The Driftless Region
The wide diagonal river is the Upper Mississippi River. In this area, it forms the boundary between Minnesota and Wisconsin. The rivers entering the Mississippi are, from the bottom up, the Upper Iowa, Root and Cannon Rivers. A small portion of the upper reaches of the Turkey River are visible west of the Upper Iowa. To the west, outside the Driftless Area where more regular topography is evident, tributaries of the Wapsipinicon and the Cedar Rivers are seen.
The Driftless Area or Paleozoic Plateau is a region in the American Midwest noted mainly for its deeply carved river valleys. While primarily in southwest Wisconsin, it includes areas of southeast Minnesota, northeast Iowa and northwest Illinois (see map at right). This region includes elevations ranging from 603 to 1,719 feet (184 to 524 m) and covers an area of 16,203 square miles (41,986 km²). This region’s peculiar terrain is due to its having escaped glaciation in the last glacial period.
The term “driftless” indicates a lack of glacial drift, the material left behind by retreating continental glaciers.
Retreating glaciers leave behind silt, clay, sand, gravel, and boulders — called drift. Glacial drift includes till (unsorted material) and outwash (layers deposited by meltwater streams)”. While some glacial drift has been discovered, this is said to be of “Pre-Illinoian age” about 500,000 years old.
What is clear is that the region has been subject to the regular catastrophic effects of glacial lake outburst floods involving the cataclysmic collapse of ice dams holding in such bodies as Glacial Lake Agassiz, Glacial Lake Grantsburg, and Glacial Lake Duluth (see Jökulhlaup).
The earlier local phases of the Wisconsinan glaciation are poorly understood, but the last involved several major lobes, the Des Moines lobe, which flowed down to Iowa’s capital city on the west, the Superior lobe (and its sublobes) on the north and the Green Bay lobe and Lake Michigan lobes on the east. The northern and eastern lobes were in part diverted around the area by the Wisconsin Dome, an exceedingly ancient uplifted area of Cambrian rock underlain by basalt. The Green Bay and Lake Michigan lobes were also partially blocked by the bedrock of the Door Peninsula, which presently separates Green Bay from Lake Michigan. In earlier phases of the Wisconsinan, the Driftless Area was totally surrounded by ice, with eastern and western lobes joining together to the south of it.
In the adjacent glaciated regions, the glacial retreat left behind drift which buried all former topographical features. Surface water was forced to carve out new stream beds.
Overall, the region is characterized by an eroded-down plateau with bedrock overlain by varying thicknesses of loess. Most characteristically, the river valleys are deeply-dissected. The bluffs lining this reach of the Mississippi River currently climb to not quite 600 feet (180 m). In Minnesota, Pre-Illinoian age till was probably removed by natural means prior to the deposition of loess. The sedimentary rocks of the valley walls date to the paleozoic and are often covered with colluvium or loess. Bedrock, where not directly exposed, is very near the surface and is composed of “primarily Ordovician dolomite, limestone, and sandstone in Minnesota, with Cambrian sandstone, shale, and dolomite exposed along the valley walls of the Mississippi River.” In the east, the Baraboo Range, an ancient, profoundly eroded monadnock has some of the most ancient exposed rock in North America, primarily quartzite and rhyolite. The area has not undergone much seismic action, as all the visible layers of sedimentary rock are approximately horizontal.
Karst topography is found throughout the Driftless. This is characterized by caves and cave systems, disappearing streams, blind valleys, underground streams, sinkholes, springs, cold springs and cold streams. Disappearing streams are when surface waters sinks down into the earth through fractured bedrock, either joining an aquifer, or becoming an underground stream. Blind valleys are formed by disappearing streams and lack an outlet to any other stream. Sinkholes are the result of the collapse of the roof of a cave, and surface water can flow directly into them. Disappearing streams can re-emerge as often powerful springs, often having been cooled down by the water’s journey through the earth. Cold streams with cold springs as it sources are noted as superb trout habitat. All of these features are found in the Driftless area.
The Mississippi River passes through the Driftless Area between and including Pool 2 to Pool 13.
