Karst, Coulees, and Bluffs! Oh, My!

Cave Tours

Last year at this time I was starting to organize two days of summer tours at the Kickapoo Caverns in Crawford County, Wisconsin.  I had no knowledge of caves, let alone those that serve as a hibernaculum for bats.  But, I was very interested in learning.

My job was to organize the registrants as they digitally occurred (like wildfire) and then notify people of their time slot, as well as inform participants how to prepare for a tour of the cave.  This happened months before the actual day of the tours. The fungal disease, White Nose Syndrome, had been identified in Kickapoo Caverns, and while of no harm to humans, we can transfer this fungus to other caves and bat populations, if specific precautions are not observed.

In addition, many volunteers were needed to both lead tours and act as docents, as well as check people in, provide parking direction, set up water stations (it is hot in Wisconsin in July and August), provide education, and troubleshoot.  We were fortunate to have the help of a Cave & Bat Specialist/Scientist from the Department of Natural Resources to help guide our educational efforts.

Kickapoo Caverns is amazing!  I learned so much about the geological formation and history of these caves, the habitat of bats that hibernate in these caves, White Nose Syndrome, and more!  This was a labor-intensive event and all the labor paid off!  Many of the participants told me how much they enjoyed the tour as they left. I know I enjoyed my day and the success of being able to organize many people working together.


Wisconsin has many unique ecosystems and with the unique systems come unique words. A coulee, for example, is a valley with only one way in and out, according to some local folk. If you look up the word Coulee in the dictionary you’ll find that it often refers to a deep gulch or ditch formed by running water but is now dry. Okay!  The dictionary term seems close enough to the local definition of a coulee we were told years ago when we first moved here.

Coulee in Wisconsin. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2020


The word bluff is another word that describes the local landscape in West Central Wisconsin.  Our area of the Badger State was not raked over by the glaciers of the last ice age. Therefore, we have large, towering groupings of limestone, valleys cut by rivers, and an abundance of cold, freshwater streams.  In fact, it is referred to as the Driftless Area. We have many bluffs, some even with names in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin. Like the definition, which refers to a broad or rounded cliff usually formed and found along a river. The Mississippi River is a prominent geological feature of our local communities. A drive north or south on State Route 35, otherwise known as the Great River Road, would demonstrate our bluff type topography.

View from top of the trail on Sugar Creek Bluff in Ferryville, WI. Overlooking the Missisissippi River. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2019.


Bluffs, I had heard of growing up in New York – we had some near the shoreline of Lake Ontario.  Coulees, I learned of when we moved here more than twenty years ago. Karst? I cannot recall ever knowing about until last year when I read about the unique landscape that forms Kickapoo Caverns in our Driftless Area of Wisconsin. As defined by a number of online sources (see the end of this post) is a type of landscape that is created when rocks dissolve. In Wisconsin, and at Kickapoo Caverns, these rocks are typically limestone and dolomite.  Water from streams of both above and underground flowages is water dissolves the rock. Sinkholes develop, along with other land malformations like cracks, crevasses, fractures, and yes, even caves! Karst is found in many places in our country and can be of concern with groundwater contamination if the water picks up contaminates as it enters or travels through the system. Since Karst aquifiers store and provide large amounts of water for many in the United States, it is imperative to keep the area around these landscape features free of potentinal contaminates (fertilizers, pesticides, etc.).

Karst Features are evident inside Kickapoo Caverns in Wisconsin. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2019

The tour participants at Kickapoo Caverns last summer were able to see some unique geological features of our state, as described above. There is still moving water in the Caverns that is amply evident after a heavy rainfall, as I found last year when I visited the caverns with voluteers to prepare for our tour days.  It is a damp, misty, dark environment that supports several species (3) of bats during their winter hibernation.  Yes, there are stalagmites and stalactites, too. But, for me, it was the cultural history, and combined sciences of geology and biology that really made it a special place. And, adding a new word to my vocabulary in a way that was so tangible really was icing on the cake!

Karst, Coulees, and Bluffs! Oh, My! Who knew Wisconsin was so Cool!


Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey – University of Wisconsin – Madison. Division of Extension.

Driftless Area of Wisconsin Geology

National Parks – Karst

What is Karst and Why is it Important?








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