The intersection of Hwy Y and the Iron Gate Road.
Exploring with Ryan T. O’Leary
Iron Gate Road leads west into the south of the Willow Flowage Scenic Waters Area from Highway Y to the east. Along this increasingly rough gravel road the explorer will find selective logging operations, an ATV trail, and a warren of hunting trails leading through thick underbrush and marshy low-lands. If one drives far enough, he or she finds a place where the road crosses a small inlet leading onto the reservoir. A culvert runs under the road, connecting lake to reservoir. To the right there is a small concrete boat-landing.
From the water, the explorer can pass within 30 feet of Iron Gate Road and the landing and never even know they were there. From the road, a person can easily drive past the inlet dozens of times without noticing the small concrete ramp – I am personally acquainted with people who have hunted off the Iron Gate Road for decades and were surprised when I told them a landing was back there.
This secret boat landing does not appear on any map of the Willow Flowage, it does not appear on any DNR information regarding the area, nor can one find it using Google. There are no signs marking it.
But now you can find it.
The hidden landing.
I have always been an explorer, and as I enter my fourth decade on this spinning rock I only find my wanderlust increasing. No matter how busy I get, rarely does a week go by when I do not pull on my hiking boots, load up the kayak, or hop on the bike to try to find somewhere I have never been before.
Exploration is one of the great joys of silent sports, and the upper Midwest offers nearly limitless opportunities. In Wisconsin alone, there are more than 70 state parks and forests, but many of the state parks are well-trod. The forests offer more opportunities for unexpected finds. Even a simple afternoon drive through the countryside will reveal unexpected prospects if one pays attention!
Even when I go looking for a particular location, I am forever finding myself in some other out-of-the-way place I never expected to be. My short afternoon trips unexpectedly increase by hours as I pull off the road to explore. In Wisconsin, there are 673 state natural areas. The smallest state natural area is less than one acre. The largest is more than seven thousand acres. There are literally hundreds more wildlife areas and fisheries. I cannot even begin to estimate the number county parks and forests.
I could spend the rest of my life exploring just one state and not discover everything it has to offer. I intend to try, though.
Slow down, read the clues
While the goal is to explore on foot, by canoe, or by bike, the savvy explorer knows that discovery can begin from behind the wheel of his or her smog-cougher. On the way to a trail, lake, or river, get off the main highway wherever possible. The more rustic the road, the better. Paying attention, one will begin to spot small brown signs everywhere. These indicate … something. Who knows what? Turn around, pull over, and find out. You will not be able to safely read them as you drive past. (Trust me.)
Remember what John Muir said: “Nothing can be done well at a speed of forty miles a day.”
Get familiar with the DNR’s website. There you can learn about the layout and rules of different natural parks or natural areas. I recall an afternoon when I drove to one state natural area only to find signage indicating that the area was the subject of a University of Wisconsin study and I should have University permission before wandering in. But I had spotted three brown signs along the way. Retracing my tire-tracks, I was soon enough atop a bluff in a tiny natural area, looking out over rolling farmland.
Not every forest or natural area has a brown sign, however. Some of them have small, simple, yellow or green-and-white signs. Others have only old, wooden, weather-beaten signs. Those are harder to spot, but that much more satisfying.
The road is rustic, so caution is advised.
The secret landing
The real joy, though, is when one finds a hidden, obscure feature … and that brings us back to the hidden landing on the Iron Gate Road. The landing itself is narrow and cracked, leading into a shallow bay. It might be accessible to small, high-riding cheater boats (that is, motor boats), but larger motor boats will be difficult to load or unload. Besides that, to say that the Iron Gate Road is rough would be an understatement. If you want to find the landing, you are advised to take an ATV or a four-wheel-drive and a canoe or a kayak.
A paddler might pass within 30 feet of the Iron Gate Road landing and not know it was there.
Once you are on the water, be extremely careful to take your bearings and memorize a few landmarks on the way out. The landing is invisible from the water until one is within about twenty feet of it, and the shoreline of the Willow Flowage itself is a confusing series of larger bays with nearly infinite nooks, all lined with indistinguishable pines. Even though I know where the landing is, I have to search for it every time I go back. The chief landmark I use is a long, comma-shaped island. It screens the smaller bay the landing occupies from the larger Back Bay.
The real beauty of the secret landing in my mind, of course, is how hidden it is and how far it is from any of the five more-established landings on the flowage. Though getting there by land requires a bumpy, half-hour drive down a rustic logging road, paddling there from the main landing would take two or three hours … one way. It is perfect for the explorer who wants to get quickly to the less crowded south-eastern sections for an afternoon’s paddle.
A short bit over and the landing opens up to view.
It has been said that there is nothing left to explore because everything has been discovered. Do not believe it. The true wanderer understands that to discover means to find something unexpectedly or in the course of a search. Even if someone else has been there before me, what of it? I have not been there before, and that is the important thing. Even more, the wanderer knows that there are still many places only the committed few will ever see, because only the committed few care enough to get there.
That is one of the greatest, truest joys of a life lived outside: to set out to find something – anything – knowing that whatever you are searching for, you will also find something unexpected. With any luck at all, it will be something that countless others have passed by because they were concentrating on where they were going, not on what they might find along the way.
The DNR skinny
The Wisconsin DNR offers an interactive mapping application for explorers to locate and learn about public access properties, including finding state and county properties, determining what activities are allowed, and locating landings and trails. Users may also search and add or subtract layers to include more or less detail.
Your personal stash
What hidden features have you found on your explorations? Write me at email@example.com, provide a set of directions like the one that opens this article, and I will try to follow them. Even if I get lost, I am sure I will find something. Then, if the adventure is cool, I will drag along my photographer (who happens to be my wife) and we’ll write it up. I am sure it will be cool. You are a Silent Sports reader, after all!