Welcome to Discovering the Northwoods from the Manitowish Waters 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! 

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 Woodcraft by Huron H. Smith. The original source is from the Year Book of the Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee in 1921. You’ll hear about the early days of Camp Manitowish and a canoe trip to Lac De Flambeau. This episode is read by Bill Zuiker.


There is a fascination about the term “woodcraft,” that wakens in our memories the days and deeds of Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill, Stewart White, Dan Beard, and a host of others who will always be the heroes of the open doors to boys.  It is said that a boy passes through the various stages of civilization in his progress to manhood, and that if we can analyze his mental state we can present phases that will interest him most.  In his adolescent years, he is readily interested in woodcraft.  And what a wealth of learning is packed into that two-syllabled word! Any natural thing out of doors lies in its province. It includes all of the animal life in field, forest and stream, the wild animals, birds, butterflies and insects, and the fish in the streams. It must concern itself with the rocks, minerals, and geologic phenomena to be thoroughly grounded in the out-of-doors. The outdoor boy must know something about the stars overhead, if he is not to become lost at night in the woods.

When it comes to plant life, the city boy is usually at a distinct disadvantage when compared to his country cousin. The country is usually too far from the city to permit that intimate contact with the trees and flowers that is so easily made by the boy of tender years in the country.

There are relatively few trees in any one region to learn. The bulk of the forest in a twenty-five mile circle would be included in twenty species.  And yet few city boys know even that many. Wild flowers are much more numerous and vary so greatly with the season, that they might perhaps be pardoned for knowing so few of them. But the adolescent age is the best time to get a foundation in this knowledge.

Woodcraft is even broader than a knowledge of all the species encountered. The usefulness and application of this knowledge is the vital point. A scholar might know every tree in the forest and still be unable to find his way out, or to pick his branches to build a shelter or bed, or to build a fire. He might know every flower by name and yet not know which was poison, and which would feed him and sustain life when he was lost in the woods.

It will thus be seen that the highly trained specialist is not the one wanted in a boys’ camp in the woods, or rather, that if we must impart specialized knowledge, then it will take a multitude of men to teach one boy all the things he could know with profit in his outdoor life. Through the boy interest in nature and the lessons that nature offers, it is an easy step to develop interest in the boy himself. Interest is usually aroused through the introduction of the bizarre features of nature, and study proceeds from the startling to the more matter-of-fact and important lessons to be learned.

Definite goals are usually set up in nature study or woodcraft. Boys are required to bring in and tell about thirty natural objects and their uses. Young minds are quick to discern the difference between species, since it is usually their first introduction to specific differences. Plans of boys’ camps, for a two weeks’ period, usually prescribe that the major portion of the time be spent in camp absorbing facts, and then an overnight hike or a three day canoe trip to put into practice what they have been taught.

Work about camp may be instructive, too. Building trails, making improvements, thinnings of trees on the camp site, and all camp labor have their direct bearing on woodcraft. The Boy Scout gets a great deal of this training and usually is very much at home in the north woods putting his scoutcraft through the paces.

Camp Manitowish, David Bohnett Postcard Collection, Item 2018.5.78

The Curator of Botany served two weeks of his vacation period as woodcraft leader last summer at the boys’ camp, Manitowish, maintained by the State Y. M. C. A., on the north shore of Boulder lake, at Boulder Jct., Vilas county, Wisconsin. The camp is in the heart of the famous fishing grounds known as the Manitowish waters, twenty-four miles northeast of Minocqua, on the Milwaukee road, or three hundred and twenty-four miles by auto road from Milwaukee. Figure 110 shows some of the Norway and white pine on the camp grounds, but is only a poor sample of the great tracts of virgin timber in this neighborhood. The Trout Lake Forest game preserve is but a short distance to the southwest, while the northern end of High lake is the start of virgin forests reaching across the Michigan line.  High lake is the source of Manitowish river and the most northerly point in Wisconsin where Muskies are taken.  Above High lake the waters drain to Lake Superior and the great northern pike is paramount. High lake drains through the river to Fish Trap lake, thence into Boulder lake, thence into Island lake and Manitowish and Spider lakes. In a twenty-mile circle from the boys’ camp, over five hundred lakes may be found, ranging from a hundred yards in diameter to several miles wide.

