About five miles north of Sauk City along Route 12 is a historical marker. It’s easy to pass up, but don’t: it commemorates a 16-acre patch of prairie that’s the work in progress of Dr. Donald Kindschi, a retired anesthesiologist. It will be in progress for 1,000 years, he says, because that’s how long it will take for the ecosystem of the original prairie to redevelop.

The sign says that when Indians roamed here, this rolling farmland was a prairie, with 200 species of flowers and grasses. This patch is now being cultivated by the Sauk County Beautification Council, which began a project to restore it to its original character about 12 years ago. The highlight of Kindschi’s retirement is the several days a month he spends out here planting and cultivating. After retiring in 1979 from a career that took him around the world, he came home to Sauk County. “Like an old salmon,” he says.

His prairie was easy to overlook during our visit, before the spring blooming, because it looked like gray overgrowth. But as we walked along the shoulder of the road, Kindschi showed us color snapshots of the prairie at its summer peak: acres of black-eyed Susans, yellow coneflowers, and ox-eyed sunflowers (among other varieties). He held a hand at eye level to show how tall the grasses can grow. You can only imagine what an incredible sight it was when the prairie extended to the horizon. “What I love about prairies,” Kindschi said, “is I find something new out here every two weeks.” Get out of the car and walk through Kindschi’s prairie.

Lodi, gateway to the Wisconsin River area, is the first town you reach upon exiting I-90-94 onto Highway 60 west. A local tradition is built around Susie the Duck, a mallard that nested here in 1947 and was named by the police chief’s granddaughter. Now the first duck that nests in Spring Creek is always named Susie.

The atmosphere of the two blocks of Route 113 that is Lodi’s downtown is so authentically small-town it’s almost too real, like a Hollywood facade. A popular eatery is Willie’s Wet Spot, 118 S. Main (608-592-3925), right along the creek; it’s OK if you’re in a “when in Lodi” mood, very Friday-night-fish-fryesque–pool table, jukebox, fake wood paneling, food served in red plastic baskets. The homemade chicken noodle soup was good. Cheese curds–deep-fried chunks of cheese–were unextraordinary. Cheeseburgers were average. A very good, original offering is the raspberry ice cream pie. Wheelchair access would be good if not for the small step in front and the tight bathrooms.

Stop in at the Lodi Sausage Company and Meat Market down the street (150 S. Main; 608-592-3534), where you can pick up Slack’s jam and Clyde’s popcorn, two local favorites. Slack’s gooseberry is excellent. “Clyde” is Lodi native Clyde Breathorst, a retired farmer who grows his own popcorn.

Heading up Route 113 toward the quaint town of Merrimac on Lake Wisconsin (which is what they call the river below the dam at Prairie du Sac) brings you to the area’s most unusual feature and the source of its hottest controversy, the State Department of Transportation’s Colsac II ferry (named for the two counties that compose this area, Columbia and Sauk). This small car ferry is the only way to get across the lake at this point. The closest alternative crossings are a 12-mile drive west, to Prairie du Sac, or 17 miles northeast, to Portage. The ferry is free and runs back and forth every six minutes 24 hours a day from mid-April or so until the river freezes for good in December. It rolls on an underwater cable that’s like a big bicycle chain, which can make for a teetering ride. The ferry has operated in some form since the 1840s. The problem, stemming from the limited, 12-car capacity, is the long waits, sometimes two hours or more. We waited 40 minutes. So for every local who thinks the ferry is what draws people to Merrimac, there’s another who finds it a real pain and thinks they ought to just build a bridge.

Bart Olson, owner of the Shopper Stopper store, thinks he has the solution: build a bridge, and he’ll buy the ferry and operate it himself 12 hours a day for a small fee. He believes he’ll be able to make a profit.

We’re told people come from all over to the Sandhill Inn restaurant (170 E. Main; 608-493-2203), two blocks from the ferry dock. It’s an old Victorian house converted into many small dining rooms, and we were happily surprised to learn it is wheelchair-accessible. The menu features items like stuffed quail and beef tournedos; entrees range from $12.50 to $22. Stop in next door at Steve Hackbarth’s blacksmith shop and watch him work, on weekends spring through fall.

We ate at the Old Schoolhouse Restaurant (608-493-2339) on County Trunk DL, which was accessible right down to the bathrooms. It used to be a schoolhouse and jail, but you could never tell. The place has a really nice outdoor patio overlooking the hills and bluffs surrounding the Devil’s Head Resort. The tuna taco salad was a lot better than it sounds. They also serve something called poppers–deep-fried jalapenos stuffed with cheese–and a decent-looking deep-dish pizza.

