Discovering Winter in Wisconsin

Chasing Winter North

The frozen lake outside our cabin

It seems to me like every Wisconsinite takes a periodic “trip up north” to get away from their normal everyday lives. I’ve been in Wisconsin for about three months now, and this is one of the local behaviors about which I’ve been told with enough regularity to consider it a characteristic. There are exceptions, of course. There are those Wisconsinites who say that they instead prefer trips to the Wisconsin Dells (and there are some who like both locations, of course), but they seem to be in the minority. The default Wisconsin get away, especially late in the year, seems to be the popular “trip up north”.

Having not lived in Green Bay for too long yet, I’m still discovering, on a daily basis, a seemingly unconquerable number of local places, events, and activities I’d like to see or do. That didn’t stop me, however, from deciding that my partner and I should take the fabled “trip up north” to celebrate Valentine’s weekend. It’s true that on some level I just wanted to join the crowd, to proudly tell everyone I was going on a “trip up north”, and to be able to have “trip up north” stories to tell after I got back. There were practical reasons to choose this time to go too, though. For one thing, some time spent alone together in a cabin out in a natural environment seemed to lend itself to celebrating the couple’s holiday. For another thing, there was a drastically discounted rate during what was considered the “quiet season” at the lakeside cabin I chose (even romance sometimes has a budget). Mainly, though, we are in the second half of February, and winter is either at its peak or on a downhill course, depending on how you look at it. My partner and I are still lounging in the honeymoon phase of our relationship with the Wisconsin winter, so we’re still taking advantage of opportunities to embrace it.

Thus, early on the Saturday morning following Valentine’s Day, we embarked on our journey from what is by some termed “northeastern Wisconsin” to what I have begun to think of as “even ‘norther’ northwest Wisconsin.” The familiar flatness of our area gave way after some miles to gently rolling hills. Cleared and temporarily barren farm fields gradually gave way first to solitary copses and then to entire forests of birch and pine. With the rivers and massive bay that define the Green Bay area hours behind us, we entered the land of the thousands of small lakes for which Minnesota and certain areas of Wisconsin including this one are known.

It’s difficult not to be moved by the stark forests, the frozen, snow covered lakes, and the relentless grayscale palette of it all. The silence is pervasive, and it makes the occasional gust of the wind through the trees seem like the roar of a freight train. In this season, in this place, winter is king. For this weekend, however, it is a benevolent one. Still, standing on ice feet thick on the middle of a frozen lake, considering the frigid air that bites at the skin, the blanketing snow that lays heavy on everything exposed to the sky, and the complete environmental transformation that shapes a culture, it is difficult to avoid succumbing to awe.

The frozen lake serves, as it would in summer, as the hub of our stay. We snowshoe around its perimeter, nestle in close to a campfire we built on its shore, watch deer race and play across it just after dawn, and gaze up at it periodically through the giant-windowed confines of our fireplace-warmed cabin. While they are not the only factor, I’m sure, these thousands of small lakes must be one of the primary elements that draw Wisconsinites into taking their “trips up north.” The lake technically separates us from nothing, and the cabins on the opposite shore aren’t really that far away, but the open, uninterrupted expanse of the lake allows us to feel hidden here, insulated.

As I am finishing writing this, a new snow threatens to fall. Individual flakes currently fall so infrequently, that it takes time and focus to determine that any are falling at all yet. Tomorrow, my partner and I both have to be back at work downtown. These moments are, for us and in more ways than one, the calm before the storm, and we are devouring them with gleeful exuberance. This is why people from our new northern climate seek refuge further north during what might be seen by an outsider like me as the most objectionable time to do so. This is why they revel in the Scandinavian customs and lifestyle of the some of the cultures who settled here. This is where we can allow, for a couple of days, the silence of the northland forest to distract us from our daily lives in which such silence seems so foreign. The rule of King Winter is peaceful, at least until he next touches his scepter the ground.

