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.
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
The ride was a disappointment to my son, who had been in a few amusement parks in his time and knew a thing or two about spills and thrills. Of these, there were precious few. The Wolf River is known for its wildness, but not especially in late August when it's much tamer, and not in this stretch. Still, there was something else here, a prelude to the river downstream and the country that surrounds it.
The thing you remember about this surrounding country is the quiet. That and the trees.
The Menominee own a productive sawmill. But by most commercial standards, the vast tract of reservation land is underutilized. Instead of neat replanted stretches of forest, you see the dense, wild undergrowth that grows over itself time and again and looks as impenetrable and solitary as anything early settlers must have encountered.
Take state road 55 down from Langlade to Shawano, and you'll soon find yourself immersed in this closely held Menominee world and its forested solitude.
With a ratio of only one person to about about 75 acres, you'll see a lot more land than Menominees . . . a situation that the tribe likes just fine, according to local observers. That may be overstating the case, since there is at least one road back into the Dalles, a corner of the river where the tribe charges visitors a nominal fee to come and sample their land.
If you turn right on a poorly marked road about nine miles south of the juncture between 55 and county road WW, you can make your way back on the rutted road, over a wooden bridge. (You're ill-advised to turn just anywhere, since many of these roads are considered private by the Menominee; and they are considered dangerous by some local residents.) The forest canopy bends over from time to time, and it looks like you are on a road to nowhere. But, eventually, a clearing appears. Once you pay 50 cents to
the Menominee tribeswoman, you can follow the arrows leading over rocks and through quiet crevices in the land.
Just beyond the network of open paths and clearings lies deep forest. And through the forest the sound of rushing water.
You don't come to the river itself until you clamber up the side of a ravine, onto some high rocks, and quite suddenly below you the Wolf River appears, running through a narrow neck of rock cliffs maybe 20 feet high.
I hoisted myself into one of the few trees clinging to the sides of the small cliff, finding a perch where I could see some people waiting for a glimpse of a river raft. We didn't have long to wait. By the time my family, a few dozen yards behind me, came upon the scene, a small rubber raft was spinning around a corner of the cliffs and shooting down river, fast and out of control.
The look on the passengers' faces was mingled delight and bewilderment, as if they were doing something they always knew would be fun but never knew it would be this furious. We aren't talking Colorado river-rafting here, but even in this place, surrounded by thousands of acres of forest, a foaming river was flinging its human cargo through a slender alley of rock and trees.
Suspended there above the scene, a camera in my hand, leaning precariously over the edge, I caught the eye of a boy in the boat. And the smile he shot back at me said in an instant what a thousand words could never say: We both had found a wild, free place to take ourselves on a summer afternoon.
Last of a series. First four parts ran on May 21, June 18, July 16, and Aug. 27.