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Driftless Dark Skies: Earth Day

April 9, 2019 by John Heasley

This April 22nd, we celebrate Earth Day for the 50th time. I think we can take some pride in remembering that Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson founded the first Earth Day in the United States in 1970. And I think it’s no mere coincidence that this happened during a time when humans first voyaged to the Moon and looked back at the Earth. The view from afar raised ecological awareness.

As we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Apollo, I find myself considering what it all meant. It was a dangerous and costly undertaking to land men on the Moon and return them safely before the decade was out. Yet there were benefits. It was a competition with the Soviets that did not involve warheads. There were technological spin-offs.such as GPS and communications satellites. A generation was inspired to pursue careers in science and engineering. The rocks and regolith brought back revealed an amazing story of the origin of the Earth and Moon. Maybe most importantly, humans saw our planet for the first time.

Even though the mission of Apollo was to explore the Moon, I am moved by how often the astronauts looked homeward. The crew of Apollo 8 (the first mission to the Moon) took the memorable picture of Earthrise on Christmas Eve 1968 as they orbited around from the far side of the Moon. Four years later, the crew of Apollo 17 (the last mission to the Moon), took a photo of the whole Earth remembered as “The Blue Marble”. In 1969, Neil Armstrong (the first human to walk on another world), took a moment from a very busy schedule to look up at our planet high overhead above the Sea of Tranquility. He found that he could easily cover it with his thumb. Asked later if this made him feel  like a giant, he said it made him feel very small. Time and again, astronauts returned to tell us how very fragile and awesome the Earth appeared from afar. And how it needed to be protected for all mankind.

We continue to look homeward with our robotic explorers. Our rovers on Mars send back photos of Earth in the pink Martian sky. I remember July 2013 when so many of use waved at Cassini in orbit around Saturn as it took a global selfie from a billion miles away. On Valentine’s Day 1990, as Voyager 1 was journeying out of the Solar System, it turned its cameras to capture a photo of Earth in the vastness of space that filled less than a pixel. To Carl Sagan, it “underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Sometimes I see a parallel between Project Apollo and the many effigy mounds here in the Driftless. We may never know why they were constructed, but we do know their builders invested considerable labor in creating them. I have heard speculation that maybe they were inspired by charismatic leaders seeking to affirm the identity of a people and their place in the cosmos–they were mound builders living between the Earth below and the sky above. And maybe that’s the legacy of Apollo and one of the things to be remembered about a very challenging twentieth century. Maybe we are moonwalkers and Earthgazers.  Maybe we journeyed a long way to discover a unique and precious Earth inhabited by humans with common origins and a shared future of caring for one planet.

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 and the International Astronomical Union as a Dark Sky 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 2, 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.

Wisconsin historical attractions open

May 1, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

May brings thoughts of summer to Driftless Wisconsin.  It also brings the opening of Wisconsin historical attractions throughout the region.  In turn, these fascinating sites open our understanding of the new frontier that beckoned our ancestors to Driftless Wisconsin.  Drawn by the Mississippi River Valley and its rich natural resources, Native Americans, European Explorers, and immigrant settlers came to fish, farm, hunt, and trade in this land of plenty.

Along the way, they left a trail of stories and artifacts waiting for your own exploration. There’s nothing quite like learning history by standing in the very spot it took place.

Explore Wisconsin historical attractions

You might begin your exploration of Driftless Wisconsin’s past at Norskedalen, which means “Norwegian Valley.”  Here you will find the story of Norwegian immigrants preserved at the Bekkum Homesteadhomestead_view_enhanced Open Air Museum, consisting of a log home, summer kitchen, barn, granary, blacksmith shop, and other buildings that comprised an 1800’s farmstead.  Farm implements and other artifacts trace the rugged life of settlers who worked the land for a living and expressed an appreciation for the landscape through their crafts.

Norskedalen is located near Coon Valley and is open seven days a week during the summer from May 1 – October 31. Check here for hours of operation and admission fees.

Further south along the scenic drive on Highway 14 to Viroqua, the Vernon County Museum tells the story of local farming history and notable people, including the tobacco exhibit and the Astronaut Mark Lee Space exhibit. The museum is located in the former “County Normal School,” a Teacher’s College built in 1918 for the purpose of training new teachers. Visit the Museum website for days and hours of operation.

Stepping deeper into time, a trip to Prairie du Chien reveals a glimpse of life when European Explorers first came down the Wisconsin River to open trade routes.  The Fort Crawford Museum chronicles the establishment of a military presence in the region as well as the exploits of Dr. William Beaumont, a fort surgeon who performed groundbreaking research on the human digestive system. While in Prairie du Chien, visit the Villa Louis, an authentically preserved Victorian country home built by H. Louis Dousman in 1870; later expanded and remodeled in the style of the British Arts and Crafts Movement. Visit the Fort Crawford and Villa Louis page for hours of operation.

Your journey back through history continues across the Mississippi River at Effigy Mounds National Monument. There you will see preserved burial mounds constructed 750 to 1400 years ago by Effigy Moundbuilders, Native Americans who are culturally associated with 18 modern-day Indian tribes.  The sacred mounds are shaped in the form of birds and animals; remarkable in their size and artistry, yet still not fully understood after years of research. The National Park is open seven days per week during the summer, with hours posted here.

Driftless Wisconsin stood on the frontier of human exploration and habitation.  Plan your visit to explore Wisconsin historical attractions and retrace our ancestor’s march through history.

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