Monday, August 20, 2018


Many moons ago we checked into a motel in the Eagle River area for a little summer vacation stay in Wisconsin’s “Up North”.  When the owner/clerk saw our address as La Farge, he inquired what we were doing in the north woods.  He said that it didn’t get any prettier than the Kickapoo Valley.  He and his wife were from LaCrosse (they helped run the family owned hostelry in the summers) and said they tried to get to the Kickapoo Valley whenever possible.  I told them I was going fishing on some of the lakes in the Conover area to try to catch some walleyes, which you cannot do in the Kickapoo Valley – and he agreed.
            But what he said, probably first got me to thinking about the natural beauty of where we live here in the Valley of the Kickapoo. That “Up North” conversation probably occurred sometime in the late 1970s or early ‘80s and what the motel operator was saying was already playing out in front of us, but we probably didn’t even see it.
            Many people were visiting the Kickapoo Valley in the early 1970s, some drawn to the area because of the controversy over the La Farge dam project.  Many of the visitors canoed the river and camped along its shores.  Some of those people fell in love with the gorgeous valley and decided to stay.
            In La Farge, the newcomers of that time were known as “Hippies” although most were not necessarily of that “hip generation”. Yes, some of the men had longer hair and beards and the women sported long skirts and a bra was not an absolute necessity as an undergarment.  Some of the newcomers had an inclination towards relaxation with marijuana use (“Wacky Weed”, as the locals liked to call it), but most seemed to fit into the local scene pretty well.  Downstream, in the Gays Mills area, the newcomers of that time became known as the “Back – To – The – Landers”, because of their propensity to try farming on a small scale.  Regardless, all of the newcomers came to the Kickapoo Valley, liked what they saw and decided to stay.
            The stoppage of the dam project at La Farge in the mid-‘70s continued to draw national headlines and that continued to draw people to the Valley to see what all of the fuss was about.  Again, many of those visitors liked what they saw in the Valley of the Kickapoo.  People from the urban areas of Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago started to view the beautiful Kickapoo Valley as a place for a second home – a spot in the country for extended vacations.  When you add in the spectacular increase in the populations of Whitetail Deer and wild turkeys in the Valley at the same time, small acreage spots for a hunting camp became sought after in the Kickapoo Valley as well.
            If you were born and raised in the Kickapoo Valley, there is a propensity to take the beauty of the Valley for granted.  You get used to the surroundings and start to overlook the majesty of the awesome hills and valleys.  When the people who lived north of La Farge were leaving their homes and farms because of the dam project, they were forced to make a decision on whether to stay in the Valley or move away.  For some, who wanted to stay in farming, the decision would be based on finding another farm to keep milking cows.  Many of those farmers stayed in the area, but others left and sought their agricultural fortunes in other locales.
            Harvey and Bernice Schroeder sold their mink ranch to the federal government as part of the dam project buy out in the early 1970s. They were retiring from farming, but they were not sure where they wanted to live.  They traveled around America to other places, in particular checking out some locations where the Corps of Engineers had water control projects similar to the one at La Farge.  They visited many beautiful places, but in the end returned to the Valley and built a new house located just north of La Farge that would be overlooking “Beautiful Lake La Farge”.  Bernice has always said that they could not leave the beautiful hills of the Kickapoo Valley.  (Perhaps that is why Bernice’s daughter, Kathy, has returned to the Valley to build a house on one of those hills.)
            Even after the dam project was stopped and the lake was no longer a possibility, people from away continued to buy property in the rural areas of the Valley.  Whether for a hunting camp or a second vacation home, the people still wanted to be in those hills as much as they could.    
              When CROPP bought the cheese factory in La Farge in 1989, a whole other group of new people came to the Valley.  As the “Croppies” took over La Farge, many bought homes and farms in the area.  Their organic ideals of farming struck a chord with locals, who liked the old-fashioned sensibilities of that type of farming.  Because the topography of the Valley almost demands smaller farms, the “Organic Way” of farming soon thrived.  The old “Two-Story Farms” of the Kickapoo Valley were viable again and the beauty of the Valley was a bonus for the new organic farmers.
