In northeast Wisconsin, winter can be almost shamelessly beautiful.
Not only is the snow plentiful, it's that photogenic, see-me-sparkle kind of snow that looks so good draped on pine boughs.
Skiing the Escanaba Lake Trail near Minocqua one February, exchanging hellos with passing skiers, all of them smiling, I had the feeling I must be in a magazine shoot.
To the uninitiated, the vast expanses of forest around Eagle River, Wis., look like a lot of nothing.
It's rocky, useless land, forfeited to the government during the Depression, and hardly anyone lives there Eagle River, pop. 1,400, is Vilas County's only city.
This empty forest, however, draws thousands, and on winter weekends, it's not so empty. Snowmobilers, skiers and snowshoers come to these woods to the east and north lie the 657,000 square acres of Nicolet National Forest, and to the west, the 220,00 acres of Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest.
If you do only one thing outdoors in winter, do it by candlelight.
is more magical than a forest full of flickering lights. I got hooked
when I skied in Minnesota's Mille Lacs Kathio State
A fat blue moon hung in the sky, sparkling hoarfrost made twigs as nubby as reindeer antlers and more than 400 glowing bags gave the forest a fairy-tale aura.
The first time I saw Rib Mountain it was nighttime, and I was driving toward Wausau from the north.
Looming over the Wisconsin town was a massive hulk lined with white lights, rising from the surrounding plain like a landing strip set on edge. It was a spectacular sight and still is, day or night.
This billion-year-old quartzite ridge, one of the oldest on Earth, was thought to be the highest point in Wisconsin until Timm's Hill, near Ogema, was surveyed at 12 feet higher.
While people in cities to the south are looking for crocuses, folks on northeast Minnesota's Gunflint Trail are enjoying some of the best skiing of the year.
It's not that the Gunflint is so much colder. It's that there's so much snow it keeps itself refrigerated, like glaciers.
"We have a really good base,'' says Heather Telchow of Golden Eagle Lodge. "Even after these warm days, the snow is like brand new. I grew up in Faribault, and I'm used to it disappearing in a few days. But we don't lose snow like that up here. We keep it forever.''
In summer, the Bayfield Peninsula, on the northern tip of Wisconsin, is a playground of sand, water and woods, beloved by tourists.
In winter, the playground expands.
Lake Superior freezes and people come to play, walking to the mainland ice caves near Cornucopia and skiing across Chequamegon Bay by candlelight.
In the wilds of northeast Wisconsin, winter always looks like winter.
It's the kind with snow snow that comes early, stays late and blankets the forest in heaps, supplying reliable skiing and snowshoeing to people from less-blessed locales.
But one year, the heaps of snow didn't come there or virtually anywhere, and skiers were desperate. So was Pete Moline, who runs Afterglow Lake Resort near the Michigan border.
One March, I went up to Duluth but woke up in Siberia.
Twenty inches of snow had fallen overnight. A savage 70 mph wind was howling around the glass-walled lobby of the Willard Munger Inn. Swirling snow had turned the air white.
But then my niece and I noticed cars crawling along Grand Avenue. Then more cars. So we bundled up, got in our car and, to our surprise, made it all the way across town to Lester Park.
On Minnesota's North Shore, its a happy day when snow is as abundant as scenery.
Despite its miles of cross-country ski trails, the western shore of Lake Superior gets only modest amounts of lake-effect snow, because the storms that blow in from the east tend to dump it inland, where the land mass is colder.
So if you want to ski, the trick is to head for the hills, ignoring the thinner snow along the highway.
The snow is back a lot of it.
You can whine about it and hide indoors, or you can go out and have fun. Ever thought about cross-country skiing? That's fun.
If you haven't tried the sport, here's how to get started.
In Ironwood, theres one thing people can count on besides death and taxes.
Snow, and lots of it, is a sure thing in this former ore-mining town just over the Wisconsin-Michigan border.
