The Most Wisconsin Weekend Possible

Over Valentine's weekend, a polar air mass wafted down from Canada, which allowed us one of our few opportunities to feel smug and superior. Over on the east coast, temperatures dropped below zero. This deserved evening news headlines and serious-faced warnings about the dangers of numbers that low. In northern Wisconsin, we got ready for a party on a lake.

It was cold, for sure--six below--but we only felt it for a few minutes. We shoveled a big section of the ice to create a berm, a windbreak for the bonfire. Work beats polar air masses. Ten minutes in we removed our hats and gloves, and unzipped our coats, because clothes wet from perspiration would amplify the chill later. The strange feeling of warmth and sweating while the air stings skin with promises of frost is something we experience only a few times a year, but in a lot of ways, it's the core of living in Wisconsin. We respect winter, and we pay to live under it, in heating bills and chunky winter boots and snow shovels and yearning for spring. But we are not winter's subjects or its tortured peons. If the sun's out, and the breeze isn't too bad, we can shed our layers and be fine, just like we do during summer, or just like all the people down south.

Fires need fuel, so we cut down a tree.

Two balsams stood on the shore at my parents'  place in Oneida county. They were beautiful trees that provided shade for my mom's wooden swing. But sawyer beetles moved in, and over the course of a few years, the trees died. When we sat on the swing, we could hear the larvae chewing through the wood. Then big pieces of bark started falling off. The trees wouldn't recover, so my uncle brought his chainsaw and dropped the first one, 55 feet, 8 inches tall (we measured), exactly where he said he would. Then we had lunch.

A true Wisconsin gathering is done pot-luck style. Most of the items contain cheese, cream or otherwise, and several offerings need to be sausage-based. Add in some pickled fish, some sauerkraut, and a half-dozen types of "bars," and we had a full-on cultural meal. The food of our ancestors, with lots of ranch seasoning.

Oh yeah. And beer. We had a dozen kinds of beer to be sampled and passed around. A good number of people at this gathering knew a good number of the people who actually brewed the beer.

Then we bundled up and headed outside to light the fire. Heat rises, so there's no need to worry about bonfires on the ice. The warmth that radiates from the coals melts a thin layer of water, which further insulates the flames. And even if the laws of physics flip-flopped, or for some unknowable reason we found a weak spot on the frozen lake, we were only forty feet offshore, with four feet of water beneath us. Worst case scenario, we still would have been fine.

Then we drank and laughed and poked at the fire. We waved at the snowmobiles racing by. We threw a football around and brought out the beanbag boards. One of the uncles set up some tip-ups and kept running out to check them, but he didn't catch anything all day. We stepped inside for dinner, then came back out afterwards to stoke up the fire and watch a few fireworks. By then, the sun had set, and the temperature dropped fast, so we returned inside to play board games and suppress yawns until bedtime.

At 4:00 AM that night, the temperature reached 30 degrees below zero, according to my dad's weather station. That was not a record.

Developing pride in wherever you're from and the idiosyncrasies of life there isn't hard, or new. Nothing that happened on Saturday was so unique or strange that it deserves anything more than an eyebrow-raise or a curious nod. Plenty of people have never walked on a frozen lake, or felled the tree they burned that afternoon. But sometimes the threads of experience in a certain place at a certain time weave together to create a day that feels definitive, that stands for all the deep and complicated ways our landscapes affect who we are. Saturday was that sort of day. Wisconsin permeated us like the smoke seasoned our clothes, and the smell won't wash out for a long time, at least until we gather on the lake next year.

Eric Rasmussen