            Sometime in the late 1990s a local realtor took a long distance call from a faraway place.  The caller was looking for a house on a small farm.  The search was a little more specific though because the caller wanted a place located in THE “Organic Valley”.  (Who says brand names don’t make a difference!)  When the realtor explained to the caller that there wasn’t an actual “Organic Valley”, a sense of disappointment could be felt over the phone by the realtor.  But the realtor, being a good salesperson, promptly started selling the virtues of the beautiful Kickapoo Valley, and eventually the sale of some Valley property was secured. 
            Today, the beauty of the Kickapoo Valley is wrapped within the overall tourist draw of the Driftless Area.  This unglaciated region of the Midwest is unique in many respects and the beautiful Kickapoo Valley is the poster child of the area.  Since the Kickapoo River is the only river that has its entire watershed included in the Driftless Area, the Valley has historic and geologic reasons for its unmatched beauty and majesty.  Since the Kickapoo Valley has this awesome beauty, then its inhabitants must be pretty special, too? 
            Maybe the story of those “Kickapoogians” (or is it “Kickapoojians”?) who live in ultra-cool “Kickapoogia” is one for another time. Don’t forget that those uber-cool “Kickapoogia” t-shirts are for sale at the gift shop of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve Visitor Center.  Get them while they are HOT!  
            Stay cool in Kickapoogia!


One of the things that I find interesting in this little local history project is the ability to do updates on stories about which I have previously written.  In April of 2011 I wrote a column titled “Kickapoo Wildlife” in which I presented changes in the local populations of animals and birds in the past fifty years.  In that column I wrote about the abundance of deer and turkey in the Kickapoo Valley compared to a half century before.  I also mentioned how the geese and cranes were hanging out on our ponds along Bear Creek, something else that was not common fifty years earlier.  Perhaps it is time to take another look at Kickapoo wildlife.
            The first six months of 2018 seemed to abound with new and unusual sightings of local fauna that were both odd and interesting. Taken from an historical perspective, most of the instances reinforced my previous thoughts on the changes that have taken place in the Kickapoo Valley in regards to wildlife.
            While driving home on a late afternoon in January, an elk jumped in front of our car near Bridge #10 between La Farge and Ontario. I had just crossed Ferris Flat, heading south and saw what I thought was a deer on the hill beside the road.  I slowed down anticipating the animal jumping onto the road.  Sure enough, what I thought was a big Whitetail, jumped the fence, landing right in the middle of the road in front of me.  When I got a closer look at the animal’s rear end, I realized that it was an elk.  It lumbered across the road and headed north down towards the Kickapoo River below.
            Earlier that month, an elk had been seen running along Bear Creek south of our house.  The elk had escaped from a nearby game farm.  I thought that the elk that jumped in front of us that day was probably the same one.  Later I would learn that the elk that we saw between Ontario and La Farge was from the DNR managed herd of elk released in the Black River Falls area.  Two elks in the area in one month – that is a rarity indeed.
            Speaking of rarities, I should backtrack to the summer of 2017 when an unusual bird sighting occurred at our place.  My wife, Carolyn, is an active bird feeder with several continually stocked bird feeders in operation at our Bear Creek home. This food extravaganza attracts a wide variety of species of birds to our place.  Last summer, we were surprised when this funny looking small robin started feeding behind our house.  I soon realized it wasn’t a robin, but instead a large flycatcher species called Say’s Phoebe.  The Say’s Phoebe is a species mainly of the Great Plains and is rarely seen in Wisconsin. I learned that earlier in the summer of 2017, a pair of the species was seen in the Middleton area.  Perhaps the pair at our house later in the summer was the same ones seen there.  The birds stayed about a month before moving on.  They have not returned this summer, but many other birds have showed up here.
            Our Spring/Winter/Spring/Winter/Spring weather that we had in April seemed to slow all of the water birds return to our ponds. Finally around May 9th, we saw a family of geese walking in our driveway.  There were two adults, which I named Gus and Gertie, and their four little chicks.  The springtime was very wet this year, so I think the geese came up on the driveway to find a dry place to hang out.  They would walk all the way up the driveway and waddle around in our lower lawn.  It was interesting watching the chicks grow, seeming to get taller and more goose-like each day.