As rivers and streams approach their confluence with the Mississippi, their canyons grow progressively steeper and deeper, particularly in the last 25 or so miles (40 km) in their journey to their mouths. The change in elevation above sea level from ridgetops lining a stream to its confluence with the Big River can reach well past 650 feet (200 m) in only a few miles. The Waukon Municipal Airport is reliably established as being 1281 feet (390.4 m) above sea level. The Army Corps of Engineers maintains a river level in Pool 9 of about 619 feet (189 m) above sea level, which covers Lansing. Maps and signs issued by the Iowa Department of Transportation indicate Waukon and Lansing are 17 miles (27 km) apart on Iowa Highway 9. This is a drop of more than 660 feet (200 m) in less than 20 miles (and this along a very minor tributary of the Mississippi). “The role of isostatic rebound on the process of stream incision in the area is not clearly understood.”
There are many small towns in the Driftless Area, especially in river valleys, at or upstream from the Mississippi. Small towns in a deep steep valley going down to the Mississippi are at risk every 50 to 100 years or so of a major flood, as with the wreck of Gays Mills, Wisconsin in August 2007, or the holding of the levee in Houston, Minnesota (on the South Fork Root River) at the same time. Metropolitan areas have flood walls (See 2007 Midwest flooding).
The history of this portion of the Upper Mississippi actually dates back to an origin “as an ice-marginal stream during what had been referred to as the “Nebraskan glaciation.”” Current terminology would place this outdated and abandoned period in the Pre-Illinoian Stage. The level of erosion often exposes Cambrian limestone of about 510 million years of age.
The Mississippi River trench is one of the few places in the Driftless Area where the bedrock is very deep below the surface, and is overlain by large amounts of sediment. As home to the formation of a substantial portion of the gorge of the Upper Mississippi, this enormous quantity of sediment goes down at least 300 feet (91 m) under the present riverbottom at the confluence of the Wisconsin River. In contrast, as the River exits the Driftless Area “between Fulton and Muscatine, [… (Pool 13)], it flows over or near bedrock.” “The course of the upper Mississippi River along the margin of the Driftless Area of southeastern Minnesota is believed to have been established during pre-Wisconsin time when a glacial advance from the west displaced the river eastward from central Iowa to its present position.”
Other rivers affected by this geologic process are:
- In Wisconsin, the Chippewa, Trempealeau, La Crosse, Black, and the Wisconsin River, along with its tributary, the Kickapoo River;
- In Minnesota the Whitewater, Cannon, Zumbro, and Root rivers;
- In Iowa, the Upper Iowa, (Paint Creek may also be mentioned), Yellow, Turkey, and Maquoketa rivers;
- In Illinois, the Apple River and the Galena River (a.k.a. the Fever River).
The Saint Croix in Wisconsin is another important river in the Driftless Area, as it was the outlet for Glacial Lake Duluth, forerunner to Lake Superior, when the eastern outlet was blocked by the continental ice sheet. These rivers all have deep, dramatic canyons giving testimony to the immense quantity of water which once surged through them. The Wisconsin River drained Glacial Lake Wisconsin. Glacial River Warren, whose bed is now occupied by the Minnesota River, drained the colossal Glacial Lake Agassiz. There was ample water to dig a very deep, hundreds-of-miles-long gash into the North American bedrock.
The climate is humid continental, displaying both the cool summer and warm summer subtypes as one travels from north to south. The United States Department of Agriculture has the region falling mainly in zones 4a and 4b, with the southern fringe being 5a. A few patches in Wisconsin are 3b. The winters in zones 4a and 4b can be quite severe, with the Mississippi freezing over.
Prior to European settlement in the 19th century, the vegetation consisted of tallgrass prairie and bur oak savanna on ridgetops and dry upper slopes, sugar maple-basswood-oak forest on moister slopes, sugar maple-basswood forests in protected valleys and on north-facing slopes, wet prairies along the rivers, and some mesic prairie on the floodplain further back from the river. There were probably also oak forests that contained no sugar maple. Marsh and floodplain forests were also common on river flood plains. Prairie was restricted primarily to the broader ridge tops, which were unfavorable sites for trees due to thin soils and shallow bedrock, rapid drainage, and desiccating winds; all these conditions were also good for carrying fires across the landscape. Prairies also occurred on steep slopes with south or southwest aspect (see Goat prairie). Natural fire, which has long been vigorously suppressed, was essential for the regeneration of such prairies.
