the envy of all, waking each morning to a view that unfolds on an endless stage.  A view punctuated by ball-top silos that erupt from the soil like corn stalks, populating every ridge top within sight.  A view that drapes into ravines and valleys, disappearing into our imaginations.

On occasion, the curtain parts to reveal the distant Mississippi Valley, glimmering like quicksilver in the cupped hands of the ravine.  Travelers on highway 27 along the ridge are thus offered tantalizing peeks of the great river, sight lines that stitch river and ridge into a continuous landscape.

Revelations are hidden in the landscape, revealed with each new crest of hill, each new bend of road, every turn of head, rippling over your senses and pooling in the spirit.  You are never so low that the next ridge will not elevate your spirits, never so high that the next ravine won’t humble them.  The human condition made manifest in the shape of the land: up and down.

It’s no wonder that people are drawn to the ridge, planting houses on summits that face squarely into the wind, all for a little perspective.  The ridge offers it in plenty, in the same way that tree houses rule over backyards and mountains preside over plains.  Yet elevation shapes humility in the same way it compresses length and width, bringing the realization that we are part of that diminished whole.

Standing on the ridge, as I did 40 years ago, overlooking the great valley, the straight lines of my youth now bend to the whims of the land.  In the process, new paths open before me.

Driftless Dark Skies: Spring Planets

April 3rd, 2017 by John Heasley

You can see all five classical planets this month. A telescope lets you enjoy more of the details. Binoculars help you spot them. But you can see all five with your eyes alone. 

Mercury makes its best appearance of 2017 in the evening sky of early April. The innermost planet is a challenge because it never appears too far from the Sun. Find a place with a clear western horizon and scan for it with your binoculars. Best time is between 8:15 and 8:45 the first week of April. It will be the brightest object in that part of the sky. 

Mars is also low in the western sky after sunset though not as bright as Mercury. It’s far from Earth this spring, so you won’t see much detail. Binoculars will bring out its ruddy complexion.  Watch for Mars the third week of April when it passes by the Pleiades star cluster low in the WNW. You should be able to see them together in your binoculars. Best time to look is between 9:00 and 9:30. Check back on the evenings of April 27 and 28 to see the waxing crescent Moon pass close by Mars in the west after sunset. Best time to look is between 8:30 and 9:00. Don’t be confused by a slightly brighter orangey star to the left of Mars. That’s Aldebaran. Remember that stars twinkle. Planets don’t. 

Jupiter will be much easier to find. It’s in opposition this month which means that it’s at its closest to Earth and brightest in the sky. Sun, Earth, and Jupiter are in a straight line, so it rises in the east as the Sun is setting in the west, passes high in the south at midnight, and sets in the west as the Sun is rising in the east. With a small telescope, you can see its cloud bands and four largest moons. Watch for Jupiter on April 10 when it travels across the sky close to the Full Moon. 

Saturn rises after midnight and can be seen in the south around 5am. It will be the brightest object in that part of the sky. On the morning of April 16, look for the waning gibbous Moon just to the right of Saturn. The next morning, the moon will be just to the left of Saturn. A small telescope will give you a memorable view of its rings. 

Venus was bright and brilliant all fall and winter in the southwestern sky. This spring, you can find Venus low in the eastern sky before sunrise. On April 23, Venus and the waning crescent moon make a stunning pair between 5:00 and 5:30. 

There will be stargazing with telescope and binoculars at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on April 29 as part of Spring Fling.   

Enjoy your spring tour of our solar system! 

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: Creating Constellations

March 2nd, 2017 by John Heasley

Years ago I went with the Cub Scouts to visit the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.  I definitely enjoyed being a blood cell and circulating through the Giant Heart there, but what really wowed me was the Fels Planetarium.  The lights went down, the stars came out, and I was hooked.  I loved the way the presenter not only named the stars but connected them with lines and created people and animals and things and told the tales that went with them. 

