Four Days in Hayward
The idea was to soak in Hayward, Wisconsin's "Musky Fest," a celebration of the idyllic northwoods, but what our TCD contributor got was a renewal of the spirit.
It was a rather insane idea to begin with. I would travel across the state of Wisconsin from Southeast to Northwest, ingratiating myself with locals who praise a prehistoric monster, and then go looking for my lost soul somewhere along the empty and pristine shore of Lake Superior.
Once I learned that a certain weekend party up there concludes with a massive parade featuring a float of young beauty pageant contestants who have vied to be named “Musky Queen,” I was sold on the novelty of it all and made definitive plans.
Some of the stumbling points to my plan: I’m poor, my car is a wreck, I’m single with no kids to enjoy the family-friendly party, and I have no fishing license or access to a boat or a guide. But I was determined to make it to the Musky Festival anyway—a six-plus hour journey away for four days of adventure. I booked a small motel room by phone (travel websites aren’t helpful), took off work including a Friday and Monday for extra travel time, and scrounged up $577 for the whole experience—which would include gas, food, and lodging.
In the course of my “Up North” summer vacation, I would not see a single live fish—except for some small bluegills swimming in the concrete pool surrounding the giant muskellunge statue at the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum. I would forgoe every opportunity to dine at the many fine supper clubs, or even stop to eat at the Grand Pines Resort, home to the original Famous Dave’s BBQ Shack. There were certain sanctioned eating contests and events at the festival that I missed, just so I could sleep away a couple of rare afternoon hours in my quiet motel room. Yet I would not trade a minute of my trip, not even when my 2005 Saturn Ion sedan got trapped on a narrow dirt road that cut through the massive forest on the way to Big Spider Lake, because my smartphone’s GPS told me it was fine to go that way to the point of driving off a cliff. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First a primer of sorts: The town of Hayward, Wisconsin is the county seat of Sawyer County up near the far northwest corner of the state. At the last census, the township’s population was just over 3,100 people in a 64 sq. ft. mile area. Around 74 percent of its residents are Caucasian and 25 percent are Native American (mostly Ojibwe from the Lac Courte Oreilles Band), and by land size, the county is one of the largest in land mass with the fewest residents. The beautiful Chippewa Flowage and hundreds of idyllic lakes lay just to the south of town, and the formidable Chequamegon National Forest is to the east. Even with the privatization of prime real estate locations by a few wealthy cabin owners, the “urban area” is still the epitome of small-town America. There are several major summer celebrations in which all the smaller feeder towns use Hayward as the meeting place, such as the Lumberjack World Championships coming up at the end of July.
Day one: A little disappointment, but washed down with six microbrews at the Angry Minnow Brewpub
The distance from the front door of my house to Room 3 of the downtown Riverside Motel (which hugs the winding Namekagon River and Hayward Lake) is 362 miles at a drive time of 385 minutes. This is the time it takes even with the practically voluntary speed limits and fine road conditions of I-94 West. This also includes stopping for gas and lunch at Moe’s Almost World-Famous Diner in Osseo, Wisconsin. To find the diner, just look for the giant beef statue perched high on a roadside pole, along with the gleam off the metal siding of the 1950s-themed structure. Oh, there is also a six-foot angry chicken wearing a toque and bib standing guard in the parking lot.
By the time I settled into my room in Hayward and walked over to Main Street, it was already late afternoon. My first stop was to linger outside a famous and iconic bait and tackle shop called Pastika’s. After 85 years, it recently closed and left a huge hole in everyone’s hearts. Next door at the Holiday gas station, in addition to pizza slices and slushies, they have firewood, fishing licenses, and bait. What it lacks is the know-how of the Pastika staff.
One of the sad markings of progress in this town that I could recognize was the loss of “rustic and quirky” that is replaced by “big box corporate chains”, who can barely give a simulacrum of what was once there. For example, there is a McDonald’s just a few feet away, modeled after a log cabin complete with a field stone chimney. Sadly, even I will admit to breaking down after a few days to hit up the Wal-Mart, looking for an inflatable boat. Outside the massive structure are the inexplicable and solitary words “Outdoor Living.”
