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.

Christmas Traditions in Driftless Wisconsin

December 2, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

My memories of Christmas begin with lutefisk and lefse, the Norwegian feast my mother made each year to celebrate my father’s Scandinavian heritage.  The smell of lutefisk – a cod cured in lye – wafting through the house on Christmas Eve sent me in the opposite direction in full retreat. While the rest of the family endured the smell of boiled fish with the consistency of pudding, my sister and I sat in the living room enjoying a holiday meal of hotdogs, which at least were chewable.

For those of you who enjoy lutefisk – and there are many of you – rest assured I have not entirely abandoned my Norwegian heritage.  I do love lefse, a potato flatbread rolled to a thin layer and cooked on a large griddle. Served only with butter – I consider the addition of brown sugar to be blasphemy – I have been known to consume lefse as fast as it comes off the griddle. After my wife made it clear that if I wanted the tradition to continue, I would be supplying the labor, I have learned to make a decent batch of lefse.  Never mind the dough stuck to the kitchen counter and the cloud of flour draping my shirt.

The history of our Christmas traditions is rooted in our ethnic customs. Explored by the French and settled by Scandinavians, Bohemians, Irish, and other nationalities; Driftless Wisconsin offers a variety of ethnic traditions to honor our diverse heritage.  In communities across the Driftless Wisconsin region, the Christmas season inspires us to carry forward our traditions to the next generation.

ofc_horsesOn December 5 – 6 the good folks at Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center will help us celebrate an Old-Fashioned Christmas.  Norskedalen, which means Norwegian Valley, “is a nature and heritage center dedicated to preserving, interpreting and sharing the natural environment and cultural heritage of the area surrounding Coon Valley in southwest Wisconsin.”

The Old-Fashioned Christmas offers visitors the opportunity to explore that heritage through the lens of the Christmas holiday, complete with horse-drawn carriage rides, Christmas caroling, a buffet of Norwegian delicacies, and a bake sale – including lefse!  Craft demonstrations in spinning, wood-stove cookery, and kid’s crafts will keep you grounded in the spirit of Christmas. And you’ll have the chance to make your own holiday decorations.

Also on December 5, La Farge will hold its Old-Fashioned Small Town Christmas Celebration.  The community, located near the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, will take you back to your small-town childhood memories with a huge craft fair at the school, a cookie walk at the Reserve, and a soup luncheon.

On December 4 – 6 and 11 – 13, The Villa Louis Historic Site in Prairie du Chien will celebrate Victorian Home for the Holidays.  Held at the Villa Louis, the opulent estate of Hercules Dousman restored to its 1890s splendor, the event recreates the holiday traditions of a Victorian family.  Enter the Dousman parlor for a recital on a restored 1879 Steinway piano.  Visit the kitchen, where the Dousman cook prepares the holiday menu.  Sample some desserts and apple cider.

No holiday would be complete without witnessing the Droppin’ of the Carp in Prairie du Chien on December 31.  Culminating the week-long Carp Fest, the evening includes a bonfire, entertainment, and the countdown starting at 11:40.  Inspired by New York City’s dropping of the Time Square Ball at midnight, this celebration ends with the ‘Droppin’ of a carp taken from the Mississippi River and preserved for this special occasion.

Tradition has it that the Carp King and Queen kiss “Lucky” the fish for good luck in the New Year.  Well, at least they don’t have to eat it.

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.

Norskedalen’s Civil War Immersion Weekend 2014

September 21, 2014 by Corey A. Edwards

Civil War Immersion Weekend 2014Every October, Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center turns back the clock, whisking visitors back to the late 1800’s during the Civil War Immersion Weekend, scheduled this year for October 11th and 12th.

Norskedalen, which means “Norwegian valley,” is a nature and heritage center in Driftless Wisconsin. The center includes Bekkum Homestead, a group of 13, Norwegian pioneer farm buildings, and Holte Cabin, a Civil War-era building reconstructed by a Civil War re-enactment group: Company B of the 2nd Wisconsin.

Company B of the 2nd Wisconsin was part of the famous Iron Brigade. Known to Confederate fighters as “the terrible Black Hats,” this company fought at Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg, where it was nearly annihilated. Company B of the 2nd Wisconsin became the most honored brigade in the eastern army.

These talented and dedicated Civil War re-enactors of today’s Company B of the 2nd Wisconsin bring history to life every year at the Civil War Immersion Weekend with drills, skirmishes, and demonstrations – and it’s not all just war, either. Civilian re-enactors will also be demonstrating the daily life of the 1863 citizenry. Visitors to Norskedalen’s Civil War Immersion Weekend will be able to wander the grounds and visit living history stations to learn what life was like during the Civil War from re-enactors in authentic costume.

