Driftless Dark Skies: Galileo! Galileo!

February 11, 2019 by John Heasley

February 15 is the 455th birthday of Galileo Galilei. He is beloved by stargazers because he was the first of us to observe the starry sky with a telescope and to share the news with the world that the Milky Way is full of stars, the Sun has spots, the Moon is a world, Jupiter has moons, Venus has phases, and Saturn has “ears”.

In the fall of 1609, Galileo turned his telescope to the Moon and was amazed by what he saw. His book, Sidereus Nuncius “Starry Messenger” conveys the excitement of discovery. “These sights, though unknown, are not entirely unfamiliar however. It is most beautiful and pleasing to the eye to look upon the lunar body from so near. Anyone will then understand with the certainty of the senses that the Moon is by no means endowed with a smooth and polished surface, but is rough and uneven and, just as the face of the Earth itself, crowded everywhere with vast prominences, deep chasms, and convolutions.” Galileo’s starry message is that the Moon is not a perfect unworldly sphere as once thought, but a world with mountains and craters and plains. The art education he received earlier in life allowed him to see clearly the patterns of light and shadow on the Moon and to know that he was watching morning sunlight illuminating the rims of craters and tips of mountains as they cast shadows across the landscape.

February is a great month to see the Moon through the eyes of Galileo. Ordinary binoculars are closest in size and magnification to the telescope Galileo crafted and used four centuries ago.  Begin the morning of Feb. 1 when the Waning Crescent Moon is in the southeast sky between Venus and Saturn. The following morning, the Moon has waned even more and moved closer to Saturn. Best view in the Driftless is 6-6:30am. Be sure to notice the Earthshine on the dark side of the Moon and how the shadows heighten the features along the terminator–the line separating light/dark and night/day where the Sun is setting on the lunar landscape.

The Moon is too close to the Sun in the days around New Moon (February 4) to observe, but look for it again the evening of February 6 in the southwest after sunset at 5:18 and before moonset at 7:09. Now the terminator marks where the Sun is rising on the Moon as craters and mountains are illuminated at dawn. On February 10, the Moon is the same phase (about a third illuminated) as it was on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin explored the Sea of Tranquility as the Sun was rising there. You can spot this darker area just to the right of the terminator along the lunar equator halfway between the “horns” of the Moon. Just above the Moon is ruddy Mars. In one binocular view, you can see the world where humans once walked and the world where we might next walk.

On the night of February 12, the terminator equally divides the First Quarter Moon. On February 15, celebrate Galileo’s birthday by enjoying the Waxing Gibbous Moon just above Orion the Hunter and surrounded by the bright stars of the Winter Circle. The Full Snow Moon on February 19 is an excellent time to see the three great ages of lunar geology. The light areas are the lunar highlands with the original crust of the Moon from the Age of Formation. The craters and the rays of ejecta cast out from them are from the Age of Bombardment. The dark areas are maria, basaltic plains from the Age of Lava Seas.

Last Quarter is February 26, and now the terminator dividing the two halves of the Moon marks where night is falling. On the morning of February 27, Jupiter is right below the Waning Gibbous Moon. Best view is after moonrise at 2:04 and before sunrise at 6:41. If you can hold your binoculars steady enough, you might be able to glimpse the four Galilean Moons of Jupiter first discovered by Galileo—Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.  Magnifico!

If weather allows, there will be Candlelight Hiking, Snowshoeing, Skiing, and Stargazing at Wildcat Mountain State Park on 9 Feb (5-8pm) and Wyalusing State Park on 16 Feb (6-9pm).

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.


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 Dark Skies: Autumnal Dawn

September 8, 2017 by John Heasley

We think of evening as the ideal time for stargazing. The sun sets, the sky darkens, and one by one the stars and planets emerge. If you look to the east just after sunset, you can see Earth’s shadow just above the horizon. Darkness does not fall—it rises! We spend the night in the shadow of the Earth. You can watch the Crescent Moon as it waxes and passes near Jupiter low in the west on September 21 and 22 and just above Saturn in the southwest on September 26. 

Evening is only part of the show. The days around the autumnal equinox on September 22 are perfect for stargazing at dawn. The sky begins to brighten around 5:15, and the Sun rises around 6:45. Those 90 minutes are the best time. One by one, the stars and planets begin to fade and disappear, just as one by one the birds begin their songs. Morning planets often appear highest above the eastern horizon around the equinox, and you can watch three of them dance as they approach and pass one another. 

