(Graphic by Morgaine Ford-Workman)
(Graphic by Morgaine Ford-Workman)

There and back again, and there and back again…again

Where does Wisconsin’s “Up North” truly begin? This seems like a question that should have a straightforward answer, especially for an outlet that calls itself “UpNorthNews.” But in my conversations with our own staff, friends, and family, the demarcation seems to be different for each person.

For me, during the four-hour trips up the I-39 corridor to visit my grandparents at their lake house near Land O’ Lakes, the distinction between America’s Dairyland and the Northwoods was Rib Mountain in Wausau. Seeing the steep faces rise so high into the air always awed this writer when he was but a wee 5-year-old from flat farm country. 

Many a pleasant memory is associated with those northward trips past Rib Mountain. So the nostalgia came rushing back as the slopes emerged into view on a recent reporting trip I made up to Ashland. And on the return journey, the mountain signaled the downhill drive on the way back to Madison, my wife, and my own bed.

As I drove by it the next day, however (again on my way north to Ashland), I felt a little annoyed to be passing by all the same scenery for the third time on the 6-hour trek as I hustled back up to finish the reporting trip that had been interrupted by my own poor planning. And when passing the mountain that is really just a large hill a fourth time in the dark on the way home later that same day, I just wanted to be done riding in the trucking car.

Northwoods Bound

My trip began on the shores of Madison’s Lake Monona, where I interviewed an expert with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for a story I worked on about blue-green algae blooms on Lake Superior and what they signal for the lake’s future. That report has since been published. You can read what I learned on our website or check out the video version. For more, keep an eye on UpNorthNews’ social media. I am still following up on other aspects related to this story.

With Lake Monona in my rearview mirror, I began my long car trip north, a journey made even longer thanks to the several stops I had planned along the way. I estimated that the normally five-and-a-half-hour drive would take me about eight to complete. I had no idea that I would finally collapse in my Washburn hotel some 13 hours later, well after midnight.

That destination was still a long way off though, as I navigated the busy, six-lane interstate just outside of Madison. I didn’t have to tolerate it long before I stopped in Lodi for lunch.

Password: Frosting

My initial plan to pick up a Chicago-style hot dog at a food stand was thwarted when I met an empty concrete lot where the wieners were supposed to be. Google Maps had lied.

Not to be discouraged, I persevered and walked into the first place I saw promising food: Buttercream Bakery. The owner was a pleasant woman eager to talk about her shop. She had recently staffed back up to full following pandemic-induced layoffs. 

I selected a couple of pastries and a bottle of Sassy Cow Creamery 2% Milk. Taking a seat near some pictures by a  local photographer, I smirked at a sign that advertised the Wi-Fi password: “frosting.”

Sufficiently sugared, I squeezed back into the car and continued my journey north.

Rustic Road

I put the question of where Wisconsin’s “Up North” officially starts to the people of Twitter when I drove through Portage, and noted that the community billed itself as “Where the North Begins.” A bold claim, to be sure. Too bold, as it turns out. With a total of 57 votes, a majority sided with my view that the north’s edge rests in Wausau, and only a paltry 3.5% sided with Portage’s Tourism Commission.

Next came the long stretch of mostly flat, straight, boring road through Marquette County. Anticipating this, I had made plans to spice up that leg with a detour on to Rustic Road 102 near Coloma. Wisconsin has a host of rural tracks that are designated as “Rustic Roads.” I had frequently seen signs, but never explored what they offered.

The road was short, just two miles long. The majority was unpaved and snaked through horse country. The turning leaves shaded the roadway and made for a scenic drive. It was the perfect distraction and change of pace from the interstate. I’ll be building Rustic Roads into all future road trips. The state recently announced a new interactive map that shows all the Rustic Roads if you want to plan your own scenic trip.

Mountaintop Therapy

Back on the road, my next stop was the tip-top of Rib Mountain that had so awed me as a kid.

Google Maps again betrayed me when I tried to find the state park that exists at the peak. It took me to a municipal park near the mountain’s base. With technology failing me, I navigated to the mountaintop the old-fashioned way, using only the sun and my internal sense of direction.

