Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Day hike forest to site of Wisconsin’s first Thanksgiving

Trailhead to the site of Wisconsin's first Thanskgiving.

Primitive trail runs through Chequamegon National Forest

Day hikers can walk through the area where Wisconsin’s first Thanksgiving took place just a few decades after the Pilgrims held the very first one at Plymouth Plantation.

The unnamed trail – which I’ve christened the Forest Road 1919B/BA Trail because of the jeep trails it follows in the Chequamegon National Forest – takes hikers on a 1.14-mile round trip to the headwaters of the Chippewa River. Near that waterway in what is now the southeastern corner of Bayfield County, local Native Americans rescued three starving French explorers by providing a feast in a story with remarkable parallels to the Pilgrims’ harvest banquet.

To reach the trailhead, from Clam Lake, Wis., take County Road M northwest. Once past Day Lake, rather than turn left to head for Cable, continue straight onto Forest Road 191 (aka as Old Grade Road and on some maps as Taylor Lake Road). Then turn left/southwest onto Forest Road 1919 (aka Job Corps Road). Follow this to its terminus above Chippewa Lake, parking off the road.

A jeep trail heads to a campsite on the shores of Chippewa Lake. Though expansive at 280 acres, the lake is fairly shallow at only 11 feet. From it rises the West Fork Chippewa River.

Starving to death
Near the lake in late 1658, French explorers Pierre Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart Sieur des Groseilliers ran out of food during the particularly harsh winter.

To survive, they ate their dogs then retraced their steps to former camps so they could dig the refuse of their previous meals from snowbanks for food. Then they crushed bones into powder and boiled guts and skin for sustenance. Finally, they ate wood. “…the rest goes downe our throats, eating heartily these things most abhorred,” Radisson wrote.

From the lakeshore, walk back to Forest Road 1919 and turn right/south onto Forest Road 1919B. The trail heads through a Northern hardwood forest, a beautiful hike in autumn when gold, orange and crimson leaves dominate the skyline.

In 1659, a group of Odowa (Ottowa) Indians came across the two explorers. The Odowa gave them new clothes and most importantly provided a banquet of wild turkey and rice as well as other fowl. Groseilliers gave “a speech of thanksgiving.”

Saved from certain death
Where the trail splits, go left onto Forest Road 1919BA. This heads to the edge of the West Fork Chippewa River. The bulk of the hike is on FR 1919BA.

Upon reaching the river, to the northwest are marshlands surrounding Chippewa Lake. Downstream, the fork meanders before joining with the East Fork Chippewa River and forming the Chippewa River proper, which flows for 130 miles into the Mississippi River.

Just as the Wampanoags had saved the Pilgrims from starvation by showing them how to raise crops such as corn and squash, so the Odowa similarly saved the French explorers from certain death by the sharing of food. With that gesture, Radisson and Groseilliers were able to return to their base in eastern Canada. The Wisconsin Historical Society considers it the state’s first Thanksgiving celebration involving Europeans and Native Americans.

From the West Fork Chippewa River’s shoreline, return the way you came to your vehicle.

FR 1919BA is a primitive trail, so you'll need to wear jeans and a long-sleeve shirt. Being so near to the lake and wetlands, you'll also want to don and carry mosquito repellent.

Read more about day hiking Bayfield County, Wisconsin, in my Day Hiking Trails of Bayfield County guidebook.