Mercury is often challenging to see. It’s the innermost planet and stays pretty close to the Sun, but you can spot it low in the east near the bright star Regulus on September 9 and 10. Mercury is the brighter of the two. Mars, dimmer and redder, is below and to the left of the pair. Your binoculars will help as you scan the sky right above the horizon. Mercury will be its highest above the horizon on September 12. Watch as Mercury moves closer to Mars until they are almost inseparable on September 16. Arcing above them in a line, you will see bluish Regulus, dazzling Venus, and the waning Crescent Moon. On September 17, the Crescent Moon is slimmer and has moved closer to Venus. By September 18, the Moon has waned even more and shines between Venus and Regulus above it and Mars and Mercury below it.  See if you can spot Earthshine on the dark part of the Moon. That’s sunshine reflected from Earth and brightening the night side of the Moon. 

Autumn also means that the Universe in the Park programs come to a close. We have one more opportunity at Governor Dodge State Park on September 23 and two more at Wildcat Mountain State Park on September 2 and 30. UW grad students give a talk in the Amphitheater and then set up telescopes for guests to have a look. Starsplitters of Wyalusing offer public programs on September 16 and 23. If skies are clear, we should be able to see the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and the craters of the Moon. Hope you enjoy the skies at dawn and dusk! 

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.

Driftless Dark Skies: Walk When the Moon is Full

October 8, 2016 by John Heasley

This fall is a marvelous time for a moonwalk.  The next three months, our calendar and lunar months align.  The new moon falls near the beginning of the month.  First quarter moon is a week later.  Full moon is mid-month.  Last quarter moon is the third week.  And then the cycle repeats.  It has been a real challenge for calendar creators to get the solar and lunar cycles to line up.  Our solar year is just under 365¼ days.  A lunation, time between new moons, is just over 29½ days.  So you get twelve moons in a year with 11 days left over.  Our Gregorian calendar is solar and ignores the lunar cycle.  Even though “month” comes from “moonth”, we have random months of 28-31 days.  The Islamic calendar is more lunar.  The month begins when the crescent moon is first sighted, and the year is 354 days long.  The Jewish calendar is a compromise.  The months are the length of a lunation, but an extra month is added about every other year to keep the lunar and solar cycles in sync.

moonrisefrankshillIt’s easy to spot the full moon rising.  Be outside when the sun is setting.  Turn your back to the sun, and watch the direction of your really long shadow.  That’s where the moon will rise.  It can be anywhere between northeast to southeast.  This fall, the moon rises between east and southeast.  Full moon happens when the Earth is between the moon and sun, so watch for moonrise about the same time as sunset.  It’s a time of balance.  While you’re facing east, you’ll see a pinkish glow called the “Belt of Venus” just above the horizon and the darker shadow of Earth below the pink.   There’s only one moment when the moon is 100% full, but the moon will appear almost as full the day before and after.  That gives us some slack for when it’s cloudy.

Stargazers often avoid the full moon because it dims so many stars.  Others fear the dark.  But the moonlight eases the transition from day to night, and there’s a wonder there worth seeing.  My favorite places for moonwalking in the Driftless Area are Wyalusing State Park, Wildcat Mountain State Park, and Kickapoo Valley Reserve.  KVR continues their popular program from last winter and offers four evenings this fall and winter to “Walk When the Moon is Full”.  We will gather at sunset/moonrise at the Visitor Center and hike down to Old 131 Trail.  KVR astronomy educators will have binoculars and telescopes set up for you to enjoy the highlands, maria, craters, and rays of the full moon.  We will also take a look at the planets and constellations while we enjoy the other sights, sounds, and smells of the moonlit world.  This will involve some moderate hiking in the dark on uneven and possibly slippery surfaces.  Participants have the option of remaining at the Visitor Center for stargazing.  Event is free, but please register so that we can send you weather updates.  Dates are October 15 (Hunter’s Moon), November 12 (Frosty Moon), February 10 (Snow Moon), and March 11 (Crust Moon)

I took my title from the children’s book by Wisconsin ornithologist and naturalist Frances Hamerstrom.  She tells the true story of taking her two children to walk every month when the moon is full.  Depending on the season, they meet up with deer, rabbits, possums, woodcocks, owls, fireflies, frogs, foxes, weasels and the other crepuscular creatures that live in the twilight time between day and night. 

