In northeast Wisconsin, winter can be almost shamelessly beautiful.
Not only is the snow plentiful, it’s that photogenic, see-me-sparkle kind of snow that looks so good draped on pine
Skiing the Escanaba Lake Trail near Minocqua one February, exchanging hellos with passing skiers, all of them smiling, I had the feeling I must be in a magazine shoot.
In northeast Wisconsin, Minocqua is all things to all tourists.
It's been a boating destination for more than a century because it's on a chain of lakes and nearly surrounded by Lake Minocqua. In fact, it's Nature's Original Water Park, and the town has the trademark to prove it.
But summer is short, and these days, tourists like to keep busy. That's why you'll also find water-ski shows, lumberjack shows, boat tours, wildlife parks, bicycle trails, city-style shopping, golf and, in the middle of downtown, mini-golf.
In Wausau, water is power.
Sawmills were first to use the thundering rapids along the Wisconsin River, which have been working hard ever since.
But these rapids generate more than the electricity that lights a bulb – they also draw world-class athletes for thrilling tournaments, such the 2012 world whitewater kayak/canoe championships for juniors and under-23 paddlers, some of them Olympics-bound.
To the uninitiated, the vast expanses of forest around Eagle River, Wis., look like a lot of nothing.
It's rocky, useless land, forfeited to the government during the Depression, and hardly anyone lives there — Eagle River, pop. 1,400, is Vilas County's only city.
This empty forest, however, draws thousands, and on winter weekends, it's not so empty. Snowmobilers, skiers and snowshoers
come to these woods — to the east and north lie the 657,000 square acres of Nicolet National Forest, and to
the west, the 220,00 acres of Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest.
The first time I saw Rib Mountain it was nighttime, and I was driving toward Wausau from the north.
Looming over the Wisconsin town was a massive hulk lined with white lights, rising from the surrounding plain like a landing strip set on edge. It was a spectacular sight — and still is, day or night.
This billion-year-old quartzite ridge, one of the oldest on Earth, was thought to be the highest point in Wisconsin until
Timm's Hill, near Ogema, was surveyed at 12 feet higher.
In the wilds of northeast Wisconsin, winter always looks like winter.
It's the kind with snow — snow that comes early, stays late and blankets the forest in heaps, supplying reliable skiing and snowshoeing to people from less-blessed locales.
But in 2003, the heaps of snow didn't come there or virtually anywhere, and skiers were desperate. So was Pete Moline, who
runs Afterglow Resort on a lake near the Michigan border.
Whitewater paddlers are, by definition, thrill-seekers.
That's why they seek out the northeast corner of Wisconsin, "the cradle of rivers.'' The big Wisconsin River starts there, as do the Wolf, Peshtigo and Menominee, three of the Upper Midwest's best-known whitewater rivers.
On the Wolf River, Bear Paw Outdoor Adventure Resort has been a whitewater hub since 1994, selling gear to expert wranglers and teaching novices how to handle the rapids, which froth and churn over knots of boulders dropped by the last glacier.
In a remote corner of Wisconsin, a trove of waterfalls lies buried in forests barely trod since the lumberjacks moved on to Minnesota.
They’re not Wisconsin’s largest waterfalls, or the easiest to find; those can be found on the lower lip of Lake Superior, in Pattison, Amnicon and Copper Falls state parks (See Waterfalls of northern Wisconsin). But there are lots of them in this undomesticated forest, so thick with headwaters it’s known as the cradle of rivers.
When the last glacier scraped through, it left a rocky landscape nicked by small lakes and veined by streams. Today, it’s Nicolet National Forest, 657,000 acres forsaken by the lumber barons, acquired by the federal government during the Depression, overgrown with hardwoods and now the domain of whitewater rafters, canoeists and fishermen.