By Gregg Hoffmann Special to Published Dec 21, 2008 at 11:34 AM
Norskedalen means Norwegian Valley, and if you have some Norski blood in you a trip to this nature and heritage center will have extra meaning.

But, the Vernon County based facility offers winter, and year-around, fun to people of all backgrounds. Norskedalen is dedicated to preserving, interpreting and sharing the natural environment and cultural heritage of the area surrounding Coon Valley in southwest Wisconsin.

The grounds are rich in natural beauty and diversity, encompassing about 400 acres of scenic coulee (valley) along Poplar Creek. Cross country and snowshoeing trails are available throughout the winter.

While skiing, snowshoeing or hiking the over six miles of trails, you travel through pine plantations, over the cold, clear, creek, past many springs bubbling up through the ice into crystal pools and spilling into the creek, along wooded hillsides and rocky outcrops of goat prairies, and along the valley floor. During warm weather months, you can find flora and fauna that are unique to the area.

A winter highlight is An Old Fashioned Christmas, an annual tradition. It was held Dec. 6-7 this year. It includes a crafts and artisans fair, traditional Norwegian baked goods and other food, sleigh and wagon rides, music and other events.

From February through April, Norskedalen offers educational programs one Saturday per month. The programs are called Saturday Smorgasbords.

At 2 p.m. on Sundays, from February through December, the Always on Sunday programs are held. The programs feature regional authors sharing their latest books, experts in a variety of nature, heritage and history related topics, travelogues, and more.

Other events at Norskedalen throughout the year include Sweet, Sweet Spring in March, A Midsummer Festival and Skumsrud Ice Cream Social in summer, a Threshing Bee and Twilight Tour in September and Civil War Heritage Days, Forest Field Days and Ghoulees in the Coulee in October.

If you are interested in history, you need not be Norwegian to appreciate the historic preservations that are part of Norskedalen.

The Bekkum Homestead seeks to recreate a typical local farm at the turn of the century. The first buildings were moved to the site beginning the summer of 1982 from neighboring farms.

Nearly all of the artifacts were donated by local families with major financial support provided by Owen and Dorothy Bekkum. The homestead is comprised of a house, summer kitchen, springhouse, corncrib, granary, outhouse, chicken coop, machine shed, stable, barn, blacksmith's shop and storage shed.

The Skumsrud Heritage Farm is a 43 acre property just west of Coon Valley that was given to Norskedalen by Lloyd Thrune and his sister Ruth Thrune, in 1983. It was their wish to see the log house, built by their grandfather Nels Skumsrud in 1853 and considered to be the oldest surviving house in the area, preserved for the future. They further wished that the property would be used to perpetuate the Norwegian heritage of the area.

The property is a historic open-air museum owned and operated by Norskedalen as a museum and cultural center for classes and events. It has 11 restored pioneer log buildings nestled in a picturesque valley with a creek and croplands surrounded by forested hills.

These historic buildings and natural beauty of the grounds led to filming of segments of a recent movie, "Fort McCoy," at Norskedalen.

Norskedalen began in 1977 as an outdoor laboratory and arboretum, when Dr. Alf Gundersen and his wife, Carroll. donated the 112 acre Gundersen farm, to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Foundation. They established an arboretum in memory of Alf's mother, Helga Isaksaetre Gundersen.

Acquisition of the adjoining properties as well as the Skumsrud Thrune home farm was made possible by bequests from the Wehrer Trust, the Paul E. Stry Foundation, Inc. and the Thrune families.

The Thrune Visitors' Center was constructed in 1982 in memory of Richard Thrune by his wife Ethel, with a major expansion and renovation of the center completed in 1991. The Stry Foundation's funding made this renovation possible.

The center includes a meeting hall, gift shop, heritage and nature rooms with displays, the Jennifer Lee Marker Memorial Library and Norskedalen's offices.

Visitors to Norskedalen can begin here, where they can sign in and view a short video giving a beautiful overview of all the facility has to offer. Trail maps and other informational handouts are available at the Visitors Center.

You can rent the facilities at Norskedalen for birthdays and other events. You also can rent a 130-year-old cabin, built by Per and Anne Paulsen, on the grounds.

In nearby Coon Valley, cabins are available at Roger's Cottages and DiSciascio's, which also operates a wonderful Italian restaurant. Just up the road from Norskedalen can be found Coulee Cabins. Motels and B&B facilities also can be found in Westby and other surrounding communities.

Gregg Hoffmann Special to
Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist, author and publisher of Midwest Diamond Report and Old School Collectibles Web sites. Hoffmann, a retired senior lecturer in journalism at UWM, writes The State Sports Buzz and Beyond Milwaukee on a monthly basis for OMC.