Welcome to “Exploring the Northwoods” from the Manitowish Water Historical Society. We will take you on a journey through our local history with the help of primary source documentation. To learn more about this rich history or about the historical society – check out our website at mwhistory.org for blog posts, show notes, our YouTube Channel, and a full transcription of this episode! Okay – So let’s get started!
As with many historical works from this era, there are phrases, terms, and descriptions that are inappropriate to our modern sensibilities. The Manitowish Waters Historical Society in no way condones these offensive remarks or passages but chooses to read this publication in its entirety for educational purposes and accurate historic context.
We would like to introduce Into the Wild Woods Part I read by Bill Zuiker. This 1900 publication documents a guided 1899 hunting and fishing trip in the Manitowish Waters area.
Read by Bill Zuiker:
In the Heart of the Wild Woods by Paul Tarbel. A bear, three deer, and one wildcat.
The bear, a black one weighing 208 pounds; the deer, splendid specimens, above the average in weight, and the “bobcat” was a devil in disguise.
All this game was bagged in three days while camping in a forsaken, dismantled logging camp in Vilas County, Wisconsin. 12 miles from the nearest white man or Indian.
I believe the trip will interest the reader and if you will follow me with his mind’s eye I will repeat the experience.
Vilas County is one of the garden spots of the Earth for the Sportsman. Within its lines are 296 distinct and separate lakes and streams. The majority are joined by thoroughfares is that are not a portage varying from ten rods to a mile make the connection.
The glory of the woods and water! The exhilaration of air and exercise! The sleep of the gods on beds of balsam fir! The Solitude with no neighbor but nature and all her varying moods! The Virginia deer, the most beautiful of all the forest’s inhabitants are in constant review. See that red fox slyly stalking after partridge or sage hen. Hundreds of chipmunks and squirrels scolding, scolding all the time. Look up and watch the majestic movements of the white-headed eagle; listen to the plaintiff, melancholy wail of the loon. Hundreds of mallard hens in yonder marsh, teaching their young all the tricks of a weary life. What’s that? Yes, it’s a bobcat as perfectly harmless as its larger brother the lynx. That tip-up is a cute little fellow. Blackbirds, ravens, hawks of all kinds, and a multitude of songbirds.
At dusk when the mother leaves the nest to seek nourishment, the male the while sits on a limb, guarding the treasure and to appear perfectly nonchalant begins its command of “whip-poor-wills.” Soon another and another and another takes up the refrain, until hundreds combine in the threat, and I’m sure if their commands were obeyed every poor Will in America would receive a sound thrashing. Do you know that the male continues to cry uninterruptedly until the female returns to nest, be it 5 minutes or 2 hours?
What in the world is that? a bear cub? Oh no don’t you know and Northern “porky” when you see one. We will have a little fun with Mr. porcupine. Tame? of course he is. Can’t run fast. I’ll show you how to humble him. Look out for his tail! There, he is darted two of his quills clean through your shoes. turn him over on his back with his stick. Now lay this little limb across his stomach. you hold one, and I the other. Now look at him. Grunts like a human being. his face is slightly human, its nostrils extend and inflate; his red teeth remind you somewhat of a squirrel; he squirms, grunts, until this unwanted exercise exhaust him. he ceases his tail flapping, gives one long human-like sigh of subjection and now you can handle him with a comparative safety, but keep him away from his tail. Let him up. He is so fat he won’t run. Very deliberate in his movement. Stops every few feet to see if you were coming. Now at the base of a tree, he gives one quick look around, and is 15 feet up that Norway Pine before you can say Jack Robinson. Climbs like a lineman going up a telegraph pole. There he stops. Like the partridge, as long as he is above you he imagines himself in perfect safety. how he grunts! Yes, just like a little pig. None but a brute or a starving man would shoot a “porky.” In the fall of the year they’re good eating, so our Indian friend says, but his taste is peculiar. Boiled dog and wild rice compose his wedding feast.
There is such a variety of animal and birdlife the book is too big: one can never read it all.
