By Lisa Charron

Imagine 90,000 acres of protected forest. Seventy-five miles of hardwood-lined river winds its way through the property. Paddlers and people fishing drift on the open water, while thrill-seekers maneuver through the rapids. Deer, wolves, raccoon, black bear, otter, bald eagles and ospreys make their homes along the lush banks while musky, sturgeon, trout, walleye, bass and pan fish thrive in the waters.

A merganser on the Flambeau River. Photo credit: Jereme Rauckman via Flickr Creative Commons.

Families spend evenings around the fire in the rustic campsites, listening for the eerily exciting call of a wolf pack. Hunters and hikers enjoy the forest’s bounty side by side. This is a place where cell phones don’t have signal; a place to truly get away.

And within this public oasis, called the Flambeau River State Forest, there lies a small, seven-acre inholding owned by the Barnes family. Jake Barnes grew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, but some of his fondest childhood memories take place on that property and in the surrounding forest. He remembers sitting around the cabin, his father and his father’s friends telling deer-hunting stories. Those guys, “professional types” every last one, Barnes remembers, loved to talk about all the big bucks they’d shot over the years. During the day, Barnes would float the river for musky, chase grouse through the brush, deer hunt with the men and even bait bear with his brother.

“Now I’m one of the old guys bringing kids into the forest,” Barnes said. It’s because of his fond memories of the place, because his father loved the Flambeau River State Forest so much and because he wants others to be able to have those same experiences, that Barnes created the Daniel F. Brown & G. Donald Barnes Flambeau River State Forest Fund.

Flambeau River is a favorite spot for paddlers of all skill levels. Photo credit: Jereme Rauckman via Flickr Creative Commons.

“My hope is that this fund will enable the DNR to continue to offer high levels of recreational opportunities in the state forest in light of the current state budget cuts, and that it will help maintain the Flambeau River as a pristine river,” Barnes says about creating the fund. He created the fund in 2008 and since then it has been managed by the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin.

He stipulates that the fund cannot be used to support motorized vehicles in the forest. Although he used to drive around the forest on three-wheelers as a kid, Barnes says, “You couldn’t pay me to own an ATV now.” For him and his family, enjoying nature is all about “silent sports” like hiking, biking, paddling and skiing. Barnes realizes that the Flambeau River is popular among experienced and inexperienced paddlers alike, and that such popularity requires a certain amount of upkeep. He hopes that the fund he created will keep the river and the forest clean and help beautify it.

As far as specific projects go, he leaves that up to the state forest’s superintendent, Jim Halvorson. Halvorson says that, oftentimes, people are drawn to how rustic the forest is, but they don’t really know how to enjoy it. He’s been using disbursements from the fund to educate visitors about the forest and things to do there. Since 2013, the fund has helped Halvorson buy elk and bobcat displays for the forest office and a collection of furs that visitors can handle. The office now has a display of books and other educational materials that visitors can purchase, thanks to the fund.

A bobcat mount greets visitors and gets them excited about exploring the forest. Photo credit: Flambeau River State Forest.

The fund also helps the state forest host a variety of fun and educational events. It supports the annual candlelight ski as well as programming every Saturday during the summer. Summer programming ranges from knot-tying workshops to scavenger hunts to guided hikes. Lastly, Halvorson says that the fund helps with all the little things around the forest that don’t otherwise receive funding. It helps him update and create new signage and maintain landscaping around the office, for instance.

Barnes’ fund also supports fun and educational activities at Flambeau River State Forest, including the annual candlelight ski. Photo credit: Flambeau River State Forest.

The Flambeau River State Forest clearly makes an impression on those who have the fortune to spend time in it. Its remoteness, its biodiversity, its beauty. It’s enough to make me want to hop in the car and drive up there this weekend. Ironically, the pull of Flambeau River State Forest, that ability it has to draw people into nature, is also the reason that it needs support and upkeep. Thanks in part to the fund that Barnes set up, people will be able to enjoy the forest—and learn about it and all of its opportunities for recreation—for years to come.

If there’s a natural area that holds a special place in your heart, consider setting up a fund for it through the Foundation. For more information, visit our Wisconsin Conservation Endowment page.

And stay up-to-date on events happening at Flambeau River State Forest by visiting its WDNR page. Events are posted as they are scheduled.