Our guide deftly lifted the canoe paddle out of the gin-clear water and held it still. He turned slightly and motioned for us to close our eyes and sit silently. “If you listen very carefully,” he said, “you can hear the wind whispering the names of those who had been here many seasons before: the Chippewa, Menominee, Fox and Sauk tribes, the early settlers, trappers and fur traders.”
Their footsteps, he noted, are an indelible part of history now, and their legacy is written forever in the pristine rivers and lakes, the thick forests, the good hunting and fishing of Waupaca’s Chain O’ Lakes. This Wisconsin gem 40-some miles southwest of Green Bay is a haven for vacationers or anyone who enjoys the wonders of nature and all it has to offer. They come here for the parks, the camping, canoeing, fishing, hiking and the calm, serene atmosphere reminiscent of a time long past.
Head for the water
Much of the area is unaffected by sprawl, helping to preserve that small-town feel. My uncle and I came because of our passion for fishing. The Chain O’ Lakes is renowned for many varieties of fish, including pike, muskie, bass, trout and sturgeon, and we were richly rewarded for our time and effort, thanks to guide Jack Zimmerman’s expert knowledge of the lakes. But while fishing was our goal, we came away from Waupaca with an enormous appreciation of what the region really represents.
Waupaca is that rare place that provides generous amounts of both tranquillity and excitement. There are events and sights to see in all seasons, but summer and perhaps early fall would be my choice for a short or longer stay. Renting one of the 50 or so homes and bungalows along the Chain O’ Lakes seems to be the preferred lodging, though B&Bs, motels and some resort properties such as the Comfort Suites at Foxfire offer more standard accommodations. The suites are adjacent to the Foxfire Golf Course, the only course in town, and that was our base for the four-day stay (1-715-942-0500; tinyurl.com/mw426np).
The hotel was minutes from several lakes’ boat ramps and also near the village’s center. The weather in June was cooperative for outdoor activities, and the lakes were often awash with canoes, kayaks and pontoon boats on these sunny summer days.
Other opportunities to explore the Chain O’ Lakes were abundant. The Clear Water Harbor is home base for the stern-wheeler Chief Waupaca and the motor yacht Lady of the Lakes. Both offer regular excursions on the lakes (1-715-258-2866; www.clearwaterharbor.com).
Visitors spend most of their time on the water here. Boaters often venture to Long Lake, particularly the south end, where a sandbar is the perfect place to anchor and take a swim in these former glacial pools. For lunch or any meal, there is no need to leave the waterfront; just pull ashore at Indian Crossing and dine at the Wheel House Restaurant, famous for its pizza, and take in the lake views from its deck (1-715-258-8289; www.wheelhouserestaurant.com). At dinnertime, stay right where you are, as we did, and visit Clear Water Harbor Waterfront Restaurant, where you can enjoy burgers and fresh seafood (1-715-258-9912; www.clearwaterharbor.com).
Weddings, brews, food
My uncle and I fished every morning and every afternoon, but during our drive to and from the lakes, we became more and more curious about this lesser-known destination. It begged to be discovered, and we found recreational pursuits, a great shopping scene, a range of dining options and a diverse and friendly community.
We were intrigued by the Red Mill and its wedding chapel located on the Crystal River at Little Hope, immensely popular for weddings.
We meandered along the paths under a canopy of lush trees, listening to the gurgling of the river. Most notable is the covered bridge that spans the river and leads to the Chapel in the Woods, built by Sterling Schrock and Kenneth Schroeder in the fall of 1974. It has been featured on dozens of calendars and magazine covers, and thousands of weddings have been performed there, often with the bride and groom arriving by canoe.
Another place of interest is the Central Waters Brewery in nearby Amherst (1-715-824-2739; www.centralwaters.com). The brewery offers free tours every Friday and Saturday at 5 p.m., and many locals gather in the warm and inviting atmosphere of the taproom for samples and conversation. The beers are featured at T-Dubs Public House, a restaurant in the heart of downtown and within yards of the river that runs through it (1-715-942-0499; www.tdubs-pub.com). It was the perfect spot to celebrate the finale of a Waupaca visit.
More information, events
Get a free visitors guide at www.WaupacaMemories.com or e-mail info@WaupacaAreaChamber.com. Vacation rental info can be obtained at www.WaupacaAreaChamber/stay/vacation-rentals.
Summer events include the Mid-western Rodeo in Manawa, Wis. (July 4th weekend); Iola Old Car Show in Iola, Wis. (July 11-14); Arts on the Square in Waupaca (Aug. 15-17), and the Waupaca Triathlon (Aug. 16).
Tom Wuckovich is former senior editor of AAA Going Places magazine and a longtime member of the Society of American Travel Writers.