Central Wisconsin’s lake country is everything you might dream it to be: rural, unpretentious, uncomplicated, and absolutely gorgeous. With lakes dotting the entire state, it’s a vacationer’s delight: quiet, serene, warm, and infinitely swimmable.
Our Wisconsin trek took us right to the heart of lake country— Wild Rose’s secret gem, Lake Kusel, and the Chain of Lakes in Waupaca—a town my parents moved our family to from Northern California when I was 10 years old.
So, more than a vacation, this trip was also a reunion—a reminiscence of things past, houses lived in, farmland experienced, and friends reunited with. My husband had never seen the land of my embellished teenage stories, and that, combined with the draw of a week in a lake cottage, had us both anticipating Wisconsin’s utter charm.
Just between the college town of Steven’s Point and the larger burb of Appleton, Waupaca’s 21 connected lakes are a summer haven for locals, Chicagoans, and Milwaukee and Madison vacationers. The population of 6,000 triples during summer, and each lake is surrounded by cottages, with folks coming back to the same rentals year after year.
We had clearly missed the curve of the rental market, attempting to find a cottage a month before our trip (many people reserve twelve months in advance), and I was at a loss to find a cottage for us.
Then I remembered a little lake area near Wild Rose that my family used to go to when we were living there—a quiet, out of the way lake, with a shallow, Tahoe-like sandy bottom and pristinely light-on-the-skin water. A few phone calls later, and we arranged to stay at our friend Craig’s cottage on Lake Kusel—a lovely little two-bedroom with a stone fireplace and covered porch, and just steps down the hill to the water.
Craig couldn’t have been more gracious, waiting for us after a late and delayed Delta flight (when did flying become so obnoxious?), and a two-hour drive upstate from Milwaukee. Driving us out to the cottage in the dark, I couldn’t see the lay of the land, but I could feel the stillness of it, the utter peace of a country lake.
The next day I woke to a bright sunlit kitchen and porch—and much like the first morning in the movie, Enchanted April, threw up the shade and opened the windows—and then ran right down the wooden-framed steps to the water and jumped in. The lake was as miraculous as I remember it: shallow for at least 100 feet from the shore, and warm, with a nice, cool drop-off where the plant life on the lake’s bottom began. Small fish swam at my feet, and the water was so clear I could see to the sand like looking into a crystal ball.
What’s wonderful about Kusel, Wilson, and Round lakes—the three lakes that butt up against each other just outside of Wild Rose—is that they are largely unspoiled by development. While the Chain of Lakes in Waupaca still has many of its old clapboard cottages, it’s also become a year-round-home and swankier vacation home site—still gorgeous, but the Wild Rose lake houses are the cottages of my childhood, and it warmed me to find them still sitting so serenely in place.
On the first morning we drove into town and ate at the Chatterbox Restaurant—a tiny diner that felt like it was right out of a rural landscape. We ate eggs, and home fries and sausage and cheese dishes all for about $5.15 a plate (The advantages of a rural life abound).
After stocking up at Benny’s Grocery, we headed into Waupaca for what I was calling “The Memory Tour.” First stop was my Dad’s old café—The Waupaca Café on Fulton Street. I learned to waitress there with women named Gert and Mable, and the place made all its own pies, breads, and pastries. When I wandered in, I saw that the new owner had begun remodeling, which was nice, but what I wanted most was missing: the huge, bready, buttery homemade cinnamon rolls slathered with butter icing. The days of the pies and pastries were gone, but the counter where I used to wait on the locals was still very much there, with built-in stools that I had wiped down many a time after hours.
On Main Street it was easy to see in a quick blink that downtown had gone upscale since I’d last been there, with several new local shops on the main drag, including the hip Embellishments run by Anita Olson. The health food store where I got my first chiropractic adjustment was still there, as was Stratton’s Drugs (without the old fountain). Each shop had a memory attached, and each owner a story.
After some chatting with the locals, we headed over to the two-story house my parents first bought on Waupaca Street, passing over the bridge where I fell in the river once and the old school where I used to climb the four-story roof with girlfriends and yell down to the passersby below.
