Spring has arrived in Driftless Wisconsin

April 7, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

Spring has arrived in Driftless Wisconsin.  Yes, the calendar has turned to April, but nature shows little obligation to schedules. We have seen winter sneak into April before. So we look for signs.

Out for my walk up the hill, I found sufficient evidence of spring’s arrival for optimism. While oak, elm, and basswood are still budding; the leafing of multi-flora rose and blackberry – those thorny bushes that snag your clothing on hikes – covers the ground with a fine, greenish mist. Spring launches from the ground up, with grasses, then bushes, then tree tops filling the valley with color.

Nestled among their roots, I find a golf ball planted there by an errant shot from a backyard golfer at the top of the hill.  The spike-shoed golfer often makes its seasonal appearance in Driftless Wisconsin before the orange-breasted robin.

photo by Betty Frydenlund

photo by Betty Frydenlund

Speaking of birds, a cardinal has taken up residence in our yard, its bright red feathers accenting the still muted valley.  Between knocking on our front door window – apparent attempts to ward off the handsome fellow he sees in its reflection – he sits on a nearby branch and announces the new season with a chirp.

Along with spring’s arrival, comes a variety of events and activities to coax us out of hibernation. As does the cardinal in our yard, the season marks the return of birds to their native habitat.  Traveling highway 35 along the Great River Road is a great venue for observing the spring migration.  According to the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge website, “April and May are some of the best times to see songbird migration.”  Red-winged blackbirds have returned to the refuge, along with great blue herons; a majestic sign of spring.

The rivers and streams coursing through the Driftless region will be the topic of “Crossing the Driftless.”  On April 13, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve will host author Lynne Diebel as part of their Ralph Nuzem Lecture Series.  Diebel will talk about exploring 359 river miles of the Driftless by canoe; a trip with her husband from Faribault, Minnesota to their home in Stoughton, Wisconsin.

Driftless Wisconsin parks offer a fresh perspective of nature’s seasonal pageant.  Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario and Wyalusing State Park near Prairie du Chien offer hiking trails into the very heart of spring.  High on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi, Wisconsin, and Kickapoo Rivers that flow at their feet, the parks provide an overview of spring returning to the land.

And for those spike-shoed golfers, several golf courses have opened their doors, including the Viroqua Hills Golf Course; the Snowflake Ski Club, near Westby; the Prairie du Chien Country Club; and the Barnyard 9, north of Prairie du Chien.

Spring also brings the opening of area attractions, many of which show the march of human history through Driftless Wisconsin.  The Villa Louis Historic Site in Prairie du Chien will open its doors on April 15 – 16 for its “Villa Louis Behind the Scenes,” offering visitors an intimate glimpse of life during the 1890s in a Victorian home.  On that Saturday, the Villa will present “Breakfast in a Victorian Kitchen,” a hands-on cooking workshop.

As hats, gloves, and boots go back in the closet; hiking shoes, birding binoculars, and golf clubs make their appearance.  The only thing missing from spring’s arrival in Driftless Wisconsin is you.  Join us, with or without your golf shoes.

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 Wisconsin Winter Fun

January 5, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

After a momentary lapse in memory as to what season comes next, Mother Nature has finally given us winter.  While sunny skies and 50 degree weather in December energized the spirit, it confused the brain, which expects to see snow outside the window this time of year.

Problem solved.  Tree limbs are draped with snow.  Landscapes are framed in white.  A layer of ice creeps across the Mississippi River. Eagles perch in barren treetops eyeing open water for their daily meal. And my barren head is feeling a bit drafty.

Our one-year-old dog Fargo and my son’s new puppy Uecker find another gear in snow, racing and sliding around like kids in a splash pool. They may not have the wherewithal to build a snowman, but they have the right idea: winter is fun.

A Driftless Wisconsin winter is fun. With its towering hills and deep valleys, winter becomes a three-dimensional playground for winter outdoor recreation.

Let’s start with the parks.  My wife and I have been taking Fargo up to Wyalusing Park, near Prairie du Chien, for hikes along Mississippi Ridge Trail.  It follows the bluff top overlooking the Mississippi River, and affords quite a view.  Turkey Hollow Trail is another favorite, routing through a tall stand of pine trees for a nice change of scenery during the winter.

The Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge has a wide variety of trails for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or hiking to those remote locations ideal for spotting and photographing winter wildlife. A designated trial is also available for snowmobile enthusiasts, which is groomed from December 15 to March 31. 

Winter events are another way to experience Driftless Wisconsin.  The Kickapoo Valley Reserve will hold its annual Winter Festival on Saturday, January 9. The family event features skating, sledding, skiing, snow sculpture, ice cave hikes, horse-drawn bobsleds, sled dog races, and, well, just about every conceivable way to enjoy winter!  The Reserve will also hold its popular Dam Phunski cross-country ski event on Saturday, January 23.  Registration is required and has competition for all age groups.

ski jumperThe annual Snowflake Ski Jumping Tournament near Westby will be held on February 5th and 6th.  The competition attracts jumpers from around the world to the 118 meter hill.  Watch as world-class jumpers take off into the air over Timber Coulee Valley at speeds of over 50 mile per hour.  Don’t worry, participation is not required.

