June 20, Tuesday
At 10 am this morning, my parents and I pile into their van and drive two hours north on 51 to Minocqua, WI. We depart Rapids in the rain, a soaking kind of rain that threatens to last all day. But while the band is wide it’s not all that long, and we drive out of it north of Wausau.
When we arrive,we stop for lunch at a city park. Downtown Minocqua is literally an island in the middle of Minocqua Lake – if you look on a map, this whole region is riddled with natural lakes. It’s a touristy area, but not a built up as Wisconsin Dells an hour south of Rapids. A few little storms have popped up, and the sky is moody as we eat our pre-made sandwiches at a picnic table. I snap this photo of the fishing dock at the park after eating, with dark clouds behind.
After eating, we continue north to Woodruff, and then southeast on 47 to Clear Lake. I never spent a night in a RV until the night I brought my Casita home, but I did have a lot of tent camping experience, and this is where I got it. I have very fond memories of the week-long vacations my family would take up at Clear Lake Campground in Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest.
To me, this country up here is the northwoods. The State Forest covers 225,000 acres and I’m happy to see it has changed very little in the 17 years I’ve been gone (I was 16 the last year we came up here to tent camp). We pull into the campground and it’s like stepping into a memory.
Clear Lake Campground has 100 sites, all without hookups but most of which will fit RVs of varying lengths It’s considered a Tier 1 (modern) campground, meaning sites cost $25 a night for non-residents, $20 for WI residents – there is no entrance fee. Today the campground is maybe 1/3 full, but starting the last week in June visitation really picks up. There is a reservation website for the State Forest which covers Clear Lake among other campgrounds, and states the max length for each site and which ones have water access (dogs are allowed at all sites). 12 of the sites at Clear Lake are first-come-first-served and none of those are on the water.
This is not a good solar campground. All sites are well shaded, but generators are allowed between the hours of 10 am and 5 pm with a free permit (medical exemptions are available). Rangers do reserve the right to revoke that permit for people with excessively loud generators, and generators are not allowed to be left on when the site is unoccupied.
At the entrance near the visitor center is a dump station and water. The last year we came out here camping a shower house had just been put in (a huge deal at the time!) and it remains the only one in the park. There are also six vault toilet buildings, and water pumps sprinkled throughout the park.
The biggest attraction out here is the lake. Clear Lake is a natural feature with sandy beaches and it is exceptionally clear – you can still see the bottom at 30 feet. It’s 846 acres with several lobes, and almost completely located within the state forest – there are only a couple buildings along it (on the opposite end from the campground) and the rest is undeveloped. At its deepest point it’s 90 feet.
Fishing isn’t good on the lake, but a lot of campers bring boats for water skiing and other water sports. There’s a swim beach, a ski area, and several boat trailer parking lots in the campground. When my brother and I were younger, our family fishing boat was powerful enough to pull us on an inner-tube.
It’s been a wet year in Wisconsin and the lake level is unusually high, completely covering the sand and leaving the road to the boat ramp under a couple inches of water. We tour the campground, finding all of our old sites, then find a bench on the beach to enjoy a cool summer day. The clouds blow over with a little rain and the rest of the afternoon is pleasant.
There’s a lot of reminiscing. We came out here seven seasons over the course of nine years – it was always the highlight of my summer. Back when I was a child, I’d start worrying about having to go home again only a day or two after arriving and dad brings it up while we sit. I smile and reply: “Well, I found the solution. Now I camp all the time and never have to worry about the trip ending.”
After the campground tour we head next door to Raven Nature Trail, to do the 1.5 mile loop (marked as the yellow trail on the map) we did every year when coming out here. When I was young 1.5 miles seemed quite long, today it goes fast – even faster than I’d normally do it because the mosquitoes are the worst I’ve ever seen out here. It discourages me from trying one of the longer trails.
The yellow trail starts in a mixed old-growth forest with towering White Pine. My parents house has white pine as well, but for whatever reason they just don’t grow as tall down there as they do up here. Every time we hike the trail there are less of them due to storms and old age, and I wonder if any of them will be left after a 17 year absence. But I’m happy to report that several still remain, and are even more impressive than the last time. Tall trees are very hard to photograph well, you just can’t capture the scale. But here’s my attempt.
Then the trail enters a Hemlock grove ringing a marshy area. Very little light filters down to the forest floor through the thick canopy. I’ve always thought hemlock trees would make a great setting for a horror movie. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s already been done.
The bog is also quite neat. It’s covered in moss and dotted with stubby trees, you wouldn’t want to walk on it because it’s very spongy. Among the moss live two kinds of carnivorous plants: pitcher plants and sundews. Neither are very large and you have to look to find them. We spot pitcher plants today but not sundews – they aren’t as common. I get my favorite picture of the day at a tiny little pond full of lilly-pads in the middle of the marsh.
Supper is had back at Minocqua, where we’re spending the night at a Quality Inn. The Thirsty Whale has been around a long time, my dad remembers coming here as a kid. It’s located right on Minocqua Lake and the view and food is nice.
The next morning we head back south to Rapids. It’s been nice revisiting childhood memories and making new ones, and I’m happy to see that the northwoods is essentially how I remember it – a beautiful and wild place to get away from the hustle and bustle of modern-day life.