Lights of the Northwoods Brings
Joy of Christmas to Rhinelander

Fireworks orchestrated to patriotic music closes the display on the evening of January 1st.

By Kathy Cutforth, Correspondent

Twinkling lights, hot cocoa, the smile of a child, the camaraderie of friends.

These seasonal joys are what keep the volunteers of Lights of the Northwoods going, facing the elements day after day to keep the Holiday Lights Festival up and shining in Rhinelander during the month of December.

The display has been an annual tradition at Hodag Park for six years. This year, it starts on Friday, December 2nd, and is open every evening from 5:00 to 9:00 pm, culminating in a New Year’s Day Fireworks display at 7:00 pm on Sunday, January 1, 2023.

Lighting an entire park is a complex task, not unlike putting on a theatrical show each year, and one that gets bigger and better each year, involving people from throughout the community.

“This year we have extended the walking path and are installing speakers to have music throughout the park, not just on FM radio,” said Joy Pollack, club head of marketing and promotions. ”We also plan to show movies or clips in the new park amphitheater, at least during our activity weekends.”

Two activity weekends, planned for December 9th, 10th, 16th and 17th, will have family-fun activities centered around the Lions Pavilion from 5:00 to 8:00 pm. The pavilion is located next to the boat landing parking lot and the beginning of the lighted walking trail. There, visitors can enjoy a bonfire and the concession stand, and children can participate in crafts, activities and visit Santa, which includes a free downloadable photo from Jack Flint of Flintography.

Visit Santa on December 9th, 10th, 16th and 17th from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm.

Collections of nonperishable food donations are split between the Elcho, Rhinelander and Tomahawk Food Pantries, and monetary donations for the display and community nonprofits are collected every night throughout the month. Donations are voluntary and visitors can  as often as they like.

Quoting the proverb, “Many hands make light work,” Don Hoppe, president, is grateful for the help of local businesses, dozens of volunteers and the many community groups and youth organizations that make Hodag Park a center of festive cheer each season.

Behind the scenes, a core group of 15 to 20 members, half of which are “active” retirees, meet every month to plan, manage, finance and promote the event. Anyone can participate and pitch their ideas to make it even better.

”We try to be welcoming and open to new ideas from anyone,” said Don. “It is not your typical meeting. After a while, you need outside input to avoid group think. …  We try to keep things fun and leave personalities and politics at the door.”

Scott Campbell (left) and Jill Bishop zip-tie electrical cords onto a stake. Scott has designed and built three new displays this year, including “A Hodag Nutcracker”.

Joy noted, “We do not rest all year long. As soon as the fireworks display is over, we take it all down and start over. People think that they have to be out in the cold to help, but that is not true all the time.” There are plenty of indoor opportunities all year, especially in fundraising, volunteer recruitment and publicity.

The infrastructure group, led by Karen Marquardt, is most visible just prior to, during and after the event, spending many hours to create, repair and maintain the displays. Three weeks before the grand opening, they began the task of unspooling 1,900 feet of extension cords in subzero temperatures and testing and repairing light displays.

The elements, squirrels and human “two-legged squirrels” ravage the lights, requiring nearly daily repairs. Various tactics have been tried to discourage squirrels, who love soy-based plastic coatings and gnaw on the LED bulbs, which apparently resemble tree buds and unopened pinecones. Soy-free lighting, repellents, traps, placing lights out of reach on the very tips of branches and setting up feeding areas away from the lights have all been tried, but have only slightly diminished the problem.

Lights can snap in the bitter cold or with friction, or short out. Humans have been more difficult to combat, even with increased police patrols and trail cameras. Unfortunately, a few minutes of vandalism can result in hours of repair work to reset displays and replace whole strings of lights rendered worthless with a single snip.

Hands and faces reddened by sub-freezing temperature and wind, the volunteers note the damage with a practiced eye. They will come back later for repairs and try to not let the damage get them down. “We do this for the smiles and the thanks we get every night,” said Don.

“As the song says, we do it for ‘kids from 1 to 92,’” said Scott Campbell, who has created many custom light displays in his home workshop, including a few featuring Rhinelander’s famous horned green mascot, the Hodag. “We like to bring a bit of Christmas whimsy and fun to everyone.”

Fellow volunteers agree. Snow, ice, wind, vandals and squirrels can’t stop them. The children are waiting, community pride is at stake, and the show must go on.

Cold doesn’t stop these volunteers, but there other ways to help as well.

How to Help

    • Bring nonperishable food items and cash to donate during evening hours.
    • Contact the organization via Facebook or their website to volunteer. Immediate needs are for additional help to man collections at the exit (with a warming shed) on weeknights, more help during the day with repairs, assistance with publicity, managing Facebook and writing thank-you notes, and help with taking the display down in January. Cookies and candy are welcome for Santa. Ideas and other volunteer help are needed throughout the year.
    • Become a sponsor or donate via the Lights of the Northwoods website.  Various donor levels are available. In-kind donations are also welcome.  Contact the organization for details.
 Photos courtesy of Lights of the Northwoods and by Northwoods News Staff

Lights of the Northwoods shine brightly over the south shore of Boom Lake.

This may be the last year to see Santa and his three little Hodags, created by Scott Campbell five years ago.