Bratwurst and walleye. Walleye and bratwurst. The prospect of gorging on two of my favorite comfort foods lingered long after my sister had called, inviting me and my wife to spend a July week in northern Wisconsin at an old lodge our parents had taken us kids on vacation decades earlier. A trip Up North, as it’s known, is primarily about the forests of the North Woods and the vast multitude of lakes in between. It’s also about the sky and clouds mirrored on the lakes. It’s about the never-ending symphony of birdsongs, and the serenity all these surroundings offer the vacationer. And, like the rest of Wisconsin, it’s about eating and drinking. Or drinking and eating.
The state slogan of Wisconsin’s neighboring state Minnesota may be “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” but Wisconsin has many more, about 5,000 more to be precise. State rivalries are usually waged with fun, and I can recall seeing a T-shirt years ago with the slogan:
Land of 10,000 Lakes
35 million mosquitoes
and 10 fish.”
But I digress.
Bound for Vilas County
We were headed to an area between Boulder Junction and Presque Isle, about 20 minutes south of the border with Upper Michigan. It’s in Vilas County, which boasts 1,300 lakes, roughly one for each 21 residents. It has more than 240,000 aces of public land, crisscrossed by 75 rivers and streams, great asphalt roads, 50 hiking trails and a growing inventory of paved bike paths (http://www.vilaswi.com). The dozen towns – we hit them all on this trip – are lined with funky gift shops, art galleries, restaurants and bars. But for my money, the best bars and restaurants, known thereabouts as supper clubs, are the ones that are out of town, often set deep back in the woods.
I was born and raised in Milwaukee, but moved to Colorado after graduating from University of Wisconsin-Madison more than 40 years ago. I relish my return trips, and am blessed with a wife who feels the same way, though I was the first to take her there.
We couldn’t wait.
The last week of July, we flew into Milwaukee, rented a peppy Ford Focus and stayed the night at the historic Knickerbocker on the Lake (Michigan). We set out mid-morning for the five-hour drive.
There are dozens of ways to drive Up North from Milwaukee, ranging from the quicker highway routes to the meandering county roads and small towns. We took a quick route up and a meandering one back.
U.S. 41 leads northwest out of Milwaukee, past the Fox River Valley cities of Fon du Lac and Oshkosh. At Oshkosh, we took a smaller east-west state highway 10 to Stevens Point, and connected with U.S. 51, which runs north to Vilas County.
Spectrum of Green
Any July drive through Wisconsin is a study in green. Wikipedia will tell you there are 68 shades of green, and I believe all were in evidence. The first that strikes you is the absolutely neon green that occurs soon after some seeds meet fertile soil. Vast stretches of it intersperse with the middle green of the shoulder-high fields of corn and darker-yet fields of soybeans and pastureland.
Eventually, as you head north, the farmland yields to the forest green of the dense woods filled with leafy pines, sugar maple, basswood, hemlock and birch.
It was a cloudy day in the best sense. It didn’t rain, but the cloud cover is so low it just hangs above you, its cardboard color refracted with shafts of sunlight. The relatively straight, flat roads allow you to spend more time reflecting on the landscape.
We stopped for a late lunch at the venerable Hilltop Pub and Grill (http://www.hilltoppubandgrill.com) outside Stevens Point, at the junction of highways 10 and 51. I decided to bypass their terrific pan-fried walleye for a bratwurst with raw onions, my third sausage in 20 hours. I knew that plenty of walleye lay ahead. As did more sausage. I washed it down with the excellent Mudpuppy Porter brewed by Central Waters (http://centralwaters.com) in Amherst, not far south. My wife went with a superb chicken dumpling soup, brimming with carrots and celery.
Stevens Point is roughly halfway to our destination, and we headed north on U.S. 51, bypassing Wausau before stopping for supplies at the huge Trig’s grocery store just north of Minocqua, in Vilas County.
Minocqua probably boasts the most vacationers, many from Illinois, Wisconsin’s neighbor to the south. Chicagoans have long favored Wisconsin for vacations, and Wisconsinites have long derided them for “ruining” the state, much as Coloradans mutter about Texans for the same reason. As I said earlier, state rivalries are alive and well in these parts.
For example, I have a childhood friend who practices criminal law in Kenosha, Wisc., about halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. As such, he has come to know a number of state troopers, one of whom let him in on some little-known cop jargon. When a trooper sees a speeding car with Illinois plates going north along I-94, with a boat in tow, he’ll radio: “Fishtab travelling at a high rate of speed north from Mile 67,” or something like that. Fishtab? It’s short for $#@&ing Illinois @#it Head Towing A Boat.
