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Fall Arrives

October 5, 2017 by Eric Frydenlund

The fall season arrived officially on September 22, but fall colors arrive on their own time.  I am out on the Kickapoo River to survey for a deadfall removal project.  I am in the front of the canoe, mapping and fidgeting with my GPS locator.  Then I look up and realize I’m smack in the middle of paradise.  The leaves are just beginning to change on the bluffs, spread like dust from the fairy’s wand.  Sunlight sets them aflame.

The Kickapoo River Bluffs

Descending into the Kickapoo Valley from the ridge road, you feel as though you are entering a lost world. Another world, where herons take flight from the river’s edge and eagles float on air currents swirling above the valley. The river itself seems lost, wandering from one bluff to the other, as if looking for a way out.  Finding none, the river turns sharply and cuts a path through tranquil pastureland.

The Kickapoo Valley tucks into the hills of Driftless Wisconsin like the secret hiding place we had as children.  Amish children still walk barefoot along Driftless Wisconsin roads, their calloused feet impervious to stones or other cares. Their wide smiles betray an innocence where simple pleasures rule the day. They recall my own childhood, when a day spent exploring the Mississippi River bluffs left all my cares at the front door.

Walking is still the best way to experience Driftless Wisconsin. My dog and I hike La Riviere Park near Prairie du Chien.  Fargo finds sticks to carry around like prized steak bones. I find the scenery more to my liking. The trail explores the park and its topography in ways that photos can only approximate. You feel the Driftless landscape rise and fall below your feet. You look down into bottomless ravines; too steep to walk and too deep to ignore. The spectacle pulls you in like gravity. You wonder how such a mountainous slope arrived here in Southwest Wisconsin.

Whether by canoe or by foot, you can explore the enchanted world of Driftless Wisconsin. It’s not too late to schedule that canoe or kayak trip on the Kickapoo.  Outfitters in Ontario are open through the end of October, providing you transportation and the essentials to make your day on the river memorable. Best to call ahead for reservations. The lower Kickapoo River is now more accessible if you have your own canoe or kayak. New landings await your arrival at County B above Gays Mills, and County S, just off Highway 131 on the way to Steuben.

If you prefer walking to paddling, explore one of the many parks or natural areas that populate Driftless Wisconsin.  Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario overlooks the Kickapoo Valley.  Wyalusing State Park near Prairie du Chien oversees the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. And the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge explores 3600 acres of plants, birds, and animals of the Kickapoo Valley.  All have excellent hiking trails to explore the Driftless landscape.

Just remember to look up from the trail occasionally.  You’ll find yourself smack in the middle of paradise.

 

Driftless Area Dark Skies: Perseids

August 8, 2015 by John Heasley

Some days we journey to other worlds.  Other days these worlds come to us.  On the night of Aug 12/13, pieces of Comet Swift-Tuttle will streak through our atmosphere.  We call this annual meteor perseids_bruenjes bshower the Perseids.  During its 133-year journey from beyond Pluto in the Kuiper Belt to the Sun, Comet Swift-Tuttle leaves behind a stream of comet dust.  Every year our world passes through this stream, and we see meteors seeming to radiate back to the constellation Perseus.

2015 is an especially good year to enjoy the Perseids since there will be no moonlight to interfere.  The best time will be between midnight when our planet turns into the debris stream and 4 am when dawn begins.  The forecast is for meteors to peak around 3 am.

It’s easy to enjoy the Perseids.  Find a dark spot away from town lights.  We are lucky to enjoy many areas of dark skies here in the Driftless Area.  I’ve watched meteor showers from Wyalusing State Park as well as from a sandbar in the Wisconsin River.  The Kickapoo Valley Reserve has especially dark skies and will be hosting a Perseids Party on August 12 with an indoor program at 8pm and outdoor viewing at 9pm.

You don’t need any special equipment such as binoculars, just your eyes.  Keep the flashlights off and let your eyes dark adapt so you can see more.  It’s best to be comfortable and looking up, so bring a reclining chair or blanket or inflatable mattress.  Remember to dress warmly.  Temperatures can drop even in the summer, and you won’t be moving around much.  Don’t forget snacks.  The direction you face really doesn’t matter since meteors can appear in any part of the sky.  I like facing the northeast, so I can keep an eye on Perseus just below the “W” of Cassiopeia.  If you face away from Perseus, you should see meteors with longer trails.  Bring friends to see all the meteors you miss.  You can expect to see a meteor every couple of minutes and maybe more often.

If the late night hours don’t suit you, you can also catch the Perseids in the evening.  Sunset is a little after 8 and the sky is fully dark by 10.  There are fewer meteors during this time, but the ones you see can be impressive.  They are called “Earthgrazers” and they move more slowly and leave longer trails across the sky.  You can also see the Perseids on the nights before and after August 12.

The meteors we see are only the size of seeds.  They are so bright because they are coming in at over 100,000 mph.  From our world here in the Driftless Area, we can watch these pieces of another world arriving and lighting up our skies.

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.

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.

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