We live in a state with an Up North but no Down South, which - sorry, Kenosha - speaks volumes about the affection we feel for the many delights of our woodsy upstairs. For some of us it is home; for many more it is refuge from the workaday world, if for only one glorious week a year a place to decompress and recharge, to laze in a boat or paddle a stream or sleep under the stars.
But how much do most visitors really know of the place? I mean forest-for-the-trees-wise. It is tempting to think of Up North, Wisconsin, as one amorphous region of rivers and resorts, of lakes and lunkers, of pines and, well, more pines. And it is that, of course. But within that vast piney playground are communities with distinct personalities, not like poor mixed-up Sybil in that movie, perhaps, but hardly the cookie-cutter siblings you might first think. And as the summer vacation season heats up, maybe introductions are in order.
Meet Hayward, where fishing is the lure
One day each winter Hayward hosts the skiers of the American Birkebeiner, and a popular summer festival celebrates its lumberjack roots, but the real hook here is fishing. Start with the city's only skyscraper, a four-story fiberglass fighting fish that houses the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum, a "Shrine to Anglers" that includes more than 5,000 lures, 400 stuffed fish, a room filled with outdoor motors, a memorial to Herman the Worm and a "Sea of Fishes" sculpture garden. Sure, it's roadside kitsch of the highest order, but who can resist entering the door at the musky's tail and climbing the stairs to stand in its fierce-toothed jaw? I certainly couldn't.
But there is more in Hayward's creel. Even a teetotaler should stop at the world-famous Moccasin Bar to see the catch of the century, the 67½-pound, 60¼-inch long musky hauled out of a Hayward lake by fisherman Cal Johnson in 1949. And while there, do admire the stuffed animal dioramas - chipmunks in colorful hats singing, drinking and fishing, raccoons boxing with skunks as seconds and a groundhog for referee - proudly displayed like works of northern art.
Hayward calls itself the Golf Capital of Wisconsin, but even there the finest of the area's many courses is, what else, Big Fish Golf Course, a terrific Pete Dye-designed layout across the highway from the bright lights of the Lac Courte Oreilles casino. For food and drink, try the Angry Minnow Restaurant and Brewery or the Hook Stone Winery, where offerings range from Muskie Merlot to Walleye White Zinfandel. Really.
The area's largest festivals include the Honor the Earth Pow-Wow, billed as North America's largest, July 18-20, the Lumberjack World Championships July 25-27 and - you knew this was coming - Musky Festival, June 19-22.
Meet Bayfield, where the lake is the boss
(And where I live much of the year, in full disclosure.)
Bayfield is as much New England as it is Up North, Wisconsin. The story goes that when local officials were trying to get the Apostle Islands preserved as a national park, they flew President John Kennedy over the area in a small plane. He looked down at the sparkling waters of Lake Superior, the green-topped and red-rocked islands and the hundreds of sailboats bobbing below and found it all as winsome as his own Cape Cod.
Bayfield, on Wisconsin's northernmost edge, once was a major commercial fishing village where the annual herring harvest was so important that schoolchildren were freed to help preserve and pack herring at the shacks along the harbor. While a few fishing boats still work the water, today the shacks have given way to marinas for fancy sailboats and other watercraft owned by mostly out-of-towners who come to play on Chequamegon Bay. In recent years it has become a popular place for sea kayaking as well, especially within the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, but Mother Superior can be challenging at times, and T-shirts really do quote the wise old fisherman who declared, "The lake is the boss."
The natural beauty that is born when woods and water meet has long drawn artists to the Bayfield Peninsula. Many of them open their galleries to the public, making the summer Festival of the Arts (this year, July 25-27) one of the far north's major events. Visitors come for the orchards, flower farms and berry farms that cover the inland hills, and the Bayfield Peninsula is home to more certified "travel green" businesses than anywhere in the state.
One of the biggest summer draws is Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua, the tent show on Mount Ashwabay that offers wonderful original historical musicals and performances by both regional musicians and nationally known figures such as, this summer, John Hiatt, Garrison Keillor, the Cowboy Junkies and Gaelic Storm. And if you've ever dreamed of launching a golf ball all the way across Lake Superior, the pond at the first hole of Apostle Highlands Golf Course is shaped like the lake it overlooks, so swing away.
For funky food, it's Maggie's; for fine dining, it's Wild Rice; and the best eating of all is during Apple Festival weekend, Oct. 3-5, when the full bounty of the orchard season is served.
Meet Minocqua, where Chicagoans come for fudge
Minocqua is a touristy kind of town, even in a region known for tourism. It is such a popular destination that in July and August its downtown streets are clogged with cars, parking is at a premium, and the sidewalks are filled with strolling T-shirt shoppers. But Minocqua (its "metro" area includes the bordering communities of Arbor Vitae and Woodruff and a few others a short distance away), was blessed with location, location, location, as the city's many real estate agents would put it, within a long cast of more than 3,000 lakes, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and bisected by the busiest north-south highway in Wisconsin to deliver the crowds each summer.
So do downtown if you must, but then get away to the woods and water. Wildlife viewing is easy at the Willow Flowage, an undeveloped 6,300-acre body of water that is perfect for quiet paddling and wilderness camping.
The sprawling Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest is a wonderful place to get lost for a day; there are miles of hiking trails - the Raven Trail just south of Woodruff is a nice easy walk, but more challenging routes are nearby as well - and in recent years, miles of paved bicycling trails have been developed in the area to offer affordable, family-friendly activities.
