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Nostalgia leads to the woods

The forests and lakes far north of Madison suggest wilderness tempered by comfort. A visit to childhood haunts reveals new delights.

July 04, 2004|James Dannenberg | Special to The Times

Manitowish Waters, Wis. — U.S. 51 seemed as slender as the thread of my memories.

I've lived in Hawaii the last quarter-century and before that in San Francisco, but in my gut I'm still a Wisconsin boy. Although I was reared in Milwaukee, part of that growing up took place "up north" in Wisconsin's Northwoods, an ambiguous area that, to Wisconsinites, can mean any place in the state north of Wausau.

Each summer of my youth, I would board a train to the YMCA's Camp Manito-wish, in Vilas County, at the top of the state. Later, I worked nearby as a camp counselor.

Vilas County is true Northwoods country, with the ground scoured nearly flat by ancient ice walls, broken by moraines and pocked with chains of glacial lakes, thousands big and small -- a perfect place for a suburban boy to discover the outdoors. I remember vividly the overnight canoe trips, sometimes a week long, the sailing, the fishing, the eagles, the campfires, the splendid sense of isolation in that vast forested domain.

Also the mosquitoes, leeches, snapping turtles and tales of bears.

Not as well known and far larger than eastern Wisconsin's Door County, the Northwoods offers an uncrowded, less commercial alternative for travelers seeking wilderness tempered by creature comforts. This stunning landscape -- especially Vilas, Oneida, Price, Iron, Ashland and Bayfield counties -- stretches west from the Nicolet National Forest to Bayfield and Lake Superior's Apostle Islands. It's long been a summertime refuge for Chicagoans and southern Wisconsinites.

I returned here briefly about 10 years ago, but last September I set out with a friend, John Franz, on a longer visit to reclaim my memories of the Northwoods.

The passenger train has since ceased to run, so from Madison we took U.S. 51, which bisects the state on its 250-mile northward plunge, roughly following the Wisconsin River to the border.

Most of my memories are of Vilas County, and we limited our expedition to that welcoming venue. Not that it was a burdensome limitation. Vilas is a vast and gently wild territory, with more than half a million acres of public forest, 73 rivers and streams, and more than 1,300 lakes.

Crossing the Wausau plateau, a couple of hours north of Madison, we could see dramatic changes in the topography. The rolling farmland of central Wisconsin gave way to the closest thing the state has to mountains, a cluster of huge monadnocks and xenoliths, including Rib Mountain, 1,924 feet at its highest. Rising only 670 feet above the plateau, Rib Mountain is nonetheless imposing, stretching toward the horizon as a 4-mile forested ridgeline.

From there it's barely an hour north to Minocqua, the gateway to the Northwoods.

Genuine French pastry

Some things change. Some don't.

Minocqua was much as I had remembered it. The town of 4,000 has more than its share of souvenir shops, motels, miniature golf courses and other attractions set on sparkling Lake Minocqua, home to summer water ski extravaganzas.

John and I hadn't planned to tarry there, but as we rounded a curve in the town center, my finely tuned Francophile antennae picked up an anomalous signal: Out of the corner of my eye I spotted an Eiffel Tower image on a storefront window, along with the unexpected words: "La Baguette." Of course we had to stop, fully expecting disappointment in territory not known for epicurean excellence.

Instead, we walked into the domain of Olivier and Carine Vigy, as genuine a French patisserie-boulangerie as I've seen outside Gaul. The aromas alone were enough to inform us that this was no ordinary bakery. The mounds of perfect baguettes and oval batards were telling clues too. But it was the display case, shipped from France and full of tarts, tortes, gateaux and -- my heart nearly stopped -- mille-feuilles that made me think I had been transported to the Ile-de-France. Who would have thought my peripatetic search for the perfect mille-feuille would take me to Minocqua?

Olivier, a master baker, and his wife, Carine, moved to the town from France a couple of years ago, mainly because they enjoyed the area's tranquillity. They were embraced by locals and tourists alike. And why not? Their ovens, also imported from France, turn out some of the finest baked goods I've ever sampled.

And, yes, that mille-feuille, with a hint of orange flavor in the custard, was right up there on my all-world ranking. We ate more than we should have and promised to stop again on our way back.

The unexpected gave way to the familiar a few miles north as we crossed into Vilas County. I spotted a sign announcing the turnoff to Camp Manito-wish and felt compelled to follow it.

The county highway, a narrow, paved avenue parting the forest, brought back a flood of memories. One feels very alone on these back roads, with only glimpses of a lake or wetlands to break the tunnel of second-growth pines, tamaracks, birches and the occasional maple. (The virgin timber was cut long ago to build Chicago and Milwaukee.)

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