Making The Nature Scene: Take me to the river, drop me in the water

The Kickapoo Valley Reserve and Driftless Region offer river fun and art-town wares.

The Kickapoo Valley Reserve and Driftless Region offer river fun and art-town wares.

Photo: The Blanding’s turtle calls the Kickapoo River Valley Reserve home. You’ll know the turtle, listed as vulnerable, by the yellow spots on its black shell. Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS. Illustrated frame by Maggie Denman.

In Making The Nature Scene, Tone Madison explores the splendor of the outdoors in the Madison area (and beyond), and encourages Madisonians to think more deeply about their natural and built surroundings.


If you’re in Madison and over the lake and indoor event scenes, I’ve got just the place for you. Wisconsin’s hottest natural area is the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. Located in the forested rolling hills of the Driftless region, this place has everything: a swirly twirly river, hiking, biking and horse/mule trails, eye-catching geological formations that are home to endangered flora and fauna—and proximity to a cute little artist enclave. It’s recognized as a National Natural Landmark, a State Natural Area, an Important Bird Area (!!!), and one of Wisconsin’s Wetland Gems. And, like so many natural places, it smells terrific!

The Kickapoo River, named for the Kickapoo Tribe that once lived in Wisconsin, is the longest tributary of the Wisconsin River. It winds and winds through the Kickapoo Valley Reserve (KVR). The KVR’s 8,500 acres of public land sit between the villages of Ontario in the northern region and La Farge in the south. The reserve was Ho-Chunk land before settlers encouraged an interpreter to lie to the tribe while negotiating the Treaty of 1837, also known as the Treaty of St. Peters. Since 2001, it’s been jointly owned by the State of Wisconsin and the Bureau of Indian Affairs Trust for the Ho-Chunk Nation.

The Kickapoo River is a standout among the straighter, lazier of our region’s popular kayaking, canoeing, and tubing rivers. (Though, props to the Wisconsin River’s impressive volume and current this year.) From Ontario, a two-hour drive from Madison, you can take an 11-ish hour kayak or canoe trip down the Kickapoo over two days. Or simply paddle half of the time during one day. Camping is available at 25 first-come, first serve, primitive self-reservation campsites throughout the reserve.  Watercraft-wise, the kayaks I’ve seen recently from one of the three rental spots in Ontario have been very rough. Luckily, due to a weather threat, I drove my car to the campsite rather than hauling my gear on the questionable kayak. If possible, bring your own rig to forgo the dubiousness.

Riverside landings are notoriously inconspicuous and can be steep. Pay attention to the bridge numbers to guide your way. You can also tube down the ol’ Kickapoo. Regardless of your mode of transport, there are plenty of sandbars to pull over on for snacks and assorted riverside hijinks. In some places, there will be mud. It feels like quicksand, but survivable. In any case, strategically rounding the turns of the Kickapoo is the perfect space to break out your rendition of “Just Around the River Bend.”

The Northern monkshood lives on the cool sandstone cliffs that line the Kickapoo River. The plant is listed as threatened in Wisconsin and federally. Photo by Aaron Carlson on Flickr.

The Northern monkshood lives on the cool sandstone cliffs that line the Kickapoo River. The plant is listed as threatened in Wisconsin and federally. Photo by Aaron Carlson on Flickr.

You’ll be in good company on the river. The indigo Northern monkshood and fuschia Lapland Azalea grow in the cool, moist microclimates of the shady sandstone cliffs that line the river. The threatened Blanding’s turtle, (interestingly, I ended up in Wisconsin because my partner at the time was studying its migration patterns), the wood turtle and a “globally rare snail” also call the KVR home. Party! I also spied some unidentified, mysterious tiny ducks at dusk. They were probably not a river hallucination.

River aside, the KVR has some gorgeous hiking trails, from two to eight miles long. However, I have yet to put the river aside and take these trips. Hanson Rock from Corps Road at eight miles looks like a great day hike with a little challenge that will be perfect viewing for upcoming fall colors. There are also bike trail options, no matter your preferred cycle.

Looking for a little late-fall fun? The KVR hosts an extremely manageable and adorable mischievous triathlon, The Dam Challenge. There are a total of 24 miles between three legs, and it reportedly fills up fast. The reserve also hosts a Winter Festival the first Saturday in January with guided hikes, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, horse-drawn sleigh rides and ice skating. It was canceled last year, but here’s hoping for 2022!

A last note on visiting the KVR: one of their rules is “Pack it in, pack it out.” Everything you take into the reserve should leave with you. Packing out is pretty simple. I take a few plastic shopping bags, double them up, and knot the top after throwing in a wrapper or bottle. There’s one thing you can leave in the park, but it has its own set of rules: 1) Find a spot at least 200 steps from any water source. 2) Dig a hole six to eight inches deep and bury human waste. 3) Pack out used toilet paper. There are no latrines, so pick up an inexpensive backpacker’s trowel to be ready when you’re camping or if nature calls.

The Kickapoo Valley Reserve is a gorgeous getaway from the city. While you’re in the hood, you have to visit Viroqua. Folks, get thee to Viroqua! So many people who’re from Wisconsin have yet to take it in. The Washington Post (boo, Jeff Bezos, boo!) recently did a feature on the cute, artsy little town. Although some shops aren’t open on the weekends, their expansive Public Market is filled with art, jewelry, stickers, and interesting antiques. The nationally known Driftless Cafe, which delightfully plates the bounty of the organic farming region, is a grand place to stop for a bite. It’s a good idea to get a reservation, too. You can round out your trip and digest with a trip to the dreamy, eclectic Driftless Books and Music. Housed in an old tobacco drying warehouse (not the one on the main road, the one behind it, as I learned during a summer downpour). Sifting through the dimly-lit stacks, I snagged a screenplay that I didn’t know existed by Dylan Thomas and the first Scissors Sisters CD. Jackpot! While in the region, you can also turn your dial to the local community radio, WDRT.

Will you end up with river-related songs in your head as I did? There’s only one way to find out. Or you can ensure it with this river-related playlist that will get you to Ontario and halfway back!

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