Minocqua, like most northern towns, grew out of the logging boom, a story you can explore at the Minocqua Museum, and the region's rich Native American history is told at the George W. Brown Jr. Ojibwe Museum and Cultural Center in Lac du Flambeau. If a day trip is in order, consider the Vilas County Historical Museum in nearby Sayner. And the North Lakeland Discovery Center in Manitowish Waters, a community-based environmental learning center, offers a host of outdoor programs aimed at summer visitors, including hands-on activities for kids.
When hunger hits, try the family-owned Island Café, a Minocqua institution that specializes in soups and Greek dishes, and Norwood Pines Supper Club on lovely Patricia Lake delivers the quintessential log supper club experience.
Meet Marinette, where water falls off a log
Also over rocks and anything else in its path, because Marinette is Wisconsin's waterfall capital. Wait, you're saying. Marinette? Is that Up North? Absolutely, it is.
Technically it lies in the northeastern corner of Wisconsin, above Green Bay, where it serves as a gateway to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which is all the more reason to recommend it. But in its history and natural resources, it is as Up North a place as you'll find.
Marinette was also born out of logging, an era nicely preserved at the Marinette County Historical Museum on Stephenson Island, named for the onetime lumber baron and politician Isaac Stephenson. There you'll also learn the story of Queen Marinette, who was christened Marguerite Chevallier at her birth in 1784 but who became known as Marinette, a shortened form of Marie Antoinette, when she ran a trading post on the site where the city now stands. Her son, John B. Jacobs, platted the town.
Marinette's many waterfalls are sprinkled throughout Marinette County, the state's third largest in land size. Tourism folks have established a "World Famous Waterfalls Tour" that takes in 14 of them, from modest Four Foot Falls to lovely Dave's Falls to beautifully wild Piers Gorge on the Menominee River. Selected mini-tours are a nice alternative for those who want less driving and more leisurely exploration. The Enchanted Trails Tour features falls near scenic Parkway Road, a designated state Rustic Road, while the Rocky Trails Tour includes several walks that are billed as "not for the faint of heart."
Waterfalls suggest whitewater, and heart-pumping paddling can be found on the often unruly Peshtigo River as well as on the Menominee, but the county has more than 300 rivers and streams - so many leisurely stretches are available as well.
For more lumber-era history check out the town of Goodman, a onetime company town built by the Connor Lumber and Land Company that on Aug. 8-9 will celebrate its 100th anniversary. The Goodman Clubhouse, now a restaurant, and other company buildings are still in use. The nearby Peshtigo Fire Museum, which tells of the deadly conflagration of 1871, is also a should-see. And Marinette's sister city, Menominee, Mich., has a very nice harbor area with shops and restaurants.
Meet Phillips, where Elvis hasn't left the building
True fact, a man who changed his name to Elvis A. Presley lives in Phillips, where he operates the historic Bloom's Tavern, a state and national historic register building said to be the state's oldest continuously operating tavern.
And, probably not a true fact, Bigfoot may also live in Phillips, though the group of Bigfoot researchers who spent a few days in the woods around the city in July 2006 could find neither hide nor hair of old Sasquatch. At least one local man claims to have sighted the beast several times, though, which is why all those California-based Sasquatch hunters came to town. Believe what you will.
In its logging days, Phillips was always more a workingman's town than home to lumber barons and their mansions. Much of the city burned away in 1894 and was later rebuilt, in large part by the Czechs and Bohemians, who had been sold rocky, stumpy farmland sight unseen, but who struggled to farm it anyway - with mixed success. The community is proud of its Czech roots, and the Phillips Czechoslovakian Festival and Pageant the third weekend each June is a major event.
The city's best known attraction is Wisconsin Concrete Park, an outdoor museum displaying more than 200 concrete sculptures - horses, Indians, cowboys, a beer wagon, even Lincoln and Douglas - crafted by retired lumberjack and tavern owner Fred Smith. It's a head-shaker kind of place, but well worth viewing, if only to try to understand why a man in his senior years would spend decades creating what must have seemed like junk art to his neighbors but what is viewed today as a masterful sculpture environment. A Wisconsin Concrete Park Celebration takes place Aug. 9; the county park is open daily.
North of Phillips by about 50 miles is beautiful Copper Falls State Park, one of the state's finest. Morgan Falls and adjoining St. Peter's Dome near Mellen are harder to get to, on gravel roads through parts of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, but the hikes to the falls (1.2 miles round-trip) and the dome (3.6 miles round-trip) are rewarding.
Also consider side trips to the recently dedicated Fifield Fire Tower, a true northwoods survivor, and the nearby Round Lake Logging Dam, a lasting piece of the lumber boom that is now a national historic place.
Biking the byways
Throughout the woodsy north, biking is the boomingest silent sport of all.
The move to paved, off-road bicycle trails through woods and along water started in Boulder Junction. The first smooth, blacktopped trail was along busy Highway M, but more quickly followed. One trail now extends from Boulder Junction along tree-lined lakeshores and state forestland to Crystal Lake Campground in Sayner, where another section extends on to St. Germain.
Land O'Lakes developed a 7.5-mile paved trail, and there are now plans to try to extend a trail into Michigan's Upper Peninsula and loop back to Wisconsin, with campgrounds along the way.
Last summer the 8.5-mile Three Eagle Trail opened to connect Eagle River and Three Lakes.
The 2008 Vilas County Visitor Guide includes trail information for all county communities. Call 800-236-3649 or visit vilas.org. For more on trails in Price, Lincoln and Vilas counties, see the "TREK the Northwood Trails" guide available from northwoodsbiking.com or by calling 800-236-2349. And the Wisconsin Department of Tourism offers a comprehensive biking guide; call 800-432-8747 or visit travelwisconsin.com.