Push off into a 15,000-acre Rorschach blotch of crystalline waters boasting world-class muskellunge (“See This,” next page) and walleye fishing, ragged shorelines, and more than 200 islands. This 7.6-mile route in the “Big Chip” leaves time for newbie paddlers to get their bearings; experts can easily extend the adventure. Launch from the CC North boat landing and aim for the break (mile .3) between the mainland and a big, unnamed island due south (shaped like an upside-down polar bear). Hug the rounded shore of its butt (mile .4) on a southwesterly course, with far-off views of interior islands. Squeeze through an hourglass gap past two islands at mile 1.1, and point northwest toward Crane Creek Island, following a string of tiny atolls sprouting white and jack pine, aspen, and the occasional blueberry bush. Camp at the designated site on the southern tip of Crane Creek Island at mile two; sheltered on three sides by slender aspen, birch, and pine, the site offers southern exposure and balcony views of the lake. The short trip to camp leaves time to explore: Pack your fishing gear and/or binoculars and paddle northwest into the whale-shaped bulge of Crane Creek Channel (mile 2.3). Glide past white paper birch and look for osprey, loons, beavers, and belted kingfishers. After a meandering two-mile paddle, reach the creek’s source at Crane Lake, a spring-fed incubator of some of the best-tasting walleye in the state. After you’ve fished your fill, drift the current back to camp. Next day, float .3 mile east to a 20-foot-wide inlet granting access to Crystal Lake (mile 6.7), a 400-acre gem hidden behind bogs, barrier islands, and low ridgelines. Barstool legend claims this lake might be home to the next record-breaking lunker. Bait a hook and try your luck, then paddle a quarter of a mile to the southeast bays of the lake, following a dotted line of miniature islands to the invisible-until-you’re-in-it channel (mile 6.9) exiting to open water. Head northeast beneath the snout and front paws of the polar bear island and cross one more open bay to return to the landing.
Get there From Hayward, head east 13 miles on CR B to a right turn on CR CC, then south two miles to the CC North boat landing.
Gear up Find boat rentals, maps, and beta on current conditions at Hayward Outfitters, 15752 N 1st St., Hayward. (715) 266-2990; haywardoutfitters.com
Contact (715) 634-2688; dnr.wi.gov/contact
KEY SKILL: Pack a canoe
Keep your gear dry and your boat balanced with these tips for a watery voyage.
» Buy or rent dry bags. It’s easier to load a few small bags than one big one. Clear windows aid organization.
» Tuck rigid items like stoves in the bag’s center and cushion with sleeping pads, bags, and clothing. Use hard cases or five-gallon buckets with O-rings to protect valuable gear like cameras.
Balance and secure your load
» Keep weight low and centered. Spread it out, ideally below the gunwales, with heavy items on the bottom and in the center, lighter stuff on top and toward the bow and stern. Leave yourself a cockpit for adjusting leg and paddling positions, and load gear to let the bow ride slightly higher (with seated passengers) than the stern for better maneuverability.
» Waves and wind can send gear overboard. First, tie short (10 to 24 inches) ropes to each bag. Then secure the lines to thwarts, gunwales, or a tie-down line anchored to the boat. Wedge bags into the boat with the opening facing up (check for tightness as you travel), so it’s easy to access them en route.
SEE THIS: Muskellunge
With a flat head, sharp, crooked teeth, and chronic scowl, the musky stays true to its Ojibwa name: “ugly pike.” In 1949, the Chip spawned the baddest of them all, a 69-pound whopper. Muskies are elusive beasts, earning their nickname, “fish of ten thousands casts.” They prefer clear waters and shallow, protected bays, where they lurk along rock outcrops and weed edges. This apex predator is opportunistic; it will gobble other fish when convenient, and its razor-sharp teeth make short work of anything that fits in its mouth, including frogs, muskrats, and birds.
A few dozen paddle strokes west of the CC North boat landing is what looks like just another cove, but the narrow inlet, camouflaged by dense foliage, harbors a back-door channel to another hideaway tucked in the Big Chip’s most northern reaches. The canal, at times barely wide and deep enough for a full paddle stroke, snakes 1.5 miles north to Pine Island Lake. There’s no camping on tiny Pine Island (don’t confuse it with the larger Pine Island a couple miles south), but the lake provides another chance to augment dinner with a fresh largemouth bass or two, or check off pileated woodpeckers, warblers, wood ducks, and hooded mergansers from your waterfowl watch list. Listen for the duck-like squawk of great blue herons, which favor shallow waters with concealing reeds and low shrubs during their spring breeding seasons. The channel is only navigable with high water levels (typically in spring and wetter summers, but sometimes in fall). Don’t miss a lucky autumn visit: The woods are lit up in King Midas gold, and the lake resonates solitude, the heartbeat-quiet disturbed only by the tick of maple leaves falling on the water.