An ear-popping drive several hundred feet up and an $8 day pass later, I was at the summit. I climbed the observation tower and drank in the expanse of the Northwoods stretching to the horizon.

There must be something about Rib Mountain that frees a person of inhibitions because the background soundtrack to the wonderful view I was soaking in was supplied by two college-aged women loudly complaining about their love lives. (To Chris: I’m sorry she dumped you man, but it sounded like you deserved it). 

I could not judge them too harshly though, because just a few minutes after descending from the observation tower, I received a phone call. It was my therapist. Apparently I had scheduled an appointment for that time. Not wanting to incur a cancelation fee, I spoke about my struggles with panic attacks for all to hear. There was something cathartic about that particular session, likely due to being able to look out from the top of a mountain on to the forest below while working through my issues. My opinion of therapy on a mountaintop: highly recommended.

Delayed but rejuvenated, I left Rib Mountain with a new sense of purpose. After running a few errands in Wausau, I hit the highway again. The sun was setting quickly by this time, and I was getting hungry, but I still had over an hour’s drive ahead of me to reach my planned dinner stop.

Bullet Holes and Cheese Curds

Little Bohemia Lodge is a storied establishment in Manitowish Waters, just northwest of Minocqua. Perhaps best known for being the scene of a bloody shootout between famed bank robber John Dillinger and the FBI, the restaurant has leaned into the branding. Bullet holes are still visible in some walls and windows. 

I was glad just to have a place where I could relax and eat after so many hours in the car. I ordered cheese curds, walleye, and wild rice, wanting to get a full northern Wisconsin sampling. I stuffed myself, admired the Thompson submachine guns above the bar and photos of Johnny Depp in the entryway. Depp, in character as Dillinger, had filmed at the Little Bohemia Lodge for the 2009 movie Public Enemies.

It was well past dark when I arrived at the lodge, and much later still when I finally finished dodging deer on the way into Ashland. I looked off to my right as I drove along U.S. Highway 2 in hopes of catching sight of Lake Superior. But all I could see was darkness. The lake would have to wait for the following morning.

I crashed hard on the hotel room bed and slept like a baby. The next day would be full of work. 

Journalism!

The morning began with me chasing down video footage to pair with my aforementioned story on Lake Superior’s blue-green algae blooms. Luckily some cooperative geese let me get their good sides. (Everyone likes pictures of animals).

I met Sara Hudson with the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department to talk about the work the city and Xcel Energy had undertaken to clean up a polluted site along the Lake Superior shoreline. 

The lazy thing to do here would be to compare Hudson, an energetic leader of a parks department to Leslie Knope, the character played by Amy Poehler on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. That is clichéd, so I won’t do that. Nor will I compare her quest to turn the formerly blighted lakefront property into a public recreation space to Knope’s goal of transforming a hazardous dirt pit into a city park. But, you know.

More on this story of a government program successfully benefitting people and the environment will hit your newsfeeds in the coming days, so stay tuned.

After interviewing Hudson and hauling my camera gear all over the cleanup site while skillfully dodging hundreds of piles of geese droppings, the parks director had an idea for another story I could get while I was in the area. 

Her suggestion had me hiking onto an old ore dock, hopping a fence and walking a quarter mile out onto Lake Superior, where I collected more video and a selfie for shameless social media content.

It being midafternoon, I desperately needed lunch. I hiked with my camera equipment back to the car and headed for the Black Cat Coffeehouse, a recommendation from Hudson. There I ordered a BLT and a raspberry French soda. 

“We’re out of raspberry,” the barista informed me. “There is a nation-wide raspberry shortage.” 

To assuage my disappointment, she offered to let me pick from a list of flavors used in other drinks that aren’t typically offered for the creamy French sodas. I picked pumpkin spice.It probably wasn’t the best choice. However, I was so hungry and thirsty after missing my hotel’s continental breakfast and schlepping camera gear all over the Ashland lakefront that I didn’t care. I drank it all. The BLT was exactly what I was craving: Anything. 

After finally peeling myself from the booth and I set off to find my next target: a gas pipeline. 