            Pure cacophony broke out at our place on the evening of May 14th.  Seven Canadian geese decided to drop in on the ponds for a visit and Gus & Gertie were not happy.  The squawking over territorial pond rights was deafening and even increased when two Sand Hill Cranes descended onto the far pond.  Carolyn even tried to walk down to the ponds to arbitrate the situation, fearing the little ones would be driven off.  Her trip was to no avail, but eventually Gus & Gertie prevailed. 
            The family of Canadian Geese continued to walk in our driveway for over a month.  The last time we saw the clan, the chicks were nearly fully-grown and we suspect the group flew off soon after that.  The geese would be replaced in late June by a family of cranes.  Again, because it was so wet in the lowlands around our ponds, we think the cranes were seeking the driveway for dryness.
            We have had Sand Hill’s nest on our ponds before and have often seen the little ones in our pastures and yard.  This year, during the annual Crane Count in late April (which was iced and snowed out from the original weekend), we saw a crane on the far pond, but never a nesting pair.  We heard crane calls every morning indicating they were nesting nearby, so they could have been nesting along the little rill that runs to the west of the ponds.
            What was different about this year’s crane family was that they were staked out at a place right next to the driveway and close to Highway 82.  When I would drive down the driveway, one or both of the cranes would fly right in front of the vehicle, trying to protect the two little chicks.  Sometimes, the adult cranes would fly across the state highway, further endangering all concerned.  Another difference in this year’s crane family from previous years was that the chicks were very young – small little bundles of yellow fuzz waddling around the edge of the driveway.  Usually the chicks are much larger when we see them, but I think the wet conditions caused the move off their nest.  After a few days of this tenuous situation, the whole crane family moved across the highway and hung around some high ground besides Bear Creek. For another week, we observed the cranes walking in the fields by the creek, before they moved on. 
            We have had a gravel driveway for the entire forty years that we have lived on Bear Creek.  Since we have the gravel, we usually have Killdeer around, because they like to lay their eggs in the substance.  A few years ago, the Killdeer laid four big eggs right in the middle of the driveway, out of the tire tracks.  We marked the nest, which amounted to no more that a little hole scratched out of the gravel, so I wouldn’t run over it with the riding mower.  As we drove down the driveway, the adult Killdeer would run ahead of us, luring us away from their eggs.  Occasionally, one of the adult birds would play the old “broken wing card” to entice us away from the eggs.  
            Some years, the Killdeer eggs hatch, while other times the raccoons and other nighttime predators destroy the eggs before they hatch. This year, perhaps because of the wet conditions, the Killdeer made their driveway nest on higher ground, between the barn and the house.  We saw four big eggs in the nest-hole and the two adult Killdeer were busy luring us away from the nest as we drove on our driveway.  One of the adult birds would sit on the eggs during the day, to shelter them from the heat of the sunshine.  As we buzzed past with the mowers, the adult would try to lure us away. Finally, they grew used to our mowing practices and stayed on the nest as we trimmed the lawn on either side.
            We never did see little Killdeer chicks this year – I don’t know where they go when they hatch – but the eggs in the nest decreased from four to two and then to only one in a period of ten days or so.  The older birds abandoned the last egg; I ended up placing it over into the pasture after waiting a week or so with nothing happening.
            With our ponds, we also have a healthy turtle population at our place.  When the turtles are seeking higher ground to lay eggs, this can some times be a problem if they try to cross Highway 82.  One Snapping Turtle and one Box Turtle did not make the crossing of the busy state highway successfully this spring, but several others did survive. Wood Turtles seem to be increasing in our area now, probably due to the increasing amount of habitat.
            That increased wildlife habitat, especially north of La Farge on the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, played out in a strange way in late April.  A turkey hunter was walking to his hunting site on the ridge near Bridge #10 when he spied a Black Bear laying next to a little stream that runs into the Kickapoo River.  The hunter did not want to encounter the bear so he continued on to his hunting site. At the end of the morning when the hunter was heading back to his car, he noticed the bear still lying next to the creek.  He notified the authorities about the bear siting and the KVR personnel found the bear near death.  It died by the next day and the animal had apparently been struck by lightning during a big thunderstorm that occurred in the area the night before it was first seen. When the animal was gutted out, black singe marks were observed on several of the bear’s organs, indicating a possible lightning strike.  It was believed that the bear had hibernated on the Reserve last winter.
            At least, we don’t have hibernating bears on our place here on Bear Creek yet.  Or do we? After all, there is a reason the creek has that name.