Gregg Westigard enjoys a winter walk in Straight Lake State Park.
Searching for solitude?
Try Straight Lake State Park.
Story and photos by Kevin Harter
Gregg Westigard hikes a snow-covered path between Rainbow and Straight lakes on a cool, clear, midwinter morning, stopping from time to time to point out a favorite wildflower or wildlife spot in Straight Lake State Park.
"There is always something new to discover. We always seem to find something interesting," says Westigard, who, along with his wife, Marie-Anne, have been walking, hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing what is now Straight Lake State Park since moving to the area from Minneapolis in 1983.
Tucked in the northwest corner of Wisconsin some 70 miles from the Twin Cities is one of the state's newest parks, a rare gem of nearly 3,000 acres of woodlands containing several pristine streams and lakes.
"We've seen otters, owls and eagles. And one day we saw a badger digging. To see a badger in the wild is just awesome," he says, walking off the path toward Rainbow Lake, before stopping to point out a favorite warm weather spot. "Those ponds over there are frozen now, but the grounds around them are full of orchids in summer."
The ponds – four impoundments totaling 329 acres – are one of the few footprints left by man in the park, which includes 222 acres of high quality wetlands with perched bogs and ephemeral ponds that support a diversity of plant and animal communities.
Property along the Straight River contains one of the most distinctive glacier-formed tunnel surface channels in the Midwest.
Westigard, of rural Luck, Wis., supported the acquisition by the state for years before it happened. He agrees with many officials, who, at the time the land was purchased, called it one of the most important land buys in state history.
"This is a wild lake with easy access and we want to maintain it," says DNR Parks and Recreation Bureau Director Dan Schuller. "We want this to be a park of water, shoreline, trees and wildlife."
Approved by the Natural Resources Board in March 2005 and Gov. Jim Doyle the following month, the Knowles- Nelson Stewardship Fund – named for former Wisconsin Governors Warren Knowles and Gaylord Nelson – was used to pay for the coveted property, which is located in a region of explosive population growth because of its proximity to the Twin Cities.
Under the terms of the $10.6 million deal, the Department of Natural Resources created a state park named for 107-acre Straight Lake. The parcel, which includes three miles of the Wisconsin Ice Age Trail, is in Polk County about three miles northeast of Luck.
The Ice Age Trail is one of eight designated national scenic trails and is used primarily by hikers. About 600 miles of the 1,000-mile trail have been completed.
The Polk County landscape is a transitional one between the thick forests of the north and the cleared agricultural land to the south and is unique because it has been largely untouched by humans. Small parts of it were logged decades ago.
The land, skies and waters are home to abundant wildlife, including blue herons, eagles – including one nesting pair on a small Straight Lake island – trumpeter swans, black bear, river otters, red fox, gray tree frogs, leopard frogs, and assorted snakes, salamanders and newts. The northern half of the park is adjacent to a state wildlife area.
"It contains everything you could want to see in this part of the state," Schuller says. "This is a gem. And there was a lot of interest in this land."
That interest included developers who would have liked to break up the acreage and build homes and weekend retreats, along with those who have long been interested in seeing it preserved and opened to the public.
Previous development was limited to several miles of trails and dirt roads and the remains of several buildings from a Boy Scout camp that closed in the 1960s. The only other signs of human presence on the property are approximately 140 acres of cleared grasslands and the three artificial ponds that were part of a failed golf course development.
The upland areas are mostly northern hardwoods, with a scattering of red and white pine, and some cropland and grassland. About 850 acres of the uplands contain forest approaching oldgrowth status.
Had the land been developed, many of its current inhabitants would have been forced out, including the endangered Cerulean warbler.
The state has purchased several larger acreages, but this property contains two wild lakes, old-growth forest and a section of the Ice Age Trail, which makes it one of the most significant purchases ever.
"It is extremely rare to accomplish what we did with one purchase. This is as unique as you'll ever find," Schuller says.
It is expected to take several years to add, by design, limited amenities, including camping and parking sites, along with a park office.
"There isn't a lot of development needed. Some trails will be developed, including around Straight Lake," Schuller said. "This will be a low development, rustic, quiet park."
Camping will be allowed, along with fishing, but everything must be carried in and out and no gas motors will be allowed.
"This is a wild lake with easy access and we want to maintain it," Schuller says. "We want this to be a park of water, shoreline, trees and wildlife."
Straight Lake Park Supervisor Kurt Dreger, who also oversees Interstate Park, knows visitors will enjoy the park and all it has to offer.
"This is an extremely special place. It feels very remote because there are no houses or roads," Dreger says.
Photos and videos will be shot. Trails hiked. Picnics enjoyed. And fishing lines wetted. But the thing he enjoys the most, and thinks others will as well, can be summed up in a word.
"Solitude," Dreger says.
Kevin Harter is the public affairs manager for DNR's Northern Region.