BOULDER JUNCTION — A little after lunchtime on a recent Sunday at the intersection of County Roads M and N in Vilas County, Barbie Bunnell helped her 5-year-old son Blake Igl pump up the tires on his bike.
“We brought our bikes with us, because we knew the trails were here, and we could have some fun while we were camping and get some exercise,” Bunnell said.
The trails that drew Bunnell and her family started 25 years ago as a short asphalt loop around the Boulder Junction baseball park that has expanded to approximately 60 miles of paved bike paths connecting the rural northwoods communities of Boulder Junction, Sayner/Star Lake, Manitowish Waters and St. Germain as the Heart of Vilas County Bike Trail System. The system is touted for its beauty as it bridges picturesque waterways, winds through mixed hardwood forests and provides access to and from many of the walking trails and campgrounds in the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest.
“It’s awesome trails!” said Sara Meline from Vernon Hills, Ill., who was visiting with her husband Mike. She spent summers in the Manitowish Waters area as a teen and got seriously into biking as the trails developed in her later adult years.
“At my age, I’m not comfortable being on roads,” she said. “Too many stupid people out there texting and not paying attention, so it’s awesome to have smooth trails that aren’t the road.”
Bunnell said paved trails are much easier pedaling than gravel surfaces for Blake and her 7-year-old daughter Cheyenne.
“It’s smoother on the trails than it is driving the bikes to the campgrounds,” Bunnell said, laughing.
Of course, building and maintaining paved trails, especially with the damage caused by Wisconsin winters, costs money. For instance, Boulder Junction trail promoters are campaigning for $875,000 to