Fresh powder and cozy cabins, Minocqua is the perfect winter weekend getaway.
Winter in the Lakeland Area reveals many facets of tranquility. Green spires of spruce or white birch against a deep blue sky. Icicles shining silver under a pale winter sun. A vast expanse of snowy lake, dotted with colorful ice fishing shanties. These are just a few of the iconic portraits of winter painted daily in the Northwoods from first snow through spring thaw.
Such images are abundant across the Lakeland landscape. Thanks to more than a million acres of public forest, there’s ample opportunity to escape to a place where tranquility prevails and beauty is in the details — a bunch of red berries on a low-growing shrub, gnarled branches on a centuries-old tree, or the perfect symmetry of a stand of tamarack when a trail runs through the middle of it.
Snowmobiling is a staple of Northwoods winter recreation, and for some, tranquility is embodied in the peaceful landscape. The DNR manages more than 25,000 miles of state snowmobile trails. Some of its most scenic trails are in the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest, the Willow Flowage Scenic Waters Area and the Bearskin State Trail, all readily accessible from the Minocqua area.
But winter is a naturally quiet time of year. Somehow the sounds of the forest — the cry of a blue jay, the neighborly call note of the chickadee and the nasal beep-beep of red- and white-breasted nuthatches — seem to accentuate rather than disrupt the silence.
The Wisconsin DNR manages 700 miles of trails throughout the state for the silent sports of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, many of them in the snow- laden Northwoods. A search at www.dnr.wi.gov yields an abundance of quiet winter recreation spots in the Lakeland area, including Schlecht Lake, a DNR-owned property with six miles of ski trails supported with funding from a local service club.
Another popular destination for silent sports is Minocqua Winter Park (minocquawinterpark.org), a town park operated by the not-for-profit Lakeland Ski Touring Foundation. Some 50 miles of park trails promise adventure, serenity and natural beauty. Skis, snowshoes and pulks (sleds for pulling the little ones) are available for rent within the park. Kids will love the 400-foot snow tube run, open on weekends and daily around Christmas and New Year’s. The park is also the scene of some of the most picturesque ice skating in the state.
There’s much to see in the winter woods, if you’re moderately observant. Tracking is a skill best learned with the help of a good field guide. One animal that’s easy to track without a field guide is the otter. Otters are social creatures, and if you’re fortunate enough to catch them at it, it’s great fun to watch them sliding down hillsides just for the fun of it. You’ll have a higher probability of seeing them if you keep an eye out for signs of their movement. Because they have very short legs, they move with a hop-hop-slide pattern, and the telltale slide, usually two or three feet in length interrupted by tracks, is easy to spot.
“There’s wildlife to be seen every month of the year, it’s just a matter of observing” adds DNR wildlife biologist Jeremy Holtz, who shares his enthusiasm for the natural world through a local newspaper column and Wildlife Matters, a regular feature on WXPR radio. “There’s no substitute for being curious and getting your feet out on the trail,” he says. “That’s the only way you’re going to learn what’s out there to see. It’s how I keep learning.” The DNR offers tracking
classes to encourage people to volunteer in its wildlife population surveys. Visit dnr.wi.gov/topic/wildlifehabitat/training.html for details.
Bare trees and vast expanses of wild space make birding an appealing winter recreation, when birds are less able to hide from our field glasses. During a hard winter, snowy owls make their way south from the Arctic, and can sometimes be glimpsed in open fields or marshy areas in the Lakeland area. Eric Kroening, a DNR wildlife technician based in Woodruff, says it’s not unusual to see trumpeter swans as the seasons change, and notes that once lakes begin freezing over, other migrating waterfowl tend to congregate wherever there’s open water. The water often stays open where the Minocqua chain flows east of Woodruff, offering great seasonal viewing. (Take County Highway J east, just past Highway 47, turn right on Hatchery Road, then left on Woodruff Road. From the intersection of Hatchery and Woodruff roads, you can usually see open water.) Open water is also a good place to see bald eagles, which may be seen in greater numbers than in summer.
Every once in a while, a blustery winter day seems better left to the birds. That’s the right kind of day to build a blazing fire, pop some corn and brew up some cocoa (rum and brandy additives optional), and break out the cards and board games. Any Northwoods cabin worth its salt is sure to have a bookshelf stocked with old paperbacks, and even some newer titles, like those in the Loon Lake series written by local author Victoria Houston. Be sure to keep a quilt or afghan handy for when the afternoon turns languid and drowsing off for a nap feels like the height of luxury.
Indeed, winter is the prime season for self-indulgence. Time seems to stand still when the snow flies, and that gives us all the time in the world to bring to life our own favorite daydreams of beauty, contentment and joyful recreation.