Spectacular views not the only part of nature center

By Matthew Stolle

When he first laid eyes on the Coulee Region in southwest Wisconsin, eighteenth-century explorer Zebulon Pike was so moved by its beauty that he rated it as one of the most unforgettable experiences of his life.

"(It is) altogether so variegated and romantic that a man may scarcely expect to enjoy such (a view) but twice or thrice in the course of his life," Pike breathlessly wrote.

It's an observation that remains true to this day, tour guides say, and is one of the main draws to the Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center, a nature preserve and historic site 15 minutes from La Crosse, Wis.


But it's not the only selling point. The center also provides a glimpse of what life was like for turn-of-the-century immigrants who were drawn to the region by a landscape that reminded them of their native Norway. Even today, Norwegian visitors are struck by its similarities to their native land. The focal point of the center is a homestead filled with vintage artifacts, surrounded by a summer kitchen, tobacco and cow barns and machine shed.

The homestead is situated in Norskedalen, which means Norwegian Valley, a 400-acre area with over six miles of nature trails. The landscape is also a natural historian's delight.

According to the center's Web site, Norskedalen is 1,000 feet above sea level but was once at the bottom of an ancient ocean. The ocean eventually dried away. Over thousands and thousands of subsequent years, running water carved into the land to form deep, closed-in valleys called coulees. Coulee is an old French idiom used to describe a deep ravine or gulch.

Each year, 14,000 people, 3,000 of whom are school children, visit the nature and heritage center, center co-manager Tammy Pataracke said.

Pataracke said visitors are frequently interested in knowing about the hardships of 19th-century farmers. But Potaracke's answer would surprise some. She says that people from that era wouldn't necessarily see our lives as easy, driven as it is by data and our reliance on computers and a faster-paced lifestyle.

"They had simple a life," she said.

The center is also good at putting visitors in a Norwegian turn-of-the-century frame of mind. They are reminded that people couldn't simply walk down to the corner grocery store to buy utensils, since they're were no grocery stores. They either had to make them themselves, or buy or borrow them from neighbors.

"Everything they needed they had to provide for themselves," she said.


People are often struck by the area's beauty. Pataracke said her office window offers a spectacular view of the area. She says the varying degrees of green in the spring and the changing colors in the fall is awe-inspiring.

Pataracke said some people from La Crosse have the mistaken impression that the nature center is in the boondocks. But in fact, it is as far away from the city as the Valley View Mall.

"Once we get people here, (it's like) we didn't know it was here. It's this wow experience," she said.

If you have a place you'd like to see in Destinations, please call 252-1111, category 8638, the Life &; Leisure line, and leave a message. We'll try to schedule your suggestion for an upcoming feature.

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