My Favorite Places - Avalanche, WI
Updated: Dec 21, 2022
I do not even know what to call Avalanche, it certainly is not a city or town, at least not any more. It is basically the intersection of two relatively minor county highways and a dozen or so houses. It could basically be anywhere in the Driftless. But is isn't nowhere, it's somewhere pretty damn special!
It is fairly hard to find much information about Avalanche; there just is not much out there. The Wikipedia entry is two sentences. The internet tells me that the town was formed in 1854 by Cyrus F. Gillette and it served as a small local hub - the site of the Lutheran church, school house, creamery, mills, and general store. The first post office was built in 1868 and the town once was home to several mills - saw, grist, and woolen mills existed in Avalanche (source). As transportation improved, Avalanche, like many other little towns, slowly became less vital. Today, you would hardly be able to recognize Avalanche as much more than the intersection of a couple of rural county highways. If you look fairly closely, you can see some of the remnants of what used to be.
However, if you are a fly angler in Wisconsin, you probably know about Avalanche. The West Fork Sports Club in Avalanche has been "trout central" for Midwest anglers for several decades. I have been traveling to Avalanche for over 30 years after learning about it through lore - and my great uncle - who fished the Driftless when not at their place on the Wolf River. It has been the home of many gatherings of trout anglers, back to the "grand old days" of the internet such as Fly Fisherman magazine's Virtual Fly Shop, and the heyday of Wisconsin Fly Fishing Message Board (now available on Facebook too). This spring, it will be the home of HeddonFest - May 20 - 22nd and the Spring Wisconsin Trout Unlimited State Council Meeting the first Saturday of June. Avalanche may not be what it once was but it is still the gathering place for Wisconsin trout anglers.
The West Fork of the Kickapoo River is a modern day success story. The old Wisconsin trout streams, spring ponds, and lakes map that many of us owned - or maybe still have hanging up - had the West Fork as a marginal trout stream, and it was. Much effort and money lead by efforts of the West Fork Sports Club and Trout Unlimited chapters, Blackhawk TU in particular, helped make the river what it is today. Roger Widner, Jr.'s work on the West Fork and other streams in the area was some of the first efforts to restore a number of fisheries in the Driftless and later, elsewhere. These early efforts brought Trout Unlimited's second ever Homewater's initiative, the precursor to today's TU Driftless Area Restoration Effort (TUDARE) which while much greater in scope, would not have happened when it did without early successes in the Kickapoo River watershed.
The river is not without its issues. It still gets warm for parts of some summers. This past summer, after an early June heat wave, the river topped out well over 75 degrees Fahrenheit. And the floods can be the thing of legend. Neither of these things are anything new (listen to the interview with Juan Widner - floods come up in the first 5 minutes). The river is one of the larger Driftless trout streams. The streams entering from the West are much colder than those that enter from the ridge to the East and some of those from the East are marginally cold, not much helping the West Fork stay cool. All things a person that has been hanging out around the West Fork for more than 30 years would know - or one that read the La Crosse WDNR fisheries office's recent report on the West Fork.
The image above is from the WDNR report, Evaluation of trout population trends and fisheries management in the West Fork Kickapoo River Watershed. Notice how more and larger springs are on the West side of the watershed. And this is evident in the fishes that are found in different parts of the watershed, as seen below. The image below show the percent of stenothermal coldwater fishes such as trout and sculpin. Higher percentages means that the site likely has a colder and more consistent temperature range throughout the summer.
Image is from the WDNR report, Evaluation of trout population trends and fisheries management in the West Fork Kickapoo River Watershed.
Climate change has brought more precipitation, particularly in the summer, and it has led to hellacious floods, none more significant that the late August and a second round in early September 2018 floods. Upwards of 17 inches of rainfall occurred, mostly overnight, and blew out several dams that had been in place for over 60 years. The upside has been an increase in groundwater and baseflow which helps buffer against the effects of the summer sun and it likely means more clean spawning gravel. However the risk of density independent mortality events occurring so often is that populations of trout and their food sources may stay well below carrying capacity as shown in the hypothetical figure below.
The West Fork and Avalanche feel like home, or at least a home away from home. I have no idea how many nights I have spent in my tent on the West Fork grounds but it is a pretty significant number, well into the hundreds. They are somewhat fewer in recent years as Avalanche is now but a 35 minute drive but is still quite often my fishing base camp. Pre-COVID, I spent two weeks in relative comfort, sleeping on an extra-large cot in a wall tent. Post-COVID, trips have been a bit fewer but that started changing last summer. (edit - much more common lately)
My mother's family - the Standiford's - have roots in Avalanche dating back to before the Civil War. Imagine my surprise when my mom received the family genealogy book she had helped a distant cousin with and found my favorite place had a long family history. Maybe that is part of the draw - or, more likely, it is just a very interesting coincidence that this place I had been going to for years is part of distant family history.
