IMG_20160716_165105266Late Thursday night we decided to go camping for the weekend. I packed the next morning and we left as soon as Ryan was done with work. We loved these spontaneous adventures when we lived in Colorado. We would decide over a (probably late) breakfast that we wanted to go camping, pack, drive, and be all set up along a new mountain stream by sunset. It’s a little different now with an almost 3 and 4 year old along for the ride, but we are ambitious and adaptable. The adventure must go on.

IMG_20160716_104119677We decided to head to Boulder Lake Campground in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. We had never been there as a family, it was relatively close (about a 2 hour drive), and there were other campgrounds nearby if we couldn’t find a site (it was too late to make reservations). When we arrived about dinnertime, having been serenaded by songs of “are we there yet?” and  “now?, now?, now?” from the back seat for an hour, the campground was packed and there were no sites left. That’s when we realized neither of us knew which of those “other” campgrounds would be most likely to have sites and a nice setting. We set off to find something that would silence the desperate calls for freedom coming from the backseat and also meet our need for a place pretty enough to merit all this nonsense.

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We found that amazing place at Bagley Rapids Campground along the Oconto River. It’s not much further than Boulder Lake, although it took us about another hour more to find it. Don’t waste your time at Chute Pond County Park and Campground unless you like crowds and chaos.

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Once we were settled in, we were thrilled with the change of plans.We set up camp, made dinner, and took the short walk down to the river just as dusk was turning dark. It was cold that night (damn you, Wisconsin July), but  we all slept well.

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Bagley Rapids Campground has fewer sites and fewer services (pit toilets only) which makes it more secluded and scenic. It was perfect for us. We got one of the last few sites that night and moved to a riverside site the next night. I resisted the move at first, but gave in when I saw that wild eyed look of certainty in Ryan’s eyes I remember from our Colorado years. It was happening.  And like the old days, he was right.

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It was worth the extra work to sleep to the sound of rapids roaring in the background if only for one night. Close proximity also meant we could put the kids to bed and still sit by the river within earshot. We sat quietly TOGETHER on rocks in the middle of the river, watching moonlight sparkle on water rushing around the peninsula we were on. It was magical, and unforgettable, and it made a place in my heart just for the Oconto River.

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The kids loved taking walks down to the river, climbing around on rocks, and throwing sticks into the rapids. They were naturally cautious by the water’s edge, but I still clung too tight to their hands by those enormous cauldrons of white water.

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On Saturday morning, we went to Cathedral Pines to hike the short trail and marvel at the majestic old growth forest. We knew there was an active Great Blue Heron rookery there and lucked into a late season sighting. Hearing the loud cackles and calls echo through the giant pines sounded surreal and prehistoric. Leo smartly deemed them “monkey birds.” It seems to defy gravity and common sense to see these enormous birds perched so high atop giant trees. My ecologist father-in-law explains the height of the nests and rookery gathering instinct serves to keep their young more secure from predators. He couldn’t deny it could also be for the spectacular view. Can you imagine a more wonderful place to make your home?

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Next, we stopped at Boulder Lake again for a quick swim, picnic, and a closer look at the tightly packed campground we “missed out” on. I have since renamed this body of water “decoy lake” for its ability to catch as many tourists as possible in one over-stuffed lake while the rest of us opt for one of the 60 other lakes in this county next time. We always enjoy a good swim and time to dig in the sand though, so no regrets!

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IMG_20160716_114224769We tried for a quick walk along the boardwalk trails at the South Branch Oconto Barrier Free Fishing Trail, a 1/4 mile trail built to provide “all access” to world class fishing experiences. Unfortunately and ironically, the trail was closed. We did note private campsites as well as a few public parking spaces for trail access. Here’s a shot of a list of a dozen or so sites along the trail where, theoretically, anyone can access and/or camp.

While the kids slept in the van, we cruised towards Laona to see if we could still hitch a ride on the historic Lumberjack Steam Train. We just missed the last train (don’t tell Leo and Ardea!), but will definitely splurge for this cheesy tourist experience on a future trip to the area.

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On our way back, we stumbled across this historic marker for the first School Forest in Wisconsin (and the country) in Laona. Jesse works for the Wisconsin Environmental Education Foundation and happens to know Wisconsin now has more than 400 of these visionary woodland legacies and learning laboratories speckled across the state. There’s a short public access trail there.

We continued on and found a market in Wabeno to restock our ice, firewood, and s’more supplies before getting back to camp. After a long and valiant show of resistance, the kids succumbed to sleep and we welcomed precious moments of quiet relaxation under the stars.

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We awoke on Sunday morning to the tell-tale sounds of raindrops on our tent.  After setting the kids up with breakfast snacks in the rain fly ‘garage’ we proceeded to break camp in the pouring rain.

Everyone was happily exhausted from the tour, even though it didn’t go exactly as planned.We loved the Oconto River and Cathedral Pines and we’re looking forward to seeing more of the Chequamegon-Nicolet area soon.