Paddling the Northern Highlands
By Peter Nordgren
Editor’s Note: Silent Sports is privileged to have the expertise and experience of Peter Nordgren as he offers an amazing, multi-day paddling option that is second to none in the Upper Midwest. Peter is a lifelong paddler, Birchleggings skier, and North Country Trail maintainer. (Thank you!) He’s also a retired UW-Superior administrator and lives in Cornucopia, WI.
If the Boundary Waters are too far from you, if permits are filling up for Sylvania Wilderness, or if you want new country to explore, the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest (NHAL) in Vilas and Oneida counties, Wisconsin, are awaiting you and your watercraft.
Within the NHAL, over 100 paddle-only campsites are as equipped as those in the Boundary Waters. Most are first-come, first-served. Well-marked portages of reasonable lengths connect the waterways. The relatively level, sandy terrain means you won’t climb big hills or scramble over rocks while carrying your watercraft and gear. No permits required; put in and paddle.
Sometimes you’ll be in cabin and resort country, part of the charm. However, when you reach an isolated lake or river campsite, or pass through a state natural area, you’ll be as much on your own as you might be on the Kawishiwi River or off the Gunflint Trail. However, the online link to the NHAL Canoe Route Map, provided below, has five recommended water trails in the Forest, or you can request the larger print version, DNR Publication FR-179, by calling 888-936-7463. You can also plan your own multi-day routes, using the maintained portages or, where needed, the public roads and state lands for short crossings between the waterways.
What follows is a circular route traveled by this writer, beginning and ending at Plum Lake near Sayner.
Plum Lake to Ballard Lake
Plum is a classic Northwoods resort and cabin lake, with overnight parking at the West Plum landing. The lake is long and narrow, with a portage to Star Lake through the Plum Lake Hemlocks State Natural Area. It’s shady and dark, untouched, as though from over a hundred years ago.
Star Lake, large and U-shaped, sits mostly surrounded by state forest. To the northeast, you will see the unincorporated community of Star Lake. Paddling northwest, at the narrows, you can lift watercraft and gear over an access road to a winding channel leading to the smaller Little Star Lake.
NHAL no longer maintains a portage between Little Star and Ballard lakes, so ignore older maps to the contrary. Instead, you can take out onto the right-of-way of adjacent County Highway K. It’s a few hundred feet down the shoulder to Camp No. 2 Road. A few hundred feet farther, a woods-lined road on state forest land leads to Irving Lake, about 419 acres, averaging 8-feet deep, abundant with fishing opportunities like Bass, Muskie and Walleye. A short paddle across Irving, through a culvert, down a short winding stream, leads you to Ballard Lake, about 500 acres, averaging 25 feet in depth, and noted for its clarity. Two campsites are on the north shore.
Ballard Lake to Lost Canoe Lake
From Ballard Lake, you can portage a recently logged but clearly marked trail to Partridge Lake. At 235 acres, but averaging nine-feet in depth, the waters offer fishing opportunities such as Northern, and Large and Smallmouth Bass.
Crossing Partridge leads to Partridge Creek, which is lightly traveled with no established portage. You will pull your watercraft through about 200 yards of rocky, brushy stream, but then find yourself in an open section of winding beaver meadow.
After three miles, Partridge Creek opens into Nixon Lake, 116 acres and shallow, only five-feet deep at its deepest, covered with waterlilies, but with Bluegill, Bass, and Walleye, and an attractive campsite on its north shore. A wide channel leads into Nixon Creek where, in season, you’ll find bright bog flora along the shoreline. Passing through a narrows, you’ll join the Manitowish River.
If you paddle the Manitowish, John Bates’s Book, River Life, is a must-companion to enhance your experience, sharing in detail the waterway’s hydrology, geology, geography, plant life, animal life, and cultural history. Keep an eye out for albino deer; this area has the largest number of these rare animals in the state.
After carrying around the logging-era Fishtrap Dam, you can head downstream on free-flowing water, where you may find wild rice sprouting in the shallows. After two miles, you can take a channel to Little Rice Lake, a 50-acre lake, seven feet at its deepest, with a public landing to Boulder Junction’s main street. Boulder Junction, with its restaurants, inns, and hiking, biking, and paddling opportunities, is a place to refresh as well as its own silent sports destination.
After your visit to this tourist mecca, head upstream on White Sand Creek through its namesake 746-acre lake, offering 71-foot-deep waters with Musky, Bass, Pike, and Walleye. Make sure to look for the NHAL’s typical yellow portage signage to take you to Lost Canoe Lake. Lost Canoe, at under 280 acres, has a deep point of 41 feet, with Pike, Muskie, Bass, and Walleye. Choose from three campsites.
Lost Canoe Lake to Allequash Lake
Portaging to the 160-acre, 60-foot-deep Palette Lake takes you through the Northern Highland Fishery Research Area, a group of four lakes where, since 1946, every fish caught has been weighed and measured. Here, a special permit is required to fish for Walleye, Smallmouth Bass, Pike, and panfish. At Stevenson Springs, carry over a small dam; in Stevenson Creek beyond, you may find active beavers and several of their dams. You can shoot a culvert under County Highway M, and emerge on Trout Lake. There are four miles to paddle to cross this open, 4000-acre lake, one of the largest of Vilas County’s (over) 1,300 lakes. Cathedral Point awaits you at the center of the hourglass-shaped lake. Stop to climb its rise, among pines reaching cathedral-spired heights of 130 feet, to capture the stunning views of the water and forests.
Heading south for two more miles, you can turn upstream on Allequash Creek. Do a lift-over of Lake Shore Drive, and portage if the current becomes too swift, at a bike trail bridge and at the Highway M culvert. Allequash Lake, a half mile upstream, offers four campsites in a state natural area. These sites require reservations and a fee.
Allequash Lake to Plum Lake
Allequash, at over 400 acres, is about 24-feet deep at its deepest, with Bluegill, Muskie, Walleye, Bass, and Pike. On the southeast side, you’ll find Allequash Creek, narrow but navigable, and, after about 2/3’s of a mile, a snowmobile trail to lift over to an open beaver meadow. There you will pass several research instruments of the UW-Madison Trout Lake Station, which has studied the waters of this region for more than a century.
At the headwaters, Allequash Springs, you’ll discover classic Northwoods scenery among its 8 acres, and the chance to catch both brown and rainbow trout. A portage on a walk-in path takes you to Escanaba Lake Road, across from 66-acre Starrett Lake. The campground here requires no reservations; just self-register near the campground entrance.
To complete the circle, it’s possible to follow a rugged, unmarked route through the Frank Lake Semi-Primitive Area and over a hill to Aurora Lake, taking its outlet stream back to Plum Lake. But you may prefer to walk the four miles on the nearby roads to retrieve your car. Along the way, you’ll pass the Corner Store, well-known for its ice cream.
Finding Your Way
The Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest Canoe Map is available online at: dnr.wi.gov/topic/StateForests/nhal/documents/NHALCanoeRoute.pdf. And it bears repeating—you’ll likely want the larger print version, DNR publication FR-179, to take with you on your travels. Call 1-888-936-7463 to request a copy.
Thank you to Dan Jacoby, Water Trails Coordinator for the NHAL, for his assistance.
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