Sunday, September 26, 2004

The lure of the North Woods: "It was a miserable morning, too cold for July, even for July in the North Woods. Steam rose from Van Vliet Lake. There was drizzle. There was wind, soft but eye-watering nonetheless.

"Tim Bowler tried to keep the boat in coves the wind couldn't penetrate and where he had seen musky before and hoped to rouse one again.

"'Cast with the wind,' my guide said, but then the wind would pierce the shelter and it would swirl, and the waves would become confused, and casting—even with a lure heavy enough to bludgeon Shamu the killer whale into submission—would turn comical.

"He would move the boat to another section of the lake, and things would improve for a while, and then the wind would find us yet again, and we would move again. No fish. 'You don't see any of the locals out here today,' he said. 'Usually on a morning like this, you'd see a couple of boats. 'You couldn't have picked a worse day for this.'

"He looked toward the sky. 'A bald eagle,' he said. And the day, suddenly, wasn't so miserable at all."

"This is Wisconsin's North Woods. Geographically it's roughly the upper third of the state. People will tell you it begins around the town of Tomahawk, about a six-hour drive from Chicago, and that seems to be where farmland cedes to lakes and forests for those coming up U.S. Highway 51 through Portage and Stevens Point and Wausau.

"But where it begins and how far it extends and where it isn't and where it ends isn't the point. Even the towns—and there are towns—hardly matter.

"Minocqua, no longer quaint, has stoplights, a major hospital, franchise restaurants and lodgings, even a Wal-Mart.

"'You can go to a Wal-Mart anyplace,' concedes Loren Anderson, who founded and runs the Snowmobile Hall of Fame 30 minutes east in St. Germain. 'But what you can't do is go to Wal-Mart, then walk a couple of hundred feet, throw a hook in a lake and fish. That's what we have up here.'

"Aside from semi-bustling Minocqua and Eagle River and Hayward (and, up north, Ashland and Bayfield), Wisconsin's North Woods is mainly thousands of lakes—literally thousands, with world-class fishing—linked by county roads named B and L and K and W and the rest of the alphabet. Most of the backroads, some just wide enough to allow two Mini Coopers to pass side by side and not all of them paved, have names that end in Lake: Big. Crab. Star."

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