Jan 17, 2019
45 Degrees and Above
Rather ethereal concept of ‘Up North’ is where the magic begins
By Lawrence Balleine
45 degrees. Not 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Rather, 45 degrees latitude – that invisible line that spans the globe marking the halfway point between the equator and the North Pole.
Drive north in Wisconsin on U.S. Highway 51 and proceed to the top of the hill on the far northwest side of Wausau. When you reach this location the landscape changes – trees begin to dominate the scene and lakes are more common.
But there’s also a good chance something will change inside of you – you will feel more relaxed. Maybe that is because, as one of my high school friends says, “Highway 29 (which bisects Wausau) is considered the ‘tension line’ for folks living in Madison or anywhere in southern Wisconsin. When you are north of the tension line, you can relax.”
Interestingly, the 45thParallel passes just to the north along this stretch of highway. Many would say as you cross this line you enter into a magical place called Up North.
Nuance of Up North
The term “Up North” carries special meaning and brings to mind precious memories for many Wisconsinites. When I consider Up North, I recall whenever my parents announced to my brother and me, “Boys, we’re going Up North next weekend,” an air of excitement ensued. For us, going Up North often meant a road trip of nearly four hours from our home near Kewaunee – a community located on the Lake Michigan shoreline – to my aunt’s cottage in Vilas County.
On those trips Up North back in the 1950s and early 60s, it was the place where nearly all the taverns and restaurants had knotty pine walls. These surfaces were, in turn, covered with mounts of huge white tails bucks, foxes, beavers and other wild game. Monster-sized muskie, northern and walleye occupied the remaining wall space. Even the stuffed panfish – the crappie, bluegill and perch – appeared larger than normal.
When we finally arrived at our destination – Aunt Marie’s cottage – it was a captivating place. An Adirondack-style cabin built in the 1920s, it had two bedrooms – one at the top of the open staircase and the other off a landing part of the way up the stairs. The great room featured a huge stone fireplace that extended from the floor to the ceiling.
An enclosed porch overlooked Big Crawling Stone Lake. All the inner wall surfaces were knotty pine boards. The cottage décor complimented the cottage’s interior design. A black bear rug lay in front of the massive fireplace. A mount of a sailfish Aunt Marie had caught during a stay in Florida hung on the wall adjacent to the dining room table. Fishing poles and trout creels occupied the corners of the main room. As a boy, all this was very exciting.
Swimming, fishing and rowing in the lake provided daytime entertainment. After dark we would often go to a nearby landfill and watch bears rummage through the garbage. There were also the drives into town to peer into the large metal coolers displaying huge fish: muskie, walleye, northern and bass caught in nearby lakes.
Up North was a place where the stars seemed brighter, the moon closer, the air clearer, and the water cleaner than what was found elsewhere.
Feeling that never leaves
Although all these are memories of nearly 60 years ago, the excitement occurring with any opportunity to go Up North has never left me. Maybe that’s because – although Aunt Marie’s cottage was sold and “left the family” decades ago – Up North still offers resorts and cottages eager to accommodate visitors, and the lakes for fishing, swimming, boating and paddling continue to beckon the outdoor enthusiast. Trails for hiking, biking, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and ATVing are plentiful, and yes, many of the taverns and restaurants still have the knotty pine walls covered with fish and wildlife mounts.
Oddly, if one consults any of a number of state maps, one would discover there is no official demarcation of Up North. Neither has the state or county highway departments placed any signs along the roads leading to the region that announce “You are now entering Up North.”
Knowing that Up North is a special place for many and noting the designation "Up North" does not appear on road maps, I sought the input of my Facebook friends by asking them, “Where, in your opinion, does Up North begin?”
Some of these Facebook friends reside in states other than Wisconsin. I quickly learned that Up North is a relative term with different meanings for different people. Respondents who are natives of Tennessee, including my spouse, feel that “Up North is anywhere this side (north) of the Mason-Dixon Line.”
A sister-in-law from Georgia claims Up North to be any place north of the Ohio River. Meanwhile, Pennsylvanians, Minnesotans and Michiganders all referred to their states’ northernmost counties as their Up North.
