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.
For those of us who reflexively point our lemming feet toward the ocean every year at the ringing of the last school bell, there are lessons to be learned in a Wisconsin lake. The scale is smaller than the endless, restless (not to mention shark- and hurricane-infested) vistas of the ocean. The water is fresh, the banks are shady. At Eagle Lake, west of Crivitz, where we swam every day, the dark water was a just-right salve on bodies, whether wracked by Wisconsin winters or Washington summers. Late one day, with the reddening sun catching on the ripples of the day's final dive, a loon glided down for evening swim of it its own. Twilight is endless this high on the globe, and at 9 p.m. the stately bird casts a long shadow across the water -- and sends a plaintive wail around the shore, where we whittled away at a sublime block of Laac's Finest Wisconsin extra sharp, aged six years.
"Looking out over a peaceful lake at sunset with a beer in my hand, that's as close to heaven as I get on this earth," said Staudenmaier.
Ah, beer. Wisconsin has been a beer culture since, oh gosh, back to the days of Laverne and Shirley. And Wisconsinites have refined a lot of ways to watch the sun go down with a cold one at the ready, either a cheapo Blatz or Schlitz from down Milwaukee way, or one of the finer, newer microbrews. Round about dusk, for example, at places like Thunder Lake, Lake Noqueby or High Falls Flowage (a flowage is a sort of wide, slow spot in the river), fleets of pontoon boats slip their lines and putter out to quiet viewing spots. At Shaffer Park Resort in Crivitz, one of the oldest and most famous of dozens of roadside supper clubs that line the back roads, it's the custom of many to end the day encamped on the cocktail deck overlooking the Peshtigo River.
That's where we decompressed after a day-long blitz of golf, swimming, hiking to waterfalls and racing go-carts at Vacationland Fun Park. The kids roamed between the tidy wing of riverside motel rooms and the playground by the heated pool. We manned the deck chairs, waiting in the shade of massive red pines for our chance at the Friday night fried walleye.
I may have stumped the dining room waitress with an order for red wine. "Do you want ice with that?" she came back to ask after consulting the bartender.
But the walleye was excellent.
On Saturday, Staudenmaier left us to go visit his 102-year-old mother. Carless, we called the local Ford dealer, who said, sure, you can take a Taurus for the day (it cost us $45 for 24 hours). We wandered north, getting deeper into the woods, and found a surprising new Marinette entity where they do savvy good wine, as well as fine food and fancy digs. On Miscauno Island, an estatelike preserve in the middle of Menominee River, a group of Green Bay and Milwaukee investors have taken a flier on a genuine high-end, all-suites hotel called the Four Seasons Resort (no relation to the luxury chain). It just opened in May, and when we showed up, the new-car smell was still strong upon it. Normally, I find brand new hotels a mess of baffled staff, unfinished rooms and unseasoned decor. Especially in middle-of-nowhere settings like this crook in the river in the Wisconsin outback, experienced workers can be hard to find (you can drive miles on the roads here without passing a house). But this one seems ready for prime time.
Cross the one-lane steel bridge and a handsome white manor house rises among the pines, surrounded by well-watered fairways. At one end, a three-story wood-paneled mezzanine encloses a year-round pool, sauna and hot tub. At the other, the new construction abuts the original Four Seasons, a 100-year-old roadhouse and inn. The original wing has a spicy history (including Chicago mob connections) and a settled, established feeling that adds some vintage to the just-opened addition. Between a basement sports bar that stays crowded with locals, a quieter upstairs bar with veranda seating, an ice-cream parlor, game room and two restaurants, the place buzzed more like an oasis in the desert than a hotel in the woods. It was quiet and secluded, and we had no worries giving the girls their own keys while we played an early round of nine holes.
We crisscrossed the county in our loaner Taurus, taking it on our final evening to one of Marinette County's big shows, the Twin Bridge Water-Ski Team. When you build your summers around lakes and powerboats, it doesn't take many generations before you end up with kids putting on extravagant costumes, climbing on each other's shoulders and water-skiing in front of polite people in lawn chairs twice a week. That's the scene we found at Stephenson Town Park, a pretty tree-lined beach at High Falls Reservoir. This year's theme: Indiana Jones and the Stone of Excuses, a contraption of a plot that was far less stable than the 17-skier pyramid the team pulled off as one of its finales. (How they learn to ski like that during 10-week summers is beyond me.)
At the end of the show, the skiers ran ashore, lined up in front of us in wet, vaguely Arabic garb and broke into a clunky chorus-line dance. These were fine athletes, terrible actors and clearly having a blast.
We could still hear them, a pack of partying Wisconsinites living their summer lark, as we pulled down the sandy lane, turned left at the blacktop and went looking for ice cream.