Up North!

Every summer, my family vacationed in Minocqua, Wisconsin. A five-hour drive from our home in Milwaukee, we didn’t even have to leave the state! Throughout the ’80s into the early ’90s, my parents and I would pack up our aging navy blue Mercury Monarch on a designated Saturday morning either right before or not long after the Fourth of July and head straight for Route 41 North. Following a carefully planned trajectory of state and county highways, we’d bypass smaller metropolises like Fond Du Lac, Oshkosh and Wausau until leafy trees gave way to endless rows of towering pines. The expressway would abruptly end, turning into a two-lane blacktop and by mid-afternoon, we were finally “Up North!” (as I first learned to call it at age seven.)

For years, we also didn’t have to pay for lodging. Actually, we initially made the trip only because of an invitation from longtime friends of my parents. Another couple with two sons near my age, they had relatives who owned a small cabin that they’d let family and friends use throughout the year. A modern, compact, one-story, two-bedroom rectangle of a house, it had a deck that overlooked some woods leading down to a small lake. To reach the cabin, one had to turn onto a little road off the highway whose intersection was flanked by a small, decades-old shop with a green sign plainly labeled BAIT. It was our tradition to stop there and pick up a week’s worth of worms wriggling around in a Styrofoam container of soil and other various fishing supplies before taking the narrow, winding road two miles up through the woods up to our long-awaited destination.

The seven of us would spend a week huddled in this cozy space, the three boys taking one bedroom and the two sets of parents alternating between the other bedroom and a camper van parked outside. From Saturday to Saturday, we fished, suntanned, swam, hiked and passed the time playing endless rounds of Uno and other card and board games. We also made runs into town to play rounds of miniature golf, pick up supplies at the Save More Supermarket and walk along Minocqua’s charming main street, which was strewn with taverns and tchotchke shoppes, but also places that sold books, toys, ice cream and fudge.

By the time us three boys reached our teens, the little cabin began feeling a tad cramped. My parents decided time had come for the three of us to rent our own place for the week. My fifteen-year-old self pictured we’d find another, near-identical version of the place we had stayed at all these years, or better yet, a rustic but charming, spacious house like the one in the movie The Great Outdoors. I imagined all the amenities and luxuries of a Best Western or a Holiday Inn, transported to a beautiful spot on a quiet, picturesque, crystal-clear lake.

We ended up renting a cottage at the Lazy L Campground and Resort. Upon hearing its name for the first time, I wasn’t too keen on the campground part—I had slept outdoors in a tent many times as a Boy Scout and knew very well neither my mom nor dad would be up for doing so for an entire week—but the word resort held some promise. Presumably, in addition to an eat-in-kitchen and two bedrooms, we’d have a patio and our own yard, plus proximity to and views of Squirrel Lake (which was more than five times the size of the lake we usually stayed at.)

The road to Lazy L from the highway was much longer and narrower than the one by the BAIT shop. It seemed to go on indefinitely, each curve burrowing deeper into an endless woods and further away from civilization. After what felt like fifteen, possibly thirty minutes, we finally saw an old wooden sign with two giant L’s painted on it, not far off from the ones Laverne DeFazio embroidered on all her outfits.

We turned onto a dirt driveway, passing through yet more woods until reaching a partial clearing. A small, clapboard building served as an office, and there were four other cottages plus a larger house situated further back in the woods. To the left were signs pointing towards the campground. Ahead of us, partially hidden through some tall trees sat Squirrel Lake, so immense one had to squint to make out the other side.

Marcel, the establishment’s owner, exited the office and greeted us with a warm “Howdy!” Balding, flannel clad and pushing sixty, he ambled over to us and shook my father’s hand. He then led us over to what would be our home for the next seven nights. Our two-bedroom cabin, called the Edgewater, wasn’t much smaller than what we were used to, but it was far more rustic, probably built when my parents were little kids, possibly earlier than that. Although it was clean and didn’t smell like mildew, my spirit sank as I gazed upon the kitchen/living room. Most of the furniture, while in reasonably good shape, was a few decades old, from a tan couch with an exposed wooden frame to a white electric stove so narrow one couldn’t even fit a Thanksgiving turkey in it. I wasn’t yet at an age where I could appreciate now-trendy vintage items such as the pristine, 1950s red-and-white Formica kitchen table; at 15, I just found it dated and depressing.