With some reminding me that it’s not “Up North,” but rather “Up Nort,” the Badger State friends who responded to the question offered a variety of answers from Highway 29 on the south to Highway 70 on the north. Others mentioned cities or towns to indicate the starting point of Up North, including Green Bay, Stevens Point, Minocqua, Eagle River and Boulder Junction.
Averaging the locations given as responses to this question, I made a remarkable discovery. With over 20 responses to the question, the average starting point of Up North for these Wisconsinites occurs at 45 degrees latitude.
What makes ‘Up North’
I then asked these same Facebook friends a follow-up question: What are the first words that come to your mind when you hear the term “UP North?”
Many mentioned activities including fishing, skiing, hunting, hiking, boating, camping, biking, snowmobiling, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, paddle boarding, four-wheeling, golfing, eating at supper clubs, frequenting gift shops, experiencing the northern lights, relaxing and simply getting away.
Others pointed to the natural resources that are part of the area. These resources include water in the form of lakes, rivers and streams, rapids and waterfalls. These, along with the trails, trees and an abundance of wildlife, make many of the above activities possible.
Certainly there are other locations in the Badger State and elsewhere that offer some of what Up North avails, but it is above 45 degrees parallel where these wonderful gifts are uniquely concentrated and substantial.
Additionally, approximately three-eighths of Wisconsin’s land mass lies to the north of the 45thparallel, yet only 10 percent of the state’s population of 5.7 million reside north of it. The sparsely populated environment is an attraction for many. In earlier years, could this have been what drew notorious gangsters like John Dillinger and Al Capone to retreat to Up North hideaways?
The trees Up North deserve special mention. Over a century ago the entire Up North was covered with what was then considered “an inexhaustible supply” of magnificent white pines. Although nearly all were harvested and went into the building of many of the Midwest’s major metropolitan areas, second and third growth timber has taken its place.
Thus, as one arrives Up North, the amount of forest land increases substantially while the percent of land devoted to corn, beans, alfalfa and other agricultural crops decreases. Many find this a pleasant change. They love the lush green leaves of the various deciduous trees, the frequent scent of the pines, and they appreciate the wonderful visual contrast between the white birch and its neighboring hardwoods and pines. In early autumn when the leaves change, the forests become ablaze in yellows, reds and oranges seen in every direction.
Find your soul
Many folks who visit Up North find something happen to them. They realize they are more relaxed, more at peace and more content. Worries seem smaller and their outlook on life is brighter. Is this because they have gone past the tension line?
And being an area where most folks seem less hurried, Up North becomes a place of peace and serenity for many. Thus, the magic of Up North is experienced not only through what one does, but in what one feels.
With nature surrounding you, one connects with the environment in a whole new way. You begin to see yourself as a part of nature rather than “apart from nature.” Maybe that’s what my friend, Ruth, means when she says that Up North is “a place where you connect with nature and listen to your God.”
Yet Up North is always more than what is so pleasing to our senses. That is, it is more than the refreshing feeling one receives from a dip in the cool water of a natural lake. More than the majestic sight of a soaring bald eagle. More than the eerie cry of a loon. More than the fresh, invigorating smell of pines. And more than the taste of fresh-caught lake perch. These sensory experiences – each of them awesome and wonderful – are portals that allow the experience of being Up North to touch us at the deepest levels.
Thus, the words appliquéd on a T-shirt I recently purchased in Boulder Junction convey a great truth – “Wisconsin Northwoods: Lose your mind and find your soul.” Indeed, whatever the season, 45 degrees and above is a place where life is good and the magic begins.
Lawrence Balleine is a United Church of Christ pastor who has enjoyed fishing since age 6. He is the author of Road to Renewal: A Lenten Journey Down U.S. 41 and A Place That’s Always Home:Reflective Thoughts on Selected Images of Mission House / Lakeland College. He has had numerous articles published in literary, outdoor, travel and religious journals. He remains a part of the 90 percent of the anglers who catch 10 percent of the fish.