Then, we headed out to our old farm—a place my parents bought from an 80-year old man named Mr. Niebus, who had spent the last years of his life clearing out the woods near the farmhouse to make it look like a park. The house had had no heat, no running water, and no bathrooms when my parents bought it, and me and all of my siblings helped paint the place inside and out during the remodel.
The new owners were home, and we spent a glorious hour with them going around the place and talking history. The deck I had suggested my parents build still stood—full of happy summer toys now—and the chicken coop was full, too. Terry, the owner, bred chickens to eat bugs and ticks, and the place was dreamily bug-free. The windmill still stood. Their garden brought in most of their summer produce, and with chickens for eggs and meat they are largely self-sufficient. It made me long for a country life.
Eating out, in central Wisconsin, is simple compared to our San Francisco experience, and so we dove in with relish to pan-fried fish, pizzas, burgers, and fries. The Wheelhouse is the center of the eating scene in Waupaca on the Chain, and the place is always packed. Just down the road is the picturesque Clearwater Harbor, or “The Harbor Bar” as the l0cals call it, and the view over the lake at sunset, cocktail in hand, is not to be missed.
On a high-school reunion visit, my friend Kristy’s son stood on the pier at The Harbor Bar with something bulging out the side of his pocket. “What’s that?” she inquired of her son. “A perch!” he yelled. I laughed out loud. That’s Waupaca’s charm—laid-back, easy-going, lake-centered, wholesome and uncomplicated.
The next day we sat still on Kusel, laying out on the rickety pier and sunning. Nothing to do was really the point of trekking to Wisconsin, and Kusel was the absolute perfect spot for it. We swam, drank beer—an art form in Wisconsin—swam some more, sunned, read, took the rowboat around the lake, and just floated into no-worry. Grilling a little later, I realized I had found the Heartland’s great gift: sitting in the middle of heaven and doing nothing.
Just down the way and an easy walk from the cottage was the Springwater Resort, a little pub on the lake that serves a Friday Night Fish Fry, sandwiches, burgers, and cocktails. In Wisconsin there is a tradition of taverns—meaning the focus is on the bar and the food is secondary. Funky, well-worn, and quiet, the bar sported a couple of sports events on the tube, a gathering of about 10, and us. Wandering back to the cottage I was reminded of how cold it gets in the winter, and how close-knit a community can be when there’s only a few places to gather. But here now, in the summer, it was for us a quiet respite from city life, and from every attendant concern.
The next day we met up with several of my friends from high school and went out on a pontoon boat, cruising the Chain. The boat ride was a gift from one of my oldest friends for my husband Mike, who had never seen the lakes. Each of the 21 lakes is connected by a small channel, which means you can boat from lake to scenic lake and never leave the water. As we power-floated while it lightly rained, I remembered canoeing across these waters each summer, and once—on a dare—even running naked across a frozen lake in winter in two pairs of tube socks.
Meeting up with seven more of the women I went to school with at a cottage, we headed over to the Wheelhouse for dinner. High school memories are grand for one simple reason: we were not yet who we were to become back then, but the seeds of our adult selves were already present. To find that my high school friends knew who I was long before I ever did is a gift, and makes me feel warmth for them now that I could never have expressed at 18. It fills me with an easy meaningfulness in having lived here, having known and befriended these good souls.
On our last day we floated on Kusel’s balmy waters, took in the last of our vacationing sunrays, and felt the slight change of weather as the wind came up and the first hints of autumn approached.
Wisconsin will always be for me a memory of my growing up years, but now it has become something more: a place to come and unwind, to float, to ease up, and to become light again. On Kusel, all of that is infinitely present in each summer moment. Peace, if I could bottle it, would be a summer on Kusel Lake.
We will, without a doubt, be back.
IF YOU GO:
Or contact the Chamber of Commerce in Waupaca, Wild Rose
The Wheelhouse E1209 County Road Q Waupaca, WI 54981 1-715-258-8289
Clearwater Harbor N2757 County Highway QQ Waupaca, WI 54981 1-715-258-9912
Chatterbox Restaurant (breakfast) 457 Main Street Wild Rose, WI 54984 1-920-622-3189