Blown in over Lake Superior, the snow starts falling as soon as days cool down in late autumn and keeps falling until spring sun turns the pink-tinted piles into slush.
In the vacation town of Bayfield, action shifts to the woods in winter.
In summer, everyone gravitates to Lake Superior and its cruise launches, sailboats, ferries and kayaks. But when it snows, the locomotion is on inland trails.
And it does snow. Gales over the big lake deliver plenty for skiers, snowmobilers and mushers.
In a blizzard, nothing is better than holing up with an expert cook, a bottomless cookie jar, a steam room, a big hot tub and one of the best ski-trail groomers in the Midwest.
One January, the stars aligned in the heavens and I found myself in the best possible place to be during a blizzard: Maplelag.
This ski resort in northwest Minnesota is renowned for many things all-you-can-eat meals, personable owners, hundreds of stained-glass windows and signs from defunct train depots but its most famous for its ability to conjure a bit of snow into world-class ski tracks when the rest of Minnesota is bare.
Every year, candlelight ski and snowshoe treks get a little more popular.
But snow, it turns out, isn't the important part. There wasn't enough for snowshoeing earlier this month at Horicon Marsh in southeast Wisconsin, but more than 2,000 people showed up anyway for a candlelight hike.
People just like to be outside, following a trail of lights under a starry sky.
What becomes a legend most? In the case of Telemark Resort in northwest Wisconsin, solvency.
The once-busy ski lodge closed in 1998, reopened in 1999, closed again in 2010, reopened in January 2011, and closed once more in 2013.
The lodge, which polite guests call "a diamond in the rough,'' desperately needs updating.
In winter, only the most dedicated pilgrims make the trip to Itasca, Minnesota's most revered state park.
Yet the park is beautiful without its forest canopy. It's easy to see its bones, the lumpy quilt of knobs and kettles laid down by retreating glaciers.
It's easy to see the 300-year-old pines that escaped loggers. And it's easier to listen to the sassy chatter of a squirrel, the prehistoric croak of a crow, the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker.
Sometimes, skiers have a hard time figuring out Mother Nature.
It's supposed to snow across northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, but often, storms have veered to the south instead. It's odd, but what can you do? You have to go with the snow.
One year, at the end of February, my friend Becky and I were just about to make the long drive to the snowy Upper Peninsula of Michigan when the southeast Minnesota town of Winona got blanketed with 30 inches.
When its 30 below in the north woods, that's nothing like a cold day in Siberia.
Its more like a cold day in Mongolia.
Temperatures were dangerously low over New Year's when we drove with friends to the Gunflint Trail, but we knew a wood fire would be waiting for us in a round, canvas-sided hut called a yurt, or ger in Mongolia.
For cross-country skiers, Giants Ridge has it all: Plentiful snow. Scenery. Sixty kilometers of groomed trails.
Best of all, it has chairlifts.
Alpine skiers arent the only ones who think downhills are more fun than uphills. Nordic skiers also like to put gravity on their side, especially those who are trying to learn how to skate.
It was an early January day in western Minnesota. A biting wind was blowing off the prairie, and the mercury was sinking faster than the Titanic.
But it didnt matter. I was at Maplelag, where the world is my iceberg . . . um, oyster.
At Maplelag, no matter how inhospitable the outside world is, the lodges stained-glass windows turn the wan rays of winter into gleaming golds and apricots. The steam billowing from the giant hot tub creates a dome of warmth amid the tundra. Bottomless cookie jars and baskets of hot fry bread keep guests fat and happy.
When snow is sparse on Minnesota's North Shore and even when it isn't skiers head for the hills.
Over the Sawtooth Mountains and deep into Superior National Forest, the Flathorn-Gegoka trails gather up the snow, arrange it prettily atop boughs and wait for cross-country skiers to come ooh and aah.
The perpetually snow-flocked pines never fail to amaze people who come to stay and ski at the National Forest Lodge.