For more than 20 years, Scott Putman has traveled 65 miles northwest from his home near Green Bay to seek winter isolation on the pristine Lakewood Cross Country Ski Trails.
On at least one occasion, he found almost too much of it.
"It feels remote," Putman said of the trail in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. "I skied it once and there were wolf tracks that were fresh on the trail ahead of me. No ski tracks. No footprints. Just wolf tracks."
It's easy to find that alone-in-the woods experience at Lakewood, at least 30 miles from anything resembling a city and overshadowed by the popularity of the American Birkebeiner trail in the far northwest corner of the state.
The wide pathway, laid out on old logging roads, first opened to skiers in 1977 and stretches northeast for 22 kilometers from the McCauslin Brook Country Club, about two miles outside the tiny town of Lakewood on Highway 32. In terrain, grooming and forest beauty, it matches the Birkie Trail, but has lacked the entrepreneurial promotion that made the Birkie a destination for skiers around the world.
The Lakewood Cross Country Ski Club maintains the trail almost as a private paradise, with occasional intrusions by skiers from the Fox Valley looking for a tough training test or a remote skiing experience.
"I think we're blessed to have something like that," said Flip Hartman, a Lakewood business owner and club member. "Many years ago somebody felt the need to have the trails put in when they could, and we're blessed to have an opportunity to have that kind of trail system right in our backyard."
Putman, a project manager at the Kewaunee Power Station and the head coach of the Ashwaubenon Nordic Ski Team, rates Lakewood: "better than any trail I've ever skied on.
"If the trail was in the UP, and you put a resort on it, you'd have traffic there all the time," he said.
Lakewood provides a unique, 22-kilometer, point-to-point track, with short loops on either end. There's no need to ski around in circles to fill an entire day in the woods, and the hills are as severe as anything the Midwest has to offer.
"The downhills are just screaming," said Putman, who noted that one section is called the Clavicle Loop, in honor of a broken bone suffered by one of the Lakewood regulars.
Climbs from creek bottoms to ridge tops span upwards of a kilometer, and the twisting downhills dive back to glacial potholes. Red pine, old-growth hemlocks, aspen and hardwoods line the snowy route, and rocks the size of mini-Coopers add to the visual variety. It delivers a big-woods feel, unlike anything found on trail systems closer to metro areas.
The middle section, from Old Highway 32 north across Smith Road, is the most challenging, while flatter loops from the golf course provide a more-manageable option for beginners.
Rustic, but well maintained
Grooming also sets Lakewood apart.
In 1992, the club secured a loan from the Oconto County Economic Development Corp. and spent $82,000 on a PistenBully groomer, the gold-standard for maintaining smooth tracks in snow. Carefully maintained by the club members, the PistenBully has provided top-notch ski conditions for two decades.
When conditions deteriorate farther south, skiers from the Fox Valley and Milwaukee load their gear and make the drive to Lakewood, certain of finding well-groomed snow. The trail hotline has up-to-date information at (715) 276-1754.
Reaching the trail, and accessing it, takes more than a little effort. It is truly a rustic experience. Skiers will find no warming shelters; no bathrooms; just small parking areas at the half-dozen trailheads off rural roads.
In the early days, the McCauslin Brook operators kept the clubhouse open through the winter and catered to skiers on the south end, and the Prospect Lodge offered a comfortable stop for a warm-up and food on the north. Those options are no longer available, and the ski club members recently tabled a discussion about building a warming shelter that would serve skiers.
Starting in 1982, the Lakewood Ski Club hosted the Nicolet Nor-Ski Race and drew 350 skiers for a 36-kilometer chase through the gorgeous scenery. The trail also hosted the Wisconsin State Championships through the 1980s and the NCAA Regional Championships in 1993, but the Badger State Games and other newer races cut into the participation numbers, and the club abandoned the race in 2004.
Putman, seeking to revive the historic competition, launched a new Nicolet Nor-Ski held on Feb. 3, 2013. Nearly 150 high school, middle school and citizen skiers once again filled the trail.
"It's the heritage," he said. "We dressed the trail up. We didn't make a whole lot of money last year, but we enjoyed the heck out of holding it."
Bryan Fish, a Rhinelander native, raced at Lakewood in high school and took his team to train there when he coached the University of WisconsinGreen Bay skiers. Now a coach with the USSA Nordic Team, he's excited by the prospect of more activity on the trail, but still relishes the memories of his solo skis deep in the Nicolet.
"In the spring time, after a whole winter of supporting athletes and focusing on racing, I would find myself going there and skiing just to ski," Fish said. "It's an environment that people can experience just to revitalize their passion for the sport."
You won't find the usual chain hotels or restaurants in Lakewood, a town of 875 people in the middle of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Good lodging options can be found at the Mountain Springs Motel, about nine miles south in Mountain, and the Waubee Lake Lodge, 1839 Waubee Lake Park Lane in Lakewood. For added entertainment, the Potawatomi Carter Casino offers gaming and 99 rooms in Wabeno, nine miles to the north.
Dining and more
The Maiden Lake Supper Club, 15649 Maiden Lake Road in Mountain, was serving steaks and hand-breaded walleyes when the trail opened, and still provides a rustic supper club experience with top-end food. Call (715) 276-6479.
In Lakewood, the Firelite Lounge, 15329 Highway 32, serves homemade pizza and the burgers skiers will crave after a hard day on the trails. See or call (715) 276-7041.
To caffeinate early, the Northern Perks Coffee Shop, 15425 Highway 32, will pour a strong cup for the drive to the trail.
Woodland Trail Winery, 17153 Big Hill Road, Lakewood, produces fruit wines on the sweeter side, along with snack delights. Call (715) 276-3668.
Sweet Memories Candy & Gift Shoppe, 15381 Highway 32, has a house and barn full of candies, chocolate fudge and knick-knacks. Call (715) 276-9873.
Ski rentals can be found at Lakewood Ski & Sport, 15684 Highway 32.
See the Lakewood Nordic Ski Club website at or call the trail hot line at (715) 276-1754.
Tom Held is a skier and freelance writer based in Milwaukee. He produces The Active Pursuit blog.
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