Wis­con­sin doesn’t have the tow­er­ing peaks of the Rock­ies or the ocean-swept beaches of the coasts. There are no rain­forests, deserts or glaciers.

Country - - GOD’S COUNTRY -

Most peo­ple as­sume Wis­con­sin is end­less acres of flat farm­land, dot­ted by cows and red barns. Pas­toral? Sure. But not ex­actly a scene that takes your breath away. Let them as­sume. All the bet­ter for pro­tect­ing one of the state’s bestkept se­crets: the Drift­less Re­gion. An­chor­ing the south­west­ern corner, the area’s to­pog­ra­phy is so un­like the rest of Wis­con­sin, it’s hard to imag­ine how they ex­ist along­side each other. Where the rest of the state lies prone, the Drift­less Re­gion seems to jump above and dive be­low the hori­zon. Steep hills and rocky bluffs plunge into deep val­leys, where two-lane roads and twist­ing rivers wind like tree branches. The most rugged part of the re­gion is in Craw­ford and Ver­non coun­ties, bor­dered on the west by the Mississippi River and dra­matic bluffs along its banks. The hills in this area are known as the Ocooch Moun­tains, which seem like a mis­nomer for those who have seen larger moun­tain ranges. But stand­ing among the Ocooch cre­ates the same ef­fect: a sense of awe, as if you’ve stum­bled on a land be­fore time—or at least a land be­fore glaciers. When the last glaciers cov­ered Wis­con­sin, this pocket of land es­caped their bull­doz­ing ways, leav­ing the pic­turesque hills and val­leys free of glacial drift (the stones, sand and other de­bris left be­hind by the ice moun­tains). Some of those hills are cov­ered in neat rows of cul­ti­vated land, but most are blan­keted in trees that cre­ate cloaks of green in the

sum­mer and burn with the col­ors of fall in Sep­tem­ber and Oc­to­ber. Amish bug­gies rat­tle along twolane roads, and the area’s most pop­u­lous city, Prairie du Chien, has fewer than 6,000 res­i­dents. It’s not sur­pris­ing that the area has at­tracted back-to-the-land types. There’s the Drift­less Cafe, fea­tur­ing farm-to-ta­ble food, in Viro­qua. And there’s Sol­diers Grove, which be­came the na­tion’s first “so­lar vil­lage” in 1983 when it re­lo­cated its down­town out of the Kick­apoo River flood­plain and de­creed any new build­ings be so­lar-heated. Ver­non County is home to the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of or­ganic farm­ers in the coun­try. Many of them are mem­bers of Or­ganic

Val­ley co-op, which counts 2,043 farms in 35 states as mem­bers. But larger com­pa­nies are the ex­cep­tion in the quiet Drift­less Re­gion, where those who are wise to its ways come to find tran­quil­ity among the trees. Re­lax­ation is easy to come by at the Kick­apoo Val­ley Ranch out­side La Farge. The ranch is owned by Cow­boy Joe and Cow­boy David, who spent time out West and wanted to bring that dude-ranch feel­ing to an­other spe­cial place. Cozy cab­ins have gas fire­places, hand-sewn quilts and porches from which vis­i­tors can watch horses graze while en­joy­ing free cook­ies from Cow­boy David’s Bake Shoppe, also run by the duo. The ranch sits along­side the Kick­apoo Val­ley Re­serve, an 8,600-acre pre­serve with dozens of miles of trails for hik­ing, bik­ing, horse­back rid­ing and camp­ing, and the Kick­apoo River, a fa­vorite for ca­noe­ing and kayak­ing. This slice of un­spoiled na­ture was al­most doomed to be­ing buried un­der wa­ter. The Kick­apoo is a nar­row, shal­low river that’s prone to flood­ing. In the 20th cen­tury, vil­lages such as Sol­diers Grove and Gays Mills sought a way to avoid the con­stant de­struc­tion. As early as 1930, a dam was pro­posed as a so­lu­tion. In 1962, the La Farge Dam project was born. The plan was to build a flood­con­trol dam on the river at La Farge, be­hind which a lake would form for re­cre­ational op­por­tu­ni­ties. Farm­ers were bought off their land, and con­struc­tion be­gan. But when an en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact sur­vey was con­ducted, the dam seemed to cre­ate more prob­lems than it would solve—from wa­ter-qual­ity is­sues to es­ca­lat­ing costs. By 1975, the con­tro­ver­sial dam project was dead. The area re­mained a fed­eral gov­ern­ment no man’s land un­til 1997, when part of it was trans­ferred to the Ho-Chunk Na­tion, the re­gion’s orig­i­nal hu­man in­hab­i­tants, and an­other part was given to the state of Wis­con­sin to de­velop into the Kick­apoo Val­ley Re­serve. The dam project’s fail­ure was a win for na­ture. On a blue­bird­sky day in sum­mer, ca­noe flotil­las bump be­tween the scenic river’s sand­stone-bluff banks in the re­serve, and fly fish­er­men cast for trout in rip­pling wa­ters. Campers set up in tree-shaded groves and fam­i­lies hike to the top of the steep hills for sweep­ing vis­tas. The Ocooch and its twist­ing rivers might fail to live up to moun­tain stan­dards in terms of al­ti­tude, but when it comes to stun­ning nat­u­ral land­scapes, this slice of the Drift­less Re­gion is near the top of the heap.

“On a blue­bird-sky day in sum­mer, ca­noe flotil­las bump be­tween the scenic river’s sand­stone-bluff banks.”

Sun­light streams through an an­cient pine relict in Rock­bridge.

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