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Blades of helicopters slice incessantly through the western Wisconsin sky.

“Security Forces is finding people in a search and rescue exercise. They’re finding people and they’re evaluating their needs and they’re sending them out on helicopters, in case they need medical care,” explains Lt. Col. Sarah Ashley Nickloes of the U.S. Air Force and Tennessee Air National Guard.

National Guard soldiers and airmen, alongside civilian emergency crews, lift mannequins and live actors onto stretchers.

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Full hides of brown and black leather are draped over a cart and wheeled by a worker from place to place in the maze-like Weinbrenner Shoe Company factory in Merrill.

“Not everybody realizes what goes into making the shoe. I always tell people, if you get a chance to tour a shoe factory, take it,” says Rick Hass, a costing engineer serving as a tour guide of the factory floor.

The factory, which produces premium shoes and boots sold under the Thorogood brand, dates to 1936.

It has low ceilings, some dark corners, and worker after worker focused on their task.

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Hans Breitenmoser Jr.’s mother and father came to northern Wisconsin as Swiss immigrants, searching for the American Dream.

“My parents started here in 1968. I was born in 1969. They made their career of this farm,” Breitenmoser said Wednesday. “They started out with 20 cows.”

The Merrill-area farm grew, and so did the family’s passion for the land, the career, and each other.

“My father just passed away in February at age 82. He’s buried right over there,” Breitenmoser said, choking up as he pointed to the road. “He made a good career.”

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Visitors to the shop floor at AirPro Fan in Rhinelander are greeted by a wall of sound and activity.

Forklifts dart here and there, welders send sparks flying, and industrial fans are moved from one place to another by ceiling-mounted lifts.

“What you’re going to see is all sorts of things going on, welding, machining, all sorts of things,” said AirPro’s Lori Miller on a recent tour.

One worker was slathering thick grease on a fan, applying the finishing touches.

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Walk into any restaurant in downtown Minocqua or Eagle River, and chances are it’s understaffed.

“If you drive around town, you’ll see pretty much every business has a ‘We’re Hiring’ or ‘Need Help’ sign out there,” said Stephen Coon, whose family owns Coontail Market in Boulder Junction and stores across Northern Wisconsin.

Coon is struggling to find enough employees this season.

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A florist cuts lush, green stems to the proper bouquet length in a well-lit work area.

Nearby, her coworker snips sharp thorns off of a rose about to go into an arrangement.

At the same time, Josh Jameson takes yet another phone call, chatting easily with a customer.

Jameson manages Flowers from the Heart on 5th, situated on 5th Avenue in the center of Antigo’s downtown.

Last year, the flower shop opened downtown and then moved to this new, bigger space next door just three weeks ago.

Ben Meyer/WXPR

On Tuesday, Joe Rivas walked up the creaky, wooden ramp to the hayloft of a decades-old, white-painted barn near Phillips.

Inside, hundreds of harvested cannabis plants hung on lines to dry.

The image was something like an upside-down Christmas tree farm.

Each is a variety of hemp, rich in the therapeutic substance cannabidiol, or CBD. They have little or no THC. That is, you can’t get high on anything grown here.

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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.

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On Tuesday afternoon, Matt Ellingson walked out of the Kwik Trip on Rhinelander’s east side with a few bottles of water and a snack from the store’s roller grill.

Yet again, he’s intentionally bypassed a restaurant or fast food joint to get something to eat at Kwik Trip.

“That’s exactly what I did today,” he said with a laugh. “I got a Tornado.”

Ellingson feels he knows what to expect at every Kwik Trip location.

“They’ve got good food, good prices, and the people are very friendly,” he said.

Ben Meyer/WXPR

Realtor Lisa Alsteen shows off the features of a century-old four-bedroom house near the courthouse in Rhinelander.

Painted blue on the outside, it has wood floors, a sunny living room, and an inviting porch in front.

Alsteen listed the home, located at 133 North Oneida Avenue, on Monday.

By midday Tuesday, several potential buyers had already been though for showings. She expected an offer wouldn’t take long.

That’s typical these days.

Last spring, the demand for Northwoods homes shot skyward, like nothing Alsteen has seen in her 18 years in realty.

Ben Meyer/WXPR

Population projections show our area is rapidly aging.

In 20 years, about a third of the population in the Northwoods will be age 65 or older.

That promises to put even more strain on employers seeking people to fill jobs, and many of those employers are already struggling to find enough workers.

But despite those trends, a new program in the School District of Rhinelander might help fill the gap for employers and their future workers.

Ben Meyer/WXPR

On Wednesday afternoon, Zach Suchomel strategized with his four teammates in advance of a match of Smite, an online battle arena game.

He suggested characters to use and to block as part of the game, each calculation aimed to give Tomahawk High School a better chance to beat Two Rivers High School.

Suchomel is a junior at Tomahawk and one of the leaders of the school’s eSports team.

Ben Meyer/WXPR

On Tuesday morning, Brendan Tuckey was putting the finishing touches on a germination incubator he built at his farm in Sugar Camp.

The chamber, about the size of a large locker, is heated to help vegetable seeds begin to sprout in the spring. It will get its first use in the coming weeks.

Tuckey and his wife Jenny own EverGood Farm, an organic vegetable farm serving the Northwoods.

Most years, they sell much of what they grow at local farmer’s markets. But as the pandemic spread last spring, they pulled the plug on that plan.

Ben Meyer/WXPR

Nathan Nuszkiewicz’s paintbrush is a chainsaw.

His canvas is a tree or a massive wood slab.

On Monday, he was outside his Rhinelander home and shop, working on a woodcarving to go on a roof peak at a customer’s home.

“It’s going to be a whole scene, where we’ve got the trees and the sky and the clouds and the sunset in the middle, and then, through that, there’s going to be an actual six- to six-and-a-half foot eagle flying out over the trees,” he explained.

Nathan’s wife and business partner, Erica, watched nearby.

Ben Meyer/WXPR

Heather Berklund never envisioned herself as the Chief State Forester.

She had worked for the DNR forestry division for two decades in the Northwoods, but didn’t have her mind set on the top job.

“I would say it was never on my radar that I would ever be talking to you in this role or be in this position,” Berklund said on a recent interview, conducted while snowshoeing through the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest near Woodruff.