River Tour 2019

Rivers shaped our learning on the Wisconsin Idea Seminar 2019, “River Tour.” During a five-day trip we made stops at some of Wisconsin’s large and small river cities: Milwaukee, Stevens Point, La Crosse, De Soto, La Farge. We learned how these communities developed at the water’s edge and how their orientation to local rivers evolved. Both theme and device, rivers were our entrée into a host of broader Wisconsin realities, challenges, and pleasures.

When plans for the River Tour were still on the drawing board in August, 2018, Madison was grappling with significant flooding from the swollen Yahara River. In the same month, the region surrounding one of the Seminar’s destinations—the Kickapoo Valley Reserve—was likewise inundated, causing mudslides and destroying homes and pastures.

Rivers and their attendant watersheds are not always destructive, but when they are, they give us pause and urge us to reckon with our relationship to water and the natural world. Rivers are powerful and can amaze us with their expansiveness or calm us with their rhythmic splashes against the bank.

During the Seminar our participants heard directly from Wisconsinites about their lives, their relationship with land and water, their problems, and their feelings about the state and its great public university.

We shared a meal with entrepreneurs and community leaders at Milwaukee’s Sherman Phoenix, a vibrant food hall and entrepreneurial hub that rose out of a neighborhood’s trauma.

We paddled down the Milwaukee River, putting our oars into water that a century earlier had been an open sewer but today is a site of recreation thanks to comprehensive pollution abatement initiatives begun in the 1970s.

We walked through cow barns at Rosy-Lane Holsteins and learned how the operators carefully conserve water and who are committed to the health of their animals and the environment.

We visited patient rooms at the La Farge Medical Clinic and were inspired by their staff’s dedication to the health and wellbeing of nearby Amish communities.

We walked across a nine-foot navigation channel in the Mississippi River, at Genoa,  where barges laden with soybeans, corn, and fertilizer travel to market.

We sketched out ideas in chalk at Stevens Point’s IDEA Center and spoke with students at De Soto Middle/High School about their plans for the future.

We ended our journey in the heart of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve where clean water flows from natural springs on Ho-Chunk sacred land. Filling our water bottles at the spring reminded us of our relationship to water and its power to nourish, cleanse, and shape lives.

Destinations of the 2019 River Tour

  • A Ho-Chunk cultural landscape tour of  UW-Madison’s Lakeshore Nature Preserve
  • a visit to Milwaukee’s Sherman Phoenix, a vibrant hub for small businesses-of-color
  • a short, guided paddle ride on the Milwaukee River
  • a tour of Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center-Riverside
  • a hike to Ho-Chunk Nation ecological restoration sites in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve
  • a tour of the marshes at Gottschalk Cranberry Inc.
  • a visit to Rosy-Lane Holsteins Dairy Farm
  • a tour of the La Farge Medical Clinic that serves nearby Amish communities
  • A brainstorm session at the IDEA Center in Stevens Point
  • A public art walk through Stevens Point’s downtown
  • a visit to De Soto Area Schools
  • a tour of the Lock and Dam # 8 in Genoa
  • A panel discussion at UW-La Crosse on development, recreation, and environmental stewardship in the Coulee Region


Image of Wisconsin map
The UW Cartography Lab produced this map and others for the 2019 Wisconsin Idea Seminar tour book. The 2019 journey covered 600 miles of Wisconsin with twenty stops in between where Seminar participants met with farmers, environmental stewards, tribal leaders, entrepreneurs, gardeners, high schools students, health practitioners, Army Corps of Engineers, and many others.
Photo of Wisconsin Idea Seminar group
After learning from local experts in Stevens Point about the evolving stewardship of the Wisconsin River, Seminar participants paused at the banks of the historic river at Pfiffner Pioneer Park for a photo. (Photo by Catherine Reiland/UW-Madison)