There is something very comforting about the constellations.  As long as you don’t travel too far north or south, you see the same constellations at night wherever you go.  They follow a reassuring pattern with Orion and Taurus and Gemini in the winter, Leo and Corvus and Virgo in the spring, Scorpius and Hercules and Cygnus in the summer, and Pegasus and Andromeda and Perseus in the fall.  They become familiar friends.  We can trace out their shapes, give them names, and retell their stories.  They take us back to an earlier time when we were protected by a two-dimensional sheltering sky. 

In 1928, the International Astronomical Union divided up the sky into 88 official constellations.  This made it easier for stargazers to talk with one another, but we also lost a lot of variety.  Different cultures see different constellations.  Not all of us see a hunter when we look at the stars of Orion.  The Egyptians saw Osiris, the Ojibwe see a paddler (Biboonkeonini the Wintermaker), the Lakota see the hand of a chief, and the Mayan see the Turtle of Creation.  Those seven brightest stars that we call Orion are not as tightly grouped as they appear, but vary in distance from 240 to 1360 light years.  We are not even seeing them at the same time because their starlight left years apart over the span of a millennium.  What we like to think of as a dome is three dimensional space with vast distances between stars. 

Once we learn to “see” a constellation, it is challenging to “unsee” it.  Our familiarity with constellations inhibits us from seeing the stars in other ways.   But it’s rewarding to try.  Here’s how.  Go out on any clear night.  Choose a dozen or so of the brighter stars.  Connect the dots and make a pattern that is pleasing to you.  It could be a person or animal or object.  Give it a name, and it’s yours.   Spin a tale to go with your pattern, and you have created a constellation.  It’s not officially recognized, but it’s no more or less real than those of the IAU.  Best of all, you have seen the starry sky anew! 

Hiking by Light of the Snow Moon at KVR in February

You can discover some traditional constellations or create your own at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on March 11 (6-8pm) when we walk by Light of the Full Crust Moon.  Attendees will gather at the Visitor Center and hike down to Old 131 Trail. KVR astronomy educators will have binoculars and a telescope for you to see the maria, craters, and rays of the Full Moon.  We will also look at planets and constellations while enjoying the other sights, sounds, and smells of the moonlit world.  Involves moderate hiking in the dark on uneven and possibly slippery surfaces. Participants have the option of remaining at the Visitor Center for stargazing. Please register (608-625-2960) to receive weather updates. Annual or day trail pass required.  

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.

The Great Wisconsin Bucket List

February 13th, 2017 by Eric Frydenlund

Editor’s note: I found this blog written by Owen Gibson to be inspiring and hope you do too.

Don't Blink Trailer | The Great Wisconsin Adventure Story from Don't Blink on Vimeo.

In April of 2014 my best friend, Gregory, lost his Mom to cancer. She was just 51 years old and we were all devastated. It changed us, and we knew it would. But we didn’t realize how much it would, nor did we foresee the incredible journey that it would set us on.

We realized we weren’t guaranteed 80 years to live. And even if we did, my 80 year old Grandma can attest how time flies by. The four of us did not want to simply exist– we wanted to feel alive.

So Gregory showed all of us his mother’s dream board that she had created and left behind. On it was listed numerous items and activities that his Mom had wanted to complete before her time passed. Some items were checked off while many others were left untouched. We added some of our own ideas to the list, forming a bucket list and decided to complete it in his mother’s honor.

It began small, and we started locally. We didn’t have much money so we’d just hop in the truck and drive around the state of Wisconsin. We rode an elephant at the Baraboo Circus, milked a cow, sent a message in a bottle, explored the Cave of the Mounds, jumped off a bridge and much more.

We created a vlog to share our adventures and the response was incredible. In fact when a former PBS producer and Wisconsin filmmaker who worked for my Mom caught wind of what we were doing and our plans for next summer he thought we really had something. Over the following months we worked with him to shoot a trailer and develop a proposal for an 8-episode documentary series. We shared this with Wisconsin Public Television who not only loved it and wanted to be apart of it, but are interested in broadcasting the series.

