By Ted J. Rulseh
When you're sizing up a fishing kayak at Coontail Sports in Boulder Junction, your pulse quickens a bit more than it would in just any shop. That's because adventure waits just beyond the tall pines that surround this little town. Within minutes you can be alone on a quiet lake, fly rod in hand, working the lily pads for bluegills or bass.
You get the same feeling in Manitowish Waters, 15 miles west. Each town lies roughly half an hour north of Minocqua, where much of the traditional tourism traffic stops. Each suits people who like vacations quieter, more secluded, closer to the wild calls of loons. Both are surrounded by the 225,000-acre Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, dotted with some 900 lakes, interlaced with 300 miles of streams.
You get to Boulder Junction by veering right off northbound Highway 51 on County M. On the way you'll pass bicyclists on the blacktopped trail that runs 11 miles from the town to Crystal Lake, its water as clear as its name, a favorite place for snorkelers. For about three miles the trail hugs the 3,816-acre Trout Lake with its scenic campgrounds and picnic areas.
A short detour takes you to the parking lot at the state forestry headquarters building, just a short hike from Cathedral Point, where 120-foot-tall white pines tower over the narrows that connects the north and south lobes of Trout Lake.
Boulder Junction calls itself the Musky Capital of the World, but many anglers prefer the walleyes, smallmouth bass and northern pike that abound in 194 lakes within nine miles of town. You can choose known trophy waters like Trout, Wildcat or High Lake (source of the state-record 18-pound walleye), or slip a canoe into one of the small lakes easily found in the state forest.
For those who aren't anglers or paddlers, the town offers high-quality shopping and restaurants. Many head for the red building with bay and rustic multi-pane windows, which houses The Fisherman's Wife, known for stylish women's clothing and accessories, gourmet food, antiques, and garden art. At Moondeer & Friends Gallery, Sara Muender and Jennifer Arnett Musson show and sell fine art and crafts from regional artists, plus an array of antiques.
For gourmet diners, the Outdoorsman Restaurant & Inn offers entrees like crab- and scallop-stuffed sole, and pheasant and saffron ravioli. More casual diners favor JJ's Pub & Grub, whose hard-to-beat sandwiches include shaved prime rib au jus and spicy Caribbean chicken with rum sauce.
To get to Manitowish Waters, head north on Highway 51. If you love the wilds, and if you're wise, you've phoned ahead to Trails North, where naturalist John Bates leads interpretive tours and explorations on local trails, lakes and rivers. Attend a scheduled field trip or slide show, or book your own custom small-group tour.
Otherwise, get to know the local environment at the North Lakeland Discovery Center, just outside town on County Road W. The center has 66 wooded acres and 12 miles of trails that wind through forest and bog habitats around Statehouse Lake and along the Manitowish River. The staff offers naturalist programs, interpretive hikes, and special events throughout the year.
The heart of Manitowish Waters ("Home of the Tiger Musky") is its chain of 10 lakes, blue jewels on the Manitowish River. The river itself is a draw for visitors: paddlers love its easy pace and the birds and wildlife along its mostly natural shoreline.
From below the Rest Lake Dam in town, it's an easy paddle in two-hour hops to a number of pullout points. Many trips begin at Hawk's Nest Canoe Outfitters on Highway 51 between Manitowish Waters and Mercer. There you can rent canoes and kayaks and, if you want, get complete outfitting service.
After the trip, head back to town to unwind and enjoy the view of Lake Manitowish from Blue Bayou Inn, home of fine Cajun favorites like crawfish étouffée, Creole baked catfish, and jambalaya.
Visitors agree Boulder Junction and Manitowish Waters are well worth going those few extra miles for.