Driftless Dark Skies: Home in the Milky Way

September 2, 2016 by John Heasley

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

Henry David Thoreau, Walden 

Photo by Josh Thompson of Driftless Hills Photography

Photo by Josh Thompson of Driftless Hills Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Driftless Dark Skies: Binoculars

April 1, 2016 by John Heasley

When it comes to stargazing, two eyes are better than one.  If we imagine an astronomer, we probably picture a person looking into a thin tube mounted on a tripod.  My experience is that many telescopes go unused because they are complicated to set up, difficult to use, heavy to move, or disappointing to look through.  Binoculars make stargazing fun and easy. 

Many of us already own binoculars, so there’s no cost.  If you do buy binoculars and lose interest in stargazing, you can use them for birds or wildlife or landscapes.  That’s great news for parents who may not want to add to that collection of things tried and abandoned.  I have learned from public programs than younger children can have trouble using a telescope.  They look at the eyepiece rather than through the eyepiece.  Binoculars are more intuitive for them. 

Binoculars help us to see more.  You want to be able to hold them comfortably, so the largest size I recommend is 7×50 or 10×50.  The first number tells you the magnification (7x or 10x).  The second number is the width of the lens in millimeters (about 2 inches).  More important than making small objects bigger, binoculars make dim objects 10-100x brighter.  On a dark night in the Driftless Area, you might be able to see 1000 stars with your eyes alone.  With binoculars you increase that to 50,000 stars.  Lying on a blanket, air mattress, or reclining chair keeps your view steady. 

Binoculars let us see the colors in the night sky.  At night, we are mostly using the rods in our retinas and the world is monochromatic.  Binoculars gather enough photons to activate the cones in our retinas.  We get to see the red of Betelgeuse, the orange of Arcturus, the yellow of Capella, the green of the Orion Nebula, and the blue of Rigel. 

The Pleiades star cluster consists of 3000 stars at a distance of 400 light years. NASA image.

The Pleiades star cluster consists of 3000 stars at a distance of 400 light years. NASA image.

Many sights are better in binoculars than in a telescope.  The seven sisters of the Pleiades become dozens of stars.  The Andromeda Galaxy is nicely framed by the blackness of space.  The middle “star” of Orion’s sword is revealed as a nebula.  The hazy path of the Milky Way turns out to be stars too many to count.  The Moon is transformed to a world with craters and mountains and valleys.

There’s plenty to enjoy with your binoculars this April.  Look for the crescent moon in the southwest April 8-13.  Scan above the western horizon after sunset April 11-25 for Mercury. Jupiter is near the waxing gibbous moon the evening of April 17.  On the morning of April 25, Mars, Saturn, Antares, and the Moon will be clustered together in the southern sky from midnight to 5am.  Enjoy your double vision! 

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.

Late-winter days in Driftless Wisconsin

February 25, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

“Kitty!,” my two-year-old grandson declares looking out the window.  The excitement rises in his voice.  Closer inspection by my wife reveals a squirrel bounding through the snow, perhaps lured out of its nest by the gathering warmth and light of late winter.

Unlike groundhogs, squirrels are no prognosticators of spring; but a sunny day will find them scampering about looking for food or enjoying whatever squirrels enjoy on spring-like winter days.

Warm, late-winter days bring hope of spring’s arrival. Meltwater trickles down from Driftless Wisconsin’s steep slopes and heads for the river; a sign of winter’s impermanence. Barren patches of hillside appear, pulling back the blanket of snow to reveal a still slumbering land.

Not for long. The brittle ground cover of dead leaves from last fall, which rattled with every step three months ago, has marinated into a soft mulch from which wild flowers will soon sprout.

In Driftless Wisconsin, seasons defer to the land. Winter hides from spring in the shadowed recesses of deep valleys.  Spring pushes back winter on sunbaked ridge tops. Seasons play tricks on this uneven playing field, as if each valley and ridge top was a world and a season onto itself.

We live in the trough of a Driftless Wisconsin coulee; a topographical tributary of the Mississippi River Valley. Our house nestles into the south slope, giving us an eagle’s-eye panorama of the opposing slope, still covered in snow. During the winter, sunlight does not find our windows until late morning.

DSC01502As spring approaches, our “first light” comes earlier.  Like opening the blinds on a sunlit day, the sun peeks over the ridge top around 9 am and washes our home with warmth and optimism. 

People emerge from their winter slumber to enjoy a late-winter reprieve from the cold. The trail parking lot fills with hikers. The street busies with walkers. The post office lobby buzzes with sunny conversation.

Late winter presents a fashion dilemma. Do I wear my ear-warming Wisconsin Badger stocking cap or my head-cooling Field of Dreams baseball cap?  Do I don my winter coat or my spring vest? Do I accessorize with ice cleats or snowshoes? 

