Seven Wonders of Wisconsin: Eagle River / chain of lakes
Who needs the Great Wall of China and Chichen Itza? Wisconsin is full of wonders that are much closer to home. So pack up the car, fire up the GPS and get ready to crisscross America's Dairyland with OnMilwaukee.com as we travel to the Seven Wonders of Wisconsin this summer.
EAGLE RIVER – The drive from Milwaukee to Eagle River takes about four-and-a-half hours, but it's easy and scenic. Although Eagle River is on Highway 45, to shorten the trip, travelers from Milwaukee can cruise up Highway 41 to Oshkosh. But taking Highway 45 through Fond du Lac and driving along Lake Winnebago provides an even prettier view of beautiful Wisconsin.
To break it up a bit, we stopped off in the town of Antigo, where we rolled through a drive-up coffee stand called Mountain Mudd and bought a couple of well-prepared lattes, followed by a quick trip to the local thrift shop where we found a vintage movie screen – something we had been seeking for a long time – in perfect condition for $2.
We took this find as an omen that we were going to have a fantastic three-day adventure in Eagle River, and we were right.
Eagle River, located in the stunning Northwoods, is surrounded by miles and miles of pine trees. It is on the chain of 28 lakes, the largest connected freshwater chain on the planet, and is a world-class fishing destination with incredible musky, panfish and bass fishing.
"We're just north of the tension line," says Conrad Heeg, who has been the executive director of the Eagle River Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center for 11 years.
And indeed, Eagle River is relaxing and comfortable. All of the establishments in the area – including the more upscale restaurants – have a casual vibe and most people just wear shorts and sandals, on and off the water.
Though many property owners are affluent and, when they're in the area vacationing, they're staying in their second or third homes, the attractions are affordable and vacationers renting cabins or staying at the resorts will find Eagle River very accommodating.
The Eagle River area really is for everyone who wants to enjoy stress-free living, even if only briefly.
According to Heeg, Eagle River was originally developed in the 1800s for farming and, after clear cutting much of the area for timber to build cities, the state government sold the land cheaply to inspire people to move to the area and farm.
"But the growing season is short up here – about a month shorter than it is in Milwaukee – and people realized it was the lakes that made this area so incredible," says Heeg.
The Northwoods: Nature's water park
On the second day of our visit, Heeg graciously took us out on his family's pontoon for an afternoon of lake exploration. The lakes are divided into two areas: the Three Lakes side and the Eagle River side. Heeg describes the Three Lakes chain as "more wild," offering frequent spottings of eagle, deer and moose. We saw two eagles and a couple of large eagles' nests during our boating experience.
"There are more houses, bars and golf courses on the Eagle River side," says Heeg, who lived in the Milwaukee area prior to moving to the Northwoods.
The lakes run about 18-30 feet deep on average, with the deepest being about 57 feet. Because the paper mills and industrial sites are farther down stream, the quality of water is exceptional.
Many visitors hire a fishing guide to help them reel in the "Big One," as well as to learn valuable fishing tips. Summer vacationers can experience just about any water sport thanks to the variety of equipment for rent, including boats of all kinds, water skis, fishing gear and life jackets.
"You can rent just about anything here, except swimming trunks," jokes Heeg.
We were fortunate to experience three very different boating opportunities during our visit, including the pontoon trip with Heeg, a canoe excursion and a cruise on a pirate ship.
The canoe was provided by the Chanticleer Inndyvszyyxscbruyyufuds where we stayed for two of our three nights in Eagle River. We spent one afternoon peacefully canoeing around a few of the lakes and enjoyed seeing lots of loons and lily pads.
The Chanticleer offers villas, suites, condos and hotel rooms. Most are located on the banks of the river between Eagle Lake and Voyager Lake.
The Inn – named after a rooster in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" – was built in 1922 and has a rustic-meets-modern feel with an Up North-architectural charm and modern-day amenities like large flat screen HDTVs.
Once off water, wet your whistle
The Chanticleer has an onsite bar and restaurant called Waterview that offers indoor and outdoor seating with a beautiful view of the water. Happy Hour starts at 3 p.m. and dinners – ranging from salads to hamburgers – start at 5 p.m.
The beer selection in Eagle River, for the most part, is very good. Most establishments carry an array of Leinenkugel products on tap, along with Spotted Cow, Guinness, both Bud and Miller, and often a few micro surprises, too.
On the first night, we went to The Tipsy Turtle, where we ordered $3 "Turtletinis" made from vodka, apple pucker and sweet and sour. After a couple of rounds, we found ourselves out back playing a rollicking game of cornhole.
The Tipsy Turtle is a Florida-esque structure that's only open during the summer months. They also serve long island ice teas, martinis, blue lagoons, "sex on the beach" and a decent beer selection. On Wednesday nights there is live music and a shrimp boil.
Another tavern, BBT's Speakeasy, is located on the bustling Wall Street and accommodates both full-time residents and tourists. BBT's – which stands for "Bob, Bob & Terry's" even though one of the Bobs was recently bought out – has 290 record albums on the wall and a "find the album" game that's offered to drinkers by the bartender. There's also a stuffed musky on the wall that, according to barkeep Liz Butler, won a world record in 1985. The musky is displayed next to a shotgun that's the top prize in an upcoming raffle.
"It's fun here," says Butler, who moved to Eagle River from Idaho. "The locals here are really nice and not in your business constantly."
During our visit at BBT's, we had the chance to chat with a few locals who lived in Eagle River year-round, unlike the thousands of tourists who come each summer from, primarily, Milwaukee, Green Bay and the Chicago area.
The year-rounders said that they liked living there, but admitted the winters were long. One woman, who recently moved from Chicago to Eagle River, recommended a few places for us to visit, including the nearby Lac du Flambeau reservation, which we will definitely check out next time. They have open-to-the-public pow wows on Thursday nights during the summer that cost $7 for adults and $5 for kids.
Fantastic food from fudge to fish fries
Eagle River's downtown centers on Wall Street, which features bars, restaurants, a drug store, a movie theater with first-run films, a candy and fudge shop and a variety of souvenir stores.
Since we weren't going to buy moccasins, as so many visitors do, we decided it was our duty as tourists to at least stop in Tremblay's for fudge and taffy. We could barely choose from the fudge flavors – chocolate, vanilla, maple, peanut butter and peanut butter chocolate – but finally settled on vanilla. It was creamier and lighter than the proverbial fudge that's stuck to the bottom of Christmas tins.
We also bought a huge bag of saltwater taffy and had fun picking out flavors from root beer to raspberry and talking to twin sister candy makers, Kelly and Kayla Wons, who are spending their fifth summer working at Tremblay's.
There are two other Tremblay's in the Midwest: one in Hayward and one in Stillwater, Minn.
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Great job on the article! This was quite a thorough description of the Northwoods! As an 30- year veteran of owning of a resort in Eagle River, I am glad to see Eagle River is still seen as a tourist destination, which it most definitely is! Our cabins are right on the chain of lakes and only 2 miles from the town of Eagle River. www.eagleriverlastresort.com. We frequently see Captain Steve from our nice sandy beach!
I was just up there. I didn't want to leave. Beautiful. Peaceful.
Great article, Molly. And the photos were great too Royal. Thanks for updating those of us in the "south" about the "northwoods".
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