Skiers love Minocqua, but the area has much to offer paddlers and bikers, too
by Mike Ivey
Thanks to Minocqua Winter Park, the spectacular 6,500-acre playground with 75 miles of groomed trails, many fitness sports devotees know the “Lakeland” area for its cross-country skiing.
Family-friendly with a cozy warming house and full-service ski shop, Winter Park has long attracted Nordic skiers from around the Midwest. Often, it presented the closest place with dependable snow for skiers in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
And as one of the first trail systems to groom for the skating technique as early as the 1980s, Winter Park quickly became uber popular with Birkie skiers. We’d frequently drive up from Madison after work on Fridays, grab a room in Minocqua and spend the weekend trying to figure out this new “freestyle” thing on trails like River Run or Steeple Chase.
But once the snow was gone, so were we. Warmer weather meant riding bikes on the hilly roads of southern Wisconsin or paddling northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
We figured Minocqua was best left in summer to the power boaters.
Yet as the locals have long known, there is no shortage of outdoor excitement when the ski trails aren’t open: great paddling, hiking, mountain biking and, yes, road riding abound. It’s not a question of what to do but whether there is enough free time to fit it all in.
Paddling adventures await
A lot of the fun revolves around the 2,500 lakes in Vilas and Oneida counties. Tourism officials have even trademarked the phrase “Nature’s Original Water Park.”
“You can literally walk five miles in any direction and you’re going to get wet,” says Andy Teichmiller, owner of Chequamegon Adventure Company on U.S. Highway 51 in downtown Minocqua.
While Minocqua has a reputation for big boats and water skiing, Teichmiller caters to the paddle crowd looking for a different kind of experience. The inside of the store and the parking lot are loaded with kayaks, canoes and standup paddleboards (SUPs) both new and used.
For those seeking easy access to quiet waters, Teichmiller will often send customers to Clear Lake in the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest just five miles east of Woodruff off Wisconsin Highway 47.
Clear Lake offers paddlers a chance to explore some of the history of the area by visiting the collection of “early settlers” cabins along the eastern shore of the lake. Several paddle-in campsite are available from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources which manages the property.
If you are looking for a bit more of an adventure, Teichmiller suggests scouting out the Bittersweet Lakes Wilderness Area north of Wisconsin Highway 70. Four small lakes in the state-owned forest are connected by portage trails with secluded backcountry camping rewarding those who make the effort.
“It’s like a mini Sylvania,” says Teichmiller, drawing comparisons to the popular “no motor” canoeing area on the Wisconsin-Upper Peninsula border.
I took Teichmiller up on his offer during a visit in September and managed to find the landing at Bittersweet Lake along a one-lane rutted road a mile in from the highway. The drive isn’t easy but you will be treated to an immediate wilderness experience.
“There is a sign, but it’s not a big one,” laughs Krystal Westfahl, the new executive director of the Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce.
With a background in silent sports, including a four-year stint as a kayak guide in the Apostles Islands, Westfahl was hired in 2014 to lead the business boosting group in part because of her interest in nonmotorized outdoor sports. The chamber represents the communities of Minocqua, Arbor Vitae, Woodruff and Lake Tomahawk.
“We want people to know there is more to do in the Northwoods than jet skiing and crazy boating,” says Westfahl, a native of Appleton who attended Northland College in Ashland.
Road & trail riding options
Bicycling in particular is getting a major push these days.
A network of paved, off-road bike trails are proving extremely popular with both visitors and year-round residents, including the 50-mile “Heart of Vilas County Bike Trail” connecting Boulder Junction with Manitowish Waters, Sayner and St. Germain. The latest addition is a new 10-mile paved trail from the DNR’s Clear Lake campground to Lake Tomahawk in Oneida County.
The Lakeland Area Mountain Biking Organization, or LAMBO, is also working hard to improve and promote the fat tire riding scene. The Raven Trail, just east of Woodruff, is well known to cross-country skiers, but during the warmer months it turns into a challenging off-road dirt trail featuring loops up to five miles in length.
This fall LAMBO held a two-day “Bike-Oh-Rama” with organized rides on the Raven Trail and the new WinMan Trail near Winchester in Vilas County. Spanning 1,300 acres of private and public land, the WinMan is open to hiking, classic and skate skiing, snowshoeing and winter fat biking.
“Fat biking is getting huge,” said Teichmiller, who also sells and services bicycles at the Chequamegon Adventure Company. A native of the Lakeland area, he opened the retail and rental store 17 years ago after a stint in the restaurant business.
“This was a wonderful place to grow up,” says Teichmiller, 45, whose father Erv has long been active in the outdoors scene and helped launch the Lakeland Recreation Foundation to get kids off the couch and into the wild.
Ken Schoville doesn’t qualify as a Lakeland native but he comes close.
Schoville was drawn to the area some 40 years ago by the Nordic skiing opportunities and ended up making his career as a teacher in the Lakeland public schools. While skiing remains his passion, Schoville says the Northwoods bicycle riding doesn’t get the credit it deserves.
In fact, Schoville thinks the road riding rivals anywhere else in the Midwest.
“I know people think Madison is the epicenter for the biking scene and rightfully so. But there are just so many roads up here and so many options,” says Schoville, 65.
Putting it all together
One of the bigger heavy sweating events of the summer is the annual See Me Tri Triathlon in August. It offers both a sprint and Olympic distance race with a swim in Clear Lake and a bike ride on low traffic county highways along the southern edge of the Rainbow Flowage. The running portion is on the Raven Trail.
Like a lot of Northwoods communities, the Lakeland area is also seeing an influx of outdoor-minded baby boomers hoping to stay active in retirement.
Leann and Jeff Malison moved up north in 2011 after careers in the Madison area and keep discovering new places to explore. On a late summer afternoon, they were taking kayaks from the Chequamegon Adventure Company for a test paddle on the Turtle Flambeau Flowage south of Mercer.
“How did we ever find time to work?” jokes Jeff Malison, former director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Aquaculture Program.
But Westfahl of the Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce says it’s a mistake to assume it’s only retirees or older people that are interested in silent sports activities.
“It’s not just baby boomers,” she says. “We’re seeing the dynamics of a changing population that is more interested in these kinds of things. I’m in my 30s, and it’s so amazing to live in a place like this.”
Mike Ivey, recently retired from a 30-year career as a reporter with The Capital Times newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, is an avid bicyclist, paddler and cross-country skier.