Eagle Bluff is the only Residential Environmental Learning Center located within the Driftless Area, a unique subregion of the Upper Midwest. While no formal boundaries define the Driftless, it encompasses much of western Wisconsin, as well as the corners of southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, and northwestern Illinois. The name given to this place, Driftless, represents why this landscape looks so different from the rest of the Upper Midwest. During the most recent glaciation period (about two million to 13 thousand years ago), giant lobes of ice flattened the ground as they moved up and down the landscape. As the glaciers receded, rocks and soil trapped within the ice (known as glacial drift) were left behind. The absence of glacial drift in this area is what makes it drift-less. Eagle Bluff’s campus is near the western edge of Minnesota’s Driftless Area.
The failure of the glaciers to penetrate this area also is responsible for the region’s defining geologic characteristics: steep hillsides, narrow valleys, and a land marked by unevenness. The glaciers were unable to blanket this landscape because they were blocked by the highlands of northwestern Wisconsin and simultaneously led away from the area through troughs created by Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. As the glaciers melted for the final time along the edges of the Driftless Area some 13 thousand years ago, massive quantities of water released by melting ice sheets eroded the sedimentary rocks below. Known as “inverse topography”, this left the land with flat plateaus above bluff tops, dissected by numerous streams and rivers, all flowing towards the Mississippi. Eagle Bluff sits atop one of these bluffs, and is surrounded on two sides by the Root River’s North Branch. During Canoeing class and in numerous summer camps, students are able to paddle our 3.5 mile stretch of the Root River April through October.
The geology of the Driftless is also demonstrated by fascinating features occurring below the Earth’s surface. The rock beneath our soils is mostly sandstone and limestone. This is because from about 500 to 375 million years ago southern Minnesota and the surrounding areas were once covered by a shallow, tropical sea. The sea creatures at this time in history had shells made out of calcium (like our teeth or bones), and as they died over millions of years limestone (which is rich in calcite) was formed in addition to the sandstone left by sandy beaches. Today these fossils can be found along roadsides, stream beds, or rock faces. Eagle Bluffs Earth Exploration geology class includes a fossil hunt along the banks of the Root River, and our family-friendly Fossil Hunting in Fillmore County weekend class travels to several fossil hotspots.
Just like our teeth can develop cavities from acidic drinks like soda pop, limestone can develop the same kinds of cavities from rainwater, which is slightly acidic when it falls to the Earth’s surface. This has led to remarkable geologic formations within the driftless, including caves, underground rivers, springs, and sinkholes. Nearby Fountain, MN, is the “Sinkhole Capital of the United States”, and Eagle Bluff is close by to both Niagara and Mystery Caves, both accessible to the public. This type of geology, defined by limestone and subsequent sinkholes and caves, is called Karst, and can be studied in Eagle Bluff’s Karst Geology class taken by school groups. While Karst occurs all over the world, in the Upper Midwest it is rarely found outside of the Driftless Area.
People and Place
Because of the diversity of landscapes within the Driftless Area, a wide range of ecosystems exist here as well. On wide open bluff types, fires set by lighting and various indigenous groups created a landscape of prairie and oak savannah. On south facing bluffsides, there is little soil and temperatures are abnormally high, creating an almost desert-like habitat populated by unique plants and animals, including the prickly pear and timber rattlesnake. North and east facing slopes, shaded from the sun’s rays and fire, are moist, mature hardwood forests with species like maple, basswood, and white oak. River-bottoms, which frequently flood, harbor their own unique plant and animal communities. Students observe the diversity of animals and plants that abound in the Driftless in many Eagle Bluff classes, including Animal Signs, Birds, Wildlife Ecology, Fungus Amungus, Trees and Keys, and more.
This wide array of plant and animal communities has long attracted people to the Driftless. As the glaciers retreated and humans were able to expand southward, they hunted now-extinct megafauna like mammoths and mastodons that roamed the area. As settlements expanded and communities developed, people used caves and sheltered valleys for protection through harsh winters, in some cases leaving still-remaining art etched on the rock walls. Agriculture proliferated in the irrigated river valleys, leading to more established and permanent settlements. Around one thousand years ago, these growing societies began imprinting their spirituality on the land itself, creating tens of thousands of mounds in shapes ranging from lines and circles to more complex bears and thunderbirds. These can be best viewed at Effigy Mounds National Monument along the Mississippi in northeast Iowa. A conical mound sits under an eagle’s nest in an ancient cottonwood tree across the river from Eagle Bluff’s campus, and students study past peoples in Ice Age or Oneota class while staying at Eagle Bluff.
The Driftless area was not immune to the genocide and dispossession of Native Peoples upon white settlement; the Sioux, Ioway, Ho-Chunk, Sauk, and other indigenous groups were either removed or killed during the 18th and 19th centuries. Thereafter prospective farmers moved in, mostly from northern and central Europe, who took advantage of the rich soils and bountiful forests to establish farming communities in the growing states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. Early farmers planted crops such as wheat, oats, barley, corn, and more, in addition to raising animals, particularly dairy cows, for sustenance and sale. Pioneer Life, one of Eagle Bluff’s most popular classes, takes students back to 1858 as they live a day in the life of an early settler-colonist. Unlike the surrounding flat terrain, however, the hilly slopes of the Driftless were ill suited to conventional agriculture, and farmers and fields alike suffered from severe erosion of topsoil and runoff from plowed or overgrazed land.
In the 1930s, first in Wisconsin’s Coon Valley and then elsewhere throughout the Driftless, conservation met industrial agriculture in a marriage born of necessity. Steep, upper slopes became fenced off from grazing dairy cattle, in some places replaced with native oak savannah, in others with mixed woodlands. The practice of planting commercial crops in strips (bending crop rows to the contours of the land) became commonplace. As erosion declined, water quality improved. Today, the Driftless remains a leader in sustainable agriculture as many beef producers use a managed grazing system where cows are moved frequently to mimic bison herds passing over the prairie, and organic and heirloom agriculture proliferate around towns like Decorah, Iowa and Viroqua, Wisconsin. In Eagle Bluff’s Stream Lab class, school groups test water quality throughout the year, part of an everlasting check-up on the Root River.
Now and Forever
Today, the Driftless is culturally recognized as a destination for biking, birding, local food, art, and outdoor recreation. In the past thirty years many defunct railroad lines were converted into bike trails, offering some of the most beautiful cycling in the Upper Midwest. Thousands of people flock to the Mississippi flyway in fall and spring to witness the bird migrations moving up and down the river valley, which serves as a highway of sorts for transient birds. The rivers and streams draw visitors from around the country who come to fish for trout in cold, clear spring-fed streams or paddle the many rivers which drain the Driftless Area. Eagle Bluff sits just outside of Lanesboro, which is known for its many bed-and-breakfasts as well as its outstanding art scene.
We are lucky to be taking our turn living within this special landscape. Because of the unique geographic challenges posed by the Driftless Area, many who live here have fostered a closer relationship to the land. As an organization which strives to connect people to the land and each other, we take care to use the natural features of our landscape to teach and inspire people of any age who are open to learning. Fourth graders crouch low in our tall prairie classes, mimicking predator-prey relationships in a game of camouflage. Sixth graders identify and make observations about 15 different trees in our mixed forests. Biology students from Lanesboro High School conduct annual water quality tests on their River. Undergraduates from around the country walk these hills in study, here to learn about this place we call the Driftless. In whatever way you choose to get to know the Driftless, we hope to see you here soon!