Lynx Lake Lodge
We drove the last half hour to Boulder Junction through deep woods, beginning to spot the many glistening lakes through the trees. About nine miles northwest of Boulder Junction, we came to Zastrow’s Lynx Lake Lodge(http://www.zastrowslynxlakelodge.com), where my sister and niece had arrived a day earlier. It’s a collection of older cottages along the shore, with a central bar/restaurant/general store open Wednesday through Saturday. My sister and I deduced that we had last stayed at Zastrow’s with my parents in about 1991. Both died in 2006, but it was easier to conjure up memories because the place hadn’t been noticeably improved since then.
I clearly recalled watching a fairly raunchy Chris Rock special in the cottage living room one afternoon, and my mom remarking she had never seen me laugh that hard. Zastrow’s resembles more of a fishing or hunting camp than the vacation resorts most of us are used to. Nonetheless, it seemed full, with a number of families vacationing. It had all the basics, for about $800 a week. My sister, in a fit of nostalgia, rented the same cottage our parents had stayed in. Stove, refrigerator, heat, three small bedrooms, a family room with a dining table, sofa, comfortable chair and flat-screen TV (the one improvement I noted).
The bathroom was an homage to linoleum, with at least four patterns evident. The shower was old but functioning, thanks to a network of welded copper pipes overhead, connecting it to the water heater and sink. Our bedroom was big enough for the bed and a small dresser, little else. We had to stow some of our bags in the hallway.
We quickly concluded we’d never stay there again, and indeed, there is lodging of all types in the area, ranging from funky (like ours) to more modern and expensive. If interested, check out a few sites like http://upnorth.info or http://www.upnorthvacationlodging.com.
Zastrow’s features a spit of sandy beach along the northern shore of the 339-acre Lynx Lake. There are beach chairs and a pier, canoes and a paddleboat for the taking, and a pontoon to dive from, about 15 feet off the pier. All very pleasant, if a bit spare.
Yes, there were mosquitoes, but a few periodic sprays of repellant on one’s limbs warded them off pretty well.
As you would expect, Zastrow’s website shouts its praises of its surroundings: “Zastrow's Lynx Lake Lodge and Resort…boasts some of the best walleye, bass and panfish angling in the Midwest. Add in the spectacular scenery and you have the perfect fishing destination.”
I wasn’t there to fish this time around, just to relax. But we saw very few fishermen as we canoed around the lake, and my experience fishing catch-and-release in these waters has been largely disappointing. I’ve fished nearby Fish Trap Lake and High Lake several times with little success. If you’re going to fish, I’d suggest paying for a half-day with a guide early in your stay.
No matter, we weren’t there to fish, and I’m far from an expert anyway.
We were there mostly to kick back and visit, and in part, to eat and drink.
Ruminations on the Supper Club
Since we arrived around suppertime, we unpacked and drove to a classic nearby supper club, the Headwaters (http://headwatersrestaurant-tavern.com/). What exactly is a supper club anyway? It’s a little hard to pin down. Generally, they are indigenous to Wisconsin, and northern Illinois (http://wisconsinsupperclubs.net/lore-legends/). They’re at least 50 years old, sprawling restaurants with no divider between them and the equally sprawling bar. Born in the 1930s and 1940s, a number of them evolved from their previous incarnations as prohibition roadhouses. More on that later.
They specialize in fish and steak, prime rib and Friday-night fish fries. Diners are usually presented with a huge relish tray that always includes a lot of radishes and green onions.
In 2011, David McAnnich, an editor for Saveur magazine, wrote in the New York Times: “I fell in love with these restaurants long before I’d ordered my first cocktail, and for good reason: the food was always tasty — supper clubs were doing custom-cut dry-aged steaks long before the practice became an urban fetish — and the vibe was always pure Wisconsin gemütlichkeit, leavened by a lively mix of locals and vacationing families.”
Author/filmmaker Ron Faiola just came out with a coffee-table version of his 2011 documentary, Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience, which played on PBS stations nationwide. In April this year, he told Chicago’s GrubStreet.com, “A lot of them are out in the middle of nowhere — they're in a place that you would never, ever stumble on them unless they were your destination. Good service, big portions — that's the draw. You have a drink at the bar, you have dinner, you finish off with a drink like a grasshopper — that's your evening.”
