When one writer was invited on a winter adventure to the Northwoods of Wisconsin, she prepared for cold weather. She didn’t anticipate the polar vortex, which brought temperatures of minus 37 degrees – and below. But while much of the United States shivered in crazy low temperatures, people in northern Wisconsin bundled up and carried on with their daily routine.
If you followed the adventures of the explorers who recently crossed the South Pole unassisted and thought, “That looks fun,” a trip to the Northwoods of Wisconsin should be on your radar. This remote area of northern Wisconsin, three hours from the Minneapolis, Minnesota airport, embraces winter – and summer – adventures.
Outdoor Enthusiasts in Wisconsin
In Wisconsin, outdoor activities are divided into “quiet sports” and “loud sports.” In winter, think snowshoeing versus snowmobiling. And in summer, with all the lakes, kayaking versus jet skis. With frozen lakes in winter, northern Wisconsin is a haven for ice fishing. I skipped this because I wanted to at least keep moving when I ventured outside.
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The sounds of silence: cross-country skiing
An elaborate train system gives cross-country skiing cross-country skiing a prominent position. If you’ve ever been to a large ski resort that emphasizes downhill skiing and relegates cross-country skiing to a tiny area, you will rejoice in the trails system here. The Northwoods area, which includes the towns of Cable and Hayward, is home to the American Birkebeiner, the largest Nordic ski races in North America. The three day affair includes a 50 km race, a 55 km race and the “Barky – beiner,” where dogs and their owners compete.
The cross-country skiing is a far cry from gliding over a golf course. Skiers can choose groomed trails through acres of forest and access huts with heat, bathrooms and water fountains. These huts are used by competitors in the annual Birkebeiner race, which ends in downtown Hayward. The whole town shows up to watch skiers come down Main Street.
We didn’t get to taste it, but there is an official Birkie Brewski, the beer of the American Birkebeiner. I did try the Wisconsin-only Spotted Cow beer. New Glarus, a Wisconsin brewery near Madison, sells its beers only in state.
Polar vortex changes plans
Since we couldn’t spend hours skiing through the coniferous forests, we spent more time exploring the small towns around northern Wisconsin. Hayward has a small museum devoted to the American Birkebeiner race. The Tony Wise Museum of the American Birkebeiner opened in 2016. You can learn about the Norwegian origins of the race and dress in native costumes. You can also see photos of a participant who has competed in every Birkebeiner race since it started in 1973. The museum is free.
Although the candy and fudge shops close up during winter, Hayward has two coffee shops that make delicious almond milk lattes and freshly baked muffins and scones. Stores specializing in winter gear allow you to restock your supply of wool socks, hand warmers and hats.
Biking while fat
Fat tire biking is another quiet sport. Unless, like me, you are whooping with delight while you speed along the groomed trails. (Note: some of the screams may have been from the extreme cold.)
We borrowed dog sledding mittens and boots, which we wore over ski mittens and snow boots, for this relatively new winter sport. It’s like mountain biking, but you don’t hit rocks or roots. And if you fall, you fall on snow, so it’s a soft landing.
TravelingMom tip: those downhill skiing googles find new use on fat tire bike trails . Keep your peepers warm and safe from the sun.
Want more quiet ways to enjoy the woods in winter? We also walked into the woods with a Department of Natural Resources naturalist to see some of the elk that have been reintroduced into the coniferous forests of northern Wisconsin. The DNR brought elk from Michigan to the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in 1995. The herd has been growing and, to diversify, elk from Kentucky just joined.
We took a brief snowshoe walk since it was so cold. I tried a pair of vintage wooden snowshoes. One thing that makes winter adventures so wonderful in the Northwoods is the dedicated Nordic skiing, fat tire biking and snowshoe trails. You don’t have to worry about crashes between participants of different sports. And on snowshoe trails, you can bring your dog.
Winter out loud
Snowmobile trails are plentiful around Wisconsin’s Northwoods. They also act as winter transportation across the natural lakes. I chickened out on trying this in the extreme cold. Your thumbs don’t get to stay in the heated handles, since they control the throttle and brakes. I can save this thrill for a more reasonable zero degrees.
Ice fishing is a combination of quiet and loud. You drive out onto the thick ice, which can be loud, and you drill holes, which can be even louder. The fishing itself is quiet. But again, I opted out of this since being stationary seemed like a bad idea.
In summer, some lakes are “quiet lakes,” where you can kayak, canoe and fish. The “loud lakes” allow motorboats, water skiing and jet skis.
Get your art on
Whether you need a break from the frigid temperatures, or you encounter a rainy day in summer, you can spend an afternoon or evening creating glass art with Glassy Ladies Art Studio. This is a great place to make a colorful souvenir of your trip. And you can shop for the more polished art created by one of the owners. Bowls, jewelry and Christmas ornaments are all for sale.
Where to eat
Wisconsin is known for its cheese and cheese curds. The fresh cheese curds don’t have much flavor, but fried gets you a mouthful of hot, gooey cheese. Who can say no? We had fried cheese curds, pizza and salads at the Sawmill Saloon. Taxidermy adorns the walls here, so redirect the attention of squeamish kids. Or vegans.
Vegans should also steer clear of Old Southern smokehouse, which has all manner of barbecue. It also has a few salads, a rich macaroni and cheese and muffin top corn bread. Old Southern makes its own barbecue sauce, with varying degrees of heat and sweetness.
The carbs and cheese help you stay warm in the polar vortex. Well, no. Nothing really helps you stay warm.
But you can definitely have fun trying.
Note: I was a guest of Visit Wisconsin, which covered my travel expenses. Opinions and slightly frozen digits were all my own.