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Fall Arrives

October 5, 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.

 

The Great Wisconsin Bucket List

February 13, 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.

Winter’s gift

December 21, 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.

Cruising Driftless Wisconsin

June 25, 2011 by

My wife and I were invited by her sister and brother-in-law to tour the back roads of Vernon County north of Viroqua.   I was riding shotgun, which involves the strenuous duty of returning the waves of admiring spectators.  If there’s a better way to experience the back roads of Driftless Wisconsin, perhaps it comes from the saddle of a motorcycle.  It’s been 40 years since I straddled my Honda 360, but I found myself reaching for the handlebars. 

The open-air scenery flies by uninterrupted; unframed by car windows or your imagination.  The wind blows in your face and the fresh-cut hay finds your nostrils.  The road rises and turns with a landscape that unfurls from every ridge top.

The land east of Westby and Cashton is Amish Country (see my March 25 blog), where life slows to a pace set by one-horse buggies.  I left the navigating to my brother-in-law and was soon lost among hairpin corners and U-turned intersections. We left the modern world back at the highway and didn’t miss it a bit. 

We passed a doe and her two fawns drinking from a brook that feeds the Kickapoo River.  We craned our necks to pick them out amid the underbrush lining the stream.  Mother did not return our attention as she was busy keeping track of her spindle-legged youngsters.

We found ourselves swiveling our heads to admire the Amish backcountry; the pleated rows of Amish crops, the one-room school houses that center every settlement, the friendly waves of Amish farmers.

We stopped for dinner at the Blue Goose, a pizza and ice cream parlor located just the other side of nowhere.  Occupying a renovated barn, it suddenly appeared around a bend in the road like a country oasis.  Not to be confused with the color of the barn, the Blue Goose is named after the goose sculpture sitting in the yard.  The owners are friendly – she refers to herself as the “Blue Goose Lady” – and the pizza is superb.  A 12” pizza heaped high with cheese and fixings easily fed the four of us.

Fully fed, we showed great discipline in avoiding the ice cream counter.  Then we came to our senses and ordered a scoop of cookie dough on a waffle cone.  So much for discipline.

Then we climbed back into the Mustang and made our way back to Viroqua via the back streets of Westby, where we made acquaintance with Mr. “Nice Car.”  He’s a good judge of classic cars.  But nothing compares to the sights we saw on the back roads of Driftless Wisconsin. 

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Dropping into the Kickapoo Valley

April 9, 2011 by

            On this day, a coniferous forest accessible by hiking, biking, and horse trails greets me at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve boundary. ‘Old’ Highway 131 now serves as a trailhead leading into the Reserve’s interior.  Signs announce that trails will soon be opening on May 1.

            The Reserve’s Visitor Center serves as an interpretive center for the wealth of natural and human history of the valley.   The center is open Monday through Saturday year-round and Sundays also from Memorial Day through October.  The impressive stone and wood building includes fascinating displays that chronicle the ecosystems of the reserve and history of the now defunct La Farge Dam Project.

            Before entering the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, County P wraps around the Kickapoo Valley Ranch, featuring eight guest cabins nestled in 8500 acres of forest preserve.  Be sure to say hi to Tabrina, Delilah, HiJinx, Sudden Breeze, and Truman; Llamas that are part of the Ranch’s “cast of characters.”

Having finally arrived a the junction of County P and Highway 131, I couldn’t resist venturing upstream to Rockton, a turn-in-the-road town near La Farge featuring one of the gathering points for local food and fun.  The Rockton Bar, known for its “Almost Famous BBQ Chicken,” offers a rustic log cabin setting decked out with a hunter’s eye for interior decorating.  Deer antlers grace the walls, while a giant moose head keeps watch over the bartenders, who seem unfazed by the supervision.

            Upon entering the bar, I find patrons lining the tables with a fork in one hand sampling the prime rib and a pool cue in the other waiting their turn at the pool table.  I made quick work of my turn at the salad bar before taking my time with a huge portion of prime rib, a tasty meal that certainly accounts for the bar’s popularity on this Saturday night.

            Outside, a sign for the “Kickapoo Yacht Club Canoe Rental” stands ready for the upcoming season’s onslaught of canoe captains and navigators plying the Kickapoo River. The valley will come alive with bikers, hikers, and explorers as springtime’s promise will soon be realized.

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A Road Trip through Amish Country

March 25, 2011 by

A road trip through Driftless Wisconsin represents a casual excursion of discovery.  On this particular day, I set out to see some of the northern stretches of Driftless Wisconsin.  Even for someone who lives here, every day in Driftless Wisconsin is an adventure. 

I turned right off State Highway 27, which dissects Driftless Wisconsin into watersheds, onto County Road P, just north of Westby. County P meanders like an amusement ride through the bluffs of the back country, sandwiched between galloping landscapes and a brook running clear from snowmelt. 

This is the heart of Amish Country.  Handmade signs abound touting blacksmithing, upholstery, horseshoeing, custom-made furniture, hand-woven baskets, and the other hand crafts and trades for which the Amish are famous.  Road signs seem to mark the branches of a family tree, with names like Pa’s Road and Andy Miller Road.  

Attracted by a sign advertising “Mini-Barns, Furniture & Toys,” I turned right onto Pa’s Road, past a one-room school house and an Amish buggy whose driver raised his hand in greeting.  I turned into the crafter’s barnyard, where a shy young boy showed me to the woodworking shop.  There, stylish walnut buckboard benches and sleek cherry wood coffee tables sat like orphans waiting for a new home.  My host was quick to point out the children’s toys arranged neatly on shelves, demonstrating a wood duck that waddled web-footed as he pushed it along the floor. 

The Amish do not sell on Sundays and shun attention – this family did not want their names to appear in my story – but if you’re looking for a collection of Amish Crafts, try “Down a County Road” Amish Shops and Tours in Cashton.  They also offer Amish tours by appointment.  I once heard owner Kathy Kuderer give a talk on Amish culture and she knows her stuff.  

Take a road trip through the Amish Country of Driftless Wisconsin and you’ll soon get to know the Amish landscape as well; in unforgettable, albeit aimless ways. 

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