It may only be 5 hours away, but the Driftless area couldn’t be any further from the flat, grid streets of my hometown of Chicago. One would suspect that Chicago is simply surrounded by more flat until you either hit the Rockies or Appalachia. A road trip through the Driftless country is a pleasant shock. Where did these hills and valleys come from? Are we not still in the Midwest? The Driftless seems to attract many a wandering soul. It hooked and drew me in about a year ago. When it comes down to it, the lure was the landscape. It is this landscape that has attracted the organic growers, from the Amish to supporters of the back-to-the-land movement. It is here that a small group of farmers started what is now the largest dairy cooperative in the country, Organic Valley.
While the glaciers may not have altered this land, we humans have always left our trace. As we built our communities and industries, we have worked within and around this geography. My trusty bike has led me on many an expedition into this driftless, yet molded geography. I invite you to revisit these exploratory rides that take us into the landscape and into history. A person tends to take in more by two wheels rather than four. Two wheels also invite you to slow down and take a break from time to time.
My home base is Westby, a town of 2200 people, established by Norwegians in 1851. My most recent adventure took me down Old Line Road, past Branches Winery, past the turn to Nordic Creamery, and down into the valley. The plan was to take County B to County KK, but with my downhill momentum, I missed my turn. Instead, the bike took me through Esofea, crossing over the North Fork of the Bad Axe River. Helgeson Road offered a chance to get back on track. What a climb! Two young Amish boys seemed quite amused as I struggled past them. A few more miles and turns later, I sped downhill to a stunning sight. I slowed down to investigate and see what looks like a dam on one side.
The road follows the ridge of the dam. Hidden on the other side is a lake. A trail leads down to a dock while a fisherman floats in the distance.
The water collected in this lake is slowly released through a large pipe on the other side of a dam, creating a stream that disappears into the surrounding forest.
This is a Bad Axe Watershed Project. The particular project is the Runge Hollow floodwater retarding dam for flood prevention. In 1974, with assistance from the USDA Soil Conservation Service, the Vernon County Soil and Water Conservation District built the dam under the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act. Locals call this place Runge Hollow for short, and I hear this is a sweet rope swing for summertime dips.
I climbed out of that hollow, really feeling it in my quads by now. I turned North on County B and proceeded to take the back roads home. Once home, I did some research. The Bad Axe River Watershed, which lies entirely within Vernon County, encompasses about 200 square miles (Bad Axe, 2010). A total of 9,222 acres, about 7% of the total watershed area, drains into Runge hollow. As of 2010, agriculture consisted of 56% of the land use, with forest covering 37% percent and only 1% in wetland (Bad Axe, 2010). It seems that the forest cover cannot absorb all the water that runs off our hills and ridges. It was excessive flooding, and no doubt damage to farms and roads, that prompted the construction of these flood control structures (Bad Axe, 2010).
There are actually many such structures in the Bad Axe Watershed, and you may have heard of some of them: Sidie Hollow County Park, Duck Egg County Forest, and Esofea County Park. These flood prevention sites also offer great recreational activities: camping, swimming, fishing, hiking, and biking. From what I can tell, Sidie Hollow is a particularly popular destination.
Sidie offers multiple campsites, including one on either end of the somewhat boomerang-shaped lake and one located up on the ridge which is reached by forest trail or road. In addition to the beautiful path along the lake, there are some great trails that go up into the woods—good for hiking, running, and especially mountain biking. Watch out for those jumps!
Sidie Hollow was completed 9 years before Runge, in 1965. A total 4,557 acres, about 3.5% of the total watershed area, drains into Side hollow.
This bit of history intrigued me and I resolved to explore more. I had never even heard of Duck Egg County Forest! This County Forest, located only 9 miles west of Viroqua, encompasses 707 acres of forest. In addition to hunting and fishing opportunities, it offers ten miles of combination hiking and equestrian trails.
So I planned my next expedition. I’d start out on the same route going out Old Line Road. This time I wouldn’t miss my turn to get to Cnty KK. Instead of taking Cnty Y to Runge, I would take Cnty O to Upper Newton to Irish Ridge Road where I would find the lower parking area.
The next Sunday morning, I arrived at Duck Egg Forest by bike and set off to explore the park by foot. (No biking allowed). There are several paths which are well-marked by maps and signage. I followed Logger’s Loop and soon came upon a pleasant scene.
I continued to jog along, now following Duck Egg Trail, and soon came upon what I was looking for.
A deep valley formed by the Springville Branch of the Bad Axe River cuts down the middle of Duck Egg. There lies a very large flood control dam structure that was completed in 1990. In addition to protecting private property, the dam also prevents flash floods from damaging several roads and bridges downstream. It is capable of holding 1.4 billion gallons of water (vernoncounty.org). This is a picture of the area behind the dam that the flood water would need to fill in order to reach over the spillway.
In fact, the water did flood over the spillway on August 18, 2007 when the so called “1,000 year flood” hit the Bad Axe River Watershed.
After the dam, the Duck Egg trail leads uphill to a beautiful picnic and look out area.
What a treasure! And what a beautiful place the Driftless is! Stay tuned for my next expedition into the Driftless.
Bad Axe Watershed: 2010 Water Quality Management Plan Update, 2010