A Time Portal: The Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad: Chef, other workers recommend Northwoods train trip

You may have come to northwest Wisconsin for the lakes and the woods or for the fishing and hunting. But you’ve probably seen them—the shiny orange, or blue or silver train cars—chugging along Highway 53 near Trego and have wondered how you could get on board. You don’t have to be a train enthusiast to find the whole idea of a bed and breakfast or, just a scrumptious dinner on a train, attractive. But the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad offers a unique experience that you definitely want to add to your bucket list.

The train chef, Paul Zirkle, refers to the trip as “a time portal.” When you enter it, Zirkle says you can just “relax and forget about things, time slows down,” adding “you sit back and enjoy the train and the people.”

The Great Northern Railroad offers the only moving bed & breakfast on an operating train in the country. Since it first started, it has hosted more than 25,000 overnight train guests. And people are still flocking from far and near to the depot.

Here’s the deal: you too can be a part of this adventure. There is plenty of time for fishing and hunting, and when you’ve had enough for the day, you can head over to the train for an experience you’ll never forget.

Overnight guests arrive at the depot in Trego around 5 p.m. each Tuesday through Saturday night, locate their Pullman room and bring their luggage to the bedroom to settle in. After that, it’s time to head to the lounge car to join other dinner guests for cocktails (from a well-stocked cash bar) and delicious hors d’oeuvres lovingly crafted by Chef Paul. The train departs the station around 6 p.m., at which point, a dinner salad and soup will be served, followed your choice of five main entrees served.

If you have visited the area before, you already know the scenery of rural northwest Wisconsin—breathtakingly beautiful with open farm fields, deep lush woods. There is also a view of the Namekagon River and The Veazie Spring where the train stops while dinner is served. After dinner, it heads farther north before making its way slowly back to the depot.

There are no houses here, no roads, no people or cars. Animals, however, are common and abundant: eagles, osprey, bears, deer, martins, badgers, otters, woodchucks and beavers. In fact, seeing the critters are one of the things that delighted Chef Paul Zirkle when he first arrived in the area.

“I recently got a video of a mama bear and three cubs,” said Zirkle, who is originally from West Virginia. “I’ve seen a martin, badgers, a porcupine, and bald eagles are everywhere.”

While Chef Paul enjoys the wildlife, he also loves the feeling of working on the train and being part of something larger.”

While many have spoken highly of the dinner train food offerings, hiring Zirkle definitely meant taking the culinary experience on the train to a new level. The main menu will also change eventually and is seasonal, but Zirkle always is using his creativity when conjuring up surprising hors d’oeuvres.   Greg Vreeland, owner and operator of the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad, hunted Zirkle down and convinced him to come to northwestern Wisconsin.

He refers to Zirkle as more than just a chef, but a personality.

“Chef Paul clearly enjoys people,” Vreeland said. “He loves to not only serve culinary surprises, but to also talk about them as well. And he loves talking about trains.”

Vreeland also emphasized that Chef Paul has added a lot of exciting new flavors to the train food with a lot of spices and that he has experience with a tremendous range of cuisine from Indian to Mexican to Middle Eastern foods.

Zirkle’s last stop before Trego, Wis. was Indianapolis, so he especially appreciated the cooler, dryer climate. But he also appreciated the people.

“They are so sweet,” Zirkle says. “People help each other here. They’re constantly having these little shindigs, raising money.”

Chef Paul isn’t the only personality that train riders will get to meet.

“Franklin” the bartender on the Great Northern, and “Lynton” the engineer, also love to get to know the passengers.

Lynton comes from a family with a long line of engineers, but because of colorblindness, he was unable to run a train for a major railroad. Since the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad doesn’t have any colored signals, Lynton could finally accomplish his lifelong dream. Lynton the engineer loves to share his knowledge of trains and its history with passengers.

Some lucky guests might also get a tour by Greg Vreeland’s son, Alexander. By the age of 7, Alexander knew more about trains and their history than most of us will know in a lifetime.

Zirkle and the other workers on this train believe that this has it all.

“Come and visit us,” Zirkle says. “If you love trains, if you want to be taken care of and want to experience something really neat, this is where you want to be. Come for the laughter, for the camaraderie. I think we have the best train.”

Vreeland loves the wonderful state parks in the area, the Potter’s Shed, the woodcarving museum in Shell Lake and, of course, the Spooner Railroad Memories Museum that has exhibits that focus on the larger train engines and also features interesting, smaller artifacts like tools, china and advertising. The owner and the staff of the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad are eager to tell area visitors about the other favorite northwest Wisconsin spots. For example, the Trego River Trail has a trailhead located on Highway 63, just after 53 and 63 split off from each other in Trego, that’s ready to explore.

All the information on the train experience and the area is available at the depot, including a brochure with other train-related outings.