The lure of the North Woods

Tribune staff writer

It was a miserable morning, too cold for July, even for July in the North Woods. Steam rose from Van Vliet Lake. There was drizzle. There was wind, soft but eye-watering nonetheless.

Tim Bowler tried to keep the boat in coves the wind couldn't penetrate and where he had seen musky before and hoped to rouse one again.

"Cast with the wind," my guide said, but then the wind would pierce the shelter and it would swirl, and the waves would become confused, and casting--even with a lure heavy enough to bludgeon Shamu the Killer Whale into submission--would turn comical.

He would move the boat to another section of the lake, and things would improve for a while, and then the wind would find us yet again, and we would move again.

No fish.

"You don't see any of the locals out here today," he said. "Usually on a morning like this, you'd see a couple of boats.

"You couldn't have picked a worse day for this . . . "

He looked toward the sky.

"A bald eagle," he said.

And the day, suddenly, wasn't so miserable at all.

This is Wisconsin's North Woods. Geographically it's roughly the top third of the state. People up here will tell you it begins around the town of Tomahawk, about a six-hour drive from Chicago, and that seems to be where farmland cedes to lakes and forests for those coming up U.S. Highway 51 through Portage and Stevens Point and Wausau.

But where it begins and how far it extends and where it isn't and where it ends isn't the point. Even the towns--and there are towns--hardly matter.

Minocqua, no longer quaint, has stoplights, a major medical center, franchise restaurants and lodgings, even a Wal-Mart.

"You can go to a Wal-Mart anyplace," concedes Loren Anderson, who founded and runs the Snowmobile Hall of Fame 30 minutes east in St. Germain. "But what you can't do is go to Wal-Mart, then walk a couple of hundred feet, throw a hook in a lake and fish. That's what we have up here."

Aside from semi-bustling Minocqua and Eagle River and Hayward (and, up north, Ashland and Bayfield), Wisconsin's North Woods is mainly thousands of lakes--literally thousands, with world-class fishing--linked by county roads named B and L and K and W and the rest of the alphabet. Most of the backroads, some just wide enough to allow two Mini-Coopers to pass side by side and not all of them paved, have names that end in Lake: Big. Crab. Star.

Some lakes are rimmed with summer homes. Some have resorts. Some have nothing but water and wispy grasses and ducks.

The Chippewa Flowage is a thickening of the Chippewa River created by a dam in 1923. It is as close to a pure wilderness experience as anyone will find within a day's drive of the city. Much of it is surrounded by either national forest (the Chequamegon) or an Indian reservation (the Lac Corte Oreilles), and it is full of fish, some of them trophy-size muskies.

The original reservation village, long deserted, is on an island in the middle of the flowage, one of many islands out there. The ruins of an 1880s mission church are there, along with holes where bodies once rested (they were exhumed ahead of the flood) and two graves that were left alone, their headstones decorated with coins, or native tokens, or small gifts in the manner of many woodland and prairie tribes.

"It's a real sacred, special place," said Brenda Dettloff. She and her husband, John, were married on this island, within those ruins, four years ago; 150 guests arrived by a flotilla of fishing boats.

The two, along with John's mother, Pat, run the Indian Trail Resort on a bank of the flowage, not far from New Post, the village created to replace the one on the island. The dirt road dead-ends at the resort. There are a few cabins, a bar and a bunkhouse with a two-holer on one end, a shower on the other and private one-bed cubicles in between.

This is a place for musky hunters. The bar--open only when most boats are off the lake--has rough beams covered with musky lures. John Dettloff, a well-regarded fishing guide around here, is holding a 20-year-old bait he figures is worth $400.

"I just traded it for a book worth $200," he said, "and that's OK. He wanted the book and I wanted the bait--and neither of us is going to trade them away."

The resort has been here since 1937 and in his family since the early '70s. It hasn't changed much.

"It's the last of the North Woods fishing camps," he said. Other resorts have more services and facilities, "and they're nice," he said, "but they could be anyplace in the world. When you're here, you know you're in the North Woods, in Wisconsin. Here, the loons put you to sleep at night . . . "

One of those other resorts is Coon's Franklin Lodge, over toward the Minocqua side of the North Woods, officially in Arbor Vitae. If the loons on Trout Lake don't put you to sleep at Coon's, they'll send someone over with warm, enhanced milk.

The Coon family has been soothing visitors since 1892. There are, today, four tennis courts and a putting green, a clubhouse with a pool table and foosball for the kids, arranged flowers and manicured lawns.

The cost at Coon's of a week in a cottage for two, with three meals, is roughly the same as the cost per couple of a mid-priced, one-week Caribbean cruise.

No credit cards. There is no Web site. They don't advertise. They don't have to, and they don't want to.

"Eighty-five to 90 percent of our guests are repeats," said Phillip Coon. "We like to be comfortable with who is coming in here," said his mother, Nan.

"I admire them, because they run a wonderful resort," said Audrey Voss Dickerson. "Wonderful place."

Audrey Voss Dickerson is 93 years old. Her father, Henry, built Voss' Birchwood Lodge and Resort in 1910 a couple of miles from Coon's with winnings from Saratoga Racetrack.

It isn't a musky camp, and it isn't a country club, though among the favored guests were the acting Lunts (who preferred the Homestead cabin). It's one more expression of "North Woods"--17 cabins and a big log lodge with a fireplace, all on Spider Lake near Manitowish Waters.

"I was born here, at the depot in Manitowish," she said. "My grandmother delivered me. My mother was on her way to Rhinelander, and I said, `No, I want to be a Manitowish gal.'