We rolled into Headwaters during prime dinner hour, happy to hear there’d be a wait for a table, so we could sit at the bar a bit. The place was packed with happy vacationers and chatty locals
In supper clubs, drinking is usually brandy-based. Wisconsinites, due to its German or European immigrant heritage, drink more brandy than anyplace else in this country. This past April, Margie Healy, spokeswoman for Korbel Brandy in California, told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel the Badger State accounts for more than one-third of its total sales. "Wisconsin has always been number one for us," she said.
My sister and niece ordered the de rigeur Brandy Old Fashioned – several ounces of brandy, a teaspoon of sugar, a dash of bitters and an orange twist garnish. They would order many over the next few days. I ordered a Brandy Manhattan. If you want the usual bourbon Manhattan in Wisconsin, you have to specify; brandy is the default liquor.
Dinner and No Dessert
Once seated for dinner, I ordered my first of many walleye this trip, lightly breaded and pan-fried. That’s how it usually is prepared.
Walleye isn’t widely known outside the Upper Midwest, where it’s regarded as the best-tasting freshwater fish (http://fishing.about.com/u/ua/cookingyourcatch/What-Fish-Tastes-Best-Best-Tasting-Fish.htm). A good filet usually runs about 10 inches long, and its meat is white, delicate and slightly sweet. It’s native to Canada and the Upper Midwest. It has proven difficult to “farm,” so its availability is limited. Much of the restaurant walleye, even in Wisconsin, is shipped from Canada.
Over the next four days, I sampled it at several supper clubs: Bent’s Camp, founded in 1896 and featuring its original birchbark wallpaper; Guides’ Inn in Boulder Junction, where it was topped with an excellent Jamaican jerk sauce; and the Little Bohemia Lodge in nearby Manitowish Waters. For lunch one day at the Boulder Beer Bar in Boulder Junction, I had Walleye Fingers, a terrific basket of fried chunks. I’ve only been disappointed in walleye once or twice, because it came baked. If you see it on a menu, breaded and pan-seared, order it.
My wife was pleased with a great strip steak; my sister and niece equally happy with monster cuts of prime rib. We all saved room for dessert at the bar, another Wisconsin specialty known as the Brandy Alexander – a goodly dose of brandy and one of crème de cacao, blended with vanilla ice cream.
As I returned from the restroom and approached the bar, I could see my sister’s face was a bit crestfallen.
“They don’t make Alexanders,” she said. “The bartender said they serve 300 dinners a night and if people lingered at their tables over them, the restaurant wouldn’t turn over enough tables.”
No matter, I said, there’s a big place up the road.
Turns out Gooch’s didn’t serve them either.
“No blended drinks,” a crabby bartender shouted when we piled into his place and asked.
We returned to Zastrow’s a little perplexed. A day later, at Bent’s Camp for dinner, we slurped out first Brandy Alexanders, letting the cold fermented ice cream settle our meals.
We spent the next four days in repose, indisposed to adventure. Mornings we took our folding camp chairs down to the beach, or out onto the pier, and read our books. The grand symphony of birdcalls kept us coming back. Mother ducks swam by, their ducklings in tow, diving for tadpoles.
We swam and canoed, and mostly had the lake to ourselves, save for a few kayakers and fishermen. And of course, the loons.
The common lake loon, as this species is known, breed and raise their young in Canada, Wisconsin and other northern states. Its haunting songs are as moving as they are startling. Listen here to examples of their four calls - the wail, yodel, tremolo and hoot:
This past February, environmentalist Glenda C. Booth wrote in Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine (http://dnr.wi.gov/wnrmag/2013/02/loon.htm), “The haunting, melancholy call of the common loon has long enchanted those who love to be near the water. The call can be a wobbly, liquid chortle or an eerie yodel, sounding almost unearthly, especially when it ripples through the quiet wilderness or echoes across a tranquil lake.”
The loon looks a little like a duck or goose, but has a black-and-white checkered back, red eyes and a white collar around its neck. Weighing up to 12 pounds, its legs are set far back, making it difficult to walk. They may “run” on the surface of the water for up to a quarter mile before taking flight. But they are excellent divers, reaching depths of 200 feet for as long as three minutes in search of fish.
They are solitary creatures, with just one or two inhabiting a given lake. As we canoed around Lynx Lake, we came upon one several times, cooing eerie songs before diving for long periods of time.
Their songs, when heard at twilight or early morning, always demand full attention and always delight.
One cloudy, rainy day, we took to the car and explored the surrounding towns. On the way out of Boulder Junction, we happened upon a large flea market held each Tuesday during the summer. I bought as “canned loon” for my sister from one vendor - a stuffed doll of a loon inside a can labeled with loon data. The guy told me how he had just seen a loon swimming on his lake, carrying its young on her back.
