Wisconsin’s hot summer destination keeps coming up with fresh ways to lure tourists.
The little girl is antsy for her turn. Finally the emcee holds the microphone in front of her mouth. She takes in a giant breath, closes her eyes and lets rip a loud, if a bit squeaky, “Yo HO!” Everyone bursts into applause.
A lot of yo-ho’ing goes on at Paul Bunyan’s Northwoods Lumberjack Show in Wisconsin Dells. The show is one of several new attractions this summer at the Dells.
Now in its first full season, the energetic, 75-minute show incorporates athletics, lumberjack skills, history and comedy. Two teams of two lumberjacks are pitted against one another in a contest featuring logrolling, pole climbing and ax-throwing.
The audience, divided into two rival camps — Kilbourn and Newport, the names of the two 19th-century towns that eventually became Wisconsin Dells — has a critical role: helping their team win by yo-ho’ing them on and booing their competitors.
At intermission, my team, Newport, is ahead by two points. I’m sure my hearty yo-hos have had something to do with it. While the lumberjacks take a well-earned break in their tiny wooden cabins, we’re kept entertained with the kids’ yo-ho contest. We’re told that when the plaid-shirted guys return, they’ll be in the water for the rest of the show. My interest is piqued. What in the world of lumberjacking, other than logrolling, involves the water?
After intermission, the water sports begin. Besides logrolling, the two teams compete in a boom run, which involves racing across a series of logrolling logs chained together, plus hold a jousting competition from canoes.
Team Newport is in the lead when the final event is announced: a relay. The teams must see who can complete a pole climb, standing block chop, obstacle pole race and two-man crosscut saw the fastest, alternating lumberjacks each task. The competition begins and Team Newport quickly jumps into the lead. But just when it looks like we’ll win, Team Kilbourn hits the two-man crosscut saw and quickly begins to catch up. The crowd’s cheers get louder and louder. In the end, Team Newport hangs on to pull off the win.
Other new attractions at the Dells could have visitors hollering — with either joy or fear.
The Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort is still putting the finishing touches on its new-for-2014 attractions, but several are already open. Margarita’s, a 1,400-square-foot indoor/outdoor swim-up bar, has already proven to be a huge hit with guests. The two-story OK Corral Lazer Tag Arena, which features a saloon, jail and town square with a covered wagon — all perfect places to hide while you pick off your competitors — is in full swing. A laser maze requires you to quickly slide under, step over or duck under laser beams in order to reach various targets. Broken beams mean penalties. (Note: It’s not as easy as it looks.)
The final new Wilderness amenity, which is expected to open in early July, is a two-story indoor go-cart track. Like others in the Dells, the attraction will feature electric go-carts you can maneuver through tight turns and corkscrews.
Boat tour turns spooky
The Dells got its start as a tourist destination because of the beauty of the rock formations lining the Wisconsin River. So it’s no surprise another new offering for 2014 is a boat tour. “Ghost Boat: Journey Into Haunted Canyon” offers visitors a trip along the river at night, when shadows and sounds can suddenly seem a bit ominous — especially when coupled with creepy stories told by your guide. A walk into Haunted Canyon (aka Cold Water Canyon) is also part of the experience. Operated by Dells Boat Tours, the new boat ride is similar to the company’s fall Ghost Boat: Season of the Witch, a tour that takes guests to Witches Gulch. Both Ghost Boats are geared toward adults and kids 10 and older.
For those who like to commune with nature, it’s hard to beat a visit to the International Crane Foundation (ICF), which sits 5 minutes south of the Dells. Created in 1973, the ICF is the only spot on earth to see all 15 of the world’s crane species, 11 of which are threatened or endangered. The nonprofit group collaborates with others in more than 20 countries to advance the protection and expansion of cranes and their wetland and grassland habitats.
Guided tours, about an hour and a half or more long, are held several times daily. Visitors can also stroll the serene facility on their own, hoping to spy a gray crowned crane, its head comically topped with a patch of stiff golden feathers, or a pair of Siberian cranes. Siberian cranes sometimes squawk loudly when people pass, tossing their heads back and forth as they call out in harsh tones. Such “unison calls” are duets between mated pairs, and can be pronouncements that you’re approaching their territory, pal, and had better back off.
A new interactive component at the ICF is slated for mid-July. Guests will be allowed to check out iPads containing iBooks with additional, easy-to-understand information about the cranes and the foundation’s work and research around the globe. Rather than simply reading a brief sign about the Sarus cranes of the Mekong Delta, for example, you’ll be able to open an iBook and listen to experts in Vietnam explain their work with the birds.
“We’d like visitors to have more of an understanding about the … important fieldwork that these people are doing around the world, and hopefully inspire some kids to pursue a career in conservation or biology,” says Darcy Love, ICF visitor program manager.
Before you leave the facility, check out the 4 miles of trails that wind through the International Crane Foundation’s restored wetlands, prairie and oak savanna.