We’d bet a Friday-night fish-fry dinner you’ve never heard of Clam Lake. Located in the thick of Wisconsin’s dense North Woods, it’s a town so small it’s more of a crossroads, hidden in the middle of the 858,000-acre Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest (it’s the only town within 725 square miles), making it one of the most remotely populated areas in the state. Imagine driving straight into the woods and happening upon a speck of civilization in the midst of a smattering of little lakes (Upper Clam Lake is the largest; Little Clam Lake is a close second). It’s absent any kind of commercial or retail hub—unless you count Clam Lake Junction, the one-stop gas station/grocery store/bait-and-tackle shop associated with an adjacent tiny, eight-room motel. The town is so small its post office is located in a private home belonging to a lady nicknamed Dodo. She’s handled the town’s mail for more than a half century, and she’s got it pretty easy, since there’s hardly anything to deliver: as of the last census, Clam Lake’s population was 37.
Clam Lake is a disappearing act of a Wisconsin hamlet. So why’s it a summer getaway destination? You’ve got to see it to believe it. Bonus: You don’t have to stay in the tackle shop/motel to enjoy it. Of the handful of kitschy rentals in the area, there’s a particularly shiny diamond in the rough: Clam Lake Lodge. Following a tip last summer, we trekked north to check out this storied lodge on Upper Clam Lake, built in 1926 as the summer home of richy-rich Chicago lumber baron L.L. Barth. He was the kind of guy who schmoozed friends and business associates with unparalleled lake views and a whole lot of land for recreating. After the lodge fell out of the Barth family and became a series of restaurants and taverns through the decades, eventually falling into disrepair, a Chicago entrepreneur decided to fix it up and restore it to its former glory.
Unlike Clam Lake itself, the lodge is huge. It’s a 5,200-square-foot wood-paneled wonderland that resembles the North Woods retreats of sepia-toned yore. It’s kind of a cross between the ultimate man cave and an idyllic writing retreat. Bearskin rug? Check. Stag head mounted over a stone fireplace? Check. There’s a library of fireside reading material, including the requisite copy of How to Stay Alive in the Woods; an arcade version of Big Buck Hunter, a pool table, and a flat-screen bigger than your kitchen; a private dock with a waiting pontoon boat. There’s a fire pit encircled with Adirondack chairs, a massive Wolf range in the kitchen for lumber-baron-size banquets, and enough beds to host a sleepaway camp—in addition to the four bedrooms in the lodge, there’s a detached cabin with another two. Basically, a third of the town could crash there.
Of course, Clam Lake Lodge is just the place to hang your trapper hat. Beyond it, the great outdoors awaits. The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest is crisscrossed with hiking and biking trails, ATV routes, killer hunting grounds (no pun intended), more than 50 species of fish ripe for hooking provided you’ve got the proper license, and even championship golf courses, if that’s your jam. And then there are the elks: Clam Lake is known as the elk capital of Wisconsin thanks to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s elk reintroduction project. Since the school ushered 25 into the forest back in 1995, the population has swelled to well over 150. Which means now there are four elks for every resident of Clam Lake. v
The drive is a little more than seven hours from Chicago. One route takes you past Milwaukee, Fond du Lac, and Stevens Point. An alternate, slightly longer course directs you through Madison, the Wisconsin Dells, and Eau Claire. The final 15 miles of both trips cut through dense forest.
Where to eat:
In town, you’ve got three options: Elkhorn Lodge is the quintessential North Woods eatery with a Friday-night fish fry, two versions of Wisconsin old-fashioneds (pick your poison: sweet or sour), and charm to spare. elkhornlodgeclamlake.com. Across the street is the Chippewa Tavern, a cozy albeit dated dining room with an outstanding jukebox. Order the pizza—really. chippewatavern.com. If dining out is really just an excuse for getting hammered, the greasy counter service at Deb’s Y-Go-By Bar & Bait is your best bet. Stick with Busch Light.
Where to sleep:
In case it’s not already obvious: Clam Lake Lodge. clamlakelodgewi.com. You could opt for Clam Lake Junction’s uber-cheap motel rooms, but you’d miss the whole lumber-baron experience. clamlakejunction.com.
What to do:
Hike in the forest. Pick up some basic fishing gear at Clam Lake Junction and hit the lake. Consider renting an ATV, or just hang out on the pontoon boat and soak it all in.