Photo of an island campsite privy

Tent Camper? Then You Need to Try Island Camping

I remember it as if it were yesterday. But it was actually 1985 when we decided to take the kids island camping. What is island camping? Let me explain.

We have always been tent campers. And the Wisconsin Northwoods was our favorite camping area.

Have you ever felt the “call of the wild”? And I’m not referring to the 1903 novel by Jack London. I DID read that book as a child and enjoyed every page. A book about a wolf in the Yukon, as I recall.

I’m talking about the yearning one often feels to get out of the city, away from civilization, take a trip, get out into nature, go to Europe, join the Peace Corps. Those types of yearnings. An experience that will get your blood and adrenaline moving again; especially your adrenaline. I’ve always felt that call but my career kept where I was. However, we could always escape to the Wisconsin Northwoods for a long weekend in order to be where we wanted to spend the majority of our time. That’s what drove us to tent camp about every other weekend.  On some occasions, when we returned home from a camping trip, we would not bother to unpack the truck because we suspected that we would be heading back to the Northwoods on the following weekend. It got ridiculous.

We had camped in many campgrounds in Wisconsin with our three young children. But we wanted to try something more daring and more remote. We were camping at a campground on the Chippewa Flowage near Hayward, Wisconsin. Wisconsin rednecks call it the “Big Chip”. It’s a huge 15,000 acre impoundment of water formed by the damming of the Chippewa River in 1924. It’s dotted with hundreds of islands. We noticed, while fishing with the kids, that there were campsites on some of those islands. That’s what gave us the idea for our next camping adventure.

(Author’s NOTE: there is a photo gallery for this post —->HERE<—-

What is really nice about camping on islands on Wisconsin’s big flowages is that it’s free, no reservations required, it’s first-come-first- served, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources maintains the island campsites. That means they keep them clean and groomed, they maintain the pit toilets, and they frequently re-stock each campsite with firewood.

Island campsites have a log picnic table, a fire ring, and a pit toilet. That’s it. Nothing else. You have to bring anything else that you want with you including fresh water to drink, extra fire wood, and something to cook on. You also need to leave nothing on the island when you leave, except what was there when you arrived. We made a list of what we would need, acquired some things at the local sporting goods store, and then headed out on the four hour-drive to Hayward from Waupaca, where we lived.

It was quite a haul. We had to transport a seventeen foot canoe upside down on top of our fishing boat, on a trailer, which we towed with our truck. The truck had a fiberglass cap on the carpeted truck bed, so we crammed all our gear and the kids in there – three kids with the youngest age five and the oldest age 10.

Our gear included all the firewood that we would need for three nights and four days, a cooler of food and beverages (ice would be bought in transit and every morning after that), five sleeping bags, five air mattresses, a 12-volt pump to pump up the mattresses using the boat battery, fishing gear, towels, clothes, folding chairs, a camping utensil set for preparing meals and eating, a two-room tent, a screen house, clothes line, an inflatable shower surround (sun shower), a tarp to put under the tent, and other necessary items. Packing for an island camping trip is a challenge. You always forget something, even when working from a list. Forgotten items had to be purchased in transit. Once on the water, we had to live without the item as there was no return to civilization for four days.

Let me interrupt my story for a second while I interject a funny camping episode. On another camping trip, we discovered after two hours of driving to our camping destination, that one of our four cats had crawled into the boat and was hiding under the boat cover. We had pulled into a gas station and heard meowing. We located our cat but did not want to drive two hours back home to put her back in the house. So we took her with us. We released her on the island where we set up camp. We figured, where is she going to go when we are surrounded by water on all sides? We renamed that island to Gray’s Island, after our cat. Since we now live on the flowage where we were camping many years ago, we pass that island frequently. Gray has passed on.

Back to the story. Once we arrived at the boat landing on the Big Chip, someone had to take the fishing boat out on the 15,000 acres of water and find a vacant campsite, while the rest of the family stayed behind with the rest of the gear. I usually took one of the kids and the tent, which would be used to “stake our claim” on an island. Finding a good campsite on an island could be a real challenge on a weekend, requiring boating several miles or more to find a site. But we learned that arriving early at the flowage on Thursdays instead of Fridays makes the task much easier.

On that first attempt at island camping, it took me about an hour to find a camp site. I quickly dropped one of my sons off with the tent and hurried back to the boat landing to pick up the rest of the family and gear. The gear took up most of the space in our eighteen foot fishing boat. Additionally, we pulled a seventeen foot canoe behind the boat and it was also loaded down with camping gear. The remaining two kids and my wife sat on top of the gear in the boat.

Getting back to the island was slow going. Rough water and wind would make this task even harder. The canoe, which was hitched to the boat on a sturdy rope, swayed one direction and then the other. So I had to drive slow enough to make allowance for the swaying, or the canoe would capsize.