The camp operates on a regular program starting the day with a flag salute as shown in figure 111, calisthenics and a swim.  The cost per capita is nominal and the training is well-balanced, the authorities preferring to keep the camps on a basis of service rather than profit. The camp organization may be interesting, so we will give it here. Each cabin has a leader, who looks after the eight boys living there.

Besides these, there is an aquatic director, an athletic director, a woodcraft director, a camp manager, a camp doctor, a camp steward, a transportation manager, a caretaker, a canoe trip outfit leader, three lady cooks, and a general overseer.   The latter was none other than “Dad” Wones, of Milwaukee.  The woodcraft director, whose duties the writer filled for the two weeks after the regular man, Marcell, had gone home, is a sort of free lance about the camp, teaching by afternoon trips, superintending the clearing of camp sites and trail building through interesting birch forests such as the one shown in figure 112. One of the objectives of the camp is to install in the assembly hall a local museum of the natural history objects found about the camp.  It is a fine thing to keep in touch with young life, such as one finds at this sort of a camp.  The youthful enthusiasms react on the instructor, and make it worth while to forego personal longings for other types of vacations.

Naturally, long canoe trips are attractive to the boys and a great deal of woodcraft can be taught on these trips that can not be demonstrated in camp. Actual doing is always better than theory.  The only difficulty is the limited number one can reach with a single trip.  Two or three canoes form the usual party with, at best, nine in the crowd. Since the writer headed one of these long canoe trips to the Lac du Flambeau Indian Reservation, fifty-one miles from camp, he will recount this as a trip narrative or travelogue to acquaint the reader with the possibilities for instruction on such a trip.

Camp Manitowish, David Bohnett Postcard Collection, Item 2018.5.78

There were six in the party, five boys and the writer. It was supposedly the easiest of four such trips starting from camp that morning, because it was to be all paddling. Our outfit consisted of two eighty-five pound Racine canoes, one carrying yoke, two tents, a bed roll apiece in a poncho, five paddles, utensil bag and a food bag. In the utensil bag we had a thin iron spider, a small agate coffee pot, a four quart granite stew pan, six army mess kits and six army canteens, with cup bases.

We started at noon, and had our first bit of portage at the dam in Manitowish river, barely outside Boulder lake.  This brought us to the first camp site beside a fine spring.   From this point there is a combination of wading and shooting rapids for about two miles. Going down river is very easy, coming back against the current is quite otherwise. We pulled up at an abandoned logging camp for our first meal, then followed down the river, keeping to our right till six-thirty, when we came to Island lake.   Enroute we shied a bait at the mouth of a small creek and took a four pound bass, which somewhat helped supper. Among some old snags, we also hooked a muskie, but were unable to land it with bare hands.  We received permission to sleep on the porch of the Clemens cottage at this end of Island lake, and soon had supper completed.   Sleep was rather sketchy, with these active youngsters in camp, an occurrence which the writer has often had opportunity to observe. Yet everyone seemed rested in the morning and we were on our way at half after seven.  We paddled across Island lake through a narrow neck into Manitowish lake, with its famous resorts, the oldest being Theo. Koerner’s Spider Lake resort, on Highway 10. Along Manitowish lake, the boys discovered a strong echo, which they really overworked.

We then deserted the Manitowish river, turning south through South Branch river, to the right of Deer Creek Lodge, into Alder lake. At the south end of Alder lake, we found, in the rear of an old boat house, the end of an old canal.   A reconnoiter of the canal showed that it led about twenty-eight hundred steps into Little Trout lake, and since 1,740 of the writer’s steps make a mile, we had about two miles to go, either dragging the canoes or portaging.  We did a bit of both. The water was turned on through the canal about noon, so that one could wade and pull the loaded canoes, thus helping the long trip through the meadows.  The cranberries along the banks were abundantly fruiting, and the native dewberries were at perfection. Also bullfrogs were plentiful, so that in this short trip the writer managed to catch more than fifty.  We had frog legs for supper.  Instead of making the last hundred and fifty feet of the canal where the sand made going difficult, we portaged across a narrow strip of land, which landed us on Little Trout lake.

