Close Encounters of the Natural Kind

Wisconsin is a state of unrivaled dairy, verdant farmland and friendly neighbors. It’s also a singular font of natural wonders. For three days we camped at Franklin Lake in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Imagine our surprise upon arriving to campsite with a moving carpet — dozens of miniscule frogs, each no larger than a nickel. Their hippity-hoppity welcome wagon was but the first of our Northwoods fauna encounters.

The forest surrounding our camp possessed a canopy so thick that sunlight merely trickled in in patches. Loons filled the air at all times of the day with their signature call. Unseen animals scurried about in the undergrowth. Clusters of skinny white-barked birch trees held leaves that rustled  gently in the occasional breeze, shimmering in the light. Franklin Lake itself is a hidden gem of pristine water, its tranquility preserved by an undeveloped shoreline. Hardly any boats disturb its placid waters which offer respite from the oppressive afternoon heat and ravenous insects.

One day we had to go into town for provisions. Zoned out in the passenger’s seat on the way back, I suddenly noticed an irregularity in the greenery outside. Before my brain had a chance to register what the dark form was, Tim exclaimed, “Did you see that?! Was that a bear?” Before I could answer, I felt the car moving in reverse. Outside of the rear window a black bear lumbered along the shoulder of the road. We had come within ten feet of it just seconds before.

The next day we embarked on a fishing expedition through the Eagle River Chain o’ Lakes. (Not kidding – it’s officially spelled “Chain o’ Lakes.”) This vacation community is highly developed, its shores crowded with summer homes, lodges, private piers and dockside restaurants. It is not the kind of place I would expect to have any Steve Irwin adventures. A couple of hours into the trip found us quietly casting our lines into the depths of Eagle Lake. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a bald eagle appeared in the sky! My jaw literally dropped as it soared overhead. Up until that point, the bald eagle had been a mythical creature to me, a fabled endangered species of grade school text books and American coinage. In the flesh this eagle was far greater than any photograph. After it flew away a hungry osprey grabbed our attention. It dove into the water in front of us and shot back up with a fish in its mouth, just like a scene out of Nature. Nearby, common loons likewise dove into the water, then skimmed the surface wailing and elaborately displaying themselves for any loon ladies in the area.

We lazily explored six or seven lakes that day and caught no fish. On the way back to the marina we sped through the waters where we could. Lucky for us we entered a “Slow No Wake” zone at just the right place. Perched upon an old tree stump at the edge of the shoreline  sat a humungous golden eagle. It was about two feet tall with nutty brown plumage, sharp golden talons and blazing yellow eyes. It rotated its head around nearly 360 degrees, scanning for prey. As we crept around the corner, coming within 15 feet or so of this imposing raptor, it did not flinch or otherwise indicate that it considered us to be any higher on the food chain than it.

That night we may have settled for a weenie roast instead of fresh fish for dinner, but we did not go back to camp disappointed. Nature had provided such an excitingly singular experience for us that day that it was hard to complain. She did, however, tax us in the form of overly-aggressive mosquitos, tent-loving spiders and huge black beetles that randomly rained down from the trees. Still, I’ll never forget my exotic Northwoods safari. The morning we left Eagle River to head north, Nature threw in one last freebie: a second bald eagle perched atop a telephone pole bid us farewell.

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