Welcome to the Sturgeon Spectacular

Classic rock tunes from the 1980s danced through the crisp darkness at The Bottom of the Lake. Fond du Lac, so named for its precarious position at the southern tip of Lake Winnebago in east central Wisconsin, buzzed with activity and excitement under its frozen crust. Small, chatty groups of people exited their vehicles and traipsed through the snowy, decoratively lit sidewalks, drawn like moths toward the warm pool of light and sound inside Lakeside Park. After weeks of preparation, Fond du Lac’s big weekend had finally reached its climax, and I intended to be a part of it.

Lake Winnebago is one of two locations in the entire nation to offer a legal sturgeon spearing season, and Fond du Lac’s Sturgeon Spectacular festival marks its opening weekend. The celebration is characterized by elements not entirely surprising for a local winter festival. There’s a chili crawl, multiple ice-carving events, the crowning of a festival queen, and live music and performances. Bonfires and party tents over frozen ground or ice are common elements of these gatherings, as I later realized when I witnessed the same thing at a ski/snowshoe race across the frozen surface of Lake Superior during a weekend getaway to the northern part of the state. In this case, though, the main event at the heart of the hooplah was Lake Winnebago’s special form of ice fishing.

For those of you who may not be familiar, a lake sturgeon is a relatively unsightly fish that can grow to be surprisingly large. A local man shown on television today had hauled in a lunker that was over 6 feet in length and weighed more than 140 pounds. In order to wrestle these monsters from the lake’s chilly depths, local ice fishermen cut holes of up to 8 square feet in area in the ice and then spear the fish with long poles. Once the tip of the spear is lodged securely in the giant fish, the pole is detached, and the fisherman uses a rope connected to the spear tip to pull the fish back through the water and onto the ice inside his tiny shack.

The crowd at the event hovered around the giant bonfire outside and swayed shoulder-to-shoulder inside a huge canvas tent, crooning along to covers of old songs everyone seemed to know by heart. The crowd was surprisingly diverse. A couple of ladies who appeared to possibly be in their 70s nodded a jovial “rock on” to a group of hardy-looking young men I assumed to be in their early 20s. Clusters of peer-grouped friends brushed past multi-generational family groups. It really seemed as if the entire town was present and couldn’t have been enjoying themselves more. Keg beer flowed freely, but no one appeared to be drunk or unruly. I wasn’t able to keep from smiling at the apparent wholesomeness of the whole thing.

As I observed the crowd, wrapped up in my own amusement, a young woman my daughter’s age snatched up fistfuls of my scarf in both of her hands and exclaimed, “Awww, your girlfriend made this for you! It’s beautiful! She did a great job!” My girlfriend was not with me, and I’m not sure how this young lady knew the status of our relationship, but she was indeed correct on all accounts. I’d noticed earlier that the event did seem to be a fashion show for handmade winter apparel. Homemade knitted and crocheted hats, scarves, and mittens were everywhere, and they ranged from quaintly understated to impressively complex. Had I known this would be the case, I’d have worn the Packer-colored hat my mother crocheted for me when I moved to Green Bay a few months earlier. “I made these mittens,” the young lady exclaimed, smiling brightly and proudly holding out her covered hands for inspection.

I’d no sooner finished reflecting on that encounter and returned to people watching when I accidentally made eye contact with a young man who I guessed to probably be in his mid-twenties. A good-natured smile spread across his face, and he approached, “Man, Wisconsin people are weird, aren’t they?” I agreed, and something about his tone convinced me it was safe to do so. I don’t think he ever mentioned where he was from, but he was insistent that his experience with Wisconsin submersion had led him to the undeniable conclusion that, as a group, they are one of a kind.

