|Dennis in his boat on Wildcat Lake|
Dennis Duke and his wife Cathy are owners of the Boulder Bear Motor Lodge in Boulder Junction, deep in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Last summer we had the privilege of staying with them for a week. It was one of the most refreshing times of our twenty-eight year marriage. The accommodations are homey and comfortable, and the Northwoods whisper life and nourishment. In addition, the many restaurants and resorts in the area offer a diversity of tasty foods suitable for any budget.
However, the principal charms of the Northwoods lie in the forests themselves. The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest encompasses 1.5 million acres of northern Wisconsin. It is a playground of lakes, bike and hiking trails, and quaint villages that will keep any outdoor enthusiast entertained for as long as you want to stay.
|Boulder Bear in Boulder Junction, Wisconsin|
Dennis, we visited in the summer. However, you also do a brisk business in the winter. Tell us about Boulder Junction in the cold months. All you need to know is it started snowing on Halloween, and February never got above 32F. But that is a good thing for the winter sports that we depend on during the cold months. Like other times of the year, it is the forests and the lakes that draw people to the region. Ice fishing, cross-country and downhill skiing, snowshoeing, and sitting by a fire are reasons to come north. But the big draw is the hundreds of miles of groomed snowmobile trails in the region that wind themselves across the landscape from town to town. It is a unique area of the country, blessed with cold weather, an abundance of snow, helped by Lake Superior. In this area snowmobiling is about trail riding, the destination, and the tavern stops along the way.
The snowmobile crowds are passionate about their sport, and they are the reason Motels like ours can survive. Before the advent of the snowmobile, this area could not support a year-round lodging business. Now, with the coordinated efforts of all the snowmobile clubs, the State of Wisconsin, and the riders that come every year, the winters in the Northwoods can be as busy as June or August. Minus 30F, which we saw a few times this year, doesn’t seem so bad, really.
I seem to recall you’re not a native of northern Wisconsin. What brought you here originally? This area has always been like a second home to me. I have been coming here on vacation for 50 years, and my father before that with his parents. It has always been our get-away, and I’ve always felt comfortable here. I was born and raised a corn-fed Hoosier from the south side of Indianapolis. My family roots go back to the original settling of Indianapolis in 1822. But Boulder Junction was always a place we longed to spend more time. My parents built their retirement home here in the mid-1980s and it always reminded my mom of where she grew up in Germany. They called their cabin “Waldes Ruhe.” My wife and I honeymooned here, as did my Brother and Sister. So it holds a special grip on my family. My kids now have the same attraction to Boulder Junction and Wildcat Lake. Every year when I came for vacation, I would leave the area with all kinds of business ideas that would allow me to someday move here and make a living. We didn’t know how, but I think it was always in the cards that we would end up here at some point.
What did you do prior to owning the Boulder Bear? What caused you to change professions? Cathy taught for twenty-five years, and I worked in the Defense industry for 38 years. My degree is in Engineering, and I spent my whole career with the same company. Originally with Allison, a Division of General Motors, and then we were sold to Rolls-Royce in the mid-1990s. I worked in Indianapolis until 2001, mostly aero related Gas Turbine stuff. In 2001 I transferred to Rolls-Royce Naval Marine which was located in Walpole, MA, just outside of Boston. We lived there for 12 years, raised our kids through high school and college, and enjoyed New England. But we always drove the fourteen hundred miles to vacation in Boulder Junction. Our three kids are all married and out of the house, two in the military and one working for Rolls-Royce. Eventually, my fun meter ran out, and in July of 2013 I began the effort to buy the Boulder Bear Motor Lodge, knowing it was time for me to move on to my next thing. We closed the end of May 2014, just a few weeks before we met you.
|Yours truly enjoying the bike trails|
It seems northern Wisconsin has as many miles of bicycle and hiking trails as any place I've ever visited. That had to be expensive. What is the back story on all those miles of trails? As you noted, there are large areas of state and federal land in Northern Wisconsin, along with several Tribal Reservations. We are in the ceded territories that go back to the original treaties with the native Indians in the area. Boulder Junction, as with many towns up here, are surrounded by DNR managed land. I am happy to say that the DNR partnership is active and healthy in this area. The trails and outdoor resources we enjoy are closely tied to this public/private relationship.
We have about 200 lakes within about 10 miles of Boulder Junction, and numerous hiking and biking trails. You can find trail systems that range from paved, to semi-civilized, to wilderness. That goes for hiking and biking (cycling). We are blessed with rivers and lakes that make the canoe/kayak enthusiast happy.
But the newest blessing to our area is the fifty miles of paved bike trails. They are the result of town leadership vision from over twenty years ago, and a strong partnership with the DNR. The Town Board, and its Chairman of 30 years, Jeff Long, saw the vision of bike trails along before they became widely popular. Through a combination of town funds, government grants, and local donations, the towns of St Germain, Sayner, Boulder Junction and Manitowish Waters are now connected by what we call the Heart of Vilas County Bike Trail System. By the end of next summer, the Town of Mercer will be connected to the system of trails as well.
