Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
Up North, not on a map but a prolific Wisconsin place

Up North, not on a map but a prolific Wisconsin place

  • 0

Hayward, Rhinelander and Eagle River make the cut.

Mercer, Boulder Junction, Rice Lake, Cable and Three Lakes are no-brainers, too.

In fact, most would say that when it comes to defining “Up North,” any community above Highway 8 in Wisconsin qualifies.

Below that two-lane demarcation line but above Highway 29, however, remain some classic destinations. They include Pelican Lake, the Holcomb Flowage, Perkinstown, a good chunk of Marinette County and a large swath of the Nicolet-Chequamegon National Forest that includes Wabeno, Carter, Townsend and Mountain.

And below Highway 29?

Well, let’s just say that many vacationers have traveled Up North to camp in the Black River State Forest in Jackson County, fished and swam the Waupaca Chain O’Lakes, hiked the Southern and Northern Units of the Kettle Moraine State Forest and have spent a weekend at a bed and breakfast on Green Lake.

For our tourism friends and NFL rivals from Illinois, Lake Geneva, Door County and Wisconsin Dells are popular Up North destinations, too.

“If you’re from Chicago you think everything in Wisconsin is Up North. We’re like a different world to them,” said Lisa Marshall, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Tourism. “We’re not going to take an official stance. It’s all in your perspective.”

And that’s the key.

For as much as the “Up North” term is bantered about, plastered on T-shirts, used in the name of bars, restaurants and websites and seen on bumper stickers, “Up North” is nowhere to be found on a state map.

“Up North,” you see, is wherever you want it to be but, generally speaking, involves woods and water of some type. Accommodations can range from shacks and tents with no heat to trailers, modest cabins, full-blown homes and, for an elite few, expansive lodges.

Jessie Bubb has owned the Dundee Roadhouse for the past 11 years. The business, housed in a building constructed in 1856 that was a brewery and later a hotel, is located in the heart of the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest in Fond du Lac County.

Long Lake is just to the north and the Ice Age National Scenic Trail is a few miles east. Many of her customers are from the Milwaukee and Chicago areas and have cottages nearby.

“We’re before Green Bay and Fond du Lac but it’s more north than West Bend and Milwaukee,” Bubb said.

Jeff Anderson, 33, grew up in McFarland and spent part of his childhood summers Up North in Shawano. He now works in marketing for the Waupaca Area Chamber of Commerce, a region southeast of Stevens Point with 22-spring-fed lakes and the Crystal River.

“We don’t use the words “Up North” but we certainly promote our woods and water,” Anderson said. “Up North is more of a state of mind than a destination. Ever since I could remember it was just a regular term growing up.”

Wisconsin isn’t alone with its use of “Up North”.

A popular Minnesota T-shirt defines “Up North” as the upper one-third of the state while last summer, an opinion piece that ran in the Detroit Free Press, defined Up North in Michigan as anything north of a line stretching from Pentwater on Lake Michigan to Pinconning on Saginaw Bay. South of the line, the land is “flat and farmy,” Peter Gavrilovich wrote. “North of the line, fewer cars.”

In New York, say you’re headed Up North and people will think you’re going to one of the state’s prisons Up State.

Eric Raimy, a professor in the Department of English and chair of the Department of Linguistics at UW-Madison, is also part of the Wisconsin English Project, founded in 2006. The program focuses on documenting and studying grammatical, social and cultural language variation in Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest.

While it’s unclear when “Up North” was first used, it has grown into a common part of the state’s lexicon but with variations on an exact meaning.

“North itself is a geographical term,” Raimy said. “But the fact that the term is “Up North,” that changes it from a purely geographical term to more of a social-cultural term. It can bond us.”

Between World War I and World War II the automobile replaced train travel as the primary mode of transportation. That led to more middle- and working-class tourists discovering northern Wisconsin, according to Aaron Shapiro, author of “Up North on Vacation: Tourism and Resorts in Wisconsin’s Northwoods,” published in 2006 in the Wisconsin Magazine of History. Shapiro didn’t define Up North but offered a detailed historical view of the development of the state’s North Woods tourism industry.

“While better roads and automobiles offered greater freedom of travel, factors such as the change of land use, new vacation policies, and increased promotion of the area also helped create tourism opportunities in the North Woods,” Shapiro wrote.

Those early days of promoting the North Woods showed log cabins, camp fires and stringers of fish. President Calvin Coolidge drew national attention to the state in 1928 when he fished the Bois Brule River in Douglas County while the world record muskie caught by Louis Spray in 1949 out of the Chippewa Flowage brought further notoriety, and a bit of controversy to the North Woods as many questioned the actual size of the monstrous fish.

The feel of the North Woods is used to not only draw tourists but sell beer (think Leinenkugel’s), furniture (Roughing It In Style), indoor water parks (Wilderness Resort and Great Wolf Lodge) and attract fans to baseball games (Northwoods League).

Wausau, Eau Claire and Green Bay are considered gateway cities to the North Woods but Portage, 172 miles south of Minocqua, has for decades been “Where the North Begins,” according to a sign on the city’s edge.

“Getting away is the key,” said Brad Conrad , 43, marketing coordinator for the Portage Area Chamber of Commerce. “I think of warm summer days and relaxation. Relaxing with a cold beer is even better.”

Need to get away?

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Badger Sports

Breaking News