Menominee County. A journey through wild and tame country on Wolf River
Menominee County, Wis.
The minute you cross over the county line, you can tell you've entered a place different from the world around here. The forest cover is denser, there is almost no development -- not along this stretch of state highway 55, anyway -- and there is a palpable sense of wildness about the place. Welcome to Menominee County.Skip to next paragraph
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Welcome, too, to the Wolf River, which runs beside this highway and which turns out to be the best path through this stretch of Wisconsin wilderness.
Don (Chuck) Conn pilots his pickup along this road, about 85 miles northwest of Green Bay, just north of the 230,000-acre reservation comprising the entire county and holding a population of about 3,000.
Mr. Conn, a local resident who teaches school on the Menominee tribal reservation and augments his living in the summer by hauling rafters and rubber boats back and forth here, talks as he drives about the brisk competition for tourists between his operation and other rafting outfits, like Shotgun Eddie's, whose signs pepper the highway.
As he talks, a wall of forest slips by on either side, thinning out more and more the farther we get from the reservation on our way to a deserted stretch of river far tamer than the twisting, tight, swift run farther downstream. He's taking a couple of novice rafters, my son and me, for their maiden run; and the last thing they need is a plunge into the thick of rapids and white water.
Like most of the raft renters in the area, he offers two trips: a two-hour run for those wanting a quick and less eventful taste of the river, and a five-hour pitch down to the reservation line along the river's more bumpy, drenching course. (Only Menominee are allowed to rent rafts on their part of the river. But all along this stretch of the river, you can camp overnight in one of the numerous campgrounds -- around $6-$10 for a single site, $25 for a group -- and pay $14-$25 for the raft rental,
depending on how long your ride is.)
Chuck Conn pulls his pickup into a prosaic setting -- a flat dirt road across the highway from a roadhouse -- then, 20 or 30 feet off the road, he brakes suddenly and jumps out.
Together, the three of us drag the large rubber boat, with its less than reassuring patches, over the wet, sticky sand and through the tall grass to the riverbank. The river can be dangerous when it is running high in the spring and after heavy rainfall. But here it's only a wide, flat stream, stretching maybe 25 yards across. It showed, around the occasional rock in its belly, an appreciable but not particularly exciting current.
We slipped onto the glassy surface of the water and began to move downstream. Quickly we lost sight of the road, and all there was was grass and trees and this water bearing us along. Now and then we'd get swirled into a sudden rush of water and mini-rapids, which would inevitably hang us up on the rocks because we didn't know how to steer or row properly. But more often we glided along, listening to the whispers of wind and water and watching insects circle above small eddies that promised them a quick