When friends Tim and Karen Watson first joined my wife, Penny, and me at the Old Tamarack deer shack for some snowshoeing fun in March 2006, we didn’t assume we were launching a winter tradition.

After all, none of us owned the shack or the 40 acres it controls. Old T’s longtime owner is my friend Tom Heberlein, who—for all we knew—would return that spring, find some blemish we inflicted on his property, and forever bar us from returning.

But as Penny and I hauled our gear into the shack in late January, I noted that this visit marked the 10th anniversary of our first winter getaway. Yes, the shack still lacked electricity, running water and central heat, but Heberlein hadn’t changed the locks and he wasn’t charging rent, so we didn’t nitpick. Besides, while the shack had undergone some remodeling the past decade, we had suffered some rust and wear.

Each of our trips has been unique. Although we strapped on snowshoes for every visit but one—a mid-March trip in 2012 that muddied our pants in a premature spring—we’ve always found different trails, day-trips and friendly locals to provide fresh entertainment.

Those trips included a long trek west of Clam Lake to search for elk; two journeys to the Bayfield Peninsula to admire Lake Superior’s ice caves, one from above and one at eye level; a snowshoeing jaunt along bluffs overlooking the Bad River in Copper Falls State Park with then superintendent Ben Bergey; and several daylong snowshoeing hikes north, south, east and west into the National Forest surrounding Heberlein’s property.

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Karen Watson, Brenda Maier, John Maier and Tim Watson snowshoe toward a distant lake for a day of ice-fishing in northwestern Wisconsin

One thing we never tried, however, was ice-fishing. This always puzzled Watson and me, because the shack is near some great fishing waters, Penny and Karen didn’t oppose the idea, and Watson has enough drills and tackle to put each of us at the state’s three-line limit. Yet we always had other plans.

But that was before Penny and I met John and Brenda Maier back in October. By day, John Maier is a marketing instructor at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay. By weekend, he and his wife run the True North Guiding and Outfitters service from Boulder Lodge on Ghost Lake west of Clam Lake.

As Penny and I learned in mid-October, the Maiers pride themselves on taking people off the beaten path to fish seldom-visited lakes and rivers in northwestern Wisconsin. When the Maiers heard we liked snowshoeing and had never ice-fished their area, they volunteered to take us and the Watsons on foot to a lake they had long wanted to explore.

And so it was that we met the Maiers at their cabin near Clam Lake during our recent trip. After they loaded their truck with sleds and packs crammed with food, cooking gear and ice-fishing tackle, we climbed back into the Watsons’ truck and followed the Maiers up, down, sideways and seemingly in circles to a trailhead about 20 minutes away.

John had fished our intended lake the previous week with a friend, so we trusted his information when he pointed to the trail and said, “It’s 1.3 miles to the lake.”

Accurate distances matter when you’re humping a backpack or pretending you’re a sled dog. I mean, who hasn’t gone on a “short hike” that someone guessed was “a quarter-mile or so,” only to find yourself slogging, swearing and sweating 45 minutes later? Did you misunderstand, miss a turn or just get misled by an optimist?

The Maiers are too conscientious for such nonsense. Besides, they and Watson were probably carrying the heaviest packs and tugging the largest loads, so they’d suffer more than the rest of us if we stumbled down the wrong path—or if we followed some wolf tracks for no good purpose.

As it turned out, we cut fresh tracks in the overnight snow about 20 minutes into our hike, and easily identified them as a wolf’s. The tracks came down a small hill, intersected the trail, and then followed the path toward the distant lake. The wolf eventually took a fork to the lake’s far end, while we stayed on the trail to John’s fishing spot from the previous week.

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Karen and Tim Watson, and John and Brenda Maier begin their trek across a frozen lake.

We didn’t bother verifying the quoted distance, but 1.3 miles seemed about right. Once we reached the lake’s far side and took cover from westerly winds behind a wooded peninsula, Watson and I cut and cleared fishing holes while John rigged tip-ups for northern pike, and tip-downs for crappies and bluegills. Meanwhile, Penny and Karen gathered firewood, and Brenda set up our fire pit and cook site. If all went as planned, Brenda would cook us a shore-lunch of pike and panfish.

The fish, however, had other plans. Although John helped Penny land her first pike through the ice, that was all we had when noon came and went. Not long after, Karen landed our second pike after chasing a few false alarms and missed hook-ups.

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Penny Durkin and John Maier catch the day’s first northern pike.

Meanwhile, Watson and I left the lee shore to jig for panfish in scattered holes we cut farther out in 10 feet of water. Once there, Watson set me up with an electronic fish-finder, reminded me how to interpret its flashing lights, and left me to my bait-grubs and jigging pole. Although we hop-scotched hole to hole for most of the afternoon, we caught less than a handful of bluegills, all too small to eat.

We didn’t starve, however. For lunch, Brenda fired up her portable stove and grilled sandwiches of sour-dough bread and aged white cheddar. And for a late-day snack, John filleted our two pike and cut them into bite-sized frying pieces so we could hike back on full stomachs.

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Brenda Maier fries northern pike for the group’s late-day snack.

We then pulled our lines, folded our chairs, stowed our gear, and hiked back to the trucks before dark.

Although that trek seemed a bit longer than the walk in, we didn’t blame our snowshoes or question John’s mileage. This was a day well-spent, and a meal well-earned awaited us at the Chippewa Tavern in Clam Lake.

Images courtesy Patrick Durkin

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