"[Our resort is] about the only one left up here, of this type."

Now, along with fish and forests and hiking and biking trails and golf and resorts and cabins, there is history in the North Woods. Not far from the Voss family business was, and is, another business: a lodge called Little Bohemia.

This is from a PBS Web site:

"On April 24, 1934, special agents from the Chicago and St. Paul offices traveled to Little Bohemia, Wisconsin. They had received a tip that the [John] Dillinger gang was staying there . . . "

The tip, according to Audrey Voss Dickerson, came from--Audrey Voss Dickerson.

"I told the FBI they were here," she said. "You see, my aunt was married to the Little Bohemia owner, and I used to date [FBI agent] Melvin Purvis. And I told him that Dillinger was scheduled to come up there . . . "

Ever meet Dillinger?

"Oh, sure," she said. "We went over to see how [my aunt] was doing with this bunch, and he came in and just looked us over. I was introduced to him. Baby Face Nelson. If you didn't know who they were, you'd think they were just average tourists . . . "

There was a gunfight. Dillinger and friends, and Purvis, escaped; Purvis would have his date with Dillinger two months later outside the Biograph Theater. Little Bohemia, which endured as a supper club with some bulletholes preserved as souvenirs, is open but for sale.

Seventy years later, Audrey Voss Dickerson, alert and delightful, greets visitors in the family lodge.

"I love the place," she said. "My daughter loves it. My grandson, who's the chef, he loves it . . . "

The North Woods is changing. The folks at Voss' are hanging on, and the Coons, and the Dettloffs and the Dillmans up at Lac du Flambeau and the Bowlers farther up by Presque Isle--they're all clinging to something that has endured for generations.

But there are pressures. Land values, family situations and uncertain economics have forced some resorts to subdivide or sell to developers.

"There were eight or nine resorts on this lake in 1990," said Bowler, who with wife Kim owns Alpine Resort. "Now there's three left, and the two other ones are for sale right now."

"On our road," said Stephanie Dillman Skotterud, whose family built and owns Dillman's Bay Resort, "there's a 4,000-square-foot home that went up. They didn't do the lake cabin; they did the lake home--to entertain their socialite friends."

Realtor Bob Werner of Manitowish Waters said that while seasonal cabins on water can still be had for as little as $125,000 ("Anything less than $125,000 is unlikely to be habitable") and that teardowns "are not epidemic," his office just sold a house for $2.89 million

"Our prices," he said, "have made it difficult to buy."

Some are making adjustments. The Eagle River-St. Germain-Minocqua corridor has become a snowmobiler mecca; the first snowmobile was built in 1924, by Carl Eliason, next door in Sayner.

"Snowmobiling is about 50 percent of the economy up here," said Anderson, of the Hall of Fame, "and that didn't happen until the early '70s. You could shoot a cannon through the main street of Eagle River and Minocqua in January and February back in the '50s and '60s, and you'd never hit anybody."

But even Anderson knows that snowmobiling, though a lifeblood, isn't the essence of the North Woods.

"It's peace," he said. "Serenity. It's loons. The northern lights. The clear skies. All those things that people will drive six to eight hours to get to--and I was born in Chicago, so I know."

Christina Breault was born in Oklahoma. A Choctaw, she is director of the Ojibwe Museum and Cultural Center on the reservation in Lac du Flambeau. Why a Choctaw is running an Ojibwe facility is a question whose answer is too complicated to address here--but it's an excellent museum, one of the small jewels of the North Woods.

"Most of the things you see in the seasonal dioramas are still done here today--wild rice gathering, cranberry picking, ice fishing," she said.

The museum is supported in part by the reservation's casino. There are other casinos in the North Woods. "Mixed," she said of the impact on the native people, and that's another complicated issue.

What isn't complicated is Breault's love for this land.

"The seasons, the trees, the lakes--I would never exchange this for anything," she said. "I have the perfect environment right here . . . "

Tim Bowler had moved the boat toward the middle of Van Vliet Lake, not far from Novak Island--whose lone resident is yet another story for another time. There are walleye in this lake, northerns and bass and the usual assortment of panfish.

Bowler used to fly fish, he said as he flicked his lure downwind.

"But the musky thing gets in your blood," he said, reeling in. "When it hits, no matter how often it's happened, it's a rush . . . "

He stopped talking.

"There's a fish . . . "

Something had followed his bait to the boat.

"It's a big one . . . "

Bowler moved the bait though the water alongside the boat in a figure-eight, hoping to induce a hit. Nothing. He stared at the water for a time, saw only water, reeled in, then sent the lure back out into the lake.

"It was a good fish. Probably a 40-incher. Did you see it?"

"I saw something," I said. Maybe I had. I wanted to have seen something . . .

Darkness comes late to the North Woods in July. I wanted to know for sure I'd seen a fish in the North Woods.

Alone on a dock at Alpine Resort, after dinner, the wind still a factor but the dampness gone, I cast my lure into Van Vliet Lake and retrieved it. Cast again, retrieved it again. And cast again--but this time, there was no plunk.

For aficionados: The line was 20-pound test, the lure was a 1-ounce Dardevle, the tree was a white birch. The lure is still up there.

Soaring overhead, I want to believe, was a bald eagle.

It was good to be in the North Woods. Back in the cabin, I fished a cold Leinie out of the cooler and sprawled out on the couch.

And there, hoping at least to dream about what I probably didn't see in Van Vliet Lake, I waited for the lullaby of the loons.

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