Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Oct. 6, 2006

The Great Colorful North

I was relieved to finally arrive at the Rhinelander airport in northern Wisconsin. I had experienced four take-offs and landings - and thunderstorms had made the last two legs of the journey extremely bumpy.

I had always wanted to visit Wisconsin's North Woods in the fall to see the beautiful colors husband Art always talked about. But as I looked into the dark rainy night, I wondered if the trip had been worth it.

I had text-messaged Art from my cell phone to let him know the plane had landed. I knew that he and his mother Donna were already in Rhinelander because he had texted me earlier to say that they were having dinner at a local restaurant. Within 10 minutes, they arrived to pick me up.

"What's going on?" Donna demanded. "What are you doing here?"

We had decided to keep my visit a surprise, so Donna was full of questions. Art drove to the local Culver's restaurant, where I devoured a Butter Burger - probably one of the best hamburgers I've eaten next to Manhattan's Vista Burgers. Donna ate a butterscotch pecan sundae and Art looked on as we chatted. Somehow the pouring-down rain no longer seemed like such a big deal.

After we finished, we traveled to our cottage in Three Lakes, about 40 minutes away. The cottage felt warm and toasty, adding to my feeling of contentment.

The next day dawned cloudy, but I hurried down to Maple Lake to see what the cool fall nights had done to the trees surrounding it. The lake was choppy and gray, but even without the sun, I could see that the trees on the opposite shore had turned bright orange, red and yellow.

I began to understand why Art loves going back to Wisconsin every September to finish up the trout season that ends Sept. 30. He started fishing with his father 53 years ago and he intends to keep it up as long as he is physically able.

Art loves getting up close and personal with nature, although a couple of encounters - one with a badger mother when he was young and another just the past week with a bear - aren't ones he wants to repeat. He didn't actually see the bear, but he saw the tops of saplings being pushed aside and heard the crunch of heavy branches in the nearby brush. He knew the only thing large enough to produce those effects would be a deer or a bear. It was a particularly windy day and he was downwind from the animal. He started yelling, knowing that bears and deer are as uninterested in meeting humans as humans are in meeting them. He also knew a deer, once alerted, would leave quickly while a bear would lumber off. Before long, he heard the sound of a large animal slowly moving in the opposite direction.

Sometimes I think I would like to try trout fishing, but stories like that quickly discourage any thoughts I might have of pursuing it.

But I do enjoy Art's accounts of fishing - and of his family's adventures during the 1930s, '40s and early '50s in the North Woods and Michigan's Upper Peninsula to bring back strawberries, raspberries and blueberries to markets further south in the state.

However, on Thursday, it was Donna's father's maple syrup efforts that shaped our afternoon adventure. Charles "Bup" Herrmann and his two sons tapped maple trees in the early spring when the sap started running. Art recalls fondly the boiled-down dark maple syrup - "so black it looked like used motor oil." Today, the lightest syrup is considered "top of the line" and is the most expensive. But because Art grew up on the dark syrup used by commercial bakeries, it's his favorite. But it's hard to find.

After doing some Internet research, Art discovered Maple Hollow, a 127-year-old Polak-family operation that has won the International Maple Syrup Award three times. It was about an hour from our cottage. The operation includes miles of plastic tubing running from maple tree to maple tree, a boil-down building, holding tanks and a store with all things maple - food such as syrup, candy, barbecue sauce and teriyaki sauce and even maple leaf-patterned tea towels and napkins and maple leaf-shaped cookie cutters and Christmas ornaments.

Art was amazed by the slick operation. His grandfather used ordinary pails, garden hoses and cattle tanks, while Maple Hollow's equipment is all stainless steel. But the goal is the same now as it was back then - recovery of the sweet syrup by boiling down 35-40 gallons of sap to yield one gallon of product.

Art bought four quarts of the darkest syrup Maple Hollow had to offer and then we headed home, enjoying the beautiful reds, yellows and oranges interspersed with the deep green evergreens.

Arriving back at our cottage, Art said he just might drink some syrup for supper. He wasn't kidding!

I decided that my trip was definitely worth it. The area is called the Great White North, but, at least for now, it's the Great Colorful North!

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