But if you don’t like paved, we have plenty of off-road riding trails as well, as well as some lightly traveled roads if you are into road rides. Even this winter we began to see the emergence of Fat Tire bikes.
Finally, dual sport motorcycle enthusiasts are starting to find our area very attractive. All the DNR land is crisscrossed with logging roads, and unpaved roads that are excellent pathways for this emerging sport.
|Photo by Mike Crowley, used with permission|
Your area features a beautiful oddity of nature known as ghost deer. Tell us about them. The white deer, some being true albino, have become a visitor draw in their own right. They cannot be hunted in Wisconsin, so that helps their survival. But this area seems to have an abundance of them. And, when asked, the locals will tell the visitors the most likely areas to see them. If you try several times over the course of your visit, there is a good chance you will spot one. They are a majestic sight, and I had a recent guest that saw two white and one brown buck running together.
Most people think the white coat to be a disadvantage, but I am not so certain. In this area anyway, it is not unusual to have snow covered ground during hunting season. So who has better natural camouflage in that case? If you want to see some great pics of the white deer (or this area in general), check out and follow Mike Crowley, at www.LifeintheNorthwoods.com, or on Facebook. His work adorns our lobby, it was one of our first changes after we took over. They have become so popular, we have named our new Triathlon event the “White Deer Triathlon”. This is the inaugural year, check it out at www.whitedeertriathlon.com It is the first event in the Northwoods of Wisconsin Tri-Master Series.
Many times, remote or semi-remote areas are a little lacking in quality dining establishments. However, within a few miles of the Boulder Bear are all sorts of great places to eat. Any you want to spotlight? You are putting me in a tough spot. We are a very tight knit business community and I sit on the Chamber of Commerce Board, so I am reluctant to publically list favorites. But honestly, you can’t go wrong with the food establishments in the area. Bad food and bad service doesn’t survive here very long. The season is too short and the market is too small.
As you might expect, they all have their draw, or specials, and most of them do a great Friday Fish Fry. Some of my individual favorites are Blackened Prime Rib at Headwaters Restaurant on Saturdays, The Guides Inn Liver Pate and homemade ice cream, Gooch’s Pizza, Boulder Beer Bar Cheese Curds, Aqualand Alehouse Craft beer selection, Junction Tap Walleye Sandwich, Granary Corn Beef Hash breakfast. Now I’m hungry….
There are a lot of great choices and I didn’t name them all, so you will just have to come and try them.
|The Bohemia Lodge in nearby Manitowish Waters|
You've had your share of celebrities in the Northwoods over the years, including the gangster John Dillinger and the actor Johnny Depp. You clued us in on their connection to the area. Tell our readers about it. The story you reference is always told as part of the John Dillinger story. In the 1930s this area was really out of the way and it seems those looking for a place to stay low would come up to the Northwoods. Dillinger and his gang came to Little Bohemia Lodge in the 30s and the local police were tipped off. The result was an FBI ambush that killed locals, but did not catch Dillinger. Little Bohemia is still in operation today and you can see the bullet holes in the glass and buildings from the raid. Johnny Depp was here to film his movie “Public Enemy” about Dillinger a few years back. An hour or so west of here, Capone had a similar hangout.
In the Fifties President Eisenhower visited here to go fishing, and Elizabeth Taylor spent time at Wildcat Lake at the cabin owned by the owners of Coca-Cola. Wildcat Lake is the lake my parents built on, and it is the lake that I showed you around when we took the boat trip.
|The lakeside cottage once frequented by Elizabeth Taylor|
If people just want to drive into Boulder Junction for a week of R&R, without venturing into the neighboring hamlets, tell us some of the things to do there. Boulder Junction is a hub for all the “Silent Sports:” Fishing, hiking, paddling, cycling, bird/nature watching, fishing, geocaching, swimming, water skiing, etc. We have public parks, with sport fields, basketball courts, tennis courts, a skateboard park, and access to beaches. You can visit the Boulder Junction Museum, shop for sporting goods, antiques, clothes, custom-made cedar strip boats, jewelry, leatherwork, art, pottery, clothes, home goods, chainsaw carvings, rent bikes and various types of watercraft, just to name a few.
|Boulder Junction at sunset|
Conversely, if one wants to go farther afield, what do you recommend? Boulder Junction sits right on the state line with the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We are perfectly situated for day trips up to the Porcupine Mountains, Black River Harbor, or the Apostle Islands. Copper Peak is a cool visit. It is an old Ski Jump, once used for Olympic trials, that has been refurbed and they are planning to reopen as a ski jump. But, it is open now for visitors and you can take a ride to the top, and get a magnificent view of the U.P. Minocqua, Manitowish Waters, Mercer, Eagle River, Land O’Lakes are all towns within a 45 minute drive that are worth a visit while you are staying in Boulder Junction
Finally, if readers want to learn more about your excellent motor lodge or the Northwoods, recommend some good websites. You can check out the Boulder Bear at www.boulderbearmotorlodge.com or follow us on Facebook. The Boulder Junction Chamber of Commerce is at www.boulderjct.org and is also on Facebook.