Sensing my disappointment, my mom said to me, “You know, Chris, it’s not like we’re staying at a fancy, modern hotel; this place is perfectly fine. And it’s just for one week!” I let out an exaggerated sigh like any good snotty teen and slouched off to my new bedroom. I sprawled across the full-sized bed where I noticeably sensed a layer of squishy plastic under the pale green linen sheets. I turned up my Sony Walkman, seeking out whatever local top 40 station I could find.

Over the course of that week, I grew to tolerate our cottage at the Lazy L to the point where I actually kind of enjoyed it. We had planned our trip for the same week as our friends/former roomies, and we spent most evenings at each other’s places, partaking in all the fun stuff we did in years past. By week’s end, my dad told Marcel we’d probably return next summer. While part of me secretly hoped we’d look for a new place to stay, I decided I’d be open to more time on Squirrel Lake.

Sure enough, exactly fifty-one Saturdays later, we were back at the Lazy L, checking into the Edgewater for another week. This time, my father wanted to rent a motorboat—why, we’d be able to do our own fishing and exploring without always having to go across town to our friends (once again at their usual place.)

Marcel was happy to oblige. “Now Bob, I have this boat here that I’m gonna let you rent,” he said. “The motor is a little too powerful and complicated for the older couple staying at the cottage next to yours, but I bet you can handle it.”

I’m not sure what inspired Marcel’s confidence in my father apart from his relative youth. I’d seen him work a boat motor before; it didn’t appear too difficult a thing to do—just pull the rip cord and steer in the direction you wanted to go. How hard could that be?

Now that we had our own vessel for the week, my parents took it out fishing nearly every morning, while I joined them in the afternoons and evenings for rides around the lake. In general, it was another pleasant, tranquil Minocqua vacation—a brief but necessary respite from urban life and the daily grind. I’d begun my own first part-time job that summer, scooping ice cream at a Baskin-Robbins, so this rest and relaxation seemed sweeter than it had back when I was an unemployed youth. The Lazy L definitely lived up to its name.

The last night of the week, our friends came over for a Friday Fish Fry, a tradition most sacred in predominantly Catholic regions, but particularly in Wisconsin. We delved into our coolers full of fresh fish from the week that we had caught and filleted, breading and frying up somewhere between a dozen or two on that little but resilient white stove, saving the rest to bring back home. Once there, they’d take up room in the freezer indefinitely, allowing us to replicate the experience the best we could on a few cherished occasions during the rest of the year.

After dinner, our friends headed back to their place—no more fishing that evening for any of us, as we were all driving back to Milwaukee early the next morning. As their white SUV pulled away from the Lazy L, we still had about two hours of sunlight left.

“Hey, let’s take one last ride around the lake,” my dad buoyantly suggests.

This idea of “one last ride around the lake” is romantic and idyllic: What better way to cap off the best time of the year in the upper Midwest—a week blessed by ample sun, piercing blue skies and perfectly comfortable temperatures?

My parents and I approach our pier which is splattered with dried-up shit from all of the ducks that had taken up residency there at intervals throughout the week. Incidentally, we’d grow fond of this waterfowl, repeatedly spotting them via our kitchen window—going so far as to name one “Crazy Louie” for his tendency to stubbornly isolate himself from the rest of the flock. I see a pale orange sun reflecting on the crystalline lake ahead of us. The gleaming white metal of our small, rented motorboat also catches my eye. We wave hello to the elderly couple fishing off the next pier—they’re the ones Marcel perceived as too weak to handle our boat’s supposedly robust motor.