The water — look at this lake, Round Lake, this side of the Lake Superior divide, one of the Manitowish chain. Isn’t it an inspiration?
The lumbermen has not damned nor devastated its banks. It is as beautiful and perfect as it was a hundred years ago when the Indian held full sway. If it is near lunchtime and your crave fish with your bacon you can have your choice between black bass, walled-eye pike or muscalonge, and that at any time. There are no pickerel in the Manitowish Chain of Lakes.
Largest Muskie I ever saw? A 48-pounder and when he was opened a full-grown mallard duck was found. true as gospel. Judge Sears of the Cook County Illinois bench, was the fishermen and the event happened in Alder Lake, just beyond Spider, and if you doubt ask Buck, the lodge-keeper and guide with the musical heart, and he will tell you it’s true.
Who would doubt Buck?
That’s a concert you hear just around that bend in the wild rice swamp. Bullfrogs, varying in size from 2 to 15 inches. They live in schools. One leader to each school. probably a hundred schools in that particular swamp. the leader starts the song. Hear him go 1, 2, 3. 1, 2, 3. Now they all join. Their song vocabulary is limited to one note, this school being born on one day, their key is in B-flat, the neighboring one in E flat, this one in G, etc., and when they all have started there’s a certain weird effect about it that is bewitching. loud and sonorous is Sousa’s band in, the auditorium– perfect time and rhythm. Two concerts a day, morning and evening. Frogs are splendid eating and vary the bill of fare.
But I’m running away from my story. Let me begin. On October 29th, 1899 at 5 p.m., my friend Ed Allen, a banker and the writer Board of the Ashland Express at the Chicago & Northwestern Depot, on ticket entitling us to go as far as Manitowish, 400 miles north of Chicago.
Mr. Allen had never hunted in northern Wisconsin– in fact honest man that he is, candidly acknowledged he had never shot at a deer in his life.
Would you like to? Of course, but he doubted my deer exploits. but after a little persuasion, he agreed to accompany me on the condition that I was to pay all the expenses of a 10 days trip if I did not find for an opportunity to shoot at a deer within 24 hours from the time we struck Camp. if Allen did get a shot at a deer (mark the term “at”) within the specified time he was to pay all expenses.
On these terms, we started.
“Manitowish!” Cried the porter at twenty minutes past 5 next morning, and we alight with our baggage and guns, to be greeted by Billy Johnson, the proprietor of the Johnston house. Bill’s wife is a jewel– in fact, the lumberjacks all know her as the ‘Black Diamond.” A good cook, splendid manager, it certainly isn’t Billy’s fault that this world’s goods are rapidly increasing in the Johnston family.
“How about guides, Billy?” I asked after introducing Allen.
“I don’t know,” says Billy. Joel La Vigne is at Pete Vance’s , and of course Pete goes with you.”
At the hotel we change our City closed for hunting garments, while Mrs. Johnston prepares our breakfast. After eating, Billy having hitched up his best team and Buckboard. We start on our 8 mile drive along the banks of the Manitowish river to the dam. The dam is where the Manitowish river ends and the chain of lakes begins.
The first Rest Lake is a beautiful sheet of water. Pete Vance and his good wife on the fine Lodge on its banks, and furnish good cheer to Hunters or lumbermen. Pete is an ideal guide. indefatigable, good-natured, knows every foot of ground for 30 miles around, a splendid shot, a tireless worker and a good companion. He is there to bid us welcome, and Joel La Vigne, a French-Canadian also shows his smiling face.
Both Joe and Pete are personal friends of mine and they’re always ready to go into the woods with me whenever I come up. Joe when you asked in his profession answers, “I am blacksmithing by trade.”
But Joe’s great forte is cooking and guiding. Pete is a humorist as you will learn later on.
Etiquette compels us to accept Mrs. Vance’s invitation to a second breakfast. Johnston departs for home after having received instructions to call for us on November 10th.
We pack in a hunting outfit, fishing rods, guns, Food, and Spirits, blankets– in fact every necessary thing into two boats and it is 8:30 as we start for our camp on Big Lake.