The first day of island camping was spent setting up camp. Once that task was complete, there was time for a meal and a little fishing before dark. When it gets dark in the middle of a 15,000 acre body of water in the middle of nowhere, it gets pitch black. That’s when we realized how alone we really were. The campfire kept the site lit. But there was nothing but blackness and quiet beyond the fire. We were used to others being in a campground with us. But there was no one this time; just us. And whatever else might be living on or roaming our island.

That thought was always at the back of our minds. It was common for bear, deer, wolves, coyotes, and other wildlife to swim between the islands when in search of food and a place to bed down. We carried no weapons, but relied only on our ability to scare off unwanted guests.

Raccoon’s would often visit our campsite in the night and rummage through our cooking utensils in search of food. The racket usually woke everyone up from a sound sleep. But we considered raccoon’s more of a pest than a threat. There really is no way to keep them out of your camp site. So you just have to put up with them.

Another reoccurring thought was, what if we needed to return to civilization for something urgent during the night? That wasn’t possible. Civilization was about five miles east across the water and blackness.

But it was an exciting experience. Remembering that first trip still sends chills up my spine. As we bedded down in our sleeping bags in the tent, the loons started their mournful cries from somewhere across the lake; eerie but beautiful. I was so intrigued by the whole experience, I could hardly sleep.

You need to island camp at least once in your life. Find an island, pitch a tent and stay there for three or four days. You’ll never look at your life the same way after that trip. It’s hard to explain how a trip like that can change you. But it does. My theory is that your normal level of stress reaches a new low, and you see the world and your environment in a whole new, fresh perspective.

My wife was always up first in the morning. She’s the fire builder. I was up and out of the tent next; just in time for campfire coffee, which is the best coffee. Eggs and bacon were prepared in a huge frying pan over the campfire and served on little tin camping plates. We used Mountain Dew for orange juice since we couldn’t fit jugs of O.J. in the cooler. The kids were fed and then it was time to get cleaned up. Hmmm. Someone forgot to put the five-gallon sun shower bag out to capture the warmth of the sun. No hot water. Oh well, a dip in the lake with a bar of soap was the next best alternative, and that worked just fine. Water from the lake heated over the campfire was always used to wash dishes. Fresh water was scarce and had to be conserved.

Ice for the cooler, which held our perishable food, was also scarce. Each morning always required a run by boat across the flowage in order to acquire ice and five more gallons of fresh water from wherever we could find it. The nearest boat landing was always a good place to start looking for ice and fresh water.

Once the water and ice were handled, it was time to think about fishing. We found a floating bog that sat over deep water, and that is where we decided to fish. So we maneuvered  the boat against the bog, tied it off, and dropped our minnow-tipped fishing lines straight down in the water below the bog and boat. It wasn’t long before we were catching crappie one right after the other. That floating bog would be our favorite fishing spot on the Big Chip for the next several years.

Back at our island, the day’s catch were cleaned on the camp’s picnic table and washed in the lake. The fish fillets went from the lake to the frying pan and that served as our shore lunch. You can’t beat crappie and a few walleye for shore lunch. On a really successful fishing day, there were enough fish fillets for both lunch AND dinner. That was a treat.

Afternoons were usually too hot for fishing. So we swam near our little island and took trips in the canoe to explore the surrounding area. Once in awhile another boat would pass by our island and we would wave. Those were our only encounters with other people for four days, other than our morning trips for water and ice.

Dinner preparation began about four in the afternoon. The kids usually fished off the island while my wife and I prepared fish, bratwurst, or steak over the campfire for dinner. Everyone who wanted one got a beer. Our kids were much too young for beer. But beer with bratwurst and sauerkraut was just one of those special treats that went hand-in-hand with camping.

Once dinner was over, everything got left where it last set so we could get out on the lake for fishing again. Evening fishing was the best. We usually didn’t leave the floating bog until just before dark, requiring us to turn on the boat lights and use a spotlight to find our way back to our island campsite.

Once back at our island, the camping routine began all over again. Clean and wash fish fillets, eat them or put them in the cooler, sit around the campfire and roast hot dogs or marsh mellows, tell stories and giggle until we were all too tired to stay up any longer. Then head for our sleeping bags before our little island world turned pitch black once again.

That’s how our children were raised – in island campsites. If we were home, we were either thinking about camping or preparing to leave for another camping trip.

The kids are all adults now and have their own homes. My wife and I retired to a log cabin on a giant 14,000 acre flowage dotted with hundreds of islands that have campsites. It’s not the Big Chip, but another Wisconsin flowage called the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage. And when the kids come to visit, they still fish and island camp even though they all have a bedroom in the cabin on the banks of the flowage. That’s how they were raised. They prefer islands and a tent versus a cozy bedroom. So do I.

(Author’s NOTE: there is a photo gallery for this post —->HERE<—-


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