People from Wisconsin are not the only ones to use the phrase Up North, but it seems like for us it is not so much a phrase as it is an idiom. A typical Friday conversation might go like: So Jeff, what’s up this weekend? (answer) Oh, not much, just headed Upnorth. Of course, in and of itself Up North does not mean too much and is a relative term at least among differing folks.
If I were headed to Green Bay for instance, I would not say I’m going Up North but plainly state I’m going to Green Bay. Technically there is nothing wrong with saying I’m going “Up North” when going to Green Bay, as Green Bay is North of our residence.
So what do we mean when we say we are going Upnorth?
In my mind and in those of I associate with, it means traveling to a destination that is north of the line formed by the southern boundary of the Nicolet National Forest Though that is no longer the forest’s official name because the US Forest Service consolidated the administration of the Nicolet and the Chequamegon National Forests a long time ago; I am talking about the Nicolet portion of the forest. That boundary is demarcated by the US Forest Service Road 2112 (which has another significance to myself and to fans of the band Rush). Once past that road, I consider myself Upnorth, even though we have another two hours of travel to our usual destination.
Yes, other people and groups may consider destinations such as Waupaca, Iola, Coloma, and the like as being “Up North”, but they are wrong. Those locations are all isolated from Upnorth by vast tracts of farm land. I have no problem with farmland, but if the majority of the land is farmland it is not Upnorth. Even when you are north of HWY 2112 (but out of the National Forest) there are vast areas of Wisconsin that do not qualify as Upnorth because of the farm aspect of it. I guess am quite fortunate to live close to the Nicolet National Forest, well into my 20s I figured trees covered nearly the whole region North from that Southern boundary. They do not. Travel East or West out of the Nicolet National Forest corridor and you are back in what is mostly farmland. However, the woodlots and swamps do get bigger the further north one travels.
Then you cross into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and that is pretty much wilderness, divided by lonely roads and highways, with periodic crossroad towns that leave you wondering how people make their livelihoods there.
Upnorth Wisconsin is not desolate during the summer, in fact it is crowded. Upnorth is a favorite destination of people from all over. It is quite common to see license plates from Minnesota, Illinois (sometimes by plate count, it is as if one is in Illinois), Florida (mostly snowbirds retirees who mirror the travel patterns of the robins), Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and others. Birdsongs must compete with the sounds of family laughter and joy. During winter time Upnorth Wisconsin is nearly deserted with the sounds of family laughter changed into the ghostly whines of far off snowmobiles.
Upnorth Wisconsin is every bit in the mind as it is being somewhere.