On our daily walk in the park, a friend in the parking lot suggests a viable alternative.  “Hip boots” she offers with a smile.

True enough. Low spots along the trail serve up a seasonal snow cone of slush layered on water. Yet the sun-drenched day invites me to unzip my vest, making it all worthwhile. Time for squirrels – masquerading as kittens – and people to emerge from their winter nests and celebrate spring a little early. In Driftless Wisconsin.

Driftless Dark Skies: Living in Space

December 1, 2015 by John Heasley

Wash: That sounds like something out of science fiction.

Zoë:  You live in a spaceship, dear.


We have been living in space for over 15 years now.  Since November 2000, over 220 people from 17 countries have continuously crewed the International Space Station.  The ISS is something that we’ve done together as humans with major partners being the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and European Space Agency.

The ISS is easy to see in the dark skies of the Driftless Area.  Because it orbits 250 miles above our planet, it is often in sunlight while we are in darkness.  Its solar panels are as large as a soccer field and reflect the sunlight to those below often making it brighter than any star.  It makes over 15 orbits every day letting its crew enjoy 15 sunrises and 15 sunsets.

There are many websites and apps to tell you when and where to look, but my favorite is  After you enter your location (by name or 43º N and 90º W), you’ll get a chart giving times and location.  When it first rises above the horizon, the ISS appears dimmer and slower.  As it climbs higher in the sky, it gains brightness and speed.  As it passes into Earth’s shadow or sets below the horizon, it again appears to lose speed and brightness.  A typical pass takes about five minutes, so you have plenty of time to enjoy and share the sight.

December is a great time to see the ISS.  Because of its orbit, the ISS can be found at dusk for about three weeks before moving to dawn for three weeks.  The ISS will be in the evening sky December 3-25.  Check Heavens-Above for specific times and remember that its orbit sometimes changes.

You’re watching a spaceship over an acre in size traveling at over 17,000 mph (almost 5 miles every second).  In the five minutes that it’s visible, it will have passed over 1500 miles or halfway across the United States.  It circles the Earth every 93 minutes, so sometimes it’s possible to watch it twice in the same evening.  It is crewed by six astronauts who typically live on the ISS for six months.  At the beginning of December, that’s Scott, Mikhail, Sergey, Kjell, Oleg, and Kimiya.  In mid-December, Kjell, Oleg, and Kimiya are due to return to Earth and be replaced by Yuri, Tim, and Tim.   Give them a wave from our home in the Driftless Area as they pass overhead in their home in the ISS.

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.

30th Annual Norskedalen Old-Fashioned Christmas

November 17, 2014 by Corey A. Edwards

Norskedalen Old-Fashioned Christmas 2014Looking for a fun, traditional way to celebrate the holidays? The 30th Annual Norskedalen Old-Fashioned Christmas is the prefect escape for family fun and shopping!

It’s hard to remember how much more slowly time once moved, allowing us to not just experience but savor those special times and seasons, such as Christmas, with friends and family. Now you can relive a little bit of those slower times at the 30th Annual Norskedalen Old-Fashioned Christmas in the Driftless, Wisconsin region.

Tour the quaintly decorated grounds of the 1860’s Bekkum Homestead in a horse-drawn wagon to the sound of area musicians sharing Christmas carols and other traditional, seasonal music. Tour the buildings of the homestead to see how Christmas was celebrated around the turn of the 20th century.

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Summer trout fishing in Driftless Wisconsin

July 26, 2014 by Greg Hoffmann

Fishing often becomes more challenging in the dog days of summer in Driftless Area streams.

Driftless 085webThe heat, and in some years shallow water depths, often make it necessary to hunt for the deeper holes and areas of streams where trees and other growth along the stream provide some shade.

This year, with the moist spring and early summer, depths on most streams are good. That’s a break for fishers who come from elsewhere in hopes of finding good fishing.

Terrestrials — flies that look like grasshoppers, crickets and other land loving insects — often work best in mid-summer. They mimic one of those critters who has fallen into the water, and trout love to surface to eat a treat.

Summer fishing is best from dawn into the early morning and late afternoons until dusk. Your shadows aren’t as likely to spook fishing during that time. The majority of the hatches also take place during those times.

The Driftless Angler, a great fly shop in Viroqua, says this about the insects during the summer days: “The major insect available in the summer time is the tiny olive (formerly Pseudocoleon) with some Cahills, Tan Caddis and Midges as well. Later on in the season, some Coulee region streams get a heavy hatch of Tricos; these tiny mayflies can provide some great fishing on summer mornings. Ants, beetles, crickets and hoppers are also very important and readily available sources of food in the summer, and can provide some excellent fishing even when trout do not seem to be interested in anything else.”