We fish on the way, have tolerable luck and after passing through rest, Stone, Spider, Manitowish and Island lakes in about 20 miles of thoroughfares we are up against the High Bluff, where Allen and I leave guides and boats, walk a trail about 1/2 mile in length at the end of Big Lake spreads itself before are delighted Vision, unquestionably one of the most ideal camping locations in the entire state. In about half an hour, guides having to push through a narrow Creek appear with the boat and we start across the lake to our camp.
Here’s our camp. How do you like it? It is grander than it appears. as we arrived I look at my watch and say to Allen;
“Ed it’s now half past 3 by this time tomorrow you will have shot at a deer.”
Ed Winks. We possess every convenience at this Camp– good beds, stoves, dishes, kitchen, dining room, root house (for the preservation of game and fish) which together with what we brought in our boats, and the results of our force at arms and pole, put us in a condition to live like kings for a month if necessary.
Pete has already told me that there were never so numerous partridges are so thick they fly in your face when going through the woods, and fish never was there just such a period of absolutely gluttonous fishing prosperity as during the past week, and Peter’s sure it will last until ice covers the lakes.
Looking around to see if Joe or Allen are within hearing, Pete comes close to me and whispers just one word; bears. I say nothing. I know Pete. It would be useless, so wait until he chooses to say more.
No efforts are made to do anything that day except to put things in order and divide the duties. Joe is cook, Pete is water carrier and fuel producer, and Allen and I arranged our stuff and make up our beds. After supper we enjoy a pipe, then go to bed, as we promised to be up by 3 in the morning to get an early start for a runway on Clear Lake and we must be there before daybreak.
I notice to find doe hanging on Pete’s porch while at the dam. He told me he had shot it the day before. I asked him for the hind feet. He cut them off and I put them in the boat. Allen wanted to know if that time my object in taking them. I told him to wait and see.
At 3 o’clock next morning we were not only up but eating a breakfast consisting of fried pike, potatoes, eggs, bacon, and coffee. Lunch for 4 was put in the basket, fishing tackle, guns with rifle and shot ammunition, gum Coats, were put into our boats, and by 3:30 we were speeding for Clear Lake trail at the lower end of the big lake.
Indian summer in northern Wisconsin is a climate of paradise; it is simply perfect; it leaves nothing to be desired. Last fall was one of the most ideal I ever experienced in this region. Even so early in the day we do not find it uncomfortably cold. Bracing, very, every breath of air seems to possess all the invigorating qualities of a Manhattan cocktail without any of the bad after effects.
To the right of the lake about 100 rods from Camp is Rice Creek, a thoroughfare leading to Round Lake.
As we pass this I motion to Pete to stop and calling to Allen request him to listen.
Imagine if you can at least 10,000 Ducks — mallard, teal, redheads, canvasbacks– in a rice swamp not more than a quarter of a mile in diameter I aim my Savage rifle into the center of the swamp and fire. Allen has no conception of what is to follow. 10,000 pairs of wings fluttering, beating, thrashing, making a noise like a thousand hurricanes, and the swamp being entirely surrounded by Woods, the acoustic properties transmit the noise with a hundred times its real volume, until Allen is forced to exclaim:
“Great guns! There must be a million ducks in that place.”
But we are not after ducks. I know we can get them at any time at this season. so we continue on our way and in 30 minutes we are at the foot of Clear Lake Trail.
The runway is 1/2 mile into the woods. I know it’s location well before we leave the boat. I take a red bandana handkerchief take one of the hind feet of Pete’s doe, insert the handkerchief between the toes and pull it through from one end to the other vigorously for a few minutes. I keep turning the kerchief refold it again and again so that every portion of its fiber is impregnated with that peculiar scent which the doe carries between her toes during the mating season. a buck will follow the doe by the scent which ejects from the glands if she walks in the woods. I have stood on runways, hid myself well, and with my red bandana thoroughly scented and tied around my head and had Mr. Buck come up to within ten feet of me.
This rule will hold good from the middle of October to the middle of November.