Devil’s Head Resort (56330 Bluff Rd.; 608-493-2251) is about a half-mile up the road. It has a golf course, swimming pools, sauna, and all the resort amenities. Special packages during the summer run a couple hundred dollars per person for a weekend, recreation and meals included. In the winter, the place offers skiing.

From Merrimac you can head north on 113 or DL about two miles to Devil’s Lake State Park. Devil’s Lake was a soothing sight, a smooth silver oval sunken in a horseshoe of rugged bluffs; its grassy banks were the best spot we saw for a picnic. There were lots of fishermen who weren’t doing very well. You can rent a canoe. We could also envision this spot swarming with people in summer. Even during our spring visit there were about 50 cars parked there, local teens sitting on hoods. We were told there’s a wonderfully accessible hiking trail up in the bluffs.

South of Merrimac on 78 are the twin cities of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac, along the Wisconsin River. If you approach Prairie du Sac from the east, along Route 60, the first brick buildings you see give it a rustic old river-town look.

This is prime eagle-watching country: more than 100 winter here because they can feed in the water beneath the dam, which rarely freezes. Peak migration is in January, when the city holds its annual Bald Eagle Watching Days, three days of programs celebrating eagles. The dates for 1994 are January 8, 9, and 15. One of the most popular spots from which to watch eagles is the parking lot of the Fire House restaurant, which is right on the river on Route 60. Call 608-643-4168 for more information.

Another big annual event, held every October at the 150-year-old Wollersheim Winery (608-643-6515) just outside Prairie du Sac on Route 188, is the grape stomping, grape-spitting, and cork-tossing competition celebrating the harvest. This year’s dates are October 2 and 3. Tours and tastings are conducted May through October and on weekends year-round.

Sauk City appears to be the more modern of the two places, lacking Prairie du Sac’s river-town character. The big annual event here is the Wisconsin State Cow Chip Throw. This is not something you should try at home. These tossers are professionals. You can’t just pick one up and fling it: cow chips have to be gathered at a certain time and set out to dry to create maximum tossability. This year the throw will be September 3 and 4. The winner goes to the nationals in Oklahoma. For more information call 608-643-4168.

Sauk City is also the home of the August Derleth Society. Derleth is a revered local who wrote 150 books, most of which are out of print. His daughter, April, still lives in the family home on Lueders Road. You can learn everything you ever wanted to know about him at the Sauk City Library on Business 12 or in Augie’s Room at Leystra’s Venture restaurant on Highway 12. The society’s newsletter is published in Sauk City, and every year society members from around the world come here for the Walden West fest, named after Derleth’s masterwork. This year’s date is October 10.

North on Route 12 about 15 miles, about 5 miles north of Delaney, is Baraboo. Actually, first you get to West Baraboo, a little asphalt thumb of Baraboo that seems to be mostly taken up by a shopping mall. For a quick side trip, take a left and head west on 33 about five miles and down County Trunk PF to North Freedom. This speck of a town (600 people) is on the map because of the Mid-Continent Railway Museum (608-522-4261), a weather-beaten old train depot full of train displays and memorabilia. A ramp provides good wheelchair access. But the main feature is the old steam train, which leaves on a nine-mile, hour-long scenic ride several times a day through Labor Day, and weekends through mid-October. There’s a special annual winter ride, usually the third weekend in February. It looks like it would be a great colorful trip in autumn. How much of this you can take depends on how big a train buff you are. The museum is free. Train rides are $7 for adults, $4 for kids, free for kids 3 and under. There’s not much else in North Freedom. Driving through makes you see the point of the pro-ferry forces in Merrimac.

We stayed in West Baraboo at the Log Lodge Motel on Route 12 just north of 33 (608-356-6552). It would be nothing special if it weren’t for the wooded alcove in which it’s situated, which makes it a pleasant place to wake up. There are cabins of various sizes, ranging from $45 to $75 a night, open from May to October. The outdoor swimming pool looked inviting.

Baraboo and this whole area is loaded with bed and breakfasts. The ones most recommended by locals are the Victorian Treasure in Lodi (608-582-5199), the Breese Waye in Portage (608-742-5281), Grandpa’s Gate in Merrimac (608-493-2755), and Gollmar Guest House in Baraboo (608-356-9432).

