How did the “Driftless” area get its name?
What is drift and how does it fit into our understanding of this particular region of Wisconsin? The word “drift” has a number of meanings. The one we are interested in is the one that relates to the glacial periods that were experienced across the entire northern portions of North America, Europe, and Asia. Drift in this instance is defined as being material such as sand, gravel, rocks and debris of all sizes and shapes that was forcibly moved from one place to another. It was deposited randomly along the path of a growing, moving glacier and from the melting water from this glacier. This all happened as the shrinking glacier began to recede back toward the Arctic region above the Arctic Circle.
The Driftless Area is a region in southeastern Minnesota, southwestern Wisconsin, northeastern Iowa, and the extreme northwestern corner of Illinois that were drift-less or “free of drift.” Our area of the state was never covered by glaciers but was the region where the melting ice and snow of the glaciers were funneled southward to be ultimately deposited into the Gulf of Mexico by what became known as the Mississippi River.
The planet we call home, Earth, is estimated to be approximately 2 billion years old. During that period of time scientists estimate that there were at least five glacial periods. These cold periods that lasted hundreds of millions of years alternated with tropical periods. When the enormous glaciers began to grow, water was evaporated from the oceans that lowered the ocean levels around 200 feet and were incorporated into the ice and snow that made up these unimaginably massive glaciers!
The Driftless Area has deep cut river valleys, such as the Kickapoo, and rugged rock bluffs near La Crosse. The lack of glacial drift and the ancient landscape here are clues to geologists that the glaciers missed this area while almost totally surrounding it. This caused some curious, and beautiful, topography in these areas drawing visitors year-round. In accordance with its name, the Driftless Area in Wisconsin is also a mark to the furthermost edge of the ancient glaciers’ advance. After this, the glaciers receded leaving the breathtaking rock formations in their wake that we are so fortunate to enjoy today.