Why You Should Visit Eagle River, Wisconsin, in Summer & Winter

Eagle River’s great, whether at 88 degrees – or minus 8

If you watch “Around the Corner with John McGivern,” you know that our season begins airing in the middle of January and runs new episodes through the middle of April, also known as winter, the coldest, grayest, snowiest time of year.

You also might have noticed that our episodes, while watched in the middle of winter, are filmed in what looks like the best days of a Wisconsin summer. We shoot our thirteen episodes every year between late May and early October.

There is a method to our shooting/airing madness. We want our audience to watch in the winter so that they remember and look forward to our warm, sun-filled glorious Wisconsin summers and appreciate that we live in this state that experiences such distinct seasons. I remember moving to Los Angeles in the early ’90s and spending my first year loving the fact that it was almost always sunny and mostly warm … year-round. By the second year, I found myself remembering the crisp Midwestern fall days of my past. By the third year, I was daydreaming about the smells and sounds and sights of a Wisconsin spring morning. By the time I left Los Angeles, I was even romanticizing soot-covered snowbanks that trip you when you park too close to the curb! I write this one day after my partner Steve and I hosed off our screens and opened our windows to the spring breeze. Now I completely appreciate all that we have weather-wise in our state.

That is why I thought it would be a great idea to shake it up and shoot half of our Eagle River episode in the winter and the other half in the summer. Having forgotten that cold is not my favorite thing, I pushed and persuaded Lois Maurer, my producer/director, to have an episode that celebrates a year-round experience.What the hell was I thinking? Granted, there is much to cover in Eagle River in the middle of the winter. But, obviously, I didn’t give the actual shooting outside in minus-8 degrees a thought before we arrived! We shot what we call our standups, which consist of me talking directly to the camera on Main Street in the middle of the day. I WAS THE ONLY PERSON ON MAIN STREET. OK, the crew and I were the only people on Main Street, but still … When we tried to make it look and feel natural, it was anything but. My face in the winter scenes looks like I was Botoxed to within an inch of my life! FROZEN … not moving … showing no happy, no sad, no excitement. NOTHING! And I could not stop my nose from running. No, seriously. The snot was racing out of my nose and down my frozen face where it turned into a snot-sicle.

We scheduled our winter visit around a few events that put Eagle River on the map as a winter destination. The ice castle, designed and built by a group of volunteer firemen, is a yearly tradition that dates back to the winter of 1935-’36. The ice is cut out of a local lake in 70- to 80-pound blocks that are hauled to the center of town, and by the time they are ready for visitors’ eyes, they’ve been transformed into an amazing life-size castle! Usually. Except when we came. We were disappointed when we arrived to find out that the ice wasn’t thick enough to be harvested from the lake, and the winter of 2016 would be without an ice castle. Apparently it has to be cold in December, and the below-zero temperatures we braved in January were too little, too late. Figures.

In the winter, Eagle River and the surrounding area is best know for snowmobiling. In fact, this is where the AMSOIL World Championship Snowmobile Derby takes place. On that weekend, this small North Woods city has its biggest winter weekend for visitors. People from all over the world come to either compete or cheer on their favorite drivers. It was exciting to spend time with Cardell Potter, the winner of the 2015 games. He gave us an inside view of life on the road as a competitive snowmobile racer. We met his family and his crew of mechanics and his builder/designer. It takes an amazing, full-time commitment to this sport and an undeniable talent as a driver to be able to join the elite ranks of world champions. After we put on a few more layers under our down coats and donned our hats, scarves, gloves, warm socks and fleece-lined boots, we got to watch this race. These machines can move! I have to admit that I didn’t have a clue as to how serious a competition this was going to be. This was the “Indy 500” of snowmobile races, and the entire experience was really exciting.

