Rivers show us patience

August 3, 2018 by Eric Frydenlund

I’m late for a meeting.  The car in front of me travels slowly, cautiously navigating every curve of the road along the Kickapoo River. I consider passing, yet the double yellow line offers a constant companion to travelers of Highway 131, where sight lines disappear around the next bend. I impatiently tap my fingers on the steering wheel.  

I meet Mark at the canoe landing, where we unload the canoe and shuttle his truck and trailer downriver. On the way back, we jabber about the latest river project he’s working on, the difficulties of the job, the hazards of his work; and of course the obligatory discussion about the weather.  

Outside the window, the river travels with us; oblivious to our conversation, describing its world in a visual language that twists with every turn of the river. The highway offers only glimpses of the river, hints of another world apart from meetings, appointments, and slow moving traffic; an opening to another time. 

The Kickapoo Valley invites patience. Untouched by the last glaciers, the valley was left alone to its own design; to its own time. Melt water from retreating glaciers carved the valley, sculpting its shape over eons in the likeness of a deity ruling over an indescribable beauty.   

Returned from our shuttle trip, Mark and I launch from the Highway B Bridge above Gays Mills. I step into the bow of the canoe and gingerly search for its center along the keel with my foot – I prefer to spend the day on the river rather than in the river – while Mark stabilizes the stern. Swallow nests punctuate the grayish underbelly of the bridge, like heavy paint strokes upon canvas.

 The current takes us. Takes us downriver, takes us south, takes us east and west. It takes hold of us, away from our troubles and obsessions to a place filled with sensory experience that never loosens its grip.  I have left my world and joined another, a place only imagined from the highway.  

We are on the river to mark deadfalls and ‘leaners,’ trees felled or destined to fall into the river because of their roots undermined by erosion. The river subjects the land to erosion and flooding, changing direction on nature’s whim. If rivers show us the way to the Gulf of Mexico, the Kickapoo shows us diversion and misdirection. It shows us patience.      

This is the way to experience the river.  This is the way to experience life.  

I take photos and GPS coordinates from the bow while Mark expertly guides from the stern. Something else happens. The valley unfolds before us, unaffected by our pedestrian measurements and assessments.  River bluffs rise to either side, tree lots and pastureland on the margins, each dissected by the river.  

Green-tinted mallards, startled by our appearance, take flight downstream in a wing-flapping frenzy. Dairy and beef cattle, less startled than curious, stare at these incomprehensible interlopers floating by. Each sight and sound draws out time, pulling at its ends like taffy.  

The best way to know a place is to walk its land or paddle its rivers. Each undulation of the land and turn of the river informs me of its character. I feel it in my feet when I walk its trails. I feel it in my hands as I work my paddle.  

Mark’s truck finally appears around the final bend, a relic from another life. We arrive at our destination, complete with photos, coordinates, and measurements; complete with new experiences. We arrive changed, with new-found patience for a world that moves at different pace than our own. And new-found patience with ourselves.

Fishing on a Driftless Summer Day

June 30, 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.

The fall color celebration

October 3, 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.

Exploring Driftless Wisconsin’s History and Heritage

July 31, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

My last blog explored the music scene this summer in Driftless Wisconsin. Yet no trip to Driftless Wisconsin would be complete without discovering the natural and human history that shaped this unique region.

There are many upcoming events and activities that explore that history and heritage, and of course, the stunning scenery of Driftless Wisconsin.

While water shaped the Driftless landscape over eons, humans have left their cultural mark upon the region, through its captivating history of exploration and settlement and its rich farming heritage.

harvest photoLet’s begin with farming. On Saturday, August 22, Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center in Coon Valley hold its annual Threshing Bee. The event takes you back to times when chores were done by hand, including threshing oats, corn shelling, rope making, blacksmithing, butter churning, and cutting lumber. There are also pioneer craft demonstrations, antique farm machinery, and activities for the kids. Be sure to call ahead for reservations to the threshing dinner.

On August 14 and 15, Hillsboro will host its Charity Tractor Pull. Pulling classes include super farm tractors, pro stock tractors, super modified tractors, and all sorts of powerful machines that will provide plenty of excitement for the fans.

