Winter in Wausau: Ice fishing, skiing, bird art

Dave Torkko is rearranging snow when we meet in Wausau, and I tell him about wanting to get to Weston before dark. It’s my hunch that I should use country roads to proceed most quickly, and he agrees, offering directions that begin one block away.

Then he eyes my puny car and seems to reconsider. “If you can’t make it up the hill,” he says, “just pull over and turn around. The plows do a good job of keeping it clear, but sometimes it’s a little hard to drive while snow is falling.”

This startles me a bit, since only an inch or two has accumulated, but I turn onto Franklin Street anyway and try to stay steady while chugging up precipitous East Hill. All goes fine, but Dave is right: This would be no place for wimp drivers when winds whip and new snow mounts.

A part of Wausau’s beauty is what reveals itself in winter. Respect for East Hill is one thing. The shining, cross-town view of Granite Peak ski runs at night is another. And when snow compels us to downshift, drivers seem confident but reasonable, courteous and patient.

People routinely smile at strangers and may not know how unusual this act has become. A few offer advice without being prodded. I sense that this community aims to please.

Hundreds of athletes – children to retirees – soon head to Central Wisconsin for the Badger State Winter Games, whose 18 sports range from billiards to ski jumping.

Most activity happens in and near Wausau, especially Granite Peak, whose 74 ski runs on 410 acres are inside Rib Mountain State Park. Head to the floor-to-ceiling stone fireplaces at the park’s massive Historic Chalet, built in 1939, for toasty, panoramic views of the slopes.

Year round, nothing beats the class and acclaim of the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, 700 N. 12th St., but that’s like saying you should visit the Smithsonian museums while in D.C. So obvious … for more about the 4-acre estate, known internationally for its bird art:, 715-845-7010.

These places also got my attention while visiting Wausau this month.

Everest Inn Bed and Breakfast, 601 McIndoe St. – Dave (the snow shoveler) and wife Lori Torkko rent rooms in a comfortable, antique-filled 1908 Queen Anne house. For an easy icebreaker with the innkeepers, ask about the autograph-filled wall in the front hallway.

Olympic athletes, foreign dignitaries, performers, academics and artists in transit have stayed here, so each signature seems to have its own story. Room rates: $55-135. For more:, 888-848-5651.

The Wright Place on 6th, 901 N. Sixth St. – Conveniently located across the street from the Everest Inn is fine dining in an Italianate mansion, a great relief for B&B guests who are tired of driving, especially in winter. Chef Travis Teska gathers Wisconsin products to enhance his prep of steaks and seafood.

Expect tasty but unconventional matches, like cinnamon-grilled salmon or – for dessert – baklava with dried cranberries, toasted pecans and maple syrup (instead of the traditional honey). Open for dinner only; most entrees $18-30. For more:, 715-848-2345.

Basil, 2106 Schofield Ave., Weston – “Borderless cuisine” is how owners Jim and Tee Daly describe their menu. Entrees are a fusion of the couple’s Asian and Irish backgrounds, plus other ethnic influences, including Italian.

Good for the sinuses, belly and tastebuds: Asparagus Seafood Soup, a chunky mix of clams, mussels, shrimp and straw mushrooms, swimming in a robust blend of flavors, including chilies and lemongrass. Open for lunch and dinner; most entrees $12-22. For more:, 715-298-0677.

Checkered Churn, 914 E. Main St., Merrill – Raves about this unusual business – a café, gift shop and framing station – reached my “in” box months ago, for good reason. Kitty Gartmann serves a limited but luscious lunch menu, and I dare you to pass up her devilish assortment of sweets (like mini-turtle cheesecakes and cranberry pecan angel food cake).

The type of quiche, salad, sandwich and soup change daily. My brothy cup of sausage and cheese tortellini arrived with a fat’n’fresh, crescent-shaped roll. Eating for under $10, including dessert, is easy. For more:, 715-539-8911.

Nice as New, 2400 Rib Mountain Dr. – I love a good consignment shop, and this big one, in the shadow of Rib Mountain State Park, suits me fine. It is nicely organized, with a smart “intake schedule” for soliciting merchandise, so you’re likely to find a good range of in-season clothing choices.

The store begins with reasonable prices, then deepens the discounts after two months on the rack. Me? I snagged a nice leather jacket for under $10, thanks to a 75 percent markdown. For more:, 715-845-3328.

Treu’s Tic Toc Club, 1201 W. Thomas St. – My frantic search for a sociable place to watch a Badger basketball game involved a hotel bar, a bowling alley and then this neighborhood bar and grill. The Big Ten Network was already on, and “we’re not going to change it,” the bartender reassured.

Flocked holiday trees, lights blinking, hung upside-down from the ceiling. Proceeds from peanut sales, $1 per serving, went to the local Humane Society. It was a Wednesday night, so a Sierra Nevada was $2, the same price as burgers (usually $3.95). What’s not to love?

“Shake of the Day” cost $1, probably the going rate elsewhere these days, but it seems not so long ago when I’d only pay a quarter. For more: 715-848-2465.

Most Badger State Winter Games events occur Jan. 29-31 and Feb. 5-7. For more:, 608-226-4780.

The only competitions hosted outside the Wausau area are speed skating, at Pettit National Ice Center, Milwaukee; badminton, at Glacial Drumlin School, Cottage Grove; youth hockey, at Milwaukee rinks; indoor soccer, at the Oshkosh YMCA; and ski jumping, near Iola.

For more about activity at Granite Peak, 3605 N. Mountain Rd.:, 715-845-2846.