The Gollmar family is one of three Baraboo families that operated or supplied circuses in years past; the other two were the Ringling brothers and the Moeller family, which ran a circus-wagon construction firm. As a result there’s a big circus motif in Baraboo. Five Ringling brothers were born here, and two others later joined them. The Circus World Museum, 426 Water St. (608-356-0800), is a sprawling place that milks these facts for all they’re worth. On the grounds along the Baraboo River where the Ringling brothers used to bed down their circus for the winter, they have big-top shows, displays, and a history museum. This year’s outdoor season runs through September 12. The indoor exhibit hall is open year-round. Like the railway museum, the attraction depends on one’s threshold of interest in circuses. Summer admission, which includes all displays and shows, is $10.95 for adults, $9.95 for seniors, $5.95 for children 3-12, and free to kids under 3.

Baraboo advertises itself as the 54th-best small town in America. I guess they think that’s pretty good, considering the number of competitors. Entering from the west on 33 you quickly pass the Ochsner Park and Zoo. A city of 10,000 wouldn’t seem the place for a zoo, but it’s been here since the 1920s. It’s very small, more like a children’s zoo, with a swan and llama and goats that it’s OK to feed. Adjoining Ochsner Park is a nice grassy place for a picnic, with monkey bars for kids to climb on. The Baraboo River runs right through it.

By far our best food encounter during the entire trip was at Susie’s Restaurant, 146 Fourth Ave. (608-356-9911) in Baraboo’s sleepy downtown. The historical marker by the front door says the building used to house the offices of the Baraboo Republic newspaper, the first newspaper to syndicate: during the Civil War, the editor reprinted and distributed war dispatches from the Madison newspaper.

Susie’s is a Sunday brunch-type place with white linen tablecloths and napkins and slowly turning ceiling fans. You can have fresh orange or grapefruit juice with or without champagne. The huevos rancheros with black beans were excellent, and so were the vegetable eggs benedict (fresh vegetables instead of Canadian bacon). They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner six days a week (closed Mondays). The price wasn’t bad: $20 for three. The only negatives were a very large entrance step and tiny bathrooms, which made wheelchair access something of a drag.

Right up the street is the Al Ringling Theatre (136 Fourth Ave.; 608-356-8864), built in 1915 with the funds of the eldest brother. It’s the kind of elegant, ornate, red-carpeted movie house you never see anymore. Charlie Chaplin performed here. A few years ago a horrifying rumor spread that a developer was going to buy it and make it a multiplex, so a historic-preservation foundation took it over and is in the midst of a multi-million-dollar restoration campaign. It shows movies daily, periodically features live shows, and is available for private functions like weddings. It’s worth taking the kids just to show them what theaters were like before there were shopping malls. But it might be wise to get out before the movie starts. The week of our visit they were showing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III.

It’s also worth a trip up County Trunk A a few miles north to the International Crane Foundation. This wildlife refuge is the only place in the world where all 15 species of cranes can be found together. Being up close to these eerie, walking (caged) birds, staring into their orange eyes, is unsettling yet enticing, like a strange dream. Their spectral calls seem to come from the same beyond and vary with each species–one seems a frantic, amplified bike horn, another a flute playing underwater.

East on 33 about 15 miles is the city of Portage, so named because its canal connects the Fox and Wisconsin rivers. Portage is smaller than Baraboo, but its downtown is much more bustling. You won’t forget you’re in a small town, however. The tiny five-and-dime-sized J.C. Penney has to be the smallest in the world. There’s also an antique mall.

The hot sport in Portage is curling, a gentlemanly game something like hockey handed down from early Scottish settlers. Frank Rhyme and his wife, China, are the biggest local boosters. From 1979 to 1991 they published Curling News, the only national curling periodical (now it’s published by the United States Curling Association in Stevens Point). If you’re in Portage during the November-to-March curling season you can catch the teams of curlers in action at the Portage Curling Club ice rink, 107 E. Albert (608-742-3237).

The most-hyped tourist spots are the Surgeon’s Quarters on Highway 33 (the only remaining building from the pre-Civil War Fort Winnebago) and the Old Indian Agency House (built in 1832), off 33 E. There’s also the home of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Zona Gale. None of these looked terribly accessible or exciting. Sometimes you can catch a concert at the Zona Gale Cultural Center (301 E. Cook St.; 608-742-5655), which is wheelchair-accessible.

If you keep going down the road that leads to the agency house until it runs out by the banks of the canal, you’ll find the mouth of the Ice Age Trail–probably the best reason to go to Portage. A public/private partnership is working to make this a continuous 1,000-mile hiking trail along the moraines marking the farthest advances of the last glaciers in Wisconsin. Right now 180 sporadic miles are open to public use. At some points the only means for crossing waterways is a stationary log.

We ran into Portage natives Carl and Wanda Anderson emerging from an afternoon hike. Carl had binoculars and said he’d spotted muskrat and otter. Wanda said that in summer the barren field at the beginning of the trail is full of marigolds. This part of the canal is good for fishing too.