The series will follow us as we chase our 14 biggest Wisconsin bucket list items. Yet it’s more than that. It’s a series that is not only fun, entertaining, and inspiring but it will challenge the viewers to get creative, to adventure, and to explore what is possible in this incredible state. Among our planned destinations for next summer are the scenic, rolling valleys of Driftless Wisconsin. In one of our episodes we will be rafting down the entire Wisconsin border of the Mississippi River stretching through the heart of the Driftless Wisconsin Area. Along the journey we hope to meet locals and immerse ourselves into the river culture as we go. We also plan to live with the Amish and dance in an Indian Pow Wow — both of which open our eyes to new experiences and people we may not ordinarily meet.

Yet, to make this happen, we need financial help. If you are interested in sponsoring or supporting this incredible show in anyway send us an email at Gregory@beforeweblink.com and we’d love to talk with you. Otherwise, we’d greatly appreciate it if you would share our story and our trailer.

Driftless Dark Skies: The Great American Eclipse of 2017

February 7th, 2017 by John Heasley

On August 21, the sky will darken and the planets and stars will be visible in the middle of the day as our moon covers our sun.  This is a relatively rare event.  The last time a total solar eclipse was visible in the continental United States was 1979.  You won’t see another in the United States until 2024.  I have watched a handful of partial eclipses, but like most us, I have never experienced the awesome sight of the sun disappearing with only its corona visible.  From the stories I’ve heard, we don’t want to miss it. 

This one is all about alignment.  The moon’s path takes it near the sun every month, but it’s usually a little high or a little low to eclipse the sun.  This August, sun and moon and Earth are all aligned.  There’s also the wonderful coincidence of the moon and sun appearing the same size when viewed from Earth.  The moon is 400 hundred times smaller than the sun, but it is also 400 times closer—just the perfect size.  On average, there’s a solar eclipse somewhere on the planet every 18 months, but they are often over remote locations.  This one is just a day’s drive away. 

I love how astronomical events are a wonderful mix of the random and the predictable.  We can never know precisely when auroras or meteors might appear.  We do know that on the third Monday of August 2017, the moon’s shadow will cross the United States in just 93 minutes starting on the Pacific coast of Oregon at 10:16 am (PDT) and ending on the Atlantic coast of South Carolina at 2:49 pm (EDT).  The last time an eclipse crossed the United States from coast to coast was 1918.  Anyone along the 60-mile-wide path will be awed by the moon blotting out the sun and two minutes of totality. 

You need to be aligned with that path to experience totality.  If you stay in the Driftless Area, you will experience a 90% partial eclipse but not 90% of the awesomeness of a total eclipse.  Totality is as close as southern Illinois or Missouri.  If you wait for a total solar eclipse to come to Wisconsin, you will be waiting until 2099.  Many motels and campgrounds along the path are already booked, but there are still places available in easy range near the path.  It’s hard to predict how much excitement or traffic there will be as tens of millions of Americans travel to see the sight.  Stay flexible as the weather forecasts become clearer and be willing to relocate.  So plan ahead and don’t miss it. More in future blogs on what you’ll see and how to enjoy it safely. 

While you are waiting for the New Moon to eclipse the Sun, you can enjoy the Full Moon being dimmed a bit by Earth’s shadow during a penumbral lunar eclipse.  Join us at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on Friday February 10 (5-7pm) when we walk by Light of the Full Snow Moon.  Attendees will gather at the Visitor Center and hike down to Old 131 Trail. KVR astronomy educators will have binoculars and a telescope for you to see the maria, craters, and rays of the Full Moon.  We will also look at planets and constellations while enjoying the other sights, sounds, and smells of the moonlit world. Involves moderate hiking in the dark on uneven and possibly slippery surfaces. Participants have the option of remaining at the Visitor Center for stargazing. Please register to receive weather updates. Annual or day trail pass required. Call the KVR Visitor Center to register 608-625-2960. 

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 arrives as a state of mind in Driftless Wisconsin

February 2nd, 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.