Allen and the guides do likewise and then everyone fastens the ‘kerchiefs around their heads. It serves a twofold purpose of decoying bucks and as a positive Beacon to the careless hunter that a man and not a deer’s wearing a bandana. The idea saves funeral expenses.
Allen and I take to the trail, and the guides go further down the lake about 1 mile, separating, come through the woods half a mile apart, towards Clear Lake, and the runway where we will be located.
Pete and Joe can imitate hounds perfectly and with noise and howling all deer near either Clear or Big Lake claiming that neck of woods is their runway with make tracks for their haunts of Slumber, which we happen to know will take them very near to where we shall presently be standing. The guides will in half an hour start the game, and it will take us nearly that long to get located.
I informed Allen by going slow and careful we may get a shot before reaching the runway. day is just beginning to break, forms take on distinctness, and in a few minutes we will be able to distinguish objects we had not walked more than 10 minutes, when looking to my left in a clearing, not more than twenty rods distant, stood two yearlings– handsome, alert, but not especially afraid. They have never been shot at. Had probably never seen a man before. Fascinating beauties looking a straight in the eye. I motion to Allen not to move. He saw the deer and stood perfectly quiet.
“Now Allen stand quiet make no sudden motion and to what I say and we will get both. Now raise your gun slow – very slow. When you get it to your shoulder, I will count 1, 2, 3, then aim and say “ready?” when I say “fire” shoot. You take the one to the left, leave the other one for me.
Allen by this time was thoroughly fascinated; his eyes cleaned like electric lights, his arm shook like a dice-box. I warned him again to be cool and asked if he understood me. of course all this happened in less time than it takes to tell it.
I repeated my instructions. Allen, poor fellow shaking worse than ever jerked his gun to his shoulder cried “1 2 3 ready? fire!” And if I ever 4 rifle bullets ejected for my gun any quicker than Allen pumped his 4, I want to see it done.
These yearlings winked at us with their flags, and before I could get my rifle to my shoulder they had a dozen trees between us and were gone.
“Ed, what time is it?” I asked.
“Did I get ‘em? Did I get ‘em?” Shrieked Ed.
And then he woke up. He realized he had the buck fever.
Again I asked. “Ed, what time is it time?”
“Time I was being shot. That’s all right, I’ll pay the expenses of this trip.”
The guides having heard Allen’s fusillade work toward us quickly, but it was not our fortune to see anything more that morning. We followed the trail until we arrived at Clear Lake, worked the Shoreline thoroughly, and at noon we brought up at Pat Devine’s Shack. Pat is a pensioner of the government and has lived on his Clear Lake cleaning for 20 years, and he now has a deed from Uncle Sam for his 160-acre tract. There are only about five or six acres cleared, on which his squaw (Pat married an Indian of the Chippewa tribe) and children raise potatoes and vegetables. Pat in imitation of his brothers-in-law, furnishes fish and game– if he feels like it, but generally he does not feel like it. There’s a family of four children; the eldest a daughter is handsome. She was educated at an Indian School and I am informed has been fitted for the position of teacher, the duties of which she is to assume next week at the Indian School on the reservation at Lac du Flambeau.
After lunch we return the way we came and by 2 oclock are back at Big Lake and our boats and not so much as a partridge for all our work. Allen, however, agrees that it is his fault so getting our rods and reels and condition, we determined to spend the rest of the day trolling for the bulldogs of the lakes– muskalonge.
At 5 we arrived at camp and produce between us 6 pike, one 12-pound musky, and 3 black bass. Thoroughly tired, we waste but little time in preparing our dinner, and seven oclock finds us all in bed, as we agreed to make another early start in order to work the same trail at different points.
3 o’clock again finds us eating breakfast. the grounds we worked yesterday we again traverse but beyond catching a far-away glimpse of a weary old Buck, we have no luck.
The balance of the day is spent in the spruce and Hemlock brakes bordering Little Papoose Lake just one of the quarter miles by trail from Big Lake. We are after partridges, and 18 fine fat birds compose our string. As thoroughly tired and satisfied we retraced the trail to our boats and there’s no time in getting to our camp, eating dinner, and then to bed.
