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Travel: Celebrating the Seasons at Elkhart Lake

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

   Just today, the rattle of someone pulling a boat and trailer, bouncing over the patched pavement of the street in front of my house, was a familiar and significant sound. I know it well.  And I know what it means. When neighbors start bringing home the boats and campers, when outdoor toys are put away so that winter tools and gear can take their place, I know we’ve really reached the end of Summer at the Lake season.

   Every place I’ve ever lived has claimed bragging rights for being the lake-loving mecca. But the truth is, wherever there is a lake to get away to, and most states have plenty of them, people will get there. Cabins become family heirlooms, passed down and cherished, and a unique culture—peculiar to that particular place—grows and evolves.

   I’ve been thinking about this since I spent Labor Day weekend in Wisconsin exploring historic Elkhart Lake. First settled in the 1860s, Elkhart Lake boomed in the 1870s when the Milwaukee and Northern Railroad added a stop at the downtown depot. At its peak, more than 2,000 visitors arrived each week, pouring into the sprawling resorts that built up at the edge of the lake. By 1894, Elkhart Lake was a true village.
Today Siebken’s Resort, the Osthoff Resort and the towering Victorian Village are all built on the bones of those earlier hotels and summer resorts.

   Late one afternoon we climbed onto a pontoon boat and circled the scenic glacial lake as our guide filled us in on the unique history of the community.

   The beautiful spring-fed, rock-lined, glacial lake covers almost 300 acres. Just over 120 feet deep at its deepest point, Elkhart Lake is ringed by Wisconsin forest. Most of the homes and summer cottages have remained in families for generations. While its history is uniquely American—Speakeasys, road races and summer stock theater—there is a quaint European vibe that reflects the German heritage of early developers.

   I’m sure Elkhart Lake is a great place at the height of summer, but I was glad to be there at that particular moment. Labor Day marks the unofficial end of lake season in most places. But that only means the summer crowds go away. The lake never closes. And, of course, neither do the resorts that surround it. By visiting in September, I was able to appreciate the beauty without the bustle of the busiest time of year.

   As we circled the lake, passing vintage cottages, picturesque boathouses and an occasional rambling mansion tucked behind the trees, I could see that the seasonal cabins were being swept and cleaned and closed. Boats were back in the small boathouses that perched over the water’s edge.  Thoughts were turning to autumn bonfires and, soon enough, ice skates and snow shoes.

   That is my favorite time at any lake. Sure, summer is fun, but there is something special about the silence of other months. When it’s possible to have the sunrise and sunset to yourself, with enough quiet time to think and reflect. Soon enough, the snow will fall, then melt. The birds will fly away and then return. And before we know it the summer at the lake will start all over again.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

  

Taking in the Great Outdoors

    Usually, dawn is just touching the sky when I open my eyes. Still blinking, half-lost in a fading dream, I reach over to the table beside my bed for my glasses and my camera. I stumble across the dark room and make my way to the window or step out onto the balcony if there is one. I press the shutter.


    “Good morning,” I say to myself wherever I am.  “Good morning, world.”


    This mid-winter morning, I am far north, in the Canadian province of Alberta. Frozen, scenic, Lake Louise shines blue-white in the weak early light. My room in the historic Chateau Lake Louise looks out toward the lake and I watch as the mountains ringing the lake come into focus as a new day steals across the sky.


    These are private, personal, moments when I travel; watching the day begin and end from my window.


    This is not to say I don’t enjoy the outdoors. I do. I spend long hours exploring the landscape wherever I go. In winter at Lake Louise, the cold air bites, the wind tangles and teases. A few steps from the Chateau I am part of a wilder world. I can taste the Canadian wilderness and hear the sounds and soak in the silence of a truly wild place. I listen to the crunch of my snowshoes on the snow in the forest. I hear the distant sounds of others; the squeals and laughter of children skating, the jingle of the harnesses of horses pulling sleighs down the trail to Victoria Falls.  Outdoors, I am exhilarated, thrilling at the pull of muscles and the pounding of my heart. But there is something so satisfying about coming in from the cold. Walking into a room spiced with the fragrance of hot coffee and chocolate, laced with conversation and laughter. Hands cradling a cup, lulled by the warmth, it is a selfish pleasure to stand and look out at  where I have been.

     From the window-seat in my room, I watch birds circle the frozen lake and solitude-seekers skiing the perimeter of the lake in the morning. In the late afternoon I gaze down at families, toddlers on sleds in tow, skates laced together and tossed over a shoulder. A single-file line of children scale the high bank from the lake to the Chateau like Gold Rush hopefuls trudging up Alaska’s Chilkoot Trail.


     At night, I gaze, once more before turning out the lights, spellbound, as the stars spread across the sky over me.


    When it is time to leave, I buy a souvenir; a postcard reproduction of a 1930 Canadian Pacific Railroad poster advertising the Chateau. The grand hotel - now a Fairmont property - was built more than 100 years ago by the railroad as a way to lure travelers to the remote and singularly beautiful place. On the card, an elegant woman with bobbed hair and wearing jodhpurs, stands gazing out toward Lake Louise through one of the Cathedral windows of the Chateau. Tall, snowcapped peaks reach above it and the Victoria glacier can be seen in the distance. The view is framed perfectly by the arch of the window.

    In my imagination - oh, the occasional freedom of my imagination - the tall, slim, beautiful blond woman (my opposite in every way) is me.


    We are both captivated by a window on the world. We are captured by an unforgettable view.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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