The bird slid motionless through unseen layers of air high above the hemlocks, spruce and birch-it had taken an hour and a half to appear. “Finally,” I thought to myself- I never tire of witnessing eagles. I'd expected to at some point, for this was the perfect habitat, but he or she, wan't on my schedule. Subconsciously, I put a check next to box marked “Bald Eagle, adult.” Already crossed off were Great Blue Heron, Common Merganser, Kingfisher, and mallard. I wasn't out on a bird watching excursion, so there were other things on the imaginary list as well-towering red and white pine, clear water, and “Canadian-esque” surroundings. This is as close to our neighbor to the north as you'll find in central Wisconsin.
The Mondeaux Dam Recreation Area, located outside of Westboro in Taylor County, is a gem within the Chequamegon National Forest. In 1933, the forest service began acquiring land here and in that same year, Camp Mondeaux River was established, (a depression era CCC camp). The young men stationed at the camp would play an important role in the development of “Mondo.” Their primary role was to develop the facilities within the new National Forest-building trails, bridges, tree planting and also suppressing fire. Archie Campbell, a local mechanic at the camp, suggested damming the Mondeaux River to provide recreational opportunities. Work began in 1936-37 and was ready to be flooded in 1938. The Mondeaux Flowage was born.
I'd visited a campground here many years ago and even had a chance to hike a lightly used portion of the ice age trail which passes through the Mondeaux area. The lake created by damming the north flowing river is almost four miles long and varies from a few hundred yards to a quarter mile wide-remnants of a glacial “tunnel channel” and “esker.” Remembering that I'd paddled a canoe here long ago, I thought it'd be a perfect place to kayak when looking for “new” water to explore.
Reconnaissance of new lakes or rivers for kayaking sometimes takes the form of just scrolling and zooming on Google maps. A large irregular blue shape requires closer scrutiny. Have I been there before, how far is it? Is it worth the drive to consider investigating? That's as simple as these things start-and it can pay off.
The locals call it “Mondo” Dam, I prefer the French. It's fairly popular on weekends, with mostly a few fishermen plying their luck along the thick forest shorelines or scattered rice beds. On weekdays, I'd expect to have the quiet waters mostly to yourself.
After a 90 minute drive, paddling friend Mark and I put in at a steep overgrown old canoe launch on the far south end-basically the start of the “lake.” There is parking for one vehicle next to the wood bridge on forest road 102. We did our best to clear out brush to reach the tiny narrow bank and without too much adversity, had both boats in the lily pad topped stream.
Paddling northward through a narrow channel of open water, the lake gradually widens. The only private cottages are located here on the south west side, with the east and far end all undeveloped national forest. As the kayaks continued, we were surrounded by more and more of that “up-North” feel, yes very much like Canada as I mentioned. Perhaps it's the size of the pine and Hemlock, the quietness, or the feeling of being in a remote place. That sense only occasionally disturbed by small fishing boats passing by. Several modest and simple campgrounds peek out here and there from the dense forest, but we see few people.
Mondeaux is all flat water paddling and it's not always clear which channel was the main one-no matter, we'd explore any and all of them if needed. Mark and I both eyed up remote campsite locations on the small islands we passed-this would make a great fall return trip. We'd take a cue from the fishermen as they'd pass as to where to continue and eventually made it to the Mondeaux Dam Lodge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building remains in a rustic style, much as it was when built in the 1930's. There is a small store here and canoe and kayak rental with a beach and picnic area. The original cement dam is sited between two day use areas.
On the return trip, we did take some of the alternate waterways around islands and explored a bit more while cruising along the opposite shore. The eagle made its appearance, soaring above and kept us company for a while, a welcome companion. We continued on, returning to the cabins on the south end. A recent storm had a few residents revving chainsaws to clear downed trees high above on the steep shore. A few more paddle strokes under the bridge and we were constricted into the narrows of the Mondeaux “river”/creek/stream/backwaters-a weedy thread where we began our outing two hours earlier.
From a suggestion to the CCC supervisor in April of 1935 by land owner Archie Campbell, to what is now considered to be nonpareil within the Chequamegon National Forest, the “Mondo” was all we'd hoped for in a “new” water discovery. My brief canoe stint 25 years ago didn't reveal just how inviting this lake could be from one end to the other for the paddler. Another box could be checked on my make believe list- Paddling water, scenery, superb.