We settle into our seats and the pontoon putters to life on Lake Namekagon, just below the red balconies of Garmisch USA Resort's main lodge near Cable, Wis.
It doesn't take long for naturalist Emily Stone to spot a loon before it dips beneath the water. Stone inspires a new appreciation for Minnesota's state bird, with its solid bones that help it dive for dinner. At the same time, it can fly up to 60 miles per hour.
While the northwestern Wisconsin community has only 825 residents, Cable generates a big buzz with outdoor sports. Mountain biking and Nordic skiing trails weave through the surrounding 1.5-million-acre Chequamegon National Forest, while paddlers can pick a stretch of the 101-mile Namekagon River. The town also shines with nature programs from the Cable Natural History Museum, including the loon pontoon rides and owl prowls. Our relaxed evening on the loon pontoon stands out the most, thanks to the loon calls and the joy of being on the water and cruising an uncrowded lake.
On another night, I joined an owl outing at Lakelands Resort, led by Sue Thurn, a fourth-grade teacher who can claim a unique way of getting her class' attention. She purses her lips for the vibrato "who-hooo-hooo-who" call of a barred owl. It's throaty and spot-on. "I started as a closet hooter," she said with a smile. While she usually can hear the answer of an owl in the surrounding woods, we weren't so fortunate that night. We did leave with the beginning skills of a hooter.
A drink, dinner or overnight at Garmisch USA Resort nicely caps off a nature tour. The spacious main lobby and restaurant glow with the luminous patina of logs and tree-trunk beams that you can only find in resorts nudging the century mark. Put that together with a stellar lake view, an iconic Old Fashioned with sweet whiffs of brandy, and a Friday night fish fry, and you have a classic Wisconsin North Woods night out.
Cable Natural History Museum: It offers wildlife displays, hands-on exhibits, raptor programs and traditional craft classes, in addition to outdoor programs that take advantage of fall colors (1-715-798-3890; cablemuseum.org).
Hiking: There are guided hikes on the Forest Lodge Nature Trail, or head out on your own with a handy printed guide. The trail winds through field and forest, and includes a walkway into a bog where you may see pitcher plants and sundew. Serious hikers can connect with the North Country National Scenic Trail or head into Rainbow Lake or Porcupine Lake Wilderness Areas.
Mountain biking: The Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association trails (home of the legendary Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival) include more than 90 miles of single-track trails. Park at the Rock Lake Trailhead or Namekagon Town Hall (cambatrails.org). The area around Cable, with its light traffic, also is popular for road cycling.
River trips: Bear Country has an outpost on Hwy. 63 just south of Cable, with rental canoes and kayaks and a shuttle service for three-hour Namekagon River trips (1-715-798-3334; northcountryvacationrentals.net).
Art Market 63: Cable puts the work of local painters on its downtown banners, and you can find paintings, jewelry, textiles, pottery and other art for sale or on display at this gallery (1-715-798-3363; cablehaywardarts.org/art-mart). On Sept. 5-6, take the Blue Moon Art Tour to see the studios of steel sculptors, potters and painters.
Elk watching: Follow County Road M east to Clam Lake, especially near sunrise or sunset, and you might hear the bugling calls of mating elk. One of only two free-ranging herds east of the Mississippi, it includes about 185 elk (clamlakewi.com/elk-info).
It's about 165 miles from the Twin Cities to Cable. One of several options is to take Interstate 35 north to Hinckley, Minn., then follow Hwys. 48 and 77 east to Hayward, Wis. Follow Hwy. 63 northeast to Cable.
Where to sleep
Lakewoods Resort has a variety of accommodations from lodge rooms to one- to four-bedroom condos, plus lake homes and golf villas that sleep up to 14 (From $99; 1-715-794-2113; lakewoodsresort.com).
Garmisch USA Resort has nine rooms in its lakeside lodge (some with lake-view balconies), four guest rooms at nearby Zugspitze Inn, and 13 eclectic cabins, from a one-room bungalow to the five-bedroom Blarney Castle with ivy-covered turrets (From $105; 1-715-794-2204; www.garmischresort.com).
Where to eat
Rivers Eatery/Ideal Market: If there's a place that hums with the culture of Cable, it's this airy, former potato warehouse that's been transformed into a small bookstore, organic grocer, coffee shop and stone-oven pizza cafe, which spills out onto the patio. High walls are decorated with bike- and ski-race bibs and local art. A pay-it-forward chalkboard lists customers who have paid for drinks or dinner for friends. Ask patrons where to bike while waiting for a cold beer or one of the dozen pizzas named for local rivers. Among the choices are the Spirit Creek with pork, sauerkraut and barbecue sauce, and the tangy Eau Claire with chicken, cranberries and cranberry barbecue sauce (1-715-798-3123; theidealmarket.com).
Brick House Café: Grab a fully loaded monster croissant for breakfast, a tarragon chicken salad sandwich, or an espresso barbecue pulled pork sandwich at this downtown house-turned-cafe. For an afternoon treat, pair a latte with pistachio cream cake or cool off with local ice cream from West Dairy (1-715-798-5432; brickhousecafe.net).
Grab a guide and directions for fall color tours at the Cable Area Chamber of Commerce (1-715-798-3833; cable4fun.com).
Lisa Meyers McClintick (LisaMcClintick.com) wrote "The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path" and "Day Trips From the Twin Cities."