The Midwest Driftless Area Restoration Effort is a multi-agency cooperative effort to restore the landscape. The main issues are water pollution, from agricultural and animal runoff, and erosion. Water pollution is particularly critical in karsted regions such as this, in that it can degrade or destroy prime cold water fish habitat. Soil erosion, a bad thing in general, presents the Army Corps of Engineers with a particular problem, in that it requires them to dredge the Mississippi to keep the Mississippi River shipping channels open. Trout Unlimited is part of this effort, if only because of the superb cold-water streams the region supports. A symposium was held in October 2007 in Decorah, Iowa “to share the results of research, management and monitoring work in the Driftless Area.” The Nature Conservancy is also interested.
An apparently unique feature of the Driftless Area are small, isolated ecosystems termed algific talus slopes. These refugia create cool summer and fall microclimates, which host species usually found further north. It contains at least one endangered species, the Iowa Pleistocene Snail, and a threatened plant, the Northern monkshood. The Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge was primarily carved out of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in order to protect these species and their associated ecosystems.
The list of protected areas in the region is extensive. Most of them, however, were established for reasons having little to do with being in the Driftless, but nonetheless incidentally locked up some valuable parcels.
A particularly noteworthy annual event is the rising of fishflies, a kind of mayfly endemic to the Mississippi valley in the region. These are aquatic insects who, attracted to light, rise by the millions as adults to mate, only to die within hours.
Wildlife is abundant. Opportunities for hunting whitetail deer and wild turkey are extensive. Fishing, particularly for brown trout in tributaries, as well as species such as channel catfish in the Mississippi is available, while ice fishing in winter is something of a regional sport.
The Driftless Area is part of the Mississippi Flyway. Many birds fly over the river in large flocks, going north in spring and south in autumn.
There are very few natural lakes in the region, these being found in adjoining areas of glacial till, drift and in moraines; the region is extraordinarily well drained, and there is rarely a place where even a pond can naturally form. There are also very few dams in that the valley walls and floors are very often fissured or crumbly, or very porous, providing very poor anchors for a dam or making it difficult to keep any kind of reservoir appropriately filled. There are no real waterfalls, but some very strong springs bear the name.
A modern, man-made characteristic is the comparatively twisty nature of highways in the region, like in Kentucky, in contrast to the usually rigid east-west/north-south alignment elsewhere in the Midwest. Here, the roads switchback up stream valleys or travel over ridgetops. The route of U.S. Highway 20 through the Driftless, and particularly in Illinois, is a good example.
Corresponding to the southeast geological region of Minnesota, it begins at about Fort Snelling on the southeast corner of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro area. Starting as a narrow sliver against the Mississippi, it widens to the west as one goes south. The western boundary is the Bemis-Altamont moraine. Another more easily located reference to the western boundary is the approximate line of Minnesota State Highway 56.
The dissection of river valleys along the Mississippi is complete, and one has to travel westward to find remains of the former plateau. The historic vegetation was mixed woodland, with occasional goat prairies on southwesterly facing slopes. In the western section is “an old plateau covered by loess […] along the eastern border and pre-Wisconsin age glacial till in the central and western parts. The western portion is a gently rolling glacial till plain that is covered by loess in places.”
The counties involved include all or part of Dakota, Goodhue, Wabasha, Winona, Olmsted, Dodge, Houston, Fillmore, and Mower Counties. Aside from the southeastern suburban sprawl of the Twin Cities, Rochester is the main urban area. Additional communities include Red Wing and Winona.
Glacial River Warren, in whose bed the Minnesota River now flows, entered the Driftless Area just downriver from present-day Minneapolis-Saint Paul, at Fort Snelling, over River Warren Falls, “an impressive 2700 feet (823 m) across and 175 feet (53 m) tall, over 10 times as wide as Niagara falls” (this has since receded to become Saint Anthony Falls). The region is characterized “by the absence of glacial drift deposits, the sculpted topography, and the presence of the ancient limestone immediately beneath the soil and in cliff outcroppings.” The Minnesota Driftless Area did not reach the Twin Cities or any areas to the north or west of them; rather, the Twin Cities marked the edge of glaciation, with substantial terminal moraines overlying the region.
The largest protected area is Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest, which contains some state-owned land, but is mostly private, controlled by state conservation easements.
The border is defined by the catchment of the Chippewa River on the north, and somewhat west of the north-south line of the Wisconsin River. Where the Wisconsin River turns west to join the Mississippi, the area to the south, to include the whole of Grant County as well as a small portion of Lafayette County are included.
