Our guide lifted the canoe paddle out of the gin-clear water and held it perfectly still. He turned slightly, shoulders hunched, and motioned for us to close our eyes and remain still.
"If you listen very carefully," he whispered, "you can imagine the wind murmuring the names of those who had been here many seasons before: the Chippewa, Menominee, Fox and Sauk tribes, settlers, trappers and fur traders."
Their footsteps, he noted, have long disappeared from the soft earth, but their legacy is lodged in the pristine rivers and lakes, the thick forests, the good hunting and fishing of Waupaca's Chain O'Lakes.
This Wisconsin settlement, 40-some miles southwest of Green Bay, is a haven for vacationers and anyone who enjoys the wonders of nature. Drawn by the parks, camping, canoeing, fishing, hiking and the calm, visitors find a serene atmosphere reminiscent of a time long past.
My uncle and I came because of our passion for fishing. The Chain O'Lakes is renowned for the countless varieties of fish, including pike, muskie, bass, trout and sturgeon, to name a few. We were more than rewarded for our time and effort, thanks to guide Jack Zimmerman's expert knowledge and the abundance of species in the lakes.
But while fishing was our objective, we came away from Waupaca with an enormous appreciation of what the region really represents.
Waupaca provides generous amounts of tranquility and excitement. There are events and sights to see in all seasons, but summer and perhaps early fall would be my choice for a short or longer stay.
Renting one of the 50 or so homes and bungalows along the Chain O'Lakes seems to be the norm, though bed and breakfasts, motels and some resort properties such as the Comfort Suites at Foxfire offer more standard accommodations. The suites are adjacent to the Foxfire Golf Course, and that inn was our base for a four-day stay.
The hotel was just minutes from the boat ramps of several lakes, as well as being close to the village's center. The weather was cooperative and it wasn't uncommon to see the lakes awash with canoes, kayaks and pontoon boats on these sunny summer days. The scene was reminiscent of films of the 1920s, when couples and families, with their colorful parasols yielding much-needed shade, cherished this typical seasonal outing.
When we were not fishing, we seized upon the free time. The Clear Water Harbor is home base for the Chief Waupaca and the Lady of the Lakes cruising vessels. The Chief is a sternwheeler and the Lady is a motor yacht. Both offer regularly scheduled excursions on the lakes.
The waters here provide the bulk of activity for visitors. Most boaters usually venture to Long Lake, particularly the south end, where a sandbar is the perfect place to anchor and take a swim in these formerly chilled glacial pools. For lunch, there is no need to leave the waterfront, just pull ashore at Indian Crossing and dine at the Wheel House Restaurant, famous for its pizza, and take in lake views from the outdoor deck. At dinnertime, stay right where you are, as we did, and visit ClearWater Harbor Restaurant, where you can indulge in some fresh seafood.
My uncle and I fished every morning and every afternoon, but during our drive to and from the lakes, we became more and more curious about Waupaca. It begged to be discovered, and in a short time, we found numerous recreational pursuits, a unique shopping scene, an assortment of dining options and a diverse and friendly community. We were intrigued by a building dubbed the Old Red Mill and its adjacent wedding chapel located on the Crystal River at Little Hope.
We meandered through the paths under a canopy of lush trees, listening intently to the gurgling sounds of the river. Most notable is the covered bridge that spans the river — built in 1970 and still in remarkable condition. The Chapel in the Woods was built by Sterling Schrock and Kenneth Schroeder in the fall of 1974 and has been featured on dozens of calendars and magazine covers. Thousands of weddings have been performed here, and often the bride and groom arrive by canoe.
Another place of interest is the Central Waters Brewery in nearby Amherst. The brewery offers free tours every Friday and Saturday at 5 p.m. and many locals gather in the taproom to sample the beer and ale and to socialize. The beers are featured at T-Dubs Public House, a restaurant in the heart of downtown and within yards of the river that runs through much of the community. It is the perfect spot to celebrate the conclusion of a Waupaca visit.
Tom Wuckovich, a former travel editor for AAA Going Places magazine, has written about travel for 35 years.