Rocky Road

Enbridge’s Line 5 connects the city of Superior to Canada by a scenic route, running through the length of the state of Michigan before terminating in Ontario. Several miles of the pipeline run through the Bad River Band Reservation. Tribal leaders are pushing Enbridge to relocate the fossil fuel infrastructure somewhere that doesn’t endanger their watershed. 

My quest to find the line was complicated by my inability to load a map I had found online precisely tracking its course. I had to go from my memory, which turned out not to be so good.

I ended up taking my wife’s 2009 Hyundai Sonata on a road that transitioned quickly from pavement to gravel, then from two lanes to one, before finally developing so many potholes that I would scarcely call it a road at all.

No pictures exist of this part of my trip, as I was too busy white-knuckling the steering wheel into submission. When a truck coming at me from the opposite direction nearly forced me to drive into a tree many miles from any sign of cell service, I resolved that I would not get to see the line on this trip. I turned the car around, which took some doing on the narrow strip of gravel, and drove back through the dust clouds. 

I was returning to Ashland in defeat when at a random stop sign outside of town I got just enough signal to load the map of the pipeline’s run. It hadn’t been where I thought I remembered it being. In fact, I was quite close to it at that moment. I drove over to the line and recorded some video of the pylons that mark its location underground.

Apples, Apples, Apples

With the sun setting, I went back to my hotel to unload my camera gear and call my wife before heading to dinner.

After a satisfying dinner and early bedtime, I woke up at 5 a.m. to make the drive back south. This time there would be no stops or detours, not even for the bathroom. I filled up for gas at a Kwik Trip in Ashland and drove straight through to Madison in record time. 

When I got home, I talked my wife into accompanying me back up north the next day. 

We headed out at 5 a.m. This time, we were bound for Bayfield, where I was determined to check out the Apple Festival, a week-long celebration of the area’s many orchards. I have already done a full article on my time at the festival, as well as a video that conveys the spirit of the weekend. 

My wife and I were quite taken with Bayfield, though you wouldn’t have known it to listen to us. 

“Could you imagine having to wake up to that view every day?” I asked with a tone of mock disgust as I gestured at Lake Superior, which is visible from almost every street in the small community. 

“We’d probably have to start drinking coffee so that we could sip it while sitting on the porch in our rocking chairs,” my wife said, imitating my voice. 

The next day we looked at housing prices in Bayfield. 

Someday. 

Vinyl Vault

Our last stop of the day was the Washburn Cultural Center to interview the building’s director, Steve Cotherman. 

Cotherman had come to the Cultural Center in 2016 after retiring as a longtime state employee out on Madeline Island. He brought his eccentric personality with him, utilizing it to describe the historic building’s interior. Aside from maintaining a museum and a shop of antiques, local wares, and knick-knacks, Cotherman also operates a record store out of the former bank building’s safe. Called the Vinyl Vault, the small space is stuffed to the gills with quality music and is just wide enough for one person at a time. 

However, the real treasure here was Cotherman himself. Having lived in the area for so long and being a talkative fellow, he was bursting with stories about Washburn and its surroundings. I highly recommend that if you ever find yourself passing through, you stop in to see Steve and ask him to tell you stories about the many cars that get stuck on the lake ice en route to Madeline Island. You’ll be glad you did.

No Place Like Home

With that, we were off. Four long days of travel and reporting in the books. We stopped for dinner in Ashland at Pizza Pub where I ordered a 10-inch sausage and pepperoni with the “pizza in a pie” crust. The thin crust deep dish has another layer of crust overtop that creates a fully enclosed pizza pie. Truly revolutionary.

I slept much of the way home, which was good for me but bad for my wife, as we both had to be up for work the next morning. 

The many hundreds of miles and hours in the car ended up being worth it. Not only because I got to write this story, but because I also fun.

Everyone knows what you mean when you say you went “Up North.” It is an experience that, for Wisconsinites, is universally synonymous with fun, adventure, and relaxation.

For that reason, “Up North” can be anywhere. It could be Rib Mountain or Ashland. But it could also be Green Bay, La Crosse, or Lake Geneva. That’s the beauty of it.