The Mid-Western Northwoods

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When the glaciers melted in the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago, they left an impressive number of “kettle” lakes (basically from big glacial ice-cubes) across the northern Mid-West, from North Dakota through Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.  (Of course, they left a couple big lakes too, like Superior and Michigan, but that’s another story.). This whole area that I’ve been riding through is “Lakeland.”  Seems that everyone from farther south (Minneapolis, St. Paul, Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago) goes “Up North” (always capital “U” and capital “N”) to their cabin on a small lake somewhere, though in this region these abodes are referred to as “cottages” (we’ll see farther East that the same cabins are called “camps” in Maine).  Everyone has a big, flat pontoon boat to motor around.  Everyone fishes.  And it appears, to my amazement and joy, that nearly every lake has a nesting pair of Common Loons, whose haunting call over the water at night still gives me goosebumps.  I love that sound.

Fishing derbies are ubiquitous, and fish fries are a staple in every small town, usually on Friday nights (from the old Catholic tradition), but any night will find fish fries somewhere.  My choices in a small bar in Bruce, WI (population 779 but seemingly a lot smaller) were batter-fried perch or batter-fried pike; I chose the perch and it was tasty.

 

I left Binkie and Greg’s wonderful home and hospitality in rural-but-fast-suburbanizing Hugo, Minnesota, and found small, county roads to work my way northeast.  I heard Sandhill Cranes (and eventually saw a pair at close range), another one of those haunting bird calls that gives me chills.  I entered my sixth state at Osceola, and got a new chain for my bike a bit north at St. Croix Falls.

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I knew I was in Wisconsin when I saw a sign for fresh cheese curds within a few miles of the border.  You can tell they are fresh if they are squeaky in your mouth, say the locals.  I missed the chance to have them batter-fried, a local delicacy.

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These Northwoods are still interchanged with farmland, although the trees seem to gain the edge the farther north and east I go.

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Corn is the favorite crop, with potatoes and hay close seconds.  I’ll ride through miles of deep forest and suddenly emerge into flat farm fields, then re-enter forests, over and over again.

 

I continue to connect periodically with my bicycling buddies, Cindy and Sherry, from Salem, Oregon, who are doing the same cross-country ride; we ride together for a day or two, and then don’t see each other for a week or more, but continue to cross paths — it’s a fun aspect of long-distance bicycling, similar to hiking the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail.  Sherry’s family has a traditional Fourth of July gathering at a cottage on Balsam Lake, WI, and they invited me to stop by if my ride found me in the vicinity, which it did.  I enjoyed the Therens’ hospitality for an evening, including a cruise around the lake.  If our paths cross again at their family reunion in Indiana, they will need to adopt me.

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(Sibs:  Sherry, Kathy and Gary Therens on the water at Balsam Lake, WI.)

 

My friends from Wausau, Wi — Diane Walker and Steve Gantert — invited me to connect at their cottage “Up North” on Seven Island Lake near Tomahawk, WI.  I headed east across the Northwoods and farmland, finding county roads to ride for many wonderful miles.  I discovered that there is not much flat in Wisconsin — I was into rolling hills.  Eventually I realized that I was closing in on the highest spot in the state — known as Timm’s Hill and cresting at 1951 feet above sea level — so my feeling that there were more ups than downs was confirmed.  I rode within a mile of this high-point.

Mike, the owner of Mirr’s Gateway Motel in Bruce, WI, gave me directions to head toward Tomahawk:  “Take E to P to G to V.  You’ll go through Jump River, a nice little town, I won the horseshoe tournament there a few years ago.  Then take D to Q to 102 to 86.  Wow, that’ll be a great ride, nice countryside — I wish I was going with you!”  (County roads in this part of Wisconsin are given a letter designation, so I look for those on my Google Maps.  Still, it’s unusual to hear the string of letters giving directions across literally 100 miles of countryside.)

I stopped mid-day in the town of Westboro, WI (population 660, although it seemed much smaller) at the only open establishment, a bar-and-grill.  The locals at the bar were standoffish, skeptical of this outsider.  Even my attempts to start a conversation (“How far do you think it is from here to highway 102?”) were met with flat answers and no follow-ups like, “So, where did you come from?  Where are you headed?”, the kinds of questions I’m used to dealing with.  This was a tough, local, outsider-averse crowd.  In comes a short, rough-looking, logger-type guy, who immediately looks at me and, in a gruff voice, barks, “Is that your bike out there?”  Well, wearing my bright yellow vest and obviously the odd one in the room, how else should I respond?  “Yep,” I said, “I’m trying to get to Tomahawk today.  Can you give me some advice as to how best to get there from here?”  This guy sat right down next to me and proceeded to be the nicest, most helpful guy imaginable, even while telling stories of hauling pulp logs over these roads for decades, shooting deer at close range and drawing in the others along the bar.  “Don’t go down to Rib Lake on D, take Rustic Road #1, then take C and go by Timm’s Hill, the highest point in the state.  You’re so close, you’ve gotta go by Timm’s Hill!”   When I went to pay my tab, this guy says, “It’s on me, Dave.  Be safe out there and have a great ride.”  Road Angels — they sometimes come in unexpected costumes.