Driftless Dark Skies: Good Morning (Evening) Earthshine

December 30th, 2016 by John Heasley

I saw the new moon late yestreen

Wi’ the auld moon in her arm

Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens    

Welcome 2017 with Earthshine!  You can easily see how sunshine from our star lights up parts of our moon as it goes through its phases and the dark side wanes and waxes.  And you can also see how this sunshine is reflected by our moon to light up our darkness here on Earth with moonshine.  But there is also sunlight reflected off the Earth which lights up the dark side of the moon.  Humans have long wondered at the sight of the old moon in the arms of the new moon.  It was Leonardo da Vinci over 500 years ago who first figured out the cause of the glow.  This is Earthshine, and you can see it best in the days just before and after the new moons on December 29 and January 27. 

photo from NASA.

The show starts on the evening of December 30.  Look for a slender moon low in the southwest just after sunset at 4:34 and before moonset at 6:16.  On New Year’s Eve, the moon will be a little wider and a little higher in the sky until moonset at 7:15.  As the sky darkens at twilight notice how Earthshine lights up the dark side of the moon and lets you make out some of its features.  Binoculars make it easier to see the lighter highlands and the darker “seas”. 

On January 1, the moon is to the right of Venus bright and brilliant in the southwest.  You can enjoy both until moonset at 8:18.  On January 2, the crescent moon is between Venus and Mars.  Mars is dimmer and ruddier than Venus.  On January 3, the alignment changes and the moon is now above and to the left of Mars and Venus.  Sunshine now illuminates more of the moon making it more difficult to see the Earthshine.  But you can continue to enjoy the moon as it sets later and waxes fuller.  On the evenings of January 11 and 12, follow the Full Wolf Moon traveling high in the sky. 

Early risers can catch Earthshine just before sunrise later in the month.  The Last Quarter Moon is to the left of Jupiter on January 19.  Both are visible from midnight until sunrise at 7:28.  Keep watching as the moon wanes in size, rises later, and moves closer to the sun.  On the morning of January 24, the waning crescent moon is low in the southeast to the left of Saturn.  Both are visible from moonrise at 4:33 until sunrise at 7:24.  By now, you should start seeing Earthshine again.  Look for the even skinnier moon rising in the southeast on January 25 at 5:24.  As it rises higher, look for Mercury below it.  You’ll want a clear horizon and maybe binoculars for this one. 

Don’t miss the grand finale on January 31 as the Crescent Moon, Venus, and Mars form a tight triangle in the southwest from sunset at 5:11 until moonset at 9:29.  Hope you enjoy beginning 2017 with Earthshine! 

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.

Winter’s gift

December 21st, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

A small child is looking at me.  I’m at a “Wake up Santa” event with my grandchildren and a small child is looking at me expectantly. She’s perhaps six or seven with eyes as wide as her smile. I think she has confused me with someone else so I look away. But her eyes refuse not to be met. I look back.

She has something in her hand that she wants to give to me.  I take it from her hand and her eyes and smile widen, if that is even possible. The gift is a Santa bingo card.  Children play bingo behind me and perhaps she thinks I might want to play.  I thank her and she turns away, satisfied the gift has been received. A gift of pure generosity, given without the merest expectation of anything in return.

I live in Driftless Wisconsin, a topographical gift of chiseled cliffs and furrowed valleys carved from time itself.  Winter peels away all the ornaments of summer and gives us the unadorned shape of the land. Snowcapped branches offer strong horizontal strokes of white. Honeysuckle defies winter with splatterings of green. Yet the landscape prevails, barren and beautiful; every curve and blemish visible.

If summer brings the party, winter imposes sobriety.  Winter brings clarity to Driftless Wisconsin.  Every ridge line becomes visible, just as the margins of our own life become evident in the bitter cold. All things are known by their true nature, even as we come to know them through three layers of clothing.

What we give each other without expectations, what nature gives us without the asking; remain the most precious gifts of this season.

I’m on a business trip into the back country of Driftless Wisconsin near Cashton, a rippling landscape where the roads don’t quite know what direction to head next. The Driftless topography imposes a new geometry on the senses and straight lines are simply not part of its vocabulary.