I’ve not seen enough of Wisconsin, its people, or its neighbors yet to know whether or not I completely agree with that, but I do know that in the short time that I have been here, I’ve found them to be interesting in a way that I would not have expected. While this festival for a fish did indeed showcase that uniqueness, it was also endearing in a way that I can’t help but appreciate. It’s inspiring how happy this little event seemed to make them. Well done, Fond Du Lac. Thank you for reminding me that sometimes happiness can be just a fish festival away if you allow it to be.

More Norther

I never realized how much more northern Wisconsin was than Ohio. I don’t mean how much farther north it is on a map; that I knew. What I mean is that I didn’t realize how much more northern the culture in Wisconsin would seem than it does where I’m from in Ohio. From winter events like the sturgeon spearing on Lake Winnebago to weekend getaways in the northwoods, the northern nature of Wisconsin just seems so much more pervasive.

I recently moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin, from around a half an hour south of Youngstown, Ohio, about halfway down Ohio’s eastern side, right on the Pennsylvania border. Growing up in Ohio, I was never really sure what region we were generally considered to be a part of. In some ways, my home area seemed very Midwestern, and in others, very Northeastern. Regardless of which of those two ways we categorized it, I think we always considered it fairly “northern.” Ohio is, afterall, on the Canadian border, even if that border runs through the middle of Lake Erie.

To be fair, Ohio is geographically further south than Wisconsin, obviously. Also, although I have known since probably elementary school where Wisconsin was located in the U.S., I did not necessarily realize that Green Bay is at a more northern latitude than Toronto, Canada, and Pierre and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and is at almost the same latitude as Minneapolis, Minnesota. Still, it’s not the geographical latitude or the climate of Wisconsin that’s surprisingly northern to me; it’s the culture.

To me, Wisconsin seems to have a northernness in it’s blood that Ohio doesn’t seem to have. Now, before some Ohio snowmobile fan or cross-country skier gets all worked up, let me ask that you please accept that I’m talking about the general nature of the populations of each state and specifically of the areas of Wisconsin and Ohio with which I’ve mentioned that I’ve had experience. I don’t doubt for a minute that you or your cousin Clem from Defiance, Ohio, is just as northern as any Wisconsinite. As a general culture, though, the Ohioans I have known just don’t seem as northern, or at least not in the same way.

For one thing, Wisconsinites, as a group, seem to embrace the cold and the winter more. The Cleveland, Ohio, area gets much more snow on average than Green Bay, Wisconsin, does, but the difference is more in the way that people react to the winter. While northeastern Ohioans generally spend a great deal of time and energy in the winter complaining miserably about the cold and the weather, Wisconsinites seem to feel more at home in it. Sure, they’ll complain about bad weather or the cold from time to time, but they also seem to take more opportunities to embrace it. Most Ohioans I know take every chance they get to head south to warm up at some point during the winter, while it seems more popular for people in Wisconsin to head farther north and plunge themselves deeper and more actively into the snow.

Perhaps this all stems from the differences in the genealogies of the groups in these two areas. While a significant portion of the people in northeastern Ohio can trace their lineage to some northern European areas, northeastern Ohio as a whole doesn’t seem to have the same degree of strong, direct nordic influence that is surprisingly apparent in Wisconsin. From what I’ve seen, that influence is inescapable in the food, the surnames, the architectural styles, the colors, and the leisure activities in a large part of Wisconsin.

There’s no doubt that Ohio is a northern state. Nearly anyone from the Ohio valley area will tell you that it is much more “northern” than either of its neighbors to the south. I also think that most Ohioans (varying with location, of course) identify more closely with people from Michigan or Pennsylvania than they do with people from Kentucky or West Virginia. But Wisconsin, well,… Wisconsin is on a whole different “northern” level, in my opinion. After my first few months as a Wisconsin resident, I would group Wisconsin much more closely with Minnesota and Canada than I would with states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. The upside for me is that instead of moving 10 hours away to a place I thought would be fairly similar to the place from which I’d come, I ended up landing somewhere with a bit of a different perspective and plenty of new and exciting elements to offer.

Aaron DeBee
11 min
4 cards

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