It has to be more than just the ambiance of a sunrise on the Rhinelander Flowage in northern Wisconsin, which can be matched by the wilds of the Rend Lake tailwaters in southern Illinois, that explains why the Northwoods draws Chicago people more than the getaways in southern Illinois. Credits: Dale Bowman
Updated: July 18, 2012 6:27AM
A decade or more ago, I was fishing crappie on sunken brush piles with Todd Gessner. Actually, we were drifting and talking more than intensely fishing on Rend Lake. Gessner, a Hall of Fame guide, asked why people from the Chicago area favored the Northwoods over staying in-state and in southern Illinois.
My immediate answer was ambiance.
But the general question has gnawed at me for years.
I was reminded of that last weekend while driving to Eagle River, Wis. A couple hours of driving through the evergreens of the Northwoods at the end made a definite separation.
It’s another place, a separate one, you arrive at by degrees of landscape, which begins changing already with the old-style farms in McHenry County along Interstate 90. By Madison, Wis., it’s another world of mixed dairy farms and wood lots.
By contrast, any drive from the Chicago area to southern Illinois goes through at least two hours of an industrial agricultural barrens of corn and beans. On I-57, that doesn’t start changing until around Effingham. On I-55, it’s south of Bloomington/Normal. That doesn’t do much for setting the tone of getting away.
Southern Illinois does have its own ambiance with major reservoirs, the Shawnee National Forest, the cypress/tupelo swamps of the Cache River and major rivers in the Ohio and Mississippi.
But history and habit are on the side of the Northwoods.
Chicagoans have been getting away to the north for as long as the city has been around. By contrast, the reservoirs have only been around for about half that time.
History has bonuses for the Northwoods. The tourism industry has had more than a century to build and accommodate visitors. There are only pockets aimed at tourism around southern Illinois.
That has impacts on many levels. In the Northwoods, visitors are generally treated as valued guests. Far too often in southern Illinois, it feels like locals are spitting, ‘‘They came down from Chicago.’’
Of course, that prejudice cuts both ways. I asked close friends to explain why people choose the Northwoods over southern Illinois, and one answer was, ‘‘They don’t want to be around hillbillies.’’
When I asked my wife, who is of European descent, what made the difference, she said, ‘‘So many Germans and Eastern Europeans are in Chicago, so they are more comfortable going to areas such as northern Wisconsin with the brats and sausages.’’
That made me laugh because one of my favorite signs — advertising for lunchtime brats and beer — is in a channel on the Eagle River Chain.
By contrast, south of Effingham, it’s more sweet tea and barbecue. While I am of German descent, I can go sweet tea/barbecue as quickly as sausages. So food is a push for me.
The weather makes a difference. For winter lovers, real winters come most years with ice fishing and snow sports in the Northwoods. For better or worse, depending on your love of winter, such winters rarely happen in southern Illinois.
Summer in southern Illinois hits with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In the Northwoods, it at least generally breaks at night.
Bottom line for me is, for broad economic reasons, I wish southern Illinois could match the Northwoods in getaway appeal. But I don’t think that will ever happen because of the landscape constriction of the corn and bean belt and the deep-seated distrust/distaste between Downstate and Chicago.
It’s kind of funny, but Gessner now does much guiding in northern Wisconsin around Boulder Junction.