Vernacular Region of “Up North,” Wisconsin

Since moving to Wisconsin over a year ago, I’ve been trying to learn as much about the local topynymy and places of interest. One place that’s come up repeatedly when talking to students is “Up North,” referring to the relatively sparsely settled northern portion of the state. This “Up North” area is important to Wisconsin’s tourist economy and cultural identity. Many Wisconsin residents own property in the region, specifically to support their recreational pursuits.

But where is “Up North”? Many people in the Fox Valley refer to “Up North” jokingly being “100 miles north of where ever you are,” suggesting that the boundaries of this region are dependent upon where in Wisconsin the questioner is standing.

So, as my GEO 106 students were becoming familiar with Google Earth, I had them create a simple KMZ shape in the program to outline where they thought “Up North” was in the state.

I very quickly imported all 20 of these KMZs to QGIS, set them to yellow with an 85% transparency and no color for the outside stroke, and put a basemap under it to get this:

(Click for a larger version)
In the rationale by students for commonalities that set the region apart:


  • Out of 20 submitted, 16 of the students mentioned wilderness, nature, or being outdoors as the big draw to the region.
  • Another 13 of the students mentioned that there were relatively few people in the region or “no cities.”
  • Some 16 of the students gave had a generally positive of the region.
  • Four of the students mentioned conifer trees as being more prevalent.
  • For a handful of students, the boundaries of the region extended outside of Wisconsin.
  • Notice that the north-south boundary becomes more blurry farther west of the Fox Cities.


This might be something I look at a little more later… or perhaps not. Either way, I have a territory called “Up North” defined by people in the Fox Cities, based on a small sample.

Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.

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