Sylvania Wilderness: virgin timbers, pure air

We all have our own ideas about where the Northwoods begins, but how do you define true wilderness? Is it simply the lack of condo developments? A disappearance of road signs? The suspicion that more critters inhabit an area than people? Many trees, no cows?

Follow U.S. 45 north, during a deer hunting or downhill skiing excursion, and you’ll see how wilderness means much more. Sylvania Wilderness, about 18,300 acres inside of Ottawa National Forest in Michigan, is right where that state butts up to Wisconsin’s Vilas County.

Being in a car will give you a taste of the rugged beauty, but you can only see the core by hiking, canoeing or cross-country skiing on 20-25 miles of unmarked trails. Bring a compass, or a GPS, plus a map of the area to avoid the panic of not knowing where you are.

About three dozen pure and undeveloped lakes, plus virgin timbers of pine and hemlock in old-growth forests, are what make this acreage more than another pretty piece of woodland. Sylvania has been U.S. Forest Service property for 40 years and was designated federal wilderness in 1987.

That means the land is preserved in its natural state for the benefit of its inhabitants, not the tourists, who must abide by strict regulations when visiting.

This includes students at Conserve School, a college prep boarding program for gifted students on 1,200 acres, near Land O’ Lakes, and bordering Sylvania Wilderness. An annual exercise in winter survival requires students, on cross-country skis, to figure out how to get from wilderness to school property. It typically is a nine-mile journey.

Sylvania Wilderness exists as it is, in part, because a lumber baron in the late 1800s decided the forest was too beautiful to cut. The land slowly turned into a paradise for the wealthy, but today the local economy seems to struggle because travelers tend to gravitate toward more easily accessible lodging that has modern amenities and diverse dining options.

Eagle River is 17 miles south. Minocqua is 45 miles southwest.

Among the finest accommodations in Land O’ Lakes (population 900) is Gateway Lodge, built with local timbers in the 1930s. During its heyday, in the 1940s and 1950s, celebrity visitors included Bob Hope, Mitzi Gaynor, Lawrence Welk, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. President Eisenhower’s family fished in the area. Astronaut James Lovell made this his secret retreat.

The lodge deteriorated when gambling became illegal. Ownership changes, bankruptcy and time-share woes were added complications.

Today the property has a condo form of ownership, so individuals own the 72 units. Renovations have been made, and history preserved. Rooms are not plush but comfortably furnished. Amenities include a bar, restaurant, indoor pool, hot tub and sauna.

Adjacent to the lodge is the nine-hole Gateway Golf Course, where the third tee is in Wisconsin but the third fairway is in Michigan. For a while, it was the only course in the country where golfers could play one round in two states.

One of the more trendy meeting spots in Land O’ Lakes is Bucksnort Coffee House, 4262 Hwy. B. The business doubles as a home furnishings and gift shop.

Locals and others who are in-the-know head 10 miles west to Bent’s Camp, 6882 Helen Creek Road (off Hwy. B) for homemade pizza and walleye dinners. The property has been a fishing/hunting lodge since 1896; the bar has the original birch bark walls and ceiling.

Walleye can be pan-fried, potato-crusted, broiled, blackened or served almondine. The Northwoods Salad contains lettuces, tomatoes, cranberries, walnuts and bleu cheese. Meals are served on metal plates, reminiscent of bygone eras.

Upstairs at the restaurant is a small but classy gift shop, with handcrafted jewelry and locally made foods, as well as typical souvenirs. For more: www.bents-camp.com, 715-547-3487. Housekeeping cabins are for rent; the property overlooks Mamie Lake, on the Cisco chain of lakes.

For more about Gateway Lodge, 4103 Hwy. B, Land O’ Lakes: www.gateway-lodge.com, 800-848-8058. Room rates are $75-100 per night. Condo units sell for around $70,000, plus $240 per month for condo fees.

For more about the Land O’ Lakes area: www.landolakes-wi.org, 800-236-3432.

For more about the Sylvania Wilderness: www.fs.fed.us, 906-358-4551. The Ottawa National Forest Visitor Center at Hwys. 45 and 2 is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays.

For help in navigating the wilderness, contact Sylvania Outfitters, E23423 U.S. 2, Watersmeet, Mich.: www.sylvaniaoutfitters.com, 906-358-4766. The 30-year-old business grooms ski trails in the forest and rents relevant equipment/supplies to visitors.

For more about Conserve School: www.conserveschool.org, 866-547-1300. Tuition for the next school year will be $30,500 (but scholarships can cut the total significantly).