Two star streams in Vernon County — Timber Coulee and the West Fork — can be productive in summer. Trout often can be found tucked up against the higher banks and in shaded areas of Timber.

The authors of the second edition of Wisconsin Trout Streams write this about Timber: “Timber Coulee Creek might just be the crown jewel among Wisconsin spring creeks.”

After describing some of the management projects that have been dobe on the creek, Jeff Mayers, Steve Born, Andy Morton and Bill Sonzogni write: “No wonder Trout Unlimited named it one of the top 100 streams in the country.”

When you’re done fishing, try some of the pubs and restaurants in nearby Coon Valley. There also are places to stay near Timber, perhaps most notably Coulee Cabins right across the road from the stream.

The West Fork serves more or less as the “home field stream’ for this blogger. On its north ends, near Bloomingdale, you can find shadier areas that provide good summer fishing. Farther south, in the more popular areas of the stream near Avalanche, you can find some deeper holes.

After fishing the West Fork, you can go to Westby or La Farge to eat. There also is the Rockton Bar, a hangout for outdoors enthusiasts, not far away.

While Timber and the West Fork attract the most attention, and fishers, there are plentiful smaller streams in Vernon and Crawford counties. Matt at the Driftless Angler can help you with these, and even guide you for a fee.

Later in summer, and in September, when the temperatures start to cool down, fishing often picks up. Standing in a stream, surrounded by early autumn colors, and catching trout is an experience that can’t be beat.

For more information on the streams in Vernon and Crawford counties, go to For the Wisconsin Trout Streams guidebook, which includes streams around the state, go to


Gregg Hoffmann is a semi-retired journalist and avid fly fisherman. He publishes




Jump into Driftless Wisconsin

March 9, 2013 by Driftless Wisconsin

3Our golden retrievers Riley and Finn – the latter belonging to my daughter – are not impressed with the scenery, preferring to jump in the action. Riley buries his snout in the snow like he’s rifling for spare change under the couch cushion. Finn, who takes a liking to diving off fishing piers during the summer, enjoys “swimming” in the white waves; squirming and rolling to form doggie angels in the snow.

Dogs have it right. The scenery is nice but let’s dive into it.

So it is with Driftless Wisconsin; you come for the scenery, but eventually you need to dive in.  And contrary to perception, there’s much to do in Driftless Wisconsin during the “off-season.”

My wife and I enjoy snowshoeing at our local park. It’s the closest we’ll get to leading a polar expedition, striking a new web-footed trail across a field after a fresh snowfall. Once you get used to the footwork and cadence, there’s no territory too remote to go undiscovered.

For the ice fishers among you, the backwaters of the Mississippi offer plenty of opportunities to walk on water.  A trip along Highway 35 on a sunny day will find any number of hearty souls performing the miracle, and catching some nice pan fish to boot. Shanty towns of ice fishing shelters can be seen springing up over those fishing hotspots only accessible by boat during the summer.

Wildlife comes into view during the winter, as deer, turkey, squirrels, and birds – those that have not booked a flight south – can be seen carrying out their winter routines. Without a leaf or a corn stalk to hide behind, wildlife can be easily seen crossing farm fields, or with a patient eye, meandering across forested hillsides.

If indoor events suit your taste and temperature preferences, Driftless Wisconsin has theaters, film festivals, art galleries, and indoor water parks to keep the cold at bay. And small-town stores and specialty shops will warm you up instantly with their small-town hospitality.

Spring is just around the corner. But before we make the turn, might as well jump in the fun along this stretch of season.


Driftless Wisconsin: not an ordinary place

August 1, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin

9The land makes difficult work for city planners and civil engineers.  Straight lines and level ground are in short supply. Trying to find a place to build a house or plot a road is rather like trying to set a beer can on the fender of a ‘59 Cadillac; there are no flat spots to rest your elbows.

River valleys make for the best place to plant a house without tipping over.  Outside of valleys, you’re on your own.  Roads snake across valley floors until they bump up against a bluff, where they either waltz up the slope or stop altogether for a lack of imagination.  Power lines scale the bluffs straight up, which make for sleepless nights for power line workers.

And what does this lack of ordinary do for visitors?  Well, you can imagine.

Imagine leaving your straight streets and six-lane freeways back home.  Imagine letting the land take you to never-before-seen vistas and never-before-experienced outdoor adventures. Imagine a freedom to explore places that just won’t fit anywhere else. Then you can imagine Driftless Wisconsin.

Once you have given up on straight lines, there’s no telling where the road will take you.  Every rise in the road and bend in the centerline holds a new surprise.  The road from Wilton to Wauzeka along the Kickapoo River takes you valley watching. You may have to stop to snap a photo or test a fly rod.  The road from Stoddard to Prairie du Chien along the Mississippi takes you river watching.  You will have to stop to watch a river barge “lock through” one of the Lock and Dams.

