I remember returning from the Minneapolis airport from a vacation in Florida, where the population’s so dense you rubs elbows with it on the freeway. I traveled down highway 35 along the Great River Road into Driftless Wisconsin feeling amazed that I could travel even a mile without seeing another living soul.
There’s a photo of my Norwegian heritage that stands out in my mind: my grandparents, Olaf and Ella, holding my father in their laps seated in a sod house on the South Dakota prairie around 1910, before they moved back to the Westby area.
You will never tire of the stunning scenery in the Kickapoo River Valley. But the valley attracts people who enjoy more than looking. They like doing. And there’s a lot to do!
As a child, I lived an arm’s length away from Prairie du Chien’s history. Growing up in the lodging business, I remember my father leading customers out to the driveway in front of the lobby and pointing to the top of the river bluff. They ran their eyes along his plaid-shirted arm to the clearing that marked the graves of the French fur trader, Michael Brisbois.
Then he would impart the legend – perhaps more fiction than fact – that Brisbois had requested burial on top of the bluff “so he could look down in death as he had in life” upon his intense business rival, Joseph Rolette. Talk about taking a grudge to new heights.
Despite its questionable veracity, I soon found myself standing in the driveway, telling this historic legend. I took glee in telling the story and pride in declaring Prairie du Chien as Wisconsin’s second oldest community. I found grounding in this simple declarative sentence, like looking at a fifty-foot gnarled oak tree and imagining the roots beneath the ground.
My father grew up in Vernon County on a tobacco farm near Westby. So when I was growing up, we piled into the family car on most Sundays and headed north and headed home to Vernon County – my father’s home.
I just returned from Glacier Bay in Alaska, where you can begin to understand the power of glaciers. Entire watersheds have been scoured of vegetation and bedrock by these enormous rivers of ice.
The world is never so tranquil as from the bow of a canoe. I’ve discovered that many times on rivers around the Midwest, but none of them as serene as the Kickapoo River.
Sometimes the best way to get to know a stranger is to sit down with them next to a campfire. Stories get heated up and inhibitions get broken down and pretty soon you know their story. This is true of both people and rivers.