Pressing onward, I find that Main Street has kept up the quaint appearance and vibe that one would expect out of a tourist destination. There is a gorgeous and spacious candy store called Tremblay’s Sweet Shop, where you can watch the summer teenage workers make homemade fudge while you nosh on handfuls of soft salt-water taffy on display in innumerable flavors from open barrels. On this seven-block stretch of town alone, there are camping and hiking gear shops, souvenir t-shirt shops, varied restaurants and real estate agents, a post office, a church, a police station, a senior living center, and a high school. For the festival itself, Main Street is filled with artisans and vendors, punctuated at the end with food trucks—including a Fry Bread vendor. To the south, basic carnival rides have been set up in the parking lot of the IGA grocery store.
It was just past the carnival, in a brick building from 1890 that once famously housed the Northern Wisconsin Lumber Company, that I found the Angry Minnow Brewpub. Open in 2004 by the Rasmussen Brothers, it has the perfect atmosphere and was a great way to avoid having to eat dinner at a chain fast-food place or even a family-friendly circus spot like Coop’s Pizza Parloure. I kind of befuddled the waitress at the Minnow when I stated that I’d like to try all six of the microbrews. They have a sampler platter—served up on a wooden dish in the shape of a fish—but I think from the look on her face that it is normally served to a group instead of just one guy. In any case, the review is mixed: the brewing partners have the right equipment and process down, but a few of the labels need some quality control. The best of the lot was River Pig Pale Ale, an amber and hoppy beer that went well with elevated tavern food.
Unlike the southern half of Wisconsin, which as of this writing in early July is still suffering from high temperatures and drought conditions, the northern half has stayed 20 degrees cooler with occasional showers that pass through like random thoughts. So I spent the later part of the evening at the movies in a little fourplex called, naturally, the Hayward Cinema. I ate Milk-Duds and saw Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Being far away from home, in a nearly empty theater ruining my teeth and enjoying a B-movie spectacle, I was in heaven.
Day Two: A Dairy Farmer’s Breakfast, the view from a musky’s mouth, and a Street Dance everyone attends
Somehow, I managed to research a number of events that most tourists don’t normally attend. This was the case with the Sawyer County Dairy Breakfast, held outside of town on the local fairgrounds off County Road B. At 8 a.m. on a Saturday, I found myself chatting amiably with old farmhands on the line. I even shook hands with U.S. House of Representatives member Sean Duffy, who was handing out Badgers football schedule adorned with his family’s photo. You know, Duffy. Duffy of the Republican Party? Duffy, holder of several lumberjack pole-climbing world titles? Duffy, from Real World: Boston and Road Rules challenges on MTV? Yes, that one.
Breakfast was $6 and not for the lactose-intolerant. The menu consisted of giant pancakes available with your choice of ice cream, whipped cream, butter, strawberries or blueberries—with a side of sausage and a styrofoam cup of organic whole milk. I tried my best to get the attention of volunteers holding carafes of coffee to come to my aide, but they were busy catching up with neighbor gossip. Finally, at the barn door exit there was a large man in overalls dispensing soft-serve ice cream to departing guests. Outside, a country band featuring a violin was playing while children performed tractor pulls on miniature vehicles. I was a stranger in a familiar land.
By the time I got back into Hayward, the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum was finally open. I had been there a few years ago and not much has changed compared to the businesses surrounding it. In the NFWFHofFandM, there is the open-air park adorned with various giant fiberglass fish and wooden benches dedicated to famous anglers and benefactors. There is a hall dedicated just to motorboat engines, displays with vintage lures and poles, and countless taxidermy displays of fish, fowl, and wildlife. There are loving tributes to gruff looking men. There are bigfoots. It’s all there. The centerpiece, of course, is the 143-ft. long, three-story tall musky that you can walk inside and wave from the toothy mouth.