We enter the small craft one by one. First, my mom, who sits in the middle. I warn her, somewhat snarkily, not to fall off her seat as she had done on our last ride. Then, it’s my turn to get in. I sit in front (or the bow) as my dad takes the stern in back to work the motor.

Once everyone’s settled, sitting on overstuffed blue life-preserver cushions, I untie the rope connecting us to the pier. We row away for a bit, the stern pointing away from the shore. As my dad tries starting the motor, nothing happens. After a few more attempts, still nothing. My upbeat mood takes a turn: Is the motor broken? Are we out of gas?

Fortunately, after another attempt, a loud, raucous WHIR-R-R-L-LLL appears and we’re moving. Hooray! I’m ready to enjoy the scenery and maybe even see a few perch or some turtles pop their heads up above the deep, voluminous fresh water surrounding us.

The objects one views in a boat backing away from the shore are supposed to get smaller, not larger. It takes a few seconds for this to sink in. When I become fully aware of our situation, I shout out, “Dad, we’re going the wrong way!”

Over the motor’s immense roar, I can barely make out him saying, “I can’t find the gear, I can’t get it into gear!”

My mom sits still as if in a state of suspended animation, quiet but perplexed, unable to do much of anything. She cautiously questions, “Bob…?”

Speed. We are picking up on it as we head perilously closer to shore. I don’t look back at my dad or question why he can’t change direction. I just look ahead at the other boats we could potentially hit.

The words, “I can’t get it into gear!” echo in my head. We’re getting perilously closer to the neighboring pier. All at once, I feel as if I’m in a fever dream, or watching myself on TV—this can’t really be happening! How could we be going the wrong way?

I shout, “WHAT are you DOING?”

The next few seconds are a blur. I close my eyes. Someone (maybe it was me?) barks out, “We’re headed right straight for the…”

THOINK!

A loud crashing sound both heard and felt. I might’ve let out a “WHOAH!” right before we made impact, but I’ve blocked most of those few seconds out. I recall opening my eyes, noticing that our boat had stopped and was somehow halfway up the neighbor’s pier and halfway in the lake. Although I’m on the tippy-top, I’ve somehow managed to hold on to my seat. My mother has fallen off hers (despite my warning!); my dad’s at the bottom, his shoes drenched in water that has infiltrated the stern.

The elderly couple stands before us, speechless, staring open-mouthed. Once my shock subsides, I start to laugh, queasily. My mom later recalls that as we were on a collision course with the pier, she kept thinking of an old Woody Woodpecker cartoon that had a boat literally tearing through a wooden pier as if it were a buzz saw.

Miraculously, the vehicle’s still in one piece. I hop onto the pier and pull my mom, then my dad out of the boat. We slide it back into the water—apart from a few noticeable scratches around and under the bow, the boat’s perfectly fine. Marcel, thank god, is nowhere to be seen.

After all this, most people would just walk away and call it a night, but not my father. He was determined to get that last ride in, dammit. We all got back into the boat, he started up the motor and this time, we made it out onto the lake successfully. Still, my mom and I held on extra tight to our seat cushions, barely speaking a word to each other. As much as we wanted to enjoy this “one last ride around the lake”, the recent memory of having unceremoniously gone up a pier couldn’t help but dampen our moods.

We left for home early the next morning, never to return to the Lazy L, embarrassed to face Marcel again after scratching up his boat. I’d return to Minocqua the next summer on my own, staying with our friends for a few days, but my parents and I never set foot there together again. I began feeling too old, too much of an adult to spend a weeklong vacation with them. I’ve thought about going back to Minocqua again as an adult out of nostalgia for a place I once knew, but fear I’d only set myself up for disappointment. I prefer to simply remember and cherish all the fun I had there in my youth—my parents and I literally going up a pier in a motorboat remains a one-of-a-kind experience I could never, ever hope to replicate or surpass.

My Father, The Navigator.

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