Amish children, wrapped in black jackets and capes and topped with bonnets and straw hats – minimal protection against the sub-freezing temperatures – smile and wave as I pass. Two young girls play hopscotch on the road’s graveled shoulder. Two young boys take a shortcut across a corn-stubbled field.

The children wave regardless if I wave back. Gratitude seems to fill their way of life. I feel as the recipient of an uplifting gift, offered as such with their hands raised high in the air.


Farmers in Driftless Wisconsin still wave from the tops of their tractors and smile as if they knew something we don’t.  And of course they do. Getting up before the hint of sunrise to milk the cows and planting fields well past the curtain of dusk gives them a certain understanding of the unbreakable bond we have with the land.

My three-year-old grandson, destined to be a fifth-generation farmer, feels cheated if you don’t exchange fist bumps with him when leaving.

We turn to young eyes and young hands this time of year to understand what is important. Christmas time pulls back the covers and we are left with the unadorned gratitude of life. And of family and friends. Small children can teach us this; in Driftless Wisconsin.

Driftless Dark Skies: Stellar Colors

December 2nd, 2016 by John Heasley

“In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”  –Theodore Roethke

The stars seem brighter as we move into winter.  Fourteen of the 25 brightest stars are visible on a December evening.  The Summer Triangle of Vega, Altair, and Deneb is setting in the west.  Fomalhaut is all solitary in the south.  The Winter Hexagon of Sirius, Procyon, Pollux, Capella, Aldebaran, and Rigel along with Betelgeuse, Castor, Adhara, and Regulus is rising in the east.  It’s darker earlier.  There’s less humidity to blur the starlight.  And the night side of our planet is facing away from the Milky Way and the glow of billions of stars.

Photo is from APOD

Photo is from APOD

As you get dark adapted, you’ll see that the stars have colors. Binoculars will help to gather in more photons to trigger those cones in your retina.  Try softening the focus to bring out more of the colors.  Look for the red of Betelgeuse, the orange of Aldebaran, the yellow of Capella, the white of Sirius, and the blue of Rigel.  Even though we cannot travel to the stars, their colors tell us about them.  From red to blue, the temperature of the star is increasing.  That’s a little different from everyday life where we use blue to mean cold and red to mean hot, but it makes sense.  The hottest part of a flame from a match or candle or campfire is blue not red.

We can thank astronomer Annie Jump Cannon for the classification scheme we use to connect color and temperature.  At the beginning of the last century at the Harvard Observatory, she classified over 350,000 stars (at 25 cents an hour).  If you were lucky enough to see Silent Sky at Forward Theater last fall, you met Annie Jump Cannon portrayed by Colleen Madden.

As the stars rise higher in the sky, notice how they get brighter and twinkle less.  Starlight close to the horizon passes through more of the atmosphere that absorbs the light and through more convection layers that bend and distort the light.  Twinkle, twinkle, little star….

The brightest “star” in the December sky is no star at all.  Venus is brilliant and bright in the southwest.  You will begin to see it right at sunset, and it will be visible for another two hours.  As it sinks lower to the horizon, watch how it dims as its light is absorbed and how it becomes redder as its blue light is scattered.  Don’t miss the evenings of December 2 and 3 when the waxing crescent moon passes by Venus for a beautiful pairing.  The moon continues to wax the evenings of December 4 and 5 as it passes by Mars a little higher in the southwest.   Have a look while you are waiting for the sky to darken and the stellar colors to emerge.

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: The Pleiades

November 2nd, 2016 by John Heasley

Fool: The reason why the seven stars are no more than seven is a pretty reason.

Lear:  Because they are not eight?

Fool: Yes, indeed: thou wouldst make a good fool.

photo from APOD

photo from APOD

November is an excellent month to discover the Seven Sisters, the Pleaides.  They rise in the east just after sunset, pass high overhead at midnight, and set in the west around sunrise.  With only your eyes, you should be able to see half a dozen bright stars very close together making a pattern like a little dipper or teacup.  With binoculars, you can see dozens of stars.  A large telescope reveals over a thousand stars.