It is very quiet hanging out in the musky’s mouth. There is a plastic barn-owl to keep out stray animals, and a protective fence to keep you from diving into the pool below. The view looks out over the western half of the town, which looks a lot more wooded from up this height. That’s about it. This is probably a lot more entertaining with kids or in seeing it for the first time.
Now that I had done my duty and visited the Midwestern equivalent to the Statue of Liberty, it was time to go and surprise the writer of Return to Wake Robin, Marnie O. Mamminga, who was making an appearance at Book World on Main Street. I had written about her memoir of northwoods summers for ThirdCoast Digest about a month earlier and thought I would say hello. After an interminable wait (for one older gentleman happily chatting about old times), I had a nice moment with her. It was then that I decided to go on a little road trip to see what the area she wrote about looked like now. It was a fateful decision.
It does not take long, when traveling by car, to get intentionally lost in the forests of northern Wisconsin. You can turn left down a highway designated with a number and inhale the pine smell after the rain showers. You turn right down a county road designated with a letter and find yourself on an Native American reservation. You can follow your GPS’s advice to head down a certain back road that passes the finely tailored ‘back nine’ of an exclusive resort, and stare back at the men standing on the tee watching your car plunges onto the skinny gravel road, which soon turns to mud and branches.
These are hilly paths carved out of the deep forest to let firefighting vehicles through (known as firelanes) that also give serious mountain bikers a workout. To defend Google Navigation, it really has your best interests at heart and it’s admirable the way it stays working when normal cell reception has ceased. However, advising me to go down a rutted road that dead-ends after a quarter-mile was not cool. Trying to drive it backwards was worse. After three hours, I emerged from the situation with frayed nerves but okay. My poor vehicle made it as well, with only a few giant boulders sticking out of the tire treads.
The lodge that was once called Moody’s Camp, so famously touted in Mamminga’s book, was impossible to find. At this point, I almost hit a third deer and decided that was it for the day.
Only it wasn’t the end of the day. After all, the sun doesn’t set until 9:45 at this latitude. Back on the middle of Main Street, every imaginable resident showed up for the Street Dance. It featured a country band I had not heard of called Slamabama, but apparently the locals did as they lip-dubbed along with even the band’s original songs. Beer taps were flowing, young women in sequined jeans were sizing up young men sporting cowboy boots and farmer tans, and the hours wiled away.
Day Three: the Musky Festival Parade, a deep perspective from the shores of Lake Superior, and the Moccasin Bar
People line up early for the Musky Fest Parade, perhaps not as early as the runners in the Musky Fest 5K Run/Walk or with as much possessive vigor as a Fourth of July parade down south (southern Wisconsin, that is), but they line up least a couple hours ahead of the marching band of Hayward Hurricanes (this is the local high school sporting nickname, for which no one had a good explanation).
I spent this time listening to a dry-docked river guide dispense detailed notes on musky fishing to the gathered—apparently the skill and strategy involved in musky fishing is more revered and difficult than fishing for marlins. I also talked to a grandfather-granddaughter team of prize winners who participated in the catch-and-release contest. I even made friends with Bud, a self-proclaimed old coot who has worn the same hat to the parade for decades now. God help me, then I ate more ice cream, this time from West’s Dairy.
The parade itself is very charming and involves just about every feeder town and community group. It wasn’t about grabbing candy from the streets for kids, or revving up endless monster trucks. There was a man in a suit with a pug. There was a Scottish bagpiper group. There was Shriners in small cars performing stunts. There was the Musky Queen float.
This was the culmination of everything that I had daydreamed about for six months. It was vaguely disappointing, as the contestants were not grown women as photos appeared to show in previous years, but instead the finalists ranged in age from 13-18. Still, I got the one photo I wanted and a weight was lifted from my brain.
It was time again for another road trip, as if I wanted to see what it felt like to run a vehicle into the ground. This one was more open road and much more soul-lifting. I pointed my car north along County Road 27 to find the scenic shores of Lake Superior. It’s another 90-minute drive to reach the coastline. The road to get there is fairly straight, and it view gives a you sobering reminder of how precious our oxygen-return forest is to Wisconsin. At certain higher points, you see nothing but trees. In the recent Colorado wildfires, the amount of forest burned is equal to what is visible on the driver’s side. In the California wildfires of 2010, the damage is equal to what you can see out the passenger side. It is devastating to wonder what the landscape here would look like if a fire ravaged it.