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. 

Thanks to Barbara Duerksen for sharing Frances Hamerstrom’s book with me.

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer Triangle

July 6, 2016 by John Heasley

As darkness falls this month, watch for three shining stars emerging in the east.   They are the brightest stars in three separate constellations, but together they form an asterism (a star pattern) known as the Summer Triangle.  They cover an area of sky larger than your outstretched hand. 

Milkyway_Swan_PanoramaVega is the highest of the three and is the main star of the constellation Lyra the Lyre.  The light you see left Vega back in the spring of 1991.  Below and to the right of Vega is Altair in the constellation Aquila the Eagle.  It is closer to Earth, and its light has been journeying since the fall of 1999.  As the sky darkens, watch for our home galaxy, the Milky Way, passing between the two stars. 

There is a story of the two stars told in Japan, China, and Korea.  Altair, a poor herdsman, falls in love with Vega, a princess.  Vega’s father places them on opposite sides of the heavenly river, the Milky Way.  Once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month, the Emperor shows mercy and Altair is allowed to cross the river to visit with Vega. 

The third star of the Summer Triangle is Deneb.  Look for it between and to the left of Vega and Altair.  Deneb is the tail of Cygnus the Swan.  You can make out the outstretched wings of the Swan just to the right of Deneb reaching up and down.  Its long neck reaches almost as far as a line traced between Vega and Altair.  I imagine Cygnus as flying over the Milky Way.  Deneb is one of the farthest and most luminous stars you can see with your naked eyes.   It is over 200 times larger and 250,000 times brighter than our Sun.  The light you see left Deneb at least 1425 years ago. 

There are three planets to go along with the three stars.  Jupiter is bright in the southwest as night falls.  The Waxing Crescent Moon passes by Jupiter on July 8 and 9.  Mars and Saturn are glowing in the south just above Scorpius the Scorpion.  The Waxing Gibbous Moon passes by Mars on July 14 and by Saturn on July 15.  Just below Saturn, look for Antares whose name means “rival of Mars”. 

You will have a chance to see these stars and planets through a telescope when Starsplitters have a public program at Wyalusing State Park on July 9 (8:30pm) and Northwest Suburban Astronomers have a public program at Wildcat Mountain State Park on July 30 (8:00pm).  Or just enjoy the sight of the three stars and three planets coming out in the dark skies over the Driftless Area. 

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.

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer Stargazing

May 3, 2016 by John Heasley

The warm nights ahead are a great time to get to know the night sky.  There are plenty of stargazers in the Lower Wisconsin Valley and beyond who keep telescopes and would be happy to share a look with you.  If you have been meaning to explore our starry skies, this is your summer. 

Iowa County Astronomers have monthly meetings on May 6, June 3, July 1, August 5, September 2, and October 7.  There’s usually an indoor presentation, and then we head over to Bethel Horizons to view the skies with a wonderful 17 inch Dobsonian telescope.  Everyone is always welcome.  It’s an excellent time to try out different telescopes and ask questions.  See for monthly updates.  ICA will also be sharing a public program at Governor Dodge in August. 

Universe in the Park expands the Wisconsin Idea by making the boundaries of the university not just the boundaries of the state but the boundaries of the universe.  UW-Madison astronomy students visit state parks to give talks, answer questions, and share telescope viewing.  They will do several programs at Governor Dodge and Blue Mounds and at state parks across the state.  Full schedule is at their website. 

Northwest Suburban Astronomers will be at Wildcat Mountain on July 30, 8-10pm.  This friendly group escapes the light pollution of their homes outside Chicago to enjoy the dark skies of our Driftless Area.  For over a week, they create an astronomy village in the group campground where they welcome the public for a night of memorable stargazing through their amazing telescopes,  This year’s topic is solar eclipses, especially the solar eclipse visible in the United States in August 2017. 

Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers dark skies and will be having a Solstice Stargaze on June 18 and a Perseid Meteor Shower Party on August 12.  Enjoy hiking or canoeing during the day and astronomy at night. 

