Timeless Northwoods Memories
for those who’ve been there, ‘Up North’ is as much a place as a state of mind
photos by Andrea Paulseth
If you created a word cloud based around the Northwoods, it would be full of tangible nouns – water, forest, sky, campfire, cabin. It would also be peppered with less concrete vocabulary as well – relaxation, contemplation, togetherness – not to mention laughter. We asked Volume One’s staff members and contributors to share some of their favorite memories of the Northwoods, and they responded with tales of everything from angry otters to peanut butter-covered balloons. Enjoy this dip into our collective nostalgia – then get yourself “Up North” to make your own memories.
“I grew up swimming in the lakes of northwestern Wisconsin, in the lakes up around my family’s little cabin near a town called Webster. We’d drive up north on a Friday evening, unpack the car, and after enough begging/pleading/crying, my dad would take us down to the beach at Devil’s Lake. The sun would be setting on one side of the sky, turning it all purple, and it felt like we had the whole lake to ourselves. We were always amazed at how warm the water was, not shockingly cold like when the sun was out. I remember my dad throwing us up over his shoulders, so we’d land behind him in a huge splash of arms and legs. I used to love that.” –Mike Paulus
“Grandpa’s lake held much to be afraid of – leeches, bullheads, a turtle that bit my nipple one time. But nothing caused as much dread as the muck. After a dozen feet of sand off the beach, Pier Lake, north of Tripoli, fades to a mud bottom, and this slimy, gritty, smelly substance made us shudder whenever we encountered it. If a Frisbee flew too far into the lake, or we jumped off the dock, or we boated to the middle and dove in and our fingers brushed that hazy boundary between water and the viscous mess at the bottom, we dashed to safety, deeply disgusted, trying to wipe the mysterious ooze away.
“Until one weekend, when my uncles and cousins and brothers and I conquered the muck. We had all gathered on the old fiberglass raft like usual, swimming and wrestling and throwing each other in the water. Jerry came up with a handful of muck, which he threw at us like a snowball, and suddenly we had a new game. We dove to the bottom to retrieve our own piles, then covered ourselves and each other in mud, like a putrid spa day. Suddenly the muck wasn’t so scary. Suddenly we couldn’t get enough.
“After washing ourselves off and returning to shore, we noticed the itching, but this was the northwoods; mosquito bites and the previous days’ sunburn meant we all itched, all the time. But this was different. This itching was deep and insidious, like the layer of slop hidden beneath the brown water. No lotions or showers made any difference, and we learned there was good reason to be afraid of the muck. Thirty years later, it’s still down there, and I still try to stay away.” –Eric Rasmussen
“I’ll never forget when I went early-morning walleye fishing with my dad when I was about 8 years old. We woke up and went out on the lake before everyone else, and I caught an 8.5-pound walleye right away. Then I was done and wanted to go back to the cabin. I thought fishing was easy and didn’t understand why people stayed out all day when you could just catch one right away. I haven’t topped that fish since!”
“The otter was very angry. My husband and I were paddling our bright red canoe around Brunet Island State Park and had just emerged from the calm bay into the Cornell Flowage when a fuzzy otter popped up next to our canoe and screeched at us, quite loudly, its little paws clawing at the air as if trying to hit us with its miniature arms. After a few seconds, it submerged, then popped up on the other side of the canoe and screeched even louder. It was an ear-piercing screech that would have been unbearable had we been inside. That otter was pissed and wanted us gone five minutes ago. We were charmed! For all its bluster, this river otter was one of the cutest things that had ever chosen to interact with us in the wild, and we were enjoying every minute.
“After awhile, we decided to take pity on the adorable banshee and continued on. We still don’t know what it was mad about. Perhaps we were too close to its babies, or maybe we interrupted a wooing. Did we scare away its fish? We won’t ever know the reason, but I do know that it was the most adorable scolding I’ve ever experienced.” –Katie Venit
“Each year, right around my birthday, I gather my family together for an annual viewing of The Great Outdoors – the 1988 John Candy classic that somehow missed the attention of the Academy Awards. Growing up, this film was my introduction to the Northwoods – some tree-filled, lake-filled, fresh air-filled wonderland that seemed a little too good to be true. Last night, while re-watching it, I realized we pretty much live there now. In fact, there’s no “pretty much” about it. he film’s set in the fictional “Claire County, Wisconsin,” and neon Leingenkugel’s signs are always conveniently aglow in the background. With each subsequent viewing, I always search for further proof that Claire County is secretly Eau Claire County, that those Leinie’s signs have come directly from Chippewa Falls. After all, we’ve got everything Hollywood told us we were supposed to – those lakes, those trees, that air. All we’re missing, of course, is John Candy.” –B.J. Hollars
“When I was a kid, our family camped at Potawatomi State Park in Door County. I was raised in the suburbs of Chicago and hadn’t seen a lot of raccoons in my life. The state park was full of them. They were regular visitors around our campsite, looking for an opportunity to steal anything. I had been told raccoons were experts at getting into tents, coolers, and even locked armored cars (I’m guessing a cousin or friend from school told me these facts).
“I came up with the ‘brilliant’ plan to surprise these little wannabe thieves. I blew up a balloon and covered it with peanut butter, the idea being that the peanut butter would attract the raccoon and when it bit into the balloon, it would explode in the creature’s mouth.
“I laid the trap and turned my back from the sticky balloon for barely one minute before I heard a hissing noise. A raccoon had grabbed the balloon right away, puncturing it just enough to let the air escape without exploding. The masked bandit carried its treasure to the undergrowth.