On another personal note, the West Fork Sports Club and doing stream habitat work was a significant influence on my education and career. The first habitat projects I was part of were on the West Fork and Seas Branch. And the experiences changed my thoughts on graduate school from working with birds to doing fisheries ecology. It took me to West Virginia instead of staying at the University of Wisconsin for graduate school, an experience that certainly helped shape me.
The campground and Avalanche has seen a lot of changes, for better and for worse, I suppose. The floods have reshaped the stream and some of the grounds. Most notably, FEMA and the county have bought out some of the buildings in the West Fork floodplain. For many anglers, the old general store, fly shop, and Widner home is full of a ton of great memories as was the swing bridge taking you there from the north end of the campground. Those are both gone, taken out by FEMA and a flood, respectively. Downstream from the Avalanche bridge, the stream was once a great spot to fish, today the habitat has been filled in by sediment and is now flat and shallow and helps warm the river.
The 2018 floods significantly battered club's infrastructure. The "big cabin" was destroyed by the flood and the inside of the clubhouse had nearly 3 feet of water in it. Several work days and a lot of volunteer hours and money has the clubhouse in the best shape it has been in in many decades. The clubhouse is now more flood resilient (I certainly won't go as far as to say resistant). This coming year, a new "tiny house" cabin will take the place of the old blue cabin. The one consistent thing is change. We can lament those changes or we can be resilient and roll with the changes.
Much of what brings myself and many others back is the community that grows around the campgrounds. That too has changed. Bob Blumreich's camper has not been a fixture at the grounds for probably two decades. The Widner twins both passed away this past year and Roger has been gone for well over a decade now. The faces around the campfire change for any number of reasons. New people find the club and some that had been camping for years no longer are with us, no longer able to camp, or have dropped out for any number of other reasons.
Some of my favorite memories are around campfires and cooking with friends at the West Fork. I learned to fly fish, in part, around West Fork campfires. I have spent time around campfires with anglers from several states and countries - England, The Netherlands, and Brazil to name a few. With anglers with a great amount of experience and many that are just starting to fly fish. With fly anglers and spin fishers. Campfires have been quite experiences over small fires and they've been boisterous events around a massive bonfire. I've been completely sober and quite inebriated. I have probably been around nearly every fire ring on the grounds as I have spent time at West Fork campfires for over 30 years.
While I lament many of the struggles and changes around Avalanche and the West Fork - the floods, the water temperatures, the people we have lost, and the changes to Avalanche itself - it is still a very special place. I often feel our memories of the past are less than perfect as our memories are quite selective. We have a habit of elevating the "good old days" and we often down play the wonders of today. Is the fishing better now or in the mid-1990's when I first started going to the West Fork? Depends upon what you are looking for. The hatches were better 30 years ago and the fish likely larger but less numerous. There are more miles of good trout streams today then there was 20 and 30 years ago. There are also more anglers but we did experience a significant increase from "the movie", similar to what we have seen with COVID. More anglers over more good trout water probably makes it a wash.
How can today compare to our best memories of years or even decades ago? The floods are nothing new - though the 2018 flood probably did more damage than any other flood in recent memory. But twice in my life I have left the campground in the middle of the night as floodwaters were coming up and getting home might become dangerous. Anglers have always battled warm water, some summers more than others. Sometimes the more things change, the more they really stay the same.
Like anywhere, Avalanche and the West Fork are not what they used to be but that just means they have aged and changed, much like me and you. For better and worse, none of us are who we are once were as my body reminds me most morings. The West Fork Sport Club and Avalanche are special and hold great memories and I think both have solid futures in front of them. It is a place I have made great friends and a mentor I owe a lot to. The place shaped my education and career. It holds a special place in my heart.
The people are what make the place special. We have had amazing work days on the grounds and in the clubhouse. Tons of trees have been planted and the grounds are in great shape. The clubhouse has probably never looked better. And the grounds are often hopping on weekends. The club will be hosting a number of events this year - 5 Rivers Midwest Rendezvous in April, HeddonFest in May, the State Council in June, music in the park which was a great time last year, and Coulee Region TU's StreamGirls and Southeast Wisconsin TU's annual Driftless work day in August (among others...) Like most summers, I plan to spend some time camped out at the West Fork. Stop by and say "Hi", share a campfire, and a story!
Shunpiking to Heaven Blog - An Avalanche in Wisconsin
UW - La Crosse Murphy Library - Oral History Interview with Juan Widner