Watch as uniformed soldiers drill and pass time at their war-front camp. Hear stories about their life on the march and during wartime. Learn about Civil War era artillery and how to load and fire a cannon. Stop by the farmstead and watch as women work over wood-fired stoves to provide for their families and children perform their daily chores. Listen to the tales of loss and survival as these regular people suffer through the rigors of the engulfing conflict. Witness skirmishes and the main battle from a hilltop as it unfolds below between Confederate and Yankee troops.

Whether you’re a full-blown Civil War buffs, have just a passing interest in US History, or are simply looking for an exciting and thought provoking time while in the Driftless Wisconsin region, Norskedalen’s Civil War Immersion Weekend is for you!

Norskedalen’s Civil War Immersion Weekend 2014

October 11th and 12th
Saturday 9am – 5pm, Sunday 9am – 3pm
for directions, details and more, please visit:

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.


Season of Change

October 20, 2011 by

Driftless Wisconsin is in transition, which gives us more to look forward to than a mere chill.  Autumn leaves, plucked from branches by recent rains and scattered by the wind, now blanket the land in a muted second color season.  Late fall has arrived and there’s much to do and see.  Farmers are busy harvesting crops in the narrow time frame allowed by nature, while the rest of us catch up on those put-off chores.  But visitors can leave that to do list at home and simply enjoy the show. 

Mississippi River Cruises out of Prairie du Chien will be showing the fall foliage of the river valley from the deck of their excursion boat. The bluffs and colors leap from the river bank, providing many opportunities for photographers.  Fall foliage tours leave from the Lawler Park dock on Saturday and Sunday, October 22 and 23.  On Saturday at 4:30, enjoy a Haunted River Cruise with “spooktacular” scenery and stories of haunted river boats and river lore.  Costumes are optional.

On the following three weekends, October 29, 30 and November 5, 6 and 12, 13; Mississippi River Cruises will host Fall Migration Tours from their Lansing, Iowa location – across the river from Ferryville and De Soto.  The cruises will tour the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, guided by experienced birders and river naturalists.  See Tundra Swans, Bald Eagles, and thousands of waterfowl in their natural habitats and migration patterns.  Reservations are required. 

The approach of the Halloween season provides the perfect excuse to enjoy the history of Driftless Wisconsin. The Villa Louis in Prairie du Chien will host a Victorian Trick and Treat on October 22, a review of American Halloween customs featuring period games, apple cider, and other seasonal treats.  And the Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center in Coon Valley will present Ghoulee in the Coulees on October 26 – 28, a “super scary” hike along their trails lined with lit pumpkins. Treats and hot apple cider will be provided after your hike, along with other activities such as storytelling.  Reservations are required. 

On November 5 and 6, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge will host a hands-on workshop on how the Native Americans survived the elements of the approaching winter.  The Ciporoke Construction Workshop will show attendees how the Ho-Chunk People constructed their traditional long house made from bent poles. Check their website for details.  

Change is in the air.  Come to Driftless Wisconsin to experience the season of change, both past and present.


June Events

June 11, 2011 by

Along with June comes the parade of summer events, which for small communities in Driftless Wisconsin, feels like homecoming.  The Midsummer Festival at Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center near Coon Valley on June 18 – 19 certainly qualifies.  The Norwegian event, which celebrates the arrival of summer solstice and the return of full light, includes Norwegian music and dance, pancake breakfast, baking demonstrations, wood and heritage crafting, and plenty of activities for the kids. 

Norskedalen is a sanctuary for things worth saving, nature and our past, and celebrates the area’s Scandinavian heritage amid the rolling landscapes of the Driftless area.  The Center also hosts the “Always on Sunday Program,” featuring regional authors, artists, and presentations on history and travel.  

The annual Prairie Villa Rendezvous in Prairie du Chien on June 16 – 19 celebrates a heritage of a different sort, that of 19th century gatherings of Native Americans and fur traders that made Prairie du Chien the center of regional trade. Located on historic St. Feriole Island near the Villa Louis, the Rendezvous attracts hundreds of participants to reenact the meetings of the past and thousands of spectators to shop for crafts and sample fry bread and buffalo burgers.  

The following weekend on June 25, the Fort Crawford Museum in Prairie du Chien will present Bits and Pieces, a historic narrative set to music by Deloris Hayes from Edina, Minnesota.  This year’s event will take place at the historic Dousman House Hotel on St. Feriole Island, and include a lunch buffet and a talk on the hotel’s history. 

Soldiers Grove will once again host Crawford County Dairy Days on June 17 – 19, a salute to the area’s rich agricultural heritage, featuring a truck and tractor pull, pedal pull for kids, carnival, parade, horseshoe tournament, and all things rural.  In that same theme, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve continues its educational series “Driftless Dialogue” on June 29, with a discussion of “how to make $$$ on a small acreage farm.”  Open to the general public, the presentation will cover crop selection, production guidelines, and marketing tools for farming. 

June’s events set the stage for the summer-long march of activities that celebrate communities and their heritage.  Better make plans before this old friend packs her bags and leaves before the fall harvest.  Summer will be gone before you know and it’s best to enjoy her company while she’s here.