Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE, discovered only a few months ago, is now putting on a marvelous show in the northern sky.
I went out last week with a 55mm F1.8 lens to capture some obligatory comet photos and then turned my camera on a few other highlights of the July 2020 evening sky over Wisconsin. Click on a picture to expand it.
Although Wisconsin is better known for its trees, lakes, and snow than its cactus, multiple species of prickly pears have a native range extending to the Upper Midwest. The cacti are not abundant, but they can flourish in the micro-climates created by well drained, sunny slopes in the Driftless Area.
These wild prickly pear cacti grow along a south facing outcrop of St. Peter sandstone in southwest Wisconsin. I was lucky enough to find them just in time for their short lived yellow blossoms in early July.
While shops, schools, and museums shut down for safety from March to May amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, the woods of Driftless Wisconsin came alive in their usual burst of spring color. This photo gallery looks back at the emergence of spring wildflowers week-by-week.
For another perspective on spring in the Driftless Area, don’t miss the nature walk video series from B&E’s Trees on YouTube: . They’re full of interesting information on Wisconsin’s spring ephermals.
Fragile points of color, the first flowers in April rise only slightly from the bed of last year’s decay. Bloodroot, hepatica, and dutchman’s breeches announce the new season throughout much of the woods. The marsh marigolds cluster only around a well-watered natural spring.
As April turns to May, whole stretches of the woods are carpeted with pink-and-white spring beauty. Tree leaves are beginning to bud, but the canopy is still wide open for sunshine to reach the forest floor. Both rue and wood anemones are widespread, and ferns are uncurling from their fiddleheads.
Spring took its time in coming to Wisconsin this year, and when it arrived the rain clouds seemed to hang overhead for weeks at a time. All that water had to make something grow eventually, though, and the prairies were in blossom by the end of May.
The Summer of 2013 began with floods, washouts, and landslides across the Driftless Area, destroying roadways and inundating homes in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. These events bring significant losses and make dramatic news, but they are not new. To the contrary, the Driftless Area’s rugged landscape owes its very existence to millions of years of erosion by floodwater, and that erosion is an ongoing process. Widespread human construction, by contrast, is a recent development in this environment. The repeated rains and landslides of the last decade make clear that communities in the Driftless Area must plan their land use for the inevitable occurrence of further flooding and erosion.
The Driftless Area is prone to flash-floods and landslides in part because of its unique topography, which has a higher degree of slope than surrounding regions. The following map (view map at high-resolution) is colored by slope to highlight this distinction, with steeper hillsides shaded more brightly than level land. The Driftless Area stands out immediately as the bright swath across the center of the map:
The steep terrain of the Driftless Area increases the speed at which run-off collects into drainage channels, ordinarily an advantage, as it dries uplands quickly and prevents water from pooling into stagnant ponds and bogs. During heavy rains, however, water collects more rapidly than some narrow channels can accommodate, leading to sudden flash floods that erode banks and scour new channels. In the meantime, the saturated hillsides — especially those with inadequate vegetation — lose strength and give way, leading to landslides. These are the very processes that created the jagged valleys and steep slopes of the Driftless Area, a landscape forged in unison with running water.
In 1962, the U.S. Congress authorized construction of a flood control dam on the Kickapoo River at La Farge, Wisconsin. The dam would protect La Farge and its downstream neighbors from the Kickapoo’s devastating flash floods. It would also create a 1,780 acre reservoir — “Lake La Farge” — that proponents hoped would draw tourists in search of fishing, boating, and lakefront recreation. Over a hundred farmers and landowners were made to sell their real estate to the federal government beginning in 1969 to make way for the planned reservoir. Construction crews set to work rebuilding Wisconsin Highway 131 around the anticipated lake. In 1971, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers broke ground on an earthen dam at La Farge.
As work progressed, increased environmental scrutiny revealed problems. Studies showed that a dam would not only alter the local ecology and threaten endangered species in the Kickapoo Valley, but also take a severe toll on local water quality. The expense of maintaining the reservoir also raised concerns. In 1975, with the dam partially in place and half of the affected highway rebuilt, a failed cost-benefit analysis led the Corps of Engineers to halt the project. The cost had been $18 million, coupled with the destruction of the valley’s farming community — an unambiguous example of poor foresight and government waste.
Though Lake La Farge was never filled, the incomplete dam and an abrupt corner in Highway 131 remain as visible reminders of the failed project. Likewise, the property acquired for the reservior remains largely vacant, though it at last found use in 2000 when it was transferred from the Corps of Engineers to the Ho-Chunk Nation and the State of Wisconsin for the creation of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. The lake that never was thus remains fixed on the mental map of many Kickapoo Valley residents.
I created the map above to define the extent of the planned lake more clearly. The map is based on elevation data I had downloaded from the USGS NED for my Driftless Area Map, and it simulates the area that would have been flooded if Lake La Farge had been filled to the proposed elevation of 840 feet above sea level. The base layer of the map is a mosaic of 2010 aerial imagery from the USDA National Agricultural Imagery Program. The map does not account for sediment deposition and other landscape changes that the dam could have wrought, but it offers a general picture of how “Lake La Farge” might have fit into the modern landscape.