 

I arrived at Diane and Steve’s cottage after my longest day of the trip so far – 109 miles.  I had a relaxing time with them over the holiday weekend, boating, swimming, and enjoying their hospitality.

 

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We watched local, private fireworks from their dock each evening over the weekend.  The neighbors on the lake put on a good show.

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On the holiday, I headed Northeast for 83 miles along remote, mostly deserted roads,  eventually crossing the state line into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (affectionately referred to as the “U.P.”).

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I ended up that evening in Iron River, MI, an old mining town trying to find its future.  I enjoyed the official Fourth of July fireworks from the town’s park/campground and found a brand-new coffee shop the next morning for the best espresso I’ve had since Seattle.  Alex, the young, bearded co-owner, talked about investing in what Iron River could be rather than letting the town die.  I love the energy he had looking toward the future and investing in community.  Gives me hope for the future on many levels.

 

Various people had recommended that, when I got to the U.P., I had to have pasties (pronounced “pass-tees,” not “paste-ees”).  These are a U.P. tradition dating back to the Cornish immigrant miners who brought the British meat pies with them into the new world.  My friend and former co-worker, Henry Draper, claims pasties are the only good thing about the U.P. (other than Cathy, his wife), having made the mistake to visit his future wife up here in the middle of winter, when this place must be quite different and more challenging.  I had a delicious encounter at the Pasty Corner in Iron River, which fueled my morning ride north.

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Which brings me to ice fishing.  I had no idea how important this custom/hobby is to the Northwoods and those from the northern Mid-West cities.  All these lakes freeze so solid in the winter that you can drive a truck onto the ice, towing, of course, an “ice house” which can run from shack to palace.  On many lakes, these ice houses stay on the frozen surface all winter and support many a party, fishing through a hole in the floor/ice and consuming a lot of alcohol (the two customs seem to go hand-in-hand).  Because I’m passing through these Northwoods in the summer, I am not a witness to this spectacle, yet I want to note it since ice fishing appears to be a major pastime up here in the Northwoods in the other half of the year.  Everyone talks about it.

 

I’m gaining ground on my eastern trajectory as I leave Wisconsin and head through Michigan’s U.P.  I’m probably now a bit more than half-way to my goal:

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Thanks for your interest in traveling with me vicariously.  I plan to cross into lower Michigan via Mackinac Island and its ferries within the week.  Enjoy the summer wherever this finds you.

 

— Dave (posted 7/5/2016 from Sagola, Michigan)

 

10 thoughts on “The Mid-Western Northwoods

  1. If you can, ride around Mackinaw Island and check out the fort; famous from the war of 1812. Good call on the yellow perch, a favorite of mine. When you get the chance, email me your planned route across the northern Lower Peninsula (never called the LP). Love your stories and glad it continues to go well. Thanks for bringing back memories of pasties, ice fishing and my family’s cottage on Otsego Lake.

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  2. Great progress, amazing stories and you write it all so well. Hope you turn this saga into an ebook with all your pictures too! We celebrated the fourth on Pole Island, put up Mom’s flag, saw lots of fireworks around the horizon. Love you much, Pat and Bob

    Sent from my iPhone

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  3. Hi Dave,
    Loved your story about the gruff guys in the bar. We watched the fireworks from the dock with MS – raised a toast to you while we were at it.
    Be well,
    Virginia

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  4. Hi Dave,
    Your yoga teacher and mine, Bev and I are having fun sharing our delight in your blog. Small world! I love how you are managing to find so many friendly and generous souls everywhere you go. It gives me hope hope in this heart challenging political season. Your open heart and mind are drawing these souls to you. Keep up the good work and skilled writing.

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  5. Thanks for the visit Dave. GLad you made it to gichi gumi. If you get to grand marie, mi. Checkout the agate cross B&B. Say hello to Jamie for us. Great people! Have fun, be safe.

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  6. Loving your road observations and experiences! We loved the little pastie joints – you can really picture hard working immigrants pulling wrapped pasties out of their lunch buckets to fuel the second half of the day… Safe travels!

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