I often watch with amusement the antics of vacationers that come to the Northwoods of Wisconsin. I live in a neighborhood with several old-time resorts, and lots of seasonal cottages, and so I’m privileged to see these people having fun. As I observe them boating, swimming, fishing or relaxing around a campfire, I often recollect the times my family would travel to our cottage in the Northwoods when I was a kid. For me it was a wondrous place.
When I was about seven years old, my parents purchased a rundown shack in the middle of a woods near Mellen. It was on 40 acres that bordered Loon Lake, very near Copper Falls State Park. Before purchasing it, my dad and his buddy went to look at it and I can distinctly recall him coming home and telling Mom “It ain’t much.” Nonetheless they plunked down their hard earned money and bought it.
You could definitely categorize this one-room abode as a shack and its original purpose was as a hunting cabin. It had old vertical log siding, no running water, an outhouse and rickety steps that led to a screened porch, where us kids slept on army cots. I can still remember pulling into this place for the first time. The driveway was a grass-covered logging road and as we bumped along my excitement knew no bounds. We piled out of the car, only to be greeted by hordes of mosquitoes and the steady slam of the porch screen door as we unpacked.
One of the first chores we had to do after unloading was go get water. We used an old milk can as our container and a metal ladle hung on its rim for dipping. This water was obtained from a hand pump at Copper Falls State Park and I always volunteered to help Dad with this duty. I would pump away until the water flowed out clear and pure and no liquid has ever tasted better.
Mom’s duties included fogging down the screened porch for bugs. To this day the smell of mosquito spray takes me back to that porch. Its floor was covered with old linoleum and it spanned the entire front of the cabin. It also was a favorite hang out for bats. Most nights we would wake up to one of these creatures flying around, and our screaming would begin. I’ll never forget the time my Mom came out in her nightgown with a broom, swinging with all her might at that ricocheting creature. She finally did manage to get it out the door but, that story is still told to her grandchildren and great grandchildren.
One of my favorite memories of this place was when I would wake up right before dawn, grab my fishing pole and head down to Loon Lake. There was a small dock I would sit on and as my popper made ever widening ripples on the calm water, I marveled as the mist rose mysteriously into the cool air. The loons would always be calling and I would try and imitate their yodels and eery languishing wails. The air smelled so different at this place. It was filled with the spicy scent of pine and that earthy, primal smell of lake water, so thick it was as though you could almost feel it.
Once the sun was good and up, I would head back to the cabin and long before I pulled open that screechy screen door I could smell bacon frying and coffee brewing. One treat we always got when we went up North were those little boxes of cereal with perforated marks down the middle that pop open to make a bowl.
To me this was vacationing at its best.
Many times in the evening we would go to town for an ice cream cone, then head out to the local dump to watch for bears. One time Dad sat all of us kids on the hood of the car and as we licked away, a huge black bear emerged out of the woods. I wondered what that beast thought as he watched five kids slurping away on delicious looking cones, but there was no doubt at all to what Mom was thinking as we were quickly and unceremoniously shoved back into the safe confines of our automobile.
Another favorite outing was visiting friends in Hayward who owned a resort on the Tiger Cat Flowage. There we made sand castles on a pristine beach; ate homemade cinnamon rolls in the dining room and played bumper pool in an old bunkhouse. Sometimes Dad would take my brother and I out fishing on this massive body of water and I know lots of times he got lost, but we never knew it.
This week I’m including a baste my Dad always uses when he cooks chicken on the grill, a meal he frequently cooked for us at our cabin. It is simple but it makes the skin of the bird crispy and the aroma of it always takes me back to those cookouts in the middle of that deep and beautiful woods.
I often think back fondly to those days today when I see people having fun on their summer vacations in the Northwoods. I wonder if they know the memories they are creating and how long some may last. I sure hope so.
Don’s Chicken Baste
1 stick butter
1/2 cup cider vinegar
2 Tbs. Wishbone Italian Salad Dressing
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter slowly over a low flame and then add additional ingredients. Use baste frequently to brush on chicken as it is cooking.