All these stars are part of an open cluster, a collection of stars born together in the same cloud of interstellar gas and traveling together as they slowly disperse.  They are relatively young stars, just 100 million years old.  Our Sun is forty times their age.  Unlike our long-lived yellow star, the Pleiades are blue-white giants burning fast and dying young.  They are so prominent because they are in our stellar neighborhood with a distance of 440 light years.  The light we see in 2016 left the Pleaides left just four centuries ago when Shakespeare and Galileo were alive.  I love that Shakespeare had the Fool use the Pleaides to school King Lear who has grown old before he has grown wise.  And Galileo was the first to turn a telescope to the Pleaides to see dozens of stars formerly invisible.

Orion the Hunter rises shortly after the Pleiades.  I like to follow the three bright stars of his belt to the right to find the Pleaides.  Midway between Orion and the Pleiades, you can see the Hyades, another open star cluster.  The five bright stars of the Hyades are further apart than the Pleiades and form a “V” that is recognizable as the horns of Taurus the Bull.  This cluster is even closer, and we’re looking at light that left during the Civil War.  The Taurid meteors of November 4-5 will originate from this part of the sky.  You may see a few fireballs.  Watch for the nearly full moon passing through here on November 14.

The Celts used the November appearance of the Pleiades to mark their cross quarter festival of Samhain halfway between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice.  Samhain is the beginning of the New Year and was associated with death and mourning and a time when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead was not so firm.  Samhain, celebrated between sunset October 31 and sunset November 1, evolved into Halloween and the Christian feasts of All Saints and All Souls.  These are fine nights to watch the Pleaides traveling across our dark 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.

Driftless Dark Skies: Walk When the Moon is Full

October 8th, 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.

The fall color celebration

October 3rd, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

Everyone loves a party.  Whether it’s 50 years of marriage, 25 years of a career, another year among the living, or another workweek among the gainfully employed, we humans gleefully celebrate that which we have accomplished or successfully put behind us.

And so it is with nature in Driftless Wisconsin; the place for a festive end-of-summer bash complete with colorful ornaments hung from branches and confetti streaming from the sky. We call this celebration the fall color season.

The color season represents a remarkable phenomenon; an avalanche of color from every tree top and hilltop, marching through every conceivable color of the spectrum. No one can predict when exactly this party will start; only that it begins in the unfathomable inner workings of a leaf. According to the US Forest Service:

Three factors influence autumn leaf color-leaf pigments, length of night, and weather, but not quite in the way we think. The timing of color change and leaf fall are primarily regulated by the calendar, that is, the increasing length of night. As days grow shorter, and nights grow longer and cooler, biochemical processes in the leaf begin to paint the landscape with Nature’s autumn palette.

A color palette needs pigments, and there are three types that are involved in autumn color: chlorophyll, carotenoids, and anthocyanins. During the growing season, chlorophyll is continually being produced and broken down and leaves appear green. As night length increases in the autumn, chlorophyll production slows down and then stops and eventually all the chlorophyll is destroyed. The carotenoids and anthocyanins that are present in the leaf are then unmasked and show their colors.

Despite this reasoned explanation and our general state of anticipation throughout September, fall color arrives with such splendor we find ourselves awestruck as if witnessing the transformation for the first time. We never tire of the celebration.

And the party has just begun.

I wake each morning to reddening Virginia Creeper unfurling from the trunks of elm trees across the drywash from our house; a flowering plant in the grape family and the first sign of fall color.

The basswood in our driveway shows a hint of yellow, the way we might dab paint on the wall to see if the color suits our taste. A walk in the woods reveals a scattering of early-fallen leaves underfoot; a sign of the thickening carpet yet to come.

Driftless Wisconsin celebrates this transformation in our own special ways.  We like parades, festivals, craft fairs, and other activities to keep pace with nature. And there’s no shortage of opportunities.

apple-festivalThe Gays Mills Apple Festival, normally the last full weekend of September, has been rescheduled for October 7 – 9. Main Street comes alive with a carnival, arts and crafts vendors, music, plenty of food, and a parade.  And be sure to climb Highway 171 to orchard ridge for your annual supply of apples.