Karst topography is less prominent in Wisconsin but nonetheless present. The caves are small with cave systems essentially absent. Viroqua City Cave in Viroqua is one of the better known ones. There is an admission that Wisconsin geologists have been remiss in fully documenting their caves, inside or outside of the Driftless.
It involves all or part of Pepin, Eau Claire, Buffalo, Trempealeau, Jackson, La Crosse, Monroe, Juneau, Vernon, Richland, Sauk, Crawford, Iowa, Dane, Grant, and Lafayette Counties. La Crosse is the principal urban area. Prairie du Chien, together with the Iowa cities of Marquette and McGregor constitute the only other metropolitan area. Part of Wisconsin’s Driftless area is also called the Ocooch Mountains.
Largely rural in character, landcover is forest, farmland, and grassland/pasture; modest wetlands are found in river valleys, and along the Mississippi. Row crop farming is less encountered than elsewhere in the state. Away from the Mississippi, the terrain is gently rolling, supporting dairy farms.
The highest point in the Driftless area is West Blue Mound, with an elevation of 1,719 feet (524 m). The feature is located in Blue Mound State Park, near the border of Iowa and Dane counties.
The contrast between what the rest of Iowa looks like and what the Driftless Area presents is often commented upon. For counties inland from the Mississippi, the evidence is largely confined to the valleys of streams and rivers. It encompasses all of Allamakee, and part of Clayton, Fayette, Delaware, Winneshiek, Howard, Dubuque, and Jackson Counties. Dubuque is the only metropolitan area.
The region is distinct from the “Iowan Erosion Surface to the west and the Southern Iowa Drift Plain to the south.” A line east of the most easterly tributaries of the Wapsipinicon River defines the terminal moraine that marks the western boundary of the Driftless, with the catchment of the Maquoketa River serving as a southern boundary. The most western tributaries of the Upper Iowa, Yellow and Turkey Rivers flow east and south from the vicinity of this moraine.
Outside of Dubuque, this region of Iowa is thinly populated. In the western section, agriculture and livestock raising are the norm. As one travels east, and as the valleys tumble down to the Mississippi, much of the land is virtually wild, with a great deal of it locked up in public hands. The state maintains an extensive number of wildlife management areas (basically hunting and fishing areas), along with state forests and state parks.
The most impressive area is on the Mississippi, between Pikes Peak State Park, opposite the Wisconsin River down to Guttenberg, where bluffs lining the river reach their maximum height. This is apparently an Iowa continuation of Military Ridge, a catchment-defining divide in Wisconsin that was used for the Military Ridge Road, a portion of which is included in Military Ridge State Trail, both across the River in Wisconsin.
Effigy Mounds National Monument is at the heart of a network of adjacent parks, state forests, preserves, as well as national wildlife refuges, all of which preserve and illustrate the features of the Driftless, where “patchy remnants of Pre-Illinoian glacial drift more than 500,000 years old recently have been discovered in the area.” Additional protected areas are Cold Water Spring State Preserve near Decorah and Maquoketa Caves State Park northwest of Maquoketa.
The Illinois portion is confined mainly to Jo Daviess County; southern parts of Carroll County and a tiny portion of northwest Whiteside County is also included. The region contains the highest points in the state, of which “the most notable are Charles Mound and Benton Mound, rising to heights of 1,246 feet (380 m) and 1,226 feet (374 m) respectively.” The region “has many sinkholes and sinkhole ponds.”
This portion lacks any real urban center. East Dubuque is really a part of metropolitan Dubuque, while Galena retains its small-town Midwest county seat look.
The valley of the Apple River has a major canyon, with Apple River Canyon occupying much of it. The mouth of this river, near Fulton marks the southern end of the Driftless Area on the eastern side of the Mississippi (see Lock and Dam No. 13).
In popular culture
An interesting connection with the landscape of the region is Taliesin, home of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who advocated organic integration of a structure with its natural surroundings. Taliesin itself is built from local limestone and set on the brow of a rugged hill, for the specific purpose of emphasizing its ties to the Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin.
It provides the setting and the title for writer Tom Drury’s 2006 novel, The Driftless Area as well as offering the location and central image of Lawrence Santoro’s 2007 novel, Just North of Nowhere.
The 1989 film Field Of Dreams prominently featured the Driftless Areas outside Dubuque, Iowa during the driving scenes to represent the eastern United States.
The 2008 book Driftless by David Rhodes (author) is set in the fictional town of Words, Wisconsin in the Driftless Area.