Truth be told, Lake Superior and the Wisconsin Northwoods have their hooks in us. Every so often, we pack up the dawg, oil up the F-150, and head the eleven to thirteen hours north to a HomeAway cabin on some bedazzling little lake that looks on a map as though it might have fish in it. Our homing instinct and, sadly, our IQ approximate to those of a trout: strong and mindlessly determined, respectively.
So we book a place a place sight-unseen and head to one of the little points on the map where my mother moved with her family around the Civilian Conservation Corps camps that her father administered during the Depression-era joblessness of the mid-30s.
Iron River, Wisconsin, a tiny village in a region practically submerged in rivers and lakes was our destination this time. For some local color, we headed to Friday night’s edition of the Bayfield County Fair. Something called the Great Frontier Bull Riding Company was on for 7:30 p.m., and it looked like the pick of the Fair’s weekend litter.
The Fairgrounds sit on an expansive property a mile north of Iron River, in the direction of Lake Superior, which itself lies at arm’s length just across the beautifully understated farm and brushlands of the Bayfield Peninsula. They are defended by the same kind of unpretentiously polite Northwoods people we meet every where up here. The man taking tickets at a booth with a sign marked ‘No Pets’ takes a look through the pickup’s window at our little hound lying in the back seat and wordlessly waves us on.
Inside the gates, my first impression is that—near into the end of my sixth decade—I finally understand the fear of carnival workers that my mother tried her damnedest to inculcate in us as kids. There were slightly terrifying, especially the one who worked a ride that blared the same Beach Boys tune incessantly and without so much as a two-second pause in between all night long.
But things begin to look up if a visitor works his way past the ‘carnival’ section. The 4-H is obviously active across the region, and local passions are evident in the horde of displays of ‘Parts of a Fish’ and ‘Parts of a Gun’ that punctuate a tour of enviable flowers, plants, vegetables, and whimsical inventions. One imagines kids looking forward to the Fair as they raise their animals, study their Dad’s deer rifle, and nurse this year’s (will they be champions?) cucumbers from Spring into Summer.
Soft target to flowers and vegetables that my Good Wife is, my intended Beeline to the animal barns is converted into a quasi-Beeline with several awkward detours, but we get there in the end. Unexpectedly, the rabbit and poultry barn trumps the cattle, sheep, and swine departments as our favorite. We never knew there were that many kinds of the little beasties. Many front endearing indications (a hilarious name here, a written observation there) of their owner’s approach to animal-rearing. It’s great to know that this side of americana—largely invisible to us city-dwellers—is still intact and apparently thriving.
Then cometh the bulls. It became clear that, if we wanted a seat at the bull-ride, we’d better hoof it over to the ring. The bleachers filled up around us, a largely young and exuberant crowd that seemed well-acquainted with the event that was about to unfold in the small, Jerry-rigged ring just below us.
The cowboys could be seen limbering up just behind the place where the bulls were eventually prodded up and stacked into the chutes. Ominously, a number of them noticeably limped. That is, the cowboys, not the bulls. Which was telling.
The men were introduced as coming from locations across the upper Midwest as well as from Mexico and Brazil.
Candidly, I anticipated a scripted performance where everybody behaves, nobody gets hurt, and the bulls in the end look like the dopes.
These enormous beasts more often than not threw their riders off within seconds of coming out of the chute and regularly gave the downed rider a good stomp or two before the clowns could move them away from the poor dude who now limped his way over to the fence, then heaved himself up and over the thing. Some stood, catching their breath and willing back their pain for a good five minutes before moving on and getting prepped for Ride Number Two.
It’s not hard to wonder about the humanity of the sport (the bulls, on the other hand, seem to do just fine), but scripted or theatrical it is not. The Great Frontier website lists the modest purse for each event. One can imagine, say, a certain Joe Carmichael narrating over a beer that, ‘Yeah, I broke the right femur in Iron River back in 2016, but I took the show in Brainerd, Minnesota, the week before. Smashed my elbow in three places when I hit the rails on the first ride in 2017. Since then, I just work the hardware store and grow my tomatoes.’
So goes a summer Friday night in Iron River, Wisconsin. Oh, and you can shake off the cobwebs of a good night’s sleep with sturdy coffee from the The Shop on the main drag on Saturday morning, or pick up your homemade breakfast jam by skipping over to B’s Busy Bakery. Also on the main drag. Don’t worry, you’ll see it.