Prairie du Chien celebrates Octoberfest on Oct 15 to showcase our German heritage. The event features German food, drink, games, and music at St. Feriole Island’s Memorial Gardens; and a parade in the downtown.

Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center near Coon Valley celebrates the haunted side of October with Ghoulees in the Coulees on October 27 – 29. Dress up in your scariest costume for a walk along a pumpkin-lit trail, complete with hidden goblins; trick or treat at historic homesteads; and gather around storytellers with a cup of hot apple cider.

This party will last a few weeks, until every leaf and party favor has dropped to the ground. Time enough for you to come join the celebration.

Driftless Dark Skies: Home in the Milky Way

September 2nd, 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 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.

Driftless Dark Skies: Planets and Perseids

August 5th, 2016 by John Heasley

I remember bundling up mornings back in February to enjoy the sight of five planets at once in the predawn skies.  This month, we can do it without bundling or rising early.  All five visible planets will be in the evening sky starting around 9pm.  The Moon is an excellent guide to help pick them out. 

Mercury is the most challenging of the planets.  It never rises very high above the horizon and is never far from the Sun, so pick a spot with a clear view to the west.  Farm fields and ridgetops work well.  On August 4, Mercury will be just to the right of a slim crescent Moon.  Venus will be even lower in the sky to the right of Mercury and the Moon. Binoculars will help you to see them in the twilight.  On August 5, the Moon has waxed a little fuller and will be just to the right of Jupiter.  By August 11, the waxing gibbous Moon is right above Mars with Saturn to the left. 

Once you have identified all five worlds, it can be exciting to watch them shift position in the sky from night to night.  Jupiter moves closer to Mercury and Venus this month.  Don’t miss the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus on August 27 just after sunset when they will be just a tenth of a degree apart and appear as one “star”.  Saturn starts the month to the left of Mars, but by the end of August it is to the right of Mars.  Mar is directly below Saturn the evening of August 25. 

photo by NASA

photo by NASA

August is also an excellent month to enjoy meteors.  Our planet will be orbiting through the dust trails left behind by several comets.  These grains and small rocks leave bright trails in the sky as they enter our atmosphere.    The first week of August is a good time to look.  The Moon sets early and the sky is dark.  The most famous meteor shower, the Perseids, will peak the morning of August 12.  You will probably see the most meteors between moonset (around 1am) and dawn (around 4 am).  The time after sunset can also be good.  There are fewer meteors, but they tend to be brighter and leave longer trails. 

There are two chances to gather with your fellow stargazers this month.  Starsplitters will be having a public program at Wyalusing State Park on August 6.  There is a Perseids Party at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on August 12.  Wherever you are, take time to look up and enjoy the planets and Perseids in the dark skies of 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 Triangle

July 6th, 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.

Small-town events in Driftless Wisconsin

July 1st, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

Small-town events are the life blood of our communities. You won’t find big-town parade floats fashioned from roses or 30-foot high balloons shaped like Mickey Mouse. You will find small-town excitement, built from a community pride that draws folks to Main Street from miles around.

Eastman parade 4Small-town events begin with a few volunteers and end with a community-wide party. You can see the excitement in the faces.  The little girl in pigtails, mouth agape, watching the fire engine pass with sirens howling. The three-year-old farmer, hands on hips, inspecting a procession of John Deere tractors. The County Dairy Queen smiling and waving – not the mechanical elbow to wrist wave, but the both-arms flapping wave to someone in the crowd she actually recognizes.

Once the parade finds the end of Main Street, then comes more fun, food and fireworks.  And maybe a local baseball tournament or horseshoe contest. The cook flips the burgers with a spatula in one hand and a beer in the other.  And the thank you from the volunteer who hands you your burger and beer is genuine because it’s their club’s annual fundraiser.

And did I mention music?  The musicians span from the local high school bands marching the parades, tubas blaring and snare drums rattling; to professional bands rocking the stage of local music festivals.

