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Employed is a weekly reporting series focused on the new Northwoods.The landscape of living, playing, and working in the Northwoods is changing. Where we work, where we shop, where we reside, and how we support our families looks different than it did even a decade ago. It continues to shift as industry, tourism, retail, services, and natural resources shift.Entrepreneurship, broadband, work-from-home, and COVID-19 are all part of that mix. What makes you wonder, or what story ideas do you have for Employed? Submit them below.

The Pandemic Induced City Families to Escape to the Northwoods. They’ve Stayed.

Ben Meyer/WXPR

Laura Boll, her husband, and their two young children thought the Northwoods would provide them a brief refuge.

They came to stay at their vacation home between Land O’Lakes and Phelps as the pandemic started last March.

“We came up here the week that happened, thinking, maybe we’ll be here for a couple weeks to a couple months,” Boll told WXPR in September.

The family lived in a Chicago suburb but opted to try to wait out the worst of COVID-19 at their second home on Kildare Lake.

“We were in a small, three-bedroom rental house with a teeny backyard [in Chicago]. Up here, the house is way bigger, way more land, way more space,” Boll said.

When we first talked, spring had bled into summer, the pandemic hadn’t eased, and the family decided to enroll the kids at Land O’Lakes Elementary School. But it thought it might well eventually head back to Chicago.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Laura Boll.

Now, the story is different.

We caught up with Boll again this week to see how things were going.

The family decided to stay long-term and is now even further committed to the Northwoods.

“My husband jokes, he was so happy when we got Wisconsin license plates on our cars,” Boll said. “We’re not going to get dirty looks from an Illinois plate any more.”

The family had never experienced a full northern Wisconsin winter. Actually, though, the past winter solidified its decision to plant roots deeper here.

“We did a lot of great, long hikes in the snow. We got into ice fishing. We bought an ice fishing shack this year, an auger, a bunch of tip-ups, all kinds of stuff. We really got into things we like doing a lot, and we actually love the winter,” Boll said.

Boll’s husband still is working remotely for a Chicago-based Fortune 500 company. He makes a quick trip to headquarters about once a month.

Chicago, though, seems less and less like home.

“I personally am happier here than I was in the suburbs or in the city,” Boll said. “It’s definitely the goal to stay here and would be ideal.”

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
The property on the shore of Kildare Lake is now the Bolls' indefinite home.

Besides, Boll is carving out a bit of a Northwoods identity.

She’s always been into growing and preserving organic vegetables, and her Northwoods property finally gives her plenty of space to do it. Her friends back in the city urged her to start documenting what she does on social media.

“[They say,] ‘You lived in Wrigleyville a few years ago, and now you’re in the woods trying to be self-sufficient.’ I started a page,” she said.

You can follow Boll’s growing, canning, and fermenting adventures on Facebook and TikTok under the name Lush’s Lifestyle.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Katy Martens teaches virtual yoga classes from her Sayner home.

Katy Martens’ family had similar reasons for coming north last year.

She runs a natural healing and yoga business, and Martens, her husband, and two young children decided to get out of their cramped Milwaukee-area apartment.

“Coronavirus was sort of like that catalyst that was like, we’re doing this. We’re going to do this,” Martens told WXPR in September.

The family had moved to a family cabin in Sayner, and Martens was teaching yoga classes virtually from her wooded backyard.

“It was just like, I can do this from anywhere. Sayner’s awesome. It’s our family house,” she said. “And it’s better for the kids. It was kind of a no-brainer, then, at that point.”

With some reluctance about the quality of schools, the family enrolled Ellie and Karlo at Eagle River Elementary.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Katy and Will Martens drop off their children, Karlo and Ellie, at Eagle River Elementary School. The family moved to the area from the Milwaukee suburbs during the pandemic.

This week, Martens said not only has the family stayed, the school and the area have turned out to be a great fit.

“They really like it. They have friends. They’re going to play softball and baseball pretty soon. It’s really been just a really smooth transition,” she said.

Plenty of families seem to be joining the trend.

The Northland Pines School District had about 60 new students to start the year and has picked up about 25 more during the school year.

Meanwhile, Martens’ virtual yoga and natural healing practice is growing, with members tuning in from all over the world to her newly-constructed home studio.

Out in the community, she is starting to feel less like a visitor and more like a Northwoods resident.

“It does feel different. I feel like it’s my home,” she said. “It’s permanent.”

The family definitely will be here for another year, at least.

And, in all probability, this Northwoods home will be their home for good.

“We feel like we could grow some roots here,” Martens said. “Yeah, I could see us being here for a long time.”

The popularity of moving to the Northwoods has led homebuyers to take drastic steps to buy property in a tight market.

Click here to read or listen to that episode of Employed.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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