The magnificent forests and lakes in northern Wisconsin have been drawing Chicagoans for more than a century. With more than 1.75 million acres of protected forests dotted with some 3,000 lakes, it’s hard to believe that this area was virtually deforested by the logging industry in the 1800s and early 1900s.
After the pine forests were depleted and the logging companies left, different varieties of trees grew back. But remnants of the old lumberjack lore and lifestyle are still celebrated locally at such places as Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty in Minocqua, the Lumberjack Steam Train in Laona, Fred Scheer’s Lumberjack Shows in Hayward, and at the Logging Museum at the Pioneer Park Historical Complex in Rhinelander.
They’re part of a thriving tourism industry that took root after the logging industry left. Wealthy sportsmen came to fishing and hunting camps on train lines originally built to transport iron and copper, and promoters billed the road from Chicago to Eagle River as the “Big Fish Auto Route,” luring travelers with stories of the ferocious but finicky trophy fish, the muskie. The region remains popular with anglers and, in 2008. In fact, in 2008, Field and Stream named Minocqua one of the “best fishing towns in America,” with “trout in the creeks, and just about every species you can think of in the 70-odd vicinity lakes.”
More than a few muskies ended up on the walls of Wisconsin’s famous supper clubs. With dark wood interiors adorned with a menagerie of taxidermy and no-nonsense menus that pre-date any health-food craze, these restaurants feel like a step back in time. The term “club” doesn’t mean they aren’t open to the public: the name is a holdover from the Prohibition era, when patrons sought out clandestine drinks in dimly lit atmospheres where they could spend the night eating, drinking, and dancing. The remote location and deep forests made the Northwoods an ideal place for mobsters to lay low. And the thousands of lakes in the region provided good landing places for seaplanes flying in from Canada loaded with whiskey. One star player in this chapter of Northwoods history is the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters. It was the scene of a famously botched FBI raid and shootout in 1934. Today, owners display relics that gangsters including John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson left behind when they fled the scene. Even bullet holes have been preserved, although some of those are from a recreation of the fusillade staged at Little Bohemia for the Hollywood movie version of the story starring Johnny Depp.
The same remote location and deep forests that attracted mobsters make the Northwoods a serene and beautiful place to relax, unwind, or enjoy the great outdoors. Visitors hike, bike, hunt, fish, boat, and bird-watch at many locations throughout the Northwoods, most notably the more-than-1.5-million-acre Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
In the dead of winter, the tourist traffic slows but the outdoor recreation in the area speeds up. Eagle River brands itself as the “Snowmobile Capital of the World,” in part because it is the site of what promoters call “the Indianapolis 500 of Snowmobile Racing.” Every January, the World Championship Snowmobile Derby brings more than 40,000 spectators to Eagle River.
But if speeding through arctic winds isn’t your thing, there are also more tranquil ways to enjoy winter in the Northwoods. Since the 1930s, when weather and other conditions permit, local firefighters and community volunteers have constructed a massive ice castle in downtown Eagle River. They make it with ice blocks cut from a local lake, using in part the same old ice saw and conveyor system that has been cutting and transporting the ice blocks for generations.