Author and Professor Discusses the Magical Driftless Area

Flat. Boring. These are two common words that come to mind when people think of much of the Midwest. But there’s a special place in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin that features limestone bluffs, rolling hills, wooded valleys, waterfalls, creeks, wetlands, rivers, caves, Native American Effigy Mounds, and rare ecosystems and plant and animal species. It’s known as the Driftless Area. I’ve been to the Driftless Area many times, and every visit continues to amaze me. But there’s someone who knows much more about the Driftless Area (which is sometimes called the Driftless Region) than me. His name is Dr. Kevin Koch. He’s a Professor of English at Loras College and the author of The Driftless Land: Spirit of Place in the Upper Mississippi Valley and other books. Kevin was kind enough to discuss the Driftless Area and his books with me.

Q. For my readers who may not be familiar with this region, what is the Driftless Area?

A. If you have ever driven from the Midwestern flatlands into the steep hills and bluffs of northwest Illinois, northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota, and southwest and central Wisconsin, you have entered the Driftless Area, or the unglaciated region. The glaciers were like huge bulldozers, flattening much of the Midwest topography. Whatever soil, rock, or rubble the glaciers pushed, dragged, or dropped is called glacial drift. So the region bypassed by the glaciers has no glacial drift, hence Driftless. (But it’s also a pretty cool metaphor for the people who live here!)

Wapello Land & Water Reserve, copyright Andrew Morkes

Q. What are a few of your favorite destinations in the area? 

A. Being from Dubuque, Iowa, I spend a lot of time at the Mines of Spain, a state recreation area where Julien Dubuque established his lead mines along the Mississippi in the late 1700s. My wife and I bike, hike, and cross-country ski through this area, and I like to take my Loras College students to some off-trail mine remnant areas in the winter. Elsewhere in the Driftless I am continually amazed by the Native American past at Effigy Mounds National Monument near Marquette, Iowa. Two other special places for me are the Kickapoo Valley Reserve and kayaking on the Wisconsin River as it nears the Mississippi. I write an Outdoors column for the local newspaper, so I am continually learning about new places in the Driftless.

Effigy Mounds National Monument, copyright Andrew Morkes
Effigy Mounds National Monument, copyright Andrew Morkes

Q. What is it like to hike and otherwise spend time outdoors in the Driftless Area? Any advice for visitors based on topography, weather conditions, and other issues? 

A. Be prepared for hills! Not every square inch of the Driftless is hilly, of course, but many of the most scenic places are. So have good hiking boots and take your time. I also encourage people to embrace the weather, even winter. My students are surprised at how warm they become on a winter’s hike or while snowshoeing. The main thing is to keep moving. My wife and I figure that if you’re going to live in the Driftless, you might as well learn to live in it all four seasons!

Q. Can you tell me about your book, The Driftless Land: Spirit of Place in the Upper Mississippi Valley?  

A. The Driftless Land is a collection of creative nonfiction essays focusing on particular places in the Driftless Area, from the path of the Black Hawk War (“Chasing Black Hawk”) to the Kickapoo Valley Reserve to Effigy Mounds and more. Some of the essays could be classified as literary journalism, combining narrative with researched information and interviews. One of my favorite things to do is go on a guided hike with an expert, so that story and information are blended together. Other pieces are meditative essays, such as the closing work, “Where the Earth Breaths: A Vow of Stability.” In this essay I write about the need to know a place deeply—from its geology to its history to one’s own personal story there. When you know a place deeply, you might just find the place on the hillside where there is a vertical cave puffing warm air in winter, the “place where the earth opens its mouth and breathes.”

Q. Can you tell me about your other books, Skiing At Midnight: A Nature Journal from Dubuque County, Iowa and The Thin Places: A Celtic Landscape from Ireland to the Driftless? What’s the best way for readers to order your books? 

A. Skiing at Midnight was my first of the three books. Like The Driftless Land, it is a collection of literary journalism and meditative essays, but focused entirely on my home county. With The Driftless Land I expanded my geographical region beyond my home county to the entire unglaciated region. 

And with The Thin Places, I expanded my geographical focus even further to include the Emerald Isle. The story there is that, after having spent nearly a year in Ireland in various episodic visits and longer stays, I felt that the Irish landscape had given me fresh eyes with which to view my own home landscape. So in The Thin Places, I draw connections between places in Ireland and places in the Driftless along themes of Celtic spirituality. Some of these themes include: The land is Sacred; the Creation is Good; Time is Cyclical and Elastic in the Thin Places; Story Settles in the Landscape; and more. (“Thin places,” by the way, are, in Celtic mythology, places where the veil between this world and the Otherworld is thin and porous. Or, in more modern parlance, Thin Places are where you can sense there is more to a place than its mere physicality.)

The Thin Places can be ordered from Wipf and StockThe Driftless Land and Skiing at Midnight can be ordered from my website, or if that doesn’t work, can be ordered from me directly at kevin.koch@loras.edu.

Readers can follow my short bi-monthly Outdoors columns at my Nature Blog.

Great River Bluffs Park in Minnesota, copyright Mike Sweet, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

***

I want to thank Kevin Koch for the interview and helping me to learn more about the Driftless Area. If you live in Chicagoland, Galena, Illinois, is a great base for your explorations of the Driftless Area. Nestled on bluffs above the Galena River, Galena is a beautiful historic town (which has more than 1,450 buildings on the National Historic Register, including President Grant’s home), and one of my favorite weekend destinations. This charming town features great restaurants, antique shops, bookstores, art galleries, live music, and much more. Nearby, the town of Elizabeth offers the Elizabeth’s Grand Antique Co. (28,000 square feet of antiques; the Apple River Fort State Historic Site (a re-built fort that was the site of a battle in the Black Hawk War of 1832, and at which Abraham Lincoln and his militia supposedly were present; great for kids—especially during the warm months when reenactments and other events are held); the Chicago Great Western Railway Depot Museum, and Apple River Canyon State Park, which is about 17 miles from Elizabeth. A good hiking option is Mississippi Palisades State Park. Effigy Mounds National Monument is about 1.5 hours northwest of Galena. Finally, Dubuque, Iowa, an underrated city 25 minutes from Galena, has many interesting attractions, including the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, the Dubuque On Ice Brewfest, and the Dubuque Museum of Art.

Click here to learn more about Wisconsin’s Driftless Region.

Snowshoeing near Galena, copyright Andrew Morkes

Kevin Koch holds copyright to his interview and the cover photos of his books.

All other photos are credited to their copyright owner, except the flowers and butterfly photos (Copyright, from left to right: Yellow Lady Slippers; Northern Monkshood; Columbine; Monarch Butterflies–all Brandon Jones, USFWS); Main blog photo also copyright Brandon Jones, USFWS

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