An event that celebrates our pioneer past takes place in Viroqua on August 15 – 18. Wild West Days celebrates the adventuresome spirit that opened the new frontier during the 1800s. Enjoy hog wrestling, a rodeo, and an authentically recreated western boomtown. An elegant horse-drawn parade kicks off the event on the evening of the 14th.

And there’s plenty of outdoor activities to explore the topography that Driftless Wisconsin is known for. Bike rides allow participants to experience the landscape at a leisurely pace; time enough to soak in the scenery you might miss at 60 mph. The Aloha Bike Tour on August 22 visits the rolling farm land around Viroqua, while the Kickapoo BRAVE Ride on September 19 in Gays Mills travels the ridges and valleys along the Kickapoo River.

Be sure to travel the rivers that shaped Driftless Wisconsin over the centuries. Mississippi River Cruises in Prairie du Chien explores the wildlife and waterways that make the Upper Mississippi River one of most scenic destinations in America. Guided tours will take you into the backwaters and show you the river you have never seen from the road.

Check out our calendar of events for many more opportunities to experience Driftless Wisconsin from different perspectives. Each perspective offers a new look on how Driftless Wisconsin was shaped by the forces of nature and the people who settled its land.

It begins on a river

August 1, 2014 by Eric Frydenlund

We held a family reunion last weekend at a cabin on the Kickapoo River near Wauzeka. The cabin sits on a ledge overseeing the valley, suspended in the canopy like a tree house.  The river lazily passed by just down the hill from the back porch.

Kickapoo RiverSiblings armed with potato salad, cucumbers, and ham sandwiches arrived to shake hands, grasp shoulders, and sit with elbows on knees to tell our family history; each with their own version. A straw hat sat on the pot belly stove; a proxy for our departed brother.

My own history begins on a river, winding its way up the Kickapoo to the headwaters of my youth. I spent many a summer day in Ontario, waking to the smell of bacon sizzling in an iron skillet and the thundering voice of Ruth Downing. Ruth lived on a street climbing the hill above the river, not far from the switchboard operator who knew everyone by their first name on the telephone party line.

On sun swept days my mother and I would pile into Ruth’s ’41 Chevy, which served as tour bus to explore the winding roads of the Kickapoo Valley. I sat in the backseat; my nose lurking below the windows, listening to Ruth’s rolling narration as the landscape rolled by like a movie in an outdoor theater. The cinematography was hypnotizing, capturing every angle of the valley from the cavernous backseat.

We climbed the highway with hairpin turns to Wildcat Mountain State Park, for family picnics on tables set with a view of the sprawling valley. I remember losing a football over the edge of the overlook. It might be still falling, given the endless drop to the river below.

My history flows down the river like the life line on the palm of my hand. As an adventuresome teenager, I camped in a pup tent near Steuben while canoeing, the river waiting just outside our tent flap.  Later in life I helped with the Driftless Area Art Festival in Soldiers Grove, an event held on the banks of the river that captures the story of the Driftless area on canvas, pottery, fabric, and any number of ways that make you ponder.

I helped set up rest stops for the Kickapoo Brave Ride at Gays Mills, a bike ride that explores every turn of road and crest of hill that frames the valley; and this year, includes a paddle on the river to boot.

I worked on the lower Kickapoo, marking deadfalls to be cleared to open up the river for navigation.  I sat in the front of a canoe expertly piloted by Mark Drake, trying to keep my eye on the map while mallards launched from the river’s surface, sandhill cranes paced the river bottoms, and scenery unfolded around every bend.

My history winds through Driftless Wisconsin as aimlessly as the Kickapoo, never knowing what the next bend will bring.  I invite you to begin your own history in the valley. No matter that you did not spend your youth here. The river and its ways will begin for you a new childhood, ripe with adventure and stories to tell.

The story begins on a river.

Many ways to experience Driftless Wisconsin

September 1, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin

8So we headed up the hill under a twilighted sky, summiting around dusk and descending in the dark.  I know this trail well.  Each deadfall, tree root, and protruding rock fixed in my mind. But in the dark, things get misplaced.  As two weeks ago when I tripped over a freshly fallen tree and planted my nose in the horse trail.

As my eyes adjusted to the dark on this night, I could faintly pick out the black earth of the hoof-worn trail that lay like a ribbon against the lighter background. I felt the steep slope fall away from my next step.  Riley’s shapeless form moved ahead of me, leading me home. During the day, this bluff cuts an imposing line against the horizon.  During the night, the land weaves its way into your senses.