We crossed Little Trout in a southeasterly direction to the juncture of dead and green timber and there found a canal containing more water than the former one, but also more brushy.   One man took the canoe through, while the rest walked the banks.  The banks were lined with white birches and little balsams, and the vistas stretched away in a straight line.   It was a beautiful sight and we took several pictures, though the beauty was one of color rather than of form.  This canal led into a little round, mud lake, where there was no fishing so far as we could discover.  Another beautiful, short canal led into McKay or Crooked lake. We paddled a regular U-shaped course through this lake to the farther end, where we again picked up our canal trip.  This was a long canal with a fish trap in it, and leading into little Sunfish lake.  We did not think it was Sand lake, because it was so small, so scouted out around the lake and struck the home of some Chippewa Indians, where the women and children were industriously making baskets for the Indian fair.  They were also chewing choke cherries, which they called “Pawahi menun.” Running strips of the moist basswood through their mouths gave these strips a faint pink color.

The similarity of their tongue to that of the Menomini was enough to enable us to make inquiries.  We found that Sand lake was through another canal further on.  So we retraced our steps to the canoes and found the canal, which led us on to the narrowest arm of Sand lake. We crossed Sand lake in a southwesterly direction to the portage camp for Lake Pokegama.  This portage leads over the Northwestern railway tracks.  While the rest of the crowd prepared supper, Paul and I investigated the portage of over a mile to Lake Pokegama. We came back and made camp in a driving rain and here all spent a miserable night, thank you.

The younger boys had no ambition to go to Lac du Flambeau, but wanted to fish and wait for us, so the two older boys and the writer made the portage, traveling light, and paddled the eight miles down to the Indian agency, landing at Mr. Balmer’s office.  Then we walked around to the fair which was just being set up, and bought three Indian baskets.  We visited with Mrs. Balmer and looked over the exhibits. They had baskets of dried blueberries, which tasted like currants, other Indian dried foods and maple sugar in mokoks, as well as fresh vegetables on exhibit. There was a great variety of birchbark and basswood splint baskets, ranging in price from twenty-five cents to five dollars.  There was much Indian bead work for sale as well as several deer skin objects.  There were two tanned deer skins at six and eight dollars respectively, but both were summer hides and not worth buying in the writer’s estimation. Many of their moccasins were made from summer hides. The winter hide moccasins were priced up to eight dollars, while the summer hide moccasins were from two and a half dollars up. After wrestling with our trip-grub, we found a welcome adjunct to our menu in a raisin pie baked by a Chippewa woman.

We left as the noon whistles blew. The wind was rising. When we reached the portage again, the writer took the canoe and made the entire portage of a mile and an eighth in twelve minutes. In an hour and ten minutes from Lac du Flambeau village, we were paddling across Sand lake, after the boys who had gone on ahead.  We found a birchbark note saying they would meet us at the Clemens cottage on Hand lake.  We saw no trace of them on our way, battling high waves in our light canoe, arriving at the Clemens cottage at ten minutes of eight  We were worried, but knew that they had kept the prunes and a couple of slabs of bacon to eat, so we planned to go after them as soon as it was light again.  As we were finishing breakfast, they hove in view, paddling for dear life, spurred on by their appetites. Prunes developed to be a touchy subject with them, so we fed them well, Paul eating twenty-seven pancakes, and made ready for our long paddle up the river to Boulder against the current. We left at eleven and made the dam at three twenty in the afternoon, there we proceeded to clean up everything in the way of eatables, and to clean the outfit before making camp.

The other three canoe parties were in from Winegar, Tenderfoot, and Star, all finishing in the specified four days.  That evening, around the fireplace, we listened to the account of the trips.

Images from original source, Smith, Huron. Woodcraft. Year Book of the Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee, 1921.


Thank you for listening to Discovering the Northwoods by the Manitowish Waters Historical Society, as always I am your host and producer Brenna Reilley. We hope you enjoyed this episode and come back next time for more adventures through the Northwoods.