There are several communities that celebrate the 4th of July with parades and fireworks with all sorts of activities in between. Eastman holds the quintessential farm-town 4th of July, with parade, ball games, food, and fireworks; while the La Farge 4th of July hosts a parade, ball tournament, bake sale, beer tent, and yes, spectacular fireworks.

Community gatherings are not confined to the 4th of July.  Several communities host farmers markets, typically on Saturdays, an easy way to celebrate food from farm to table. Coon Valley will host the Coon Creek Trout Fest on July 23, offering up a kid’s trout derby, a bobber race, classic car show, fly tying and fishing lessons, food, beverages, and music at night.

The calendar is full with summer music festivals. The Stump Dodger Bash in Gays Mills kicks things off on July 1st and 2nd, a country music happening featuring headliners Erica Nicole on Friday and Logan Mize on Saturday.  The 14th Annual Bluegrass Gospel Music Festival takes the stage in Viroqua on July 8 – 10, an opportunity to enjoy family entertainment, great music, and fellowship with six traditional bluegrass and gospel bands.

Viroqua also hosts the Driftless Music Festival on July 9, a free event offering five bands from 1 – 10pm, closing with Christie Knapp, who’s been “accused of singing in the style of Rosemary Clooney.” The Prairie Dog Blues Festival transforms St. Feriole Island in Prairie du Chien into a mecca for blues lovers, offering blues and roots music ranging “from Chicago Blues to West Coast Jump, hard-driving Mississippi Hill Country Blues, New Orleans horns and Texas Boogie.”

August begins with the annual Country on the River Music Fest in Prairie du Chien on August 4 – 6, featuring notable headliners such as Kid Rock. And don’t forget the County Fairs, Crawford County on August 24 – 28 and Vernon County on September 14 – 18, which offer a little bit of everything.

Small towns know how to celebrate in a big way. They’d be more than pleased if you joined them.

Driftless Dark Skies: Solstice Full Moon

June 8th, 2016 by John Heasley

photo by NASA

photo by NASA

We get to enjoy a Full Moon on the Summer Solstice this year on June 20.  A Solstice Full Moon is a relatively rare event happening about once every 19 years.  The exact moment of the solstice is 5:34 pm.  That’s when Earth’s axis is tilted exactly towards the Sun.  You’ve already noticed how this has led to longer days.  On the Winter Solstice we were down to just over nine hours of sunlight.  Now we have almost 15 ½ hours.  The Sun is tracking higher in the sky, rising more in the northeast, and setting more in the northwest. 

It’s the opposite for the Full Moon in the summer.  It is only visible for 10 hours, tracks low in the sky, rises in the southeast, and sets in the southwest.  Because the Moon is lower in the sky, its light passes through more of our atmosphere.  The blues get scattered while the yellows reach our eyes giving the moonlight more of a golden color—honeymoon! 

Besides Honey Moon, this month’s moon is also known as the Rose Moon (because they start blooming) and the Strawberry Moon (because they are so fresh and tasty here in the Driftless Area).  The Ho-Chunk, who have long made this area home, call it Mąįna’ųwira (Earth Cultivating or Hoeing Moon).  The Moon is 100% full at 5:04 am on June 20, so it should appear equally full the evenings of the 19th and 20th.  Watch for it rising in the southeast on Sunday at 7:55 pm, setting in the southwest on Monday at 5:48 am, and rising again on Monday in the southeast at 8:47 pm. 

Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn are all bright and beautiful this month.  Look for Jupiter in the southwest after sunset.  It’s brighter than any star and does not set until after midnight.  Mars is closer to Earth than it has been for 11 years.  Watch for its amber color in the south as the sky darkens.  If you can get a look through a telescope, you should be able to see the polar cap and other surface features.  Saturn is just to the east of Mars and a paler shade of yellow.  Its rings are magnificent through a telescope.  The red supergiant star Antares is just below Mars and Saturn.  I think of it as the beating heart of the Scorpion. 

The Waxing Crescent Moon is just below Jupiter on June 11 and the Waxing Gibbous Moon is nicely clustered with Mars and Saturn on June 16-18.  Enjoy the many moons over our 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.