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.

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.

Driftless Wisconsin as seen from the Mississippi River

June 12, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

If there’s a more relaxing way to take in the scenery of Southwest Wisconsin than from a boat on the Mississippi River, I’d challenge you to find it. Towering bluffs and shear limestone outcroppings rise from the river’s edge like cathedrals that frame the Driftless area topography.

River barge bA variety of river craft cruise by, from powerful tugboats pushing their products to market, fishing boats headed to secret fishing holes, and pleasure boats headed to the beach party. You can make your own party. A number of sand bars located along the river bank or islands make for easy access and a place to set up a grill or build a campfire.

And you needn’t roll down the window to see the bald eagles soaring overhead. The entire river opens wide over the bow of your boat.  As Mark Twain said, “Piloting on the Mississippi River was not work to me; it was play — delightful play, vigorous play, adventurous play — and I loved it.”


So let’s begin our adventure with play; and some good food along the way.  Heading downstream from La Crosse, make Stoddard your first way stop. The friendly Village has a boat dock from which you can access the eateries along Main Street, all within walking distance. Visit the Thirsty Turtle, a traditional small-town tavern with a big-flavor menu.  Try the turtle burger, a local treat served with grilled onions and green peppers.  For the less adventuresome, ask for their Italian Beef, a staple of their Chicago-born owners.

De Soto

Just downriver at De Soto, take a break at Blackhawk Park, named after the renowned Sauk Indian Chief who encountered a major battle with the US Military near here.  The park features a boat launch, 11 campsites, picnic area, and a concession stand and bait shop where you can pick up lures to entice those walleyes, bass, catfish and pan fish that the Mississippi is famous for. About a half mile south, accessible from the beach across the highway, you’ll find the Great River Roadhouse. They specialize in pizzas that are as big in taste as they are in size.


Ferryville is a small Village tucked against the river bluff known for its famous son, Patrick Lucey. The former Governor of Wisconsin and Ambassador to Mexico now has a Historic Marker in his honor at the Observation Deck overlooking the wide expanse of the river. Dock at the landing and walk to the Wooden Nickel; favored by motorcyclists who love their charcoal burgers, but a welcome respite for motor boaters too.


At Lynxville, pull over at the boat landing and enjoy a “world famous” Chicago Style Hot Dog at the Dawg House. They also serve Corn Dogs, Burgers, Tacos, Fresh Mississippi Catfish, and their “Dawg Curds,” the best cheese curds in Wisconsin. Just below the Lynxville dam, the Falling Rock landing serves as a favorite put in for anglers fishing for walleye below the dam. The Falling Rock tavern is a favorite haunt for fishers sharing their fishing stories along with a beer and burger.

Prairie du Chien

Prairie du Chien’s St. Feriole Island is a must stop for history buffs. The island hosts the annual Prairie Villa Rendezvous in June, a re-creation of the fur trade rendezvous that occurred in centuries past. It’s also home to the famed Villa Louis historic site, a 19th century Victorian mansion billed as the most authentically restored Victorian House Museum in America. Pull up to the boat dock on the south end of Lawler Park and quench your thirst and appetite at the Depot, a bar & grill located in a restored railroad depot, built in 1864.

The stretch of river along the Driftless region of southwest Wisconsin never ceases to amaze; from a distance or from the seat of your cruiser. Launch your boat and let the river take you to sights and settings you’ll never forget.

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.

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.


Experience Driftless Wisconsin

October 1, 2011 by

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.


Fun at Summer’s End

August 13, 2011 by

Downtown, people seemed to glide along the sidewalks with a cool wind at their backs and at the post office, weather reports crossed the counter faster than stamps.  Along with the weather, everyone is talking about what they did last weekend and “what are you up to this weekend?”  Summer is nearing end and everyone is trying to squeeze as much fun out of her as possible.  

In Driftless Wisconsin, fun comes with the territory.  Where else in the world can you wake up and find blue sky held aloft by river bluffs decorated with red oak and white oak.  This sets people in the right mood before they’ve read the headlines and has them looking forward to the day at hand and the weekend ahead. 

Our weekends are populated with events that keep the fun coming. The folks in Viroqua will be celebrating Wild West Days on August 19 – 21, an opportunity to roll back the calendar to times when horses ran the roads and didn’t require $4 gas to keep running.  The weekend starts with an all Horse Parade – no motorized vehicles allowed! – and includes a concert by Sons of the Pioneers on Thursday and Friday nights, a hog wrassling contest, and Ranch Rodeo. 

If you haven’t figured out by now, history plays a big part in Driftless Wisconsin events, since this area holds some of the state’s earliest settlements. Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin’s second oldest community, hosts Breakfast in a Victorian Kitchen, at the historic Villa Louis on August 27.  Reservations are required for this intimate look at 19th century cuisine and cooking technology.  

Two weeks later on Sept 10 and 11, the Villa Louis will again host the Villa Louis Carriage Classic, an elegant event showcasing some of the nation’s finest trotting horses and restored carriages on the mansion grounds.  There’s no grander sight than a finely groomed horse parading proudly in the afternoon sun.  

Before then, Labor Day celebrations take center stage around Driftless Wisconsin.  Stoddard, Hillsboro, and Readstown all plan activities around the holiday that marks the unofficial end of summer. Interspersed with music, games, and hometown food, this tribute to labor offers farmers to get out of the field and ‘towners’ to get out from behind the desk.  And visitors the chance to experience some genuine small-town hospitality. 

So let’s ride that cool breeze for awhile – the real cold stuff is well down the road – and get together for some Driftless Wisconsin fun.  See you soon. 


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. 


Holiday Events in Driftless Wisconsin

November 22, 2010 by

On November 26, Viroqua holds its annual Twinkle Fest Parade, an annual holiday kickoff celebration with Community Tree Lighting ceremony.  The festivities will surely put you in the mood for Christmas shopping.  VIVA Gallery features November guest Artist John Schneider’s landscapes rendered in etchings, pastels, watercolor and oil paints; while other “art for the holiday” will be on display in December.  And VIVA artists Kathleen Aaker, Angela Feltes, and Carole Austin will present Sno-Crush from November 20 through December 31, a “traditionally inspired” textile show at Avalanche Looms in the town of Avalanche, a short distance from Viroqua.  

The Villa Louis historic site in Prairie du Chien provides a backdoor perspective of Victorian life with a Servant’s Supper on December 4.  The kitchen of the Victorian mansion serves as the setting for this hands-on culinary workshop, exploring the “tools, technology, and favored foods of the late 19th century.”  A tour of the mansion is included in the program; reservations are required. 

On December 4 and 5, a traditional Christmas celebration can be enjoyed at an Old Fashioned Christmas at Norskedalen Nature & Heritage Center near Coon Valley.  Enjoy horse-drawn wagon rides around the historic grounds and Christmas carols with area singers. Local artists will demonstrate the making of traditional crafts and visitors will have an opportunity join in the making.  Enjoy the many baked goods for sale – including my favorite holiday treat, Norwegian lefse! – and an a-la-carte lunch.  

My own memories of the holidays are not complete without snow, and hopefully nature will oblige.  The Kickapoo Valley Reserve in LaFarge will welcome outdoor enthusiasts to a Family Snowshoe Hike on December 11 from 1 pm to 4 pm.  The “slow-paced” walk explores the winter habitat of the reserve with plenty of scenery and discoveries along the way.  

Let Driftless Wisconsin usher in your holiday season with its unique blend of cultural heritage and rural landscapes.