Short and Sweet

Marinette County, Wis., packs summer into two months. Above: the cooling water of Strong Falls.
Marinette County, Wis., packs summer into two months. Above: the cooling water of Strong Falls. (By Kathleen Eaton)
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 7, 2005

The towering triple-scoop cone is the totem pole of a Wisconsin summer. Ice cream season -- as opposed to plain old ice season -- is a fleeting one up here in the high northeastern corner of the state. Judging by the number of busy mom- and-pop ice cream stands that bloom in the sun along the country roads, the local philosophy seems to be: Lick 'Em While It's Hot. After all, they know from dairy around here, and nearly every day of a summer holiday among these wooded lakes and blackwater rivers includes a stop somewhere for a bit of the cold and creamy.

Actually, more than a bit. At the Big Dipper on County Road X, we ordered the smallest cone. But what emerged through the pickup window was a mint chocolate-chip Titan rocket. None of the stoutish, fair-haired people in line seemed to think anything of it, but my 8-year-old daughter with the sugar-conscious parents gripped it with two hands and staggered away with eyes popping. If this was a small in Wisconsin, then Wisconsin was all right by her.

And by me, too. Visiting the part of the state known as "Up North" during its brief thaw was like dropping in on a lively two-month picnic. Summer is a time for happy excess in and around Marinette County, a place of big woods and many lakes just over the Menominee River from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The ice cream is grande, the waterways are awash with trick skiers and the brats are on the grill. You can buy hard liquor at even the smallest country stores, along with fireworks and the sublime, artery-choking local pastry known as the Eggqvist Donut. In between spring's maple sugar run and fall's bear-hunting season, northern Wisconsin turns into a place with the latitude of Nova Scotia and the attitude of Key West. Spring break with loons.

"Oh gosh, yeah, they'll be in here before lunchtime," said Jim, the clubhouse bartender at DeSmidt's Golf Course outside the little town of Crivitz. He's handing over an insulated bag jammed full of beer and ice to a man and wife headed out to the first tee. It's 9:15 a.m. "They say it's going to get hot here in a day or two, and we'll sell a lot more of these."

We found our way to this unpeopled corner of Wisconsin at the prodding of my friend Tom, a Buffalo native with a taste for small golf courses and talkative locals. He fell in love with the summer lake vibe here during yearly visits to his Badger State in-laws, and has long talked up the place as a sort of inland Maine. Sure enough, when my daughter and I arrived for a July visit with Tom and his daughter Amalia, the dry, cool air alone was enough to make any summer refugee from Washington swoon. Our guide was Amalia's grandfather, Bill Staudenmaier, who grew up in Marinette County and, like any self-respecting retired Milwaukee lawyer, keeps a cottage up in lake country.

"You just begin to decompress as you head north," Staudenmaier said as we shook off the Milwaukee suburbs. At 68, he's a cross-country skier and, as a proud and hardy local, has been known to swim in the lakes within weeks of the mid-April thaw. But it's during the flash of summer that Up North assumes paradise status. "It really doesn't start until July 4th, as our Junes are usually not as warm as we'd like them," said Staudenmaier. "Between the Fourth and Labor Day, things jump. There's a real mood change."

After a piece-of-cake 90-minute flight from Reagan National, the drive from Milwaukee takes about three hours, running briefly along the edge of Lake Michigan and passing through Green Bay (which is an NFL franchise with a small city attached to it). The countryside is a wavy green mat, speckled with Holsteins and spiked with countless round-top silos. But somewhere north of Lena, with its downtown cheese factory, dairyland tapers off and the forests grow thicker.

The 650,000-acre Nicolet National Forest is here, a remnant of the endless pine carpet that once covered the middle part of the continent. We got into the Nicolet one afternoon on a horseback ride, but not deep enough to see the black bears or wolves that still prowl its cool shadows.

"We had a bear cub hanging around the trail for a few days a while back," said Joy, our trail guide, twisting backward in her saddle to talk and whipping flies with her blond ponytail. "A bear got killed by a car and a few days later a cub showed up. We think it was his mother."

This part of Wisconsin was settled more by Germans and Poles than the Scandinavian enclaves in neighboring Minnesota. But still, your average Wisconsin hospitality worker is a tanned, gleaming-toothed blond. Joy is a high school senior from Silver Cliff.

There are more than 800 miles of trails in the Nicolet Forest. During the long winter, they draw cross-country skiers and snowmobilers. But now they give hikers a chance to go in deep for that finest of backcountry settings, a waterside campsite by a north woods lake.

The ancient ebb and flow of glaciers grated quite a Swiss-cheese face on the cheddar cheese state. Drive along one of the lettered county roads ("Take D to G and turn left on W" is a plausible Wisconsin direction), and lake waters wink through the trees every two miles or so. From anonymous ponds to larger bodies so numerous they almost ran out of names (Frying Pan Lake? White Potato Lake? Bottle Lake?), there are so many light blue splatters on the Wisconsin map it could have been painted by Jackson Pollock. Of course, from December to mid-April they are paved in ice, but then they crack up, warm up and step up to their role as the cool liquid soul of a Middle American summer.

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