The scenery. The parks. The activities.  The events. They all conspire to make a memorable winter getaway to Driftless Wisconsin.  Winter has finally arrived and it’s time to have fun. 

November Quiet Reveals Driftless Beauty

November 10, 2014 by Meg Buchner

The Mississippi River is more visible when hiking the bluffs.

Without leaves, the Mississippi River can be clearly seen when hiking the bluffs.

November in the Driftless region is often referred to as the beginning of the “off-season”. The lush greens of summer have given way to the vibrant hues of autumn. In November leaves are underfoot, the color palette is muted and naked tree branches are visible in stark contrast to the sky. Temperatures reach downward and the land starts to settle into winter hibernation. But bounty and beauty can still be found in the quiet colors of November.

People who enjoy hunting will attest to the rich wildlife of Driftless Wisconsin in November. Deer hunters (bow and gun) find the area a popular destination. The fall turkey hunt season is underway. Duck hunters find waterfowl on the Mississippi River or Wisconsin River. In fact, Mariah Haberman, one of the hosts of Discover Wisconsin, lists this area as one of the best places to hunt in her Travel Wisconsin blog. There are also many public hunting areas and natural areas available. The Wisconsin DNR web site lists state natural areas by county.

November view from the top of the bluff near Stoddard.

November view from the top of the bluff near Stoddard.

For non-hunting outdoor enthusiasts, November uncovers new adventures. Hiking trails are blanketed with fallen leaves. The newly revealed forest has a changed view. Animals are more visible when not hidden by foliage. On most hikes the bright colors of blue jays and cardinals are easily spotted. On top of the bluffs you can see for miles as the rivers and valleys spread out below you. The limestone rock faces are more pronounced and majestic. A popular place for hiking is the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, where the equestrian and mountain bike trails are open through November 15, as weather permits. Hiking is permitted on all trails, all year and the landscape is ever-changing.

For bird watchers, fall migration is still underway. The Great River Road that stretches along the Mississippi River is a wonderful place to view eagles and other birds. In fact, 40% of America’s ducks, geese, swans, and other waterfowl fly along the Mississippi River on their fall migrations. In Vernon County north of Stoddard, you’ll find an excellent overlook with a handicapped accessible observation area, interpretive signs, spotting scopes and a bench. In Crawford County, Ferryville is a designated “Bird City” with an observation deck and spotting scope immediately adjacent to HWY 35. You can also view a list of “birding hotspots” on Wisconsin’s Great River Road web site or download a Wisconsin Great River Road birding checklist.

November sunset in Ferryville, WI

November sunset in Ferryville, WI

As the November days grow shorter the sun sets earlier over the bluffs and west of the Mississippi River. As if to compensate for the stark colors of the landscape, the sunsets grow more brilliant. As the sun slips over the bluffs, the clouds light up with brilliant orange and fuchsia hues that are reflected in the darkening waters. Winter is coming and the landscape of the Driftless region will soon be painted with sparkling white. For now, the quiet beauty of November is something to be thankful for.

Happy Trails

July 12, 2011 by

Three baby raccoons hung from a nearby tree, clinging like ripe fruit from the branches.  Riley never saw them.  Momma had performed a “bait and switch” to protect her babies and Riley had taken the bait and missed the switch.  

Riley and I never lack for discovery on the trails in Driftless Wisconsin.  He discovered his new-found passion for chasing raccoons on the horse trails that run by our house. 

Horse trails are in abundance in Driftless Wisconsin.  The topography lends to an unforgettable equestrian experience that matches developed trails with unmatched scenery.  The trail system near Prairie du Chien meanders through the bluffs and backcountry and connects with a horse camping area near La Riviere Park

In the northern reaches of Driftless Wisconsin near Lafarge and Ontario, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers horse trails, as does Wildcat Mountain State Park.  Several miles of developed trails explore the Kickapoo Valley and the ridge lines above the river.  

Hiking trails are also in abundance. Wyalusing Park near Prairie du Chien, and both Pikes Peak and Effigy Mounds across the Mississippi River provide unrivaled vistas from the bluff tops. The best birds-eye view of Driftless Wisconsin comes from the summit of the Iowa bluffs overlooking the valley.  

Discovery awaits you along the trail. I once “discovered” the Kickapoo River while hiking the trails of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, stumbling upon the river that wanders aimlessly through the valley.  If you find a quiet spot to sit, perhaps you’ll discover some wildlife scurrying through the underbrush. 

On the horse trail, Riley sits by my side taking in the sights and smells.  The silence is broken by blue jays quarreling, squirrels foraging, and insects buzzing.  Above us, Virginia Creeper wraps around the trunk of a basswood tree, shooting skyward like the contrail of an errant rocket.  The woods are alive and the trail is your guide. 

Whether you’re a horseman or a hiker, pick a trail and let the exploration begin.  As Dale Evens Rogers once crooned, “Happy trails to you, until we meet again.”