Starsplitters of Wyalusing has public programs at Wyalusing State Park on May 28, June 4, July 9, August 6, September 10, and October 1.  The evening begins with an indoor presentation in the Huser Astronomy Center and then goes outdoors to explore the sky with their fine collection of telescopes.   

While you are looking ahead to summer stargazing, don’t miss the sky events of May.  There will be a meteor shower (Eta Aquarids) on May 5.  That’s close to the New Moon, so skies should be dark.  Mercury crosses the face of the Sun on May 9.  You can marvel at this transit with Iowa County Astronomers at Governor Dodge (Twin Valley Picnic Site) from sunrise to 2pm.  Look for Jupiter near the Waxing Gibbous Moon on May 14.  Mars and Earth will be at their closest (just 47 million miles on May 30) since 2005.  Mars rises with Scorpius just after dusk and is bright and beautiful all night long.  Mars, Saturn, and the Moon will all be clustered together the nights of May 21 and 22.  Enjoy the views! 

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.

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.

Photographing Scenery in Driftless Wisconsin

April 6, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

We had arrived home after our vacation when we first saw it standing on the western horizon; a shaft of light rising skyward from where the sun had just set. The Driftless area, with a topography sculpted from earth by water over time, generally needs no further visual enhancement. Yet there it stood, an arrow of fire stuck in the Iowa bluffs as if slung from Greek mythology.

Many would be satisfied with the show without further explanation, but curiosity got the best of me. Spoiler alert: looking up the phenomena on Google, I discovered this was a solar pillar, caused by the reflection of light from ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere. Sun Pilar

“Was it meant just for us?” I wondered, given most of the town was hiding inside from single digit temperatures on that cold winter day. Then we saw a neighbor rush outside and frantically snap photos, while we sat in our car.

I recovered my senses and got out of the car to take the accompanying photo.  I took the photo with my smart phone, since I did not have my camera with me.  That was a mistake; I’m learning to have my camera in the car while traveling Driftless Wisconsin.  With its high bluffs and deep valleys, the topography lends a three-dimensional backdrop to any setting.

Favorite subjects while photographing scenery in Driftless Wisconsin

When it comes to photographing scenery in Driftless Wisconsin, sunsets are my favorite subject; as well as for many others. Traveling the Great River Road along the Mississippi River on Highway 35, it’s not unusual to see a photographer set up along the road at sunset.  You just can’t resist a photo of the sun setting over the Iowa bluffs across the wide expanse of the Mississippi. There’s several overlooks and waysides where you can pull over out of traffic and set up your tripod.

If you’re lucky, you might catch an eagle hovering over the river looking for his next meal. And of course during spring and fall migration, hundreds of thousands of migrating birds use the river corridor as a flyway.  According to the Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge website, April and May is prime time for photographing song bird migration.

The backroads of Driftless Wisconsin offer a chance to get away from traffic and immerse yourself in nature and rural settings. Rustic barns, rolling farmland, foggy mornings, and secluded valleys offer the photographer unforgettable subjects; and a quiet getaway to boot. Highway 131 along the Kickapoo River presents many such opportunities, with the winding river appearing and disappearing amid the valley flora. Take any side road and you’re immediately lost in a forgotten land, ripe for capturing through a camera lens.

The most tempting subjects are the Driftless landscape taken from one of the many overlooks.  Something about the undulating land that begs to be remembered in your photo album of places you’ve been.  The parks offer the most accessible overlooks; the best at Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario and Wyalusing State Park near Prairie du Chien.

Solar pillars are pretty rare; it’s the first one I’ve seen in my long life.  Yet the Driftless landscape always offer the photographer something rare; a place where the land rises and falls as surely as the sun.

Driftless Winter Sports

February 21, 2015 by Corey A. Edwards

Driftless Winter Sports - snowshoeing and cross country skiingWinter time in the Driftless Wisconsin region means outdoor activities. Once the snow flies, a Driftless winter is filled with skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling opportunities.

Some places just about plumb shut down once that heavy, white blanket of snow hits – but not in Wisconsin’s Driftless region! We love the outdoors, no matter the season, and each season brings with it its own special activities. What follows is a short list of just some of the activities and the places you can experience the great outdoors of a Driftless winter.

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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.