We sleep until 6 o’clock next morning as no definite line of action has been outlined. During breakfast Pete Vance suggests going to an old deserted logging camp that he knows of 8 miles up the thoroughfare from Island Lake toward Wolf Lake and walk of 4 miles into the woods. no one has used the place for 4 years and Pete is positive time, location, and all else considered the thing is right for a good plucking.
“How long will we stay?”
Pete thinks if we start by noon we can reach there by Sundown and then two or three days will give us all the sport we deserve. We all agree so provisions, ammunition, blankets, and other necessities are putting our boats and by 11 we are on the way, shooting the creek leading from Big Lake to Island Lake.
Just as we start, Pete think something may have been forgotten, so he shouts “Joe, did you put drinking cups in the boats?”
“Yes sir, she is in. One in your boat and I have an empty can of condensed milk!”
Joe looks a little hurt to hear Allen and myself laugh at this reply.
With the French language dominant, therefore recognizing no gender, and suspicious that pees his causes burst of merriment at his expense, Joe become sarcastic and turning to Alan he nods toward Pete and says, “she thinks it’s smart.”
The guides throughout all these waters are expert rowers, and never seem to tire. Using a constant steady pull, we are through the Creek and Island Lake and 8 miles up the thoroughfare toward Wolf Lake by 3 o’clock.
We had an enjoyable time. So much to see if you have eyes to see, there’s not a moment that something wonderful does not take place. At this Junction of the thoroughfare in Island Lake, on a dead Pine, more than a hundred feet high sat a white-headed eagle. In the air a large fish Hawk was sailing over the water, looking for his dinner two or three hundred feet below him. what penetrating orbs of vision nature has endowed this bird with! There, he gives his lightning-like shot to the water, seems almost submerged. only to reappear with a 4 lb Pike in his Talons. Slowly he rises, going toward the woods, where he hopes to enjoy his well-earned meal but he has reckoned without his host. the king of birds has been watching his every movement, and if found successful is in readiness to exact that tribute which the stronger always demands and compels from the weak.
Almost quick as thought the eagle is pursuing the hawk and for a little while a merry chase it is. but the eagle is the master, and the hawk instinctively feels it. As after a sudden violent swerve only just to evade the terrible claws of the now and enraged Eagle, he drops the prize and slowly flies to the other end of the lake.
There is no need for haste now, as the master was after tribute not the hawk. payment having been made by relinquishing valuable property. the eagle wants more displays his wonderful activity by catching the pike before it strikes the water, and then as leisurely to cover to gormandize.
A logging road leads to the river and here we disembark and pack all our possessions into bundles, cover them with shoulder bag straps, and after hiding our boats and oars in the rushes we are ready for lunch and then start on our 4-mile tramp with packs on our backs and guns in our hands to the deserted logging camping. When we are all ready to start, we discover we have too much luggage to carry so we put in the boat what we need the least, and at 6 o’clock after 2 hours of hard trudging, at least for Allen and myself we arrive at our destination.
Tired! The word does not express my condition, and it is dark and the moon will not be up until 8 o’clock. After imbibing several invigorate laters and some cold lunch Allen and I roll up in blankets in our asleep almost as soon as we touch the floor. No description can be given of the camp and its surroundings until morning as it is now pitch dark except for the light from our lantern and our physical condition is at too low an ebb to permit even the mine to flow freely.
I have an indistinct recollection of Pete and Joe making use of some rather indecent language just as I was about to drop into the arms of Morpheus; subject of it seemed to be tobacco, and that it had been left in the boat. As I learned the next morning or two laddy bucks started for the river to get what they so much missed, and incidentally to bring the remainder of the baggage. The shack we were in was about twenty feet square. It had a door and 3 square holes on three sides where windows had once been had been once upon a time. but now we’re in the same condition as Uncle Ned, who had no hair on the top of his head. We were sleeping on the floor nearly in the corner where we would have had a perfect view of the door and 3 windows if it hadn’t been so dark and we had been awake instead of in a heavy dreamless sleep.
