George Howe

George Howe, a producer of the documentary film, "Decoding the Driftless" talks to a crowd at the Chatfield Center for the Arts before a screening of the award winning documentary there Sunday, May 5, 2019. (John Molseed /

Minnesota, with all its diverse landscapes, has one of the most unique regions in the world in the state’s southeast corner — the Driftless Area.

Even if you don’t know the geological reasons why, a drive through Southeast Minnesota, Southwest Wisconsin, Northeast Iowa and a small corner of Northwest Illinois, know the sweeping hills and steep bluffs are a departure from typical Midwest landscape.

The short explanation of the difference is that ice age glaciers missed the region. Glaciers, in a sense, plowed the land and filled ancient land formations with debris — known as drift -- as they receded.

The result is about 24,000 miles of landscape of forested ridges, steep bluffs carved by rivers and karst geology of porous rock with spring-fed waterfalls and cold-water trout streams.

Ecologically, the Driftless Area's climate and flora and fauna more resemble those of the Great Lakes region and New England than the climate and ecology of the rest of the Midwest and central plains. That also means it’s home to rare flora and fauna.

The unique landscape inspired Emmy Award-winning filmmakers George Howe and Tim Jacobson of Sustainable Driftless and Rob Nelson of Untamed Science to team up to produce a documentary about the region called “Decoding the Driftless.” The film has garnered awards for both Best Picture and Best Cinematography at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards; Best Documentary at the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York and Best Documentary at the Gold Film Awards in London.

The film is a great way to learn about the unique region. Screenings happen in the region every so often, check for information.

For people who want to go a bit deeper, there’s now a four-credit college course about the region offered by Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center in Lanesboro. The class is open to undergraduate students from any institution and offers four credits through Hamline University.

The class, Driftless: The Anatomy of a Region, gives students the opportunity to literally explore the area’s unique geology, geography and biology. It will include visits to parks, businesses and farms in the region. When not in the field, students will stay in Eagle Bluff's dorms and eat meals in the dining hall.

“Learning is best done outside, in hands-on, exploratory ways. Too often undergraduates spend most of their time in a lecture hall, not visiting places or meeting people who embody the ideas discussed in the classroom,” said Henry Whitehead, Eagle Bluff's adult education manager. “This class will give students the opportunity to use the outdoors as their classroom, and to make connections between people and place that would be difficult to do in a more traditional undergraduate setting.”

More information about the class can be found at:

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