Journey to the Central Sands and Beyond

Standing in the cranberry bog.
Standing in the cranberry bog.
Standing in the cranberry bog.

Beautiful vistas clog up my phone memory at the moment. I don’t want them to clutter up this post, so I’m only sharing the best from my orientation trip for grad school. We visited many agricultural sites including a potato farm, cranberry bog, dairy farm and free range cattle operation. We also stopped at Frank’s Hill, Kickapoo Valley Reserve, and other natural environments along the way.

The Wisconsin River.
The Wisconsin River.

Our first stop was the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, a spot where conservation work first began in Wisconsin. The nature center features Aldo’s shack which is just a few steps away from the Wisconsin River, situated in the Central Sands of Wisconsin. Standing at the River’s edge you can imagine a pair of rebellious teens floating down the river on a raft, one named Huckleberry and one named Tom.

cactiI didn’t expect to see cacti thriving in such a cold location, but in light of the sandy soil that spans this part of Wisconsin it makes sense to see these desert plants! We also spotted deer, a snake, and hawks while on our trip.

a prairie on a mountain
A small prairie reserve.

Controlled burns prevent the vegetation at this reserve from going through succession. This means that the prairies are preserved, while shrubs and trees are prevented from taking over the landscape. Trees aren’t necessarily malicious for the environment but as you may see in the photo above, there is an overwhelming presence of trees throughout the rest of the landscape. The prairie offers a consistent habitat for birds and serves as a reminder of what the environment might have looked like when it was inhabited by ancient people. It is said that Native Americans encouraged fires in order to have better perception for hunting, to continue to use certain grasses, and even to get rid of insects.


The Kickapoo Valley Reserve is an 8600 acre reserve in the Driftless region of Wisconsin. It was once farmland that was reclaimed by the government to build a large dam, but locals resisted and eventually won the battle to keep their homes which otherwise would have been flooded from the rising Kickapoo River. Since the glaciers of the last ice age didn’t pass through this area, you’ll see lots of hills as opposed to the flat swampy lands in the Great Lakes Basin. The sandstone and limestone weren’t eroded by the weight of glaciers sliding over them, so this also serves as an archaeological site. You can read about some of the historical findings here.

Yellow flowers on a hill
The view from Frank’s Hill.

To explore the archaeological value of the Driftless area, we visited Frank’s Hill. This photo was taken in front of an effigy mound built by the mound civilization which existed here from approximately 700-1200 AD according to the Three Eagles Foundation. Although you can’t tell from the picture, we were standing on the ridge of this steep hill, and the yellow flowers were actually growing on an elevated surface – a sacred burial ground. From the air, the mounds can be seen as birds and animals.


One of our last stops was to a free range farm not far from Madison, WI. The cows graze in the field each day and are moved from section to section in order to spread out manure and control grass and weeds. They are allowed back in the covered barn for water, corn, and shelter from the heat on a hot day. In a way, the cows are like wildfires because they prevent the prairies from going through succession. However, cows are a little easier to control. Fences are set up to lead them to the field and keep them in certain areas until the farmer can direct them to the next section to graze. Sometimes they tip over the fence in search of better grass though. It’s always greener on the other side, right?


The cows on the left of this image are getting milked, and on the right are calves. Cows are ready to be milked around the age of 2-3 years old. At this point they would be moved from the free range farm to a dairy facility and milked three times a day. Baby cows typically feed on their mothers 4-6 times a day according to this website. I was really shocked to learn from the farmer that a baby steer sells for less than $10 due to the amount of upkeep that goes into raising them. I learned so much on the road trip around Wisconsin and I’m grateful I got to see so many new things. And there’s still more to blog about!

Have you ever been to an archaeological site? Seen wild cacti? Visited a dairy farm but been afraid to pet the cows? Let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading 🙂


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