The following morning we bundled back up and found our way to Rocking W Stables, where we sat behind two beautiful horses in an old-fashioned sleigh and wrapped up in warm blankets. Then we experienced the most magical sleigh ride ever. The snow was perfect, and all you could hear was the horses’ hooves making their way through the undisturbed, fresh snow on the floor of the North Woods of Wisconsin. I forgot I was cold and realized this is what they mean when they say WINTER WONDERLAND. I loved it – snot-sicles and all.

We spent our last winter night in Eagle River at Eddie B’s White Spruce Restaurant & Tavern. It is housed in the oldest structure in town, and thanks to owner Ed Blankinship’s suggestion, I now dream about the best pork chops I’ve ever eaten. Cozy, classy and delicious!

When we went back in the middle of August, it didn’t take long to realize why Eagle River is such a popular summer destination, as well. Eagle River is located at the end of the largest inland-water chain-of-lakes in the world. Yes, you read that right. There are 28 lakes that connect to Eagle River, which runs into the Wisconsin River. These 28 lakes, dotted with cottages and cabins, provide the perfect getaway for a family summer vacation.

We had a blast with Pirate Steve Strauss at his compound called Pirates Hideaway on Duck Lake. He has a great ice cream shop, a tiki bar that was packed and a gift shop for the land lovers. But the best and real reason to go is to experience the thrill of the high seas! (OK, maybe “seas” is a bit of an overstatement since you can see the shoreline every moment, but the pirate thing works only on the high seas, right?) You need to make your way on board the pirate ship to live your own version of Blackbeard or Captain Kidd or Sir Francis Drake. Watch the sky for diving eagles and walk the plank if you dare. It’s a great adventure for bandanna-wearing, sword-wielding pirates of all ages.

I am writing this sitting at my office wearing a pair of moccasins I purchased at Arrow Gift Shop. Katie Hayes is the owner, and when we visited she was busy trying to restock after a very busy weekend of T-shirt-buying, trinket-shopping, moccasin-wearing tourists. Katie was working with three of her five kids. This family-run, everything-you-could-ever-want-to-find-in-a-tourist-town gift store is not to be missed.

I loved miniature golf growing up. When we went to the cottage every summer, there was always that afternoon spent trying to get the ball in that hole on the other side of the windmill. So it was a treat swinging a club at Eagle Falls Adventure Golf. But mini golf is not the only activity. Laser tag has put this place on the map. We suited up, chose our weapons and entered the two-story, maze-like playing field. Have you ever been the target of laser-toting killers? With no place to hide, I decided the best strategy was to come right out of the gate with my laser a-blazing. I took no prisoners and tried to destroy anyone in sight. I was surprisingly aggressive and found myself filled with a competitive spirit. It was thrilling and I plan on picking up a gun (laser gun) again.

We were taken on a boat tour with Gary Fawcett, who knows the people, the places, and the stories of these lakes. We ate great burgers and ice cream malts at the nostalgic-feeling Soda Pops restaurant. We were surprised and excited and thrilled to spend time in our North Woods without the parkas, hats and gloves!

I feel lucky to live in a place where we have these four very distinct, very different seasons. Eagle River will not disappoint – whatever time of year you decide to experience it. ◆

‘All-Season City’ appears in the August 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning July 31, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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John McGivern is best known for his Emmy-award winning work on PBS, Around the Corner with John McGivern. His one-man-shows, THE EARLY STORIES OF JOHN MCGIVERN, MIDSUMMER NIGHT MCGIVERN AND JOHN MCGIVERN’S HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS tell the stories of being the third born of six kids in a working-class Irish Catholic Family in Milwaukee. John has been the keynote speaker for The Alliance for Children and Families, The State Department on Aging, The Children and Family Service Agency of Wisconsin, The Wisconsin Defense League, Christ Child Association, Foundation for Children with Cancer, Employee Assistant Professional Association and has been fortunate to entertain companies such as Time Warner, Northwestern Mutual, Kohl’s Department Stores, Baird, Acuity, and M&I Financial.