“Today as an adult, I think ‘I hope it didn’t choke on the balloon’ or ‘Why would I want to harm a raccoon in the first place?’ But as an ignorant kid, I only learned that the denizens of the woods were way smarter than this kid from the suburbs.” – Rob Reid
“I’m a water baby. I absolutely love being in, on, and near water. My mom’s water broke on the floor of our cottage … steps from the lakeshore. Alone, she called grandpa on the party line to get her to Luther Hospital PDQ (pretty damned quick). My dad and three older brothers were at the Northern Wisconsin State Fair. They found mom’s note on the kitchen table when they returned later that night. Off dad went, leaving the oldest at age 15 in charge with younger brothers ages 7 and 12, near celebratory cigars and matches. And so the story goes of my birth … depending on the story teller.” –Barbara Arnold
“My family doesn’t really go up north often. We’re those weirdos who don’t have a cabin and prefer to do day trips to nearby state parks for hiking, canoeing, and kayaking. We love being in the great outdoors and wandering around nature for a while before realizing how horribly lost we are and needing to retrace our steps back to wherever we parked the car. One of the few times that we went up to a family member’s cabin involved some serious tubing, and flying off of the tube because whoever was driving the boat had a serious vendetta against small children holding on to a raft. It was all in good fun, though: When it was this person’s turn on the tube he got what was coming to him.” –Julia Van Allen
“Growing up, my parents would take my brother and I to our family cabin on Elbow Lake in Minnesota. The cabin has a wrap-around porch, picturesque log siding, and the signature slamming screen door that could be heard for miles around. There was this little island tucked away in a swampy bay that we would go to almost every night we were at the cabin. Our special island was dubbed ‘Blueberry Island’ by my family. This tiny island was bursting with the lushest blueberry bushes I have ever seen in my life. I can vividly remember eating these sweet little morsels by the handful as a child. We would ride out to Blueberry Island, set up a fire, and enjoy the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. We would fish, roast marshmallows, tell stories, and more. It seems as though it was something out of a movie, but it wasn’t. It was real, it was our little slice of heaven.” –Kat Taylor
“My family has been going ‘Up North’ to the same cabin every summer for as long as I can remember. Growing up in the Milwaukee area, my ‘Up North’ was actually Door County, which is really more ‘over east’ to us here in Eau Claire.
“It was a time that my parents, sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles all got together to enjoy the quintessential ‘Up North” experience: spending all day out on Kangaroo Lake boating, tubing, water skiing, kayaking, or just relaxing on a floatie tied to the dock. Every day was followed by nights of pool and arcade time at the center down the street, roasting marshmallows by bonfires at Grandma and Grandpa’s cabin right across the lake, game nights for the parents, and slumber parties/movie watching for the cousins all snuggled on the same pull-out couch together. Movies of choice included Mrs. Doubtfire and Tommy Boy. Over and over and over again ...
“My dad and uncle taught us how to be ‘tough’ by showing no mercy when it came to tubing ... I can recall returning to the dock for lunch or at the end of the day with a couple of bloody noses or broken fingers that the moms weren’t too pleased with. Lunch and snacks were always a big part of the week and – because we started going there when we were so young – traditions started early and were held dearly. The pre-shopping trip to Sam’s Club was a sight to be seen. Staples included Now and Laters, freeze pops, mini cereal boxes, and my mom’s famous pulled pork. Forget any of that and there would certainly be hell to pay.
“These days we all get there a lot less often, especially all together, but those memories are something we’ll always cherish and will always be a huge part of our childhood.” –Lindsey Quinnies
“I remember the first time my sister and I went out ‘hunting’ with dad. It was opening day of deer season in 1995 and dad deemed my sister and I old enough to join him out hunting for the first time. My sister was 8 and I was 6. My dad wrapped us up in his old blaze orange hunting jackets, giant hats and gloves, snow pants and boots and we trudged out to the deer stand, singing songs from Pocahontas the whole way. When we arrived at the deer stand, dad told us it was called ‘The Castle.’
“We scurried up the steep staircase and climbed into a simple box made out of plywood with a propane heater and a little bench. It was magical. Dad poured some hot chocolate from a thermos and we ate cookies and looked for animals. We saw bunnies and turkeys and my sister even said she saw a coyote. We had regular visits from my dad’s hunting buddy, Mr. Red Squirrel. He said that when we weren’t there, Mr. Red Squirrel would talk to him and fill him in on the recent gossip around the forest. Dad relayed what Mr. Red Squirrel was saying and I was so impressed that my dad could speak squirrel.
“We enjoyed this special time in this special place with this special man for probably only a couple of hours, but those few hours are one of my favorite memories with my dad and sister. We stayed until we drank all the hot chocolate and our little noses started to get cold before dad brought us back to the house.” –Janae Breunig
“I remember a fishing trip I took with my father to Prairie Lake in Chetek when I was 8 years old. The fish were biting for me and me alone, and I kept bringing them in for my dad and uncle to remove from the line, which they would bait up and give to me to cast again. The bobber would immediately go down each time and I would chant, ‘In the boat, in the boat’ as I brought in the catch. This routine continued for a couple of hours, with the me continually reeling in sizable panfish and the grownups acting as attendants to my efforts. Other boats took notice and moved in closer and I had to cast out further and further to force them from encroaching on our prime fishing spot. We ended up with a massive take of panfish, totaling over 100 (bag limits were different in those days) and my dad and uncle were up most of the night cleaning and bagging fish to stock our freezer. This fishing trip took place around 30 years ago, but I still fondly recall it, reference it in many of my current fishing outings, and look forward to having a similar experience with my son.” –Neil Hodorowski