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.

Driftless Wisconsin winter landscapes

December 1, 2014 by Eric Frydenlund

Winter arrived early this year.  Snow boots, shovels, rock salt, and other trappings of winter have already made their way out of storage. I found my ice cleats in the back of the closet so could walk down to get the newspaper without ending up on my backside. The Driftless Wisconsin landscape tends to puts a slant on anything you do during the winter.

But the winter backdrop makes up for the cold and inconvenience.  Against this white canvas, every landscape takes on a new look.bald eagle winter 2008b

I live in a coulee of the Mississippi Valley, a smaller valley extending from the larger.  During the wet spring, the ditch in the middle of our ravine feeds the Mississippi with its contribution of water run-off from the top of the bluff.  In the winter, the ditch sits dry, a mere wrinkle separating the steep hillsides to either side.

During winter, the hillside come alive.  Looking out my window, a lone buck walks a trail about half way up the hill, his nose to the wind in search of a mate during this annual ritual.  Otherwise hidden during the three seasons of foliage, his sleek body moves in contrast to the freshly fallen snow.

My eight-year-old grandson may have spotted this buck earlier in the season while deer hunting with grandpa.  Facing opposite directions in our deer stand, he whispered, “Grandpa, I see a deer. He’s a ten pointer!”  By the time I slowly turned around to look, this ten pointer had morphed into a two point spike buck.  But the excitement never lessened. He still claims we saw two different deer – one ten pointer and one spike buck – and who am I to argue with an eight-year-old with eyesight eight times better than mine.

Each morning when I wake I’m treated to high-wire acrobatics outside our window. Two squirrels race across leafless tree branches suspended thirty feet above the dry wash.  Like circus daredevils, they work without a net.  Watching them scamper across branches and jump to adjacent trees, I’m reminded of a Cirque du Soleil performance I saw a couple of years ago, with acrobats and gymnasts performing feats that seemed to defy gravity.

My wife and one-year-old grandson saw ten turkeys cross the ravine just the other day.  What one-year-olds lack in words, they make up with sheer amazement written in their eyes.  Turkeys can often be seen strutting across farm fields or navigating open stretches of woodlots during the winter. I did not see this rafter of turkeys, but the three-pronged tracks in the snow across our lawn told the story.

Another treasure of the winter landscape, eagles can be seen soaring hundreds of feet above the river valleys.  Eagles are year-round residents of Driftless Wisconsin, but they congregate around open water during the winter and can be more easily seen perched in barren trees.  Pick an overlook of either the Mississippi or Kickapoo River valleys, and spend a few minutes watching one of nature’s most graceful creatures.

We are lucky to have such inspirational landscapes and wildlife to view the year round in Driftless Wisconsin; especially in winter when short days and cold weather get you to thinking about spring.  Then you see an eagle silhouetted against a blue sky or a deer bounding across an open field, and you realize we don’t have it so bad.


You don’t have to live in Driftless Wisconsin to experience an inspirational winter moment.  Send for a Driftless Wisconsin Map to find your way here.  Plenty of time left to find that perfect photo of a Driftless Wisconsin winter landscape.