Further along the shores of Lake Superior, in the middle stretch of County Rd. 13, there are a number of beautiful bays such as the Bark, the Siskiwit, and the Mawikwe. But my favorite came in the form of Sand Bay and Little Sand Bay, which features the remnants of the Hokenson Brothers Fishery. As this was a Sunday, I saw vehicles, boats and tents in this area but not a soul during my visit along the banks. The bay was shallow and clear, with mysterious eddying waters and comely inlets. It was 5 p.m. by then, and I was at the furthest driving distance on my day trip, yet I could not leave. How can you leave paradise?
Eventually, I relented. The best way back was through Bayfield, which is very picturesque and well-loved and the access point to the Apostle Isands—but it’s also a bit unaffordable and crowded for me. Finally I made it through to the highway system and Hayward homeward bound.
During the course of my adventures and time in Hayward, I had been too chicken to check out the tavern that sits smack at the corner of Highway 63 and Dakota Avenue—arguably the busiest intersection in town. The Moccasin Bar all at once screams tourist bar from the signs outside, and yet serious townie bar peering inside the darkened windows. But at the end of this long sojourn to cleanse my soul, it was time to drown it in a Brandy Old-Fashioned (Sweet, for you out-of-state readers).
The Moccasin Bar is perhaps a focal point and mental locus for all things northwoods. The moment I enter, there are only four locals bellied-up to the curvaceous bar and SportsCenter blaring on the TVs. There are pull-tabs all over the floor. The are walls lined with taxidermy dioramas, some featuring curious scenes involving wildlife and others featuring record-breaking monster fish similar to the ones seen in museum nearby. Behind the bar is a young woman with a good head on her shoulders (think roller derby icon), listening patiently to a loud, drunk lady talk about mildly bawdy things. I capture the bartender’s attention and soon after conversing we are exchanging twitter and facebook contacts. The pendulum from 19th to 21st-century swings fast around here.
Day 4: The road home involves an enormous flea market, Leinenkugel’s, and Cheese
The journey home is never a good one. The longing to stay is heavy and the money has nearly run out. Also, you have to go into the office the very next day. It helped that I didn’t leave town until almost noon, delayed after scouting the Hayward Monday Flea Market. Again, it’s not clear if many tourists know about this. The market covers two unused ice hockey rinks and a parking lot. Prices are reasonable and the objects are eccentric or sentimental. If I had any cash left, I would have bought many nick-knacks. If money was not an object in my life, I would have bought the cribbage board table made from the cross-section of a century-old tree trunk slice.
On the road again, I took the scenic route home,through County Roads Cc and 40. If you ever want to photograph or plein-air paint old barns, this is the route for you. If you want to make time, this is not the route for you. It took a good two hours to make it back to the freeway, which I then spoiled making good time by distraction with Chippewa Falls. I had a great sandwich at Lucy’s Delicatessen in the heart of downtown, but what I really wanted to see was the Jacob Leinenkugel brewery. This is located just blocks away, on the northern end of the “metro” area along Duncan Creek which thereafter flows into the mighty Chippewa River. There was little time to peruse Leinie’s Lodge, which serves as a gift shop, tour headquarters, and beer sampling bar. So instead I strolled over the bridge and wandered outside the brewery and historic barn buildings, taking in the fragrant, hop-filled air and chatting with workers.
The rest of the journey, as Eau Claire re-introduces the speedy I-94 system, was uneventful. I did stop for dinner at A&W and purchased some internationally award-winning cheeses from the Mousehouse Cheesehaus in Windsor, just north of Madison. I highly recommend the Bacon Cheddar and the Chicken Soup Jack cheeses, which taste exactly as they sound.
My car packed with souvenirs and the undercarriage crusted with interesting soils, I went home a happy man.