Most towns are spaced 7-8 miles apart. The curving asphalt roads are lined with about 10 feet of wildflowers and other greenery on each side, bordered by 60-foot high pine forests. The cloud cover seems to rest on the tree tops, and the effect is not unlike driving in a picturesque tunnel. Some vacationers had pulled off to the side of the road to pick berries. Sometimes the road ran alongside lakefronts, large and small, their shores embroidered with lily pads. We drove on, stopping in Sayner, St. Germain, Eagle River and Land O’ Lakes to wander through gift shops, galleries and snack shops.
For lunch, we stooped at the AquaLand Ale House(http://aqualandalehouse.com ), just west of Boulder Junction. Open just a few months, Aqualand’s ambitious young owners feature a nouvelle take on traditional Wisconsin menu items, plus a cast of 20 rotating craft beers on tap. I couldn’t resist the cranberry bratwurst panini, with the cooked sausages sliced lengthwise inside a toasted bun and a cup of local cranberry chutney on the side. My sister chose the scrumptious pulled-pork quesadilla, while wife and niece went light with a not-too-spicy tortilla soup, wisely saving room for supper.
As the days floated by, us city slickers quieted down noticeably, our urban anxieties reduced to a mellow (sometimes alcohol-induced) glow.
In the Shadow of Gangsters
For our last dinner Up North, we traveled to nearby Manitowish Waters, home to the infamous Little Bohemia Lodge (http://littlebohemialodge.com ). In operation since 1929, Little Bohemia is the site of a famous shootout in April 1934 between the FBI and gangsters John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson. Part of the 2011 film, Public Enemies was filmed on the premises(http://www.videodetective.com/movies/public-enemies-the-assault-on-the-little-bohemia-lodge/699697), and a wall outside the bar features photos of employees with actor Johnny Depp, who portrayed Dillinger.
The place was packed, and we sat in the bar until our table was ready. Tommy guns hung from the wall behind the bar, and one wall featured a number of framed front pages headlining the gunfight. In the winter of 1934, Dillinger, his gang and their girlfriends holed up in the lodge. Its owner, Emil Watanka, shared an attorney with Dillinger and had agreed to put up the gang for an enormous sum. Once Watanka was paid, his wife contacted the FBI office in Chicago, headed by famous gangster fighter Melvin Purvis. Purvis and a small army of agents and police from surrounding towns descended on Little Bohemia on a snowy night and blocked the long driveway with their cars. But three innocent diners left the lodge and found their departure blocked. The FBI agents mistook them for gangsters and riddled the car with bullets, killing one and wounding the others. Roused from a card game by the shooting, Dillinger and his gang gathered their guns and money and made their escape along the lake shore, and only Nelson stuck around long enough to exchange gunfire before his escape. The gang commandeered cars from nearby residences and drove to St. Paul, while the FBI, convinced the gangsters were still inside the lodge, surrounded it and riddled it with hundreds of bullets for hours as Watanka and his employees hid in the basement. Many bullet holes remain.
As our table came open and we traversed from the bar to the large dining room, I noticed polo shirts for sale, with the Little Bohemia logo and wording stitched underneath: “Dillinger only left because he had to.”
We dined on walleye, of course, in an outer dining room that looked out onto the lake. The food was quite good, the service infrequent. At an adjacent table, dessert was being served. What looked like giant ice cream sundaes topped with whipped cream turned out to be brandy Alexanders. But they were so huge, we weren’t tempted after the filling meal.
We drove back to our cottage, found Zastrow’s bar open and decided on a final nightcap. To my sister’s delight, the barkeep was serving Alexanders. Fully seven scoops of ice cream went into each, with the overflow resting in an aluminum milkshake tumbler aside the glass. Price: 4.50. When other patrons saw my sister’s, they ordered likewise.
We meandered our way back to Milwaukee, adding perhaps 90 minutes to the return trip. We took county highways though Rhinelander, New London and Oshkosh.
Our reasoning: we wanted to stop in tiny Wittenberg, where we made a pilgrimage to the corporate headquarters and company store for Nueske’s (www.nueskes.com), home of “America’s Original Applewood Smoked Meats.” For foodies in the know, it’s a landmark. We came away from the store with a jar of German basil mustard, a pound of aged jalapeno cheddar and some dried landjaeger sausage. They had a cook wagon out on the lawn, so we lunched on bratwurst and meaty beans, fortified for the home stretch.
We flew back to Denver the following day - sated serene and sure to return. Once you’ve been, the Wisconsin woods and lake country are sure to beckon and you’re fairly certain to answer the call.
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