Some magnetic influence cause me to open my eyes after sleeping as I then thought all the night through. I looked around it, seemed to be light as day but soon recognize the effect of a wonderfully clear atmosphere and the full moon. Oh how distinct everything looked! Nothing to be seen if Pete and Joe and looking at my watch I found it was only 11 o’clock. They had not returned yet. The endurance of these people is past understanding it. In the morning they will be fresher than any townsmen if they get only 3 or 4 hours sleep.
But harl! What is that noise? Purring; now loud. Now soft, sounds like the grading of a miniature Millstone grinding big leaves. I turn over gently to get a fair look at the third window, and Heaven Help me! What is that a huge terrible monster sitting in the window hole? A panther, grizzly, mountain lion? I acknowledge frankly I was thoroughly frightened for a few minutes. Eyes a greenish yellow shining like burning Brimstone, sitting as the monster was in the opening with the mellow, clear moonlight for a background. His size and devilish outlines were enhanced manifold, both by the conditions of the setting an atmosphere as well as by my most agitated mind. In a few minutes it dawned upon me that I had nothing more fierce to face than in Northern Wildcat. The brute looked savage with his wicked orbs gleaming viciously down on us but knowing him and his peculiarities. I knew there was nothing to fear.
My Revolver was lying in my hat by my side grasping it. I gave Allen several sound nudges in the ribs. He awoke and then I whispered; “Don’t move, Ed. look at the window to your right.”
He looked and continued looking. I was frightened. Allen was more so. He was speechless and I was heartlessly cruel.
“Ed, that’s a panther and I’m afraid we’re in for it; the devil is evidently hungry and I’m going to try a shot it shot at him. If I missed you row yourself in your blanket to let me fight it out. He will not attack but one. We both have families but oh Ed look after my wife and children. Oh Lord! why did I ever come here and cause you to run your head in this death trap!”
I gurgle several gurgles in imitation of tearful despair, and Allen still remained speechless. slowly I took aim with My Revolver until the barrel covered the body of the cat. I had a perfect site thanks to the moon, I press the trigger a deafening report and then to ear-splitting yells one from the cat the other from Allen.
To this day I am unable to state which was the louder but I give Allen the benefit of the doubt. He had so thoroughly taken my advice that when I tried to unroll him from his blankets he evidently thought the panther had lunched off me and was after him for dessert. He kicked and squirm but at last he was quiet long enough to hear me speak to him, and then uncovering himself, he leaned on his elbow and horsley whispered, “Old man, old man are you badly hurt? Is the panther gone?”
My emotions forbade my speaking, and Allen mistaking my convulsions for spasms of pain, like a true hero, regardless of the probable presence of the panther, jumped to his feet and came to me, turned me over on my back and seeing my uncontrollable convulsions of laughter, instantly regained his sang froid and calmly said:
“Say, you’re a very smart Mister but I knew it wasn’t a panther all the time. Any fool could tell it was a bear.”
And then I began anew, until Allen opened his vials of wrath and gave me such as shower bath of the most pungent English that I soon began to sober up.
But he would not accept my Wildcat story in a few minutes Joe and Pete came trotting in. They had heard the shot when they were within a mile of the camp and fearing some danger, had run the remainder of the way.
After listening to my story, Pete asked:
“Did you hit the cat?”
I acknowledge I hadn’t gone outside the shack to see. Pete went, and about 30 yards from the window he found the cat–a male, and the giant, stone, stark dead.
After taking a nerve-quieter all around, we remained in dreamland. Allen claims that he didn’t sleep another minute that night.
Thank you for listening to Exploring the Northwoods podcast by the Manitowish Waters Historical Society. Check back with us for part 2 of into the wild woods to hear the conclusion of Paul Tarbel’s journey and remember to explore our website at mwhistory.org
Paul, Tarbel. “In the Heart of the Wild Woods.” Forest and Stream; A Journal of Outdoor Life, Travel, Nature Study, Shooting, Fishing, Yachting (1873-1930), Jun 09, 1900. 446.