State parks are a good place to start for beginners.  Situated along rivers and around land forms, they offer an introduction to the Driftless area geology.  For the more adventuresome, hop on a bike or in that ’59 Cadillac and get lost.  Leave the map in the glove box.  There are back roads that ravel through places only imagined in a good book.  Eventually the road will take you back to civilization, where you can enjoy a relaxing dinner and peaceful sleep, before hitting the explorer’s trail again in the morning.

No, Driftless Wisconsin will not fit into a box or stick to a straight line.  But who wants ordinary?


Springtime in Driftless Wisconsin

March 21, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin

My wife and I live in a coulee along a drywash, a meager contributor to the Mississippi River and yet a topographical tributary to the Mississippi Valley.  We live in shadow until midmorning, when the sun finally appears to resume its work on spring, as an artist arrives late to her workshop.

Riley, our three-year old golden retriever, revels in spring the way a child wanders awe-struck through a toy store.  His senses are my entrance.  His nose twitches to a new odor, his ears perk to a new sound, and I look toward their origin.  Unlike the hollow clatter coming from the vacant streets of winter, sounds have a home in spring.  They dwell in the lush construction of new growth.

Two of my three children were born in spring, while the third wedged spring into the midst of a cold January morning.  I stood wobble-kneed, draped in a green hospital gown, until a nurse noticed the color of my complexion drifting toward my wardrobe like a startled chameleon, and ordered me to sit down.  I sat, dumbfounded, as spring arrived.

A new arrival to this world searches for familiar reference points like a circus visitor in a house of mirrors.  The nurse places the tiny traveler in your arms, and their eyes soon find yours, and you can’t leave them.

And so it is springtime in the Driftless area.  The sun shines through freshly-minted leaves that hang like mobiles above a newborn’s crib.  Each time the wind blows, the mobiles move, and the spaces between them open and close. The sun’s gaze parses into a dozen eyes that open with each breath of wind. I stand, wobble-kneed, transfixed on these eyes of spring. 

My knees fixed, I begin walking through the undeveloped canopy still under construction.  Last year’s remnants litter the ground, dead and decomposing leaves from which this year’s growth rises.  Life has come full cycle, and whatever has been taken in the past, nature has given back. 

A buck has etched a scrape into the middle of the logging road, still exercising his territorial rights from last year’s rut.  Each time I walk past, the leaves have been pushed aside and strident hoof prints leave their mark upon the barren earth.  The marks are linear and cross-hatched, as if signing his primitive intent.

In my last visit, pollen-laden catkins from a nearby birch tree have dropped on the buck scrape.  They dropped and scattered and skewed, forming strange hieroglyphics upon the earth. The buck’s best intentions have been overwritten. 

Leave it to arrogance to think we can leave our mark.  Spring returns to reclaim its dominion, again and again.  We are not just fathers of children and owners of land, but stewards of nature, witness to miracles unending.  Spring returns to Driftless Wisconsin, resilient, full of promise for the future, laden with gifts from the past.


Driftless – what’s in a name

February 29, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin


Visitor Survey

November 18, 2011 by Driftless Wisconsin

RE: Leisure Travel Survey – Kickapoo River and Driftless Wisconsin Region

Dear Visitor:

We are inviting you to complete an online survey regarding leisure travel within the Kickapoo River and Driftless Wisconsin Region. Traveling in Kickapoo River and Driftless Wisconsin Region continues to grow in popularity throughout the Midwest for both individuals and their families. The purpose of this survey is to evaluate what the Kickapoo River and Driftless Wisconsin Region and its local communities can do to attract leisure travelers. Please take some time to complete this online survey at:  It is very important in planning the future of this region. 

The survey includes 30 mostly multiple choice questions about your leisure travel habits and your awareness of the region and should only take 10 minutes to complete. We hope to have broad input, so please feel free to pass this request on to others.  Printed surveys are also available by request from Julia Henley, Recovery and Development Director, or at the Village of Gays Mills office. 

Surveys must be completed by November 30, 2011. 

Your participation in this survey will provide information to help clarify the relationship between your interests and the tourism attractions and natural resources of the region. The information collected is only as good as what you share with us; please answer each question as accurately as possible.  It is crucial that as many visitors, residents and businesses as possible complete the questionnaire.  The results of this project will assist the Kickapoo River and Driftless Wisconsin Region of Wisconsin in making many important decisions for the future. 

 We hope you will help us with this important initiative. Every effort will be made to safeguard your identity and any information you provide will be kept strictly confidential.  If you have any questions or concerns about completing the survey, you may contact Economic Development Partners, Cindy Jaggi at (608) 712-1980, as they are administering the survey and results.

Thank you in advance for your participation regarding the direction of the Kickapoo River and Driftless Wisconsin Region!