Last weekend I visited my hometown, Wausau, for the first time in years. Riding in the back of my mom and dad’s car, I gawked at the sights of this north central Wisconsin city of 38,000 people like I was in New York City or Washington, D.C. A lot has changed in the 25 years since I left. And a lot has stayed the same.
Of course in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, I was the kid who read too many books and heard too much music, causing me to believe Wausau was a dead-end, backwater burg. There was a world of things happening out there, and I had to go find them. While I never found the hub, I have discovered some interesting people and places along the way, as well as a milder climate.
During my visit last weekend, I saw plenty of evidence to remind me what made Wausau such a terrific place to grow up. First, several rivers traverse the city, including the mighty Wisconsin. In fact, it was the Wisconsin River that first drew settlers to the area originally known as “Big Bull Falls.” And it still attracts people today with its plethora of paddling adventures. The same rapids that first provided power to the lumber mills of Wausau’s early residents are now the site of world-class whitewater kayak and canoe competitions.
Outdoor traditions such as fishing are holding strong in my hometown, too. Kids still ride their bikes to Lake Wausau, fishing rod in hand ready to do battle with pike, walleye, muskie and pan fish. While not crowded by any means, kayaks, canoes and motor boats dotted the reservoir and neighboring wetlands last weekend.
Mountain bikers have it good, too. Nine Mile County Forest Recreation Area has great trails for bikers as well as hikers and horseback riders. In the winter, this area becomes the domain of cross country skiers and is famous for its fabulously groomed trails.
Speaking of skiing, did I mention I grew up in a town with a downhill skiing area? Known as Rib Mountain back then, today Granite Peak is becoming one of the premiere ski facilities in the Midwest.
Then, of course, there’s my mother’s garden to enjoy. It’s a work of art, worthy of envy by any horticulturist for its color, variety, fragrance, wildness and sheer presence. Sorry, folks, it’s not open to the public.
Wausau is not without culture either. And I was able to sample a bit of it by visiting the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, which focuses on art in nature. The museum’s permanent collection features birds in historic and contemporary paintings, sculptures, and sketches. I can tell you, I felt right at home strolling past a beautiful sculpture of wild turkeys at the front entrance.
I’d love to go back in September or October when the museum hosts its annual Birds in Art exhibition. This internationally acclaimed, juried exhibition showcases a variety of styles created by artists the world over. In conjunction with Birds in Art, the Woodson Art Museum selects an artist to receive its Master Wildlife Artist Award. This year, Scottish watercolorist and draftsman John Busby is honored with the award for his outstanding achievements in using bird imagery in his work. If you can’t be there in person, the art is documented in a full-color catalog available for purchase.
Stately gardens dotted with sculpture are another treat at the museum. It’s worth taking a turn along the brick walkways of these outdoor galleries, which also offer views of the picturesque museum, an updated 1931 English Tudor period Cotswold-style residence.
You can learn more about the Woodson Art Museum by visiting http://www.lywam.org/. If you’re planning a visit to central Wisconsin, you’ll also want to check out this site: http://www.visitwausau.com/.
For the life of me, I can’t imagine why I’d want to leave a town where I played at riverside parks, enjoyed downhill and cross country skiing as well as hiking, biking, canoeing and bird watching. Sometimes, you just never know what you have until you leave it.
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