So it is with Driftless Wisconsin.  Take a look around you at the stunning photos on this website, and you will only know part of the story.  It’s one thing to see Driftless Wisconsin in photos.  It’s quite another to experience it with your senses.

There are many ways to experience Driftless Wisconsin.

You can ride it on a bike.  The Kickapoo Brave Ride on September 15 begins in Gays Mills and takes you on a rolling tour of the back roads, visiting quaint villages and rural farmland along the way.  Along the 60-mile route, visit Ferryville for their Fall Fest and Market in the Park on the Mississippi River.  A Harvest Dinner with locally grown food awaits you back at Riverside Park on the Kickapoo River.

You can ride it on a horse. The 9th Annual Fall Trail Ride at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge on September 28 – 30 takes you along equestrian trails that will visit the fall colors.  Enjoy the special equestrian campsite with Saturday evening dinner and Sunday morning coffee and rolls. Registration is limited and required by September 16.

You can experience it through art.  The Driftless Area Art Festival on September 15 – 16 in Soldiers Grove will take you on a tour of the artist’s imagination.  Discover Driftless creativity through wood, ceramics, fiber, painting, photography, jewelry, sculpture, food, and music.

You can live it through history.  The Norskedalen Threshing Bee on September 22 at the Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center near Coon Valley relives the pioneer spirit.  See demonstrations in threshing, corn shelling, rope making, blacksmithing, butter churning, lumber cutting and all the skills that tamed the land for our ancestors.

See it in the light; feel it in the dark; take it all in through any means possible.  There are so many ways to experience Driftless Wisconsin.


Spending time with a river

June 2, 2012 by Driftless Wisconsin

Scott Teuber of WI River Outings knows something about the allure of rivers. Scott began paddling in mid 1990’s and has been hooked on it ever since, which led to starting his own canoe rental business in 2003.  Now that his operation is expanding onto the Kickapoo River, he arranged for a demonstration tour of the lower Kickapoo, putting us in the river above Gays Mills. The adventure was on.


We boarded the shuttle above the dam in Gays Mills and spent the time heading north getting to know our boat mates. Conversation was lively, full of anticipation of spending time with a river on a sunny day.

Arriving at the Kickapoo River Bridge on County Highway B around 4:30 pm – this short section would take about 90 minutes – Scott gave us instructions on river navigation.  The thing about rivers is that they do most of the navigating; just let the current do its work.  The meandering Kickapoo is somewhat directionally challenged, taking you east and west in equal portions to south, but eventually delivers you to your destination.

We paired off into partners and slipped our canoe gingerly into the current, like explorers into uncharted territory.  After fleeting near the bridge while the rest of the canoes put in, we headed downriver.

The upper Kickapoo is open for canoeing and served by several outfitters.  The lower Kickapoo River is currently being cleared of major debris, thanks to funding by a Community Development Block Grant, which will open it up for recreational use. This section of river has not been cleared yet, but contains no major obstacles that require portaging or extraordinary skills.

No matter.  A low hanging branch and an errant helmsman – that would be me – still managed to roll us over into the chest-high water for a late afternoon bath. It’s humbling to be outwitted by a river that has a better idea where it’s headed than you do. Upright and invigorated by our sudden adventure, we continued downriver; wetter, but soon bathed in warming sunlight.

The river obliges your every curiosity, taking you on a guided tour of attractions in the valley. Your perspective constantly changes.  Forested river bottoms with overhanging canopy suddenly open to pastureland with wide-angle panoramas. River bluffs loom large and then fade from view. Critters on the bank make brief cameo appearances and then return into hiding. Startled geese take flight and do a quick flyover before disappearing into a sun-drenched sky.

Amid laughter and muted conversation from canoes ahead and behind us, Riverfront Park in Gays Mills soon peeked around the next bend. After debarking, we spent some time celebrating with wine and cheese, retelling our adventure.   There’s much to tell.  The Kickapoo River takes you to new places and new experiences without ever leaving its banks.


Experience Driftless Wisconsin

October 1, 2011 by Corey A. Edwards

Walk up to the edge of the ridge top and take in the view.  Feel the breadth of the Mississippi River from the bench seat of a boat.  Smell the aromas of autumn hiking along a remote trail.  Taste the flavor of seasonal foods in the kitchen of a Victorian mansion.  Hear a shrieking hawk while walking a family farm.

Upcoming October events offer you a sampling of all of these experiences in a variety of venues and activities that give you an intimate feel of Driftless Wisconsin.

On Saturdays and Sundays during the fall, Mississippi Explorer Cruises embarks from St. Feriole Island in Prairie du Chien for a spectacular Fall Foliage Cruise of the river.  The best view of the river bluffs is from the river’s level.  Colored with autumn and accented with limestone outcroppings, the bluffs rise steeply from the river’s edge to create a dazzling amphitheater.

The Driftless Film Festival on October 6 – 9 at the Temple Theatre in Viroqua offers a screening of films made in Wisconsin, including short films, documentaries, horror films, dramas, and animation.  The films will be shown in the historic Temple Theatre, a restored movie palace built in 1922.  The theatre was restored to its “original Classical Revival interior design” and reopened in 2002, offering patrons the ambiance of early twentieth century architecture.

The historic Villa Louis in Prairie du Chien will host Breakfast in a Victorian Kitchen on October 8 – 9.  The staff of the carefully restored 19th century mansion will provide a hands-on cooking workshop for adults.  It includes preparation of a meal using foods and utensils of the era, that yes, culminates with consumption of the meal!  A tour of the estate will follow the meal.  Reservations are required.

As mentioned in my last blog, Gays Mills will host Flavor of the Kickapoo on the same weekend, October 7 – 9.  The event will feature outdoor cooking competitions and silent sports demonstrations, as well as a geocache special hunt.  The event will present many ways you can experience and connect with the Driftless area.

On October 22, the Mississippi Valley Conservancy will host Seldom Seen Farm Hike near Gays Mills.  Seldom Seen Farm was the setting for “The Land Remembers: the story of a farm and its people,” made famous by local author Ben Logan.  The event will honor Logan with the dedication of a monument, followed by a tour of the farm. The tour will allow you to hike the natural settings of Logan’s memorable story; as well as walk into the experience of a Driftless Wisconsin autumn.


Signs of Fall

September 20, 2011 by

The first cold snap arrived just last week, adding vigor to those morning walks. All the signs add up to announce the coming of fall, a time when Driftless Wisconsin unfurls the colors of autumn.  

More than a spectacle of color – although that’s reason enough for a visit – fall ushers in a celebration of harvest time.  Combines ply the corn fields, apples ripen on the trees, and people gather to celebrate the work behind them. 

The people of Gays Mills welcome the Apple Festival on September 24 and 25.  Always the last full weekend of September, the Apple Festival brings together people from around the county eager to shop for crafts, enjoy a meal, and of course, buy some apples.  There will be a horseshoe tournament, kiddie carnival, rummage sales, book sales, walk and run contests, and the Apple Festival Parade on Sunday. 

The village is also eager to show its new face, a new housing and retail development being built on higher ground in response to annual flooding.  Gays Mils will also host Flavor of the Kickapoo on October 7 – 9, a new event staged by “foodies” that highlights local organic and sustainable foods. 

Elsewhere, Norskedalen near Coon Valley will hold its Threshing Bee on September 24.  The event offers an authentic threshing bee in a pioneer setting, including “threshing oats, corn shelling, rope making, blacksmithing, butter churning, and cutting lumber with a portable sawmill.”  Pioneer craft demonstrations, antique engines, and farm machinery will also be on display.  

Fort Crawford Museum in Prairie du Chien will host “Visiting Our Ancestors” on Saturday, October 1. Costumed guides will narrate a guided tour of six historic cemeteries, beginning with the Old French Cemetery – the oldest in the Upper Mississippi Valley – and ending with the Brisbois Cemetery overlooking Prairie du Chien.  Also in Prairie du Chien, Mississippi Explorer Cruises will offer Fall Foliage Cruises on the river on weekends starting Sept 24, departing from Lawler Park on the riverfront.  

Visitors often ask when the color season peaks, which is rather like asking when the pot will boil.  The first two weeks of October are a good bet, depending on temperature, the arrival of rain, and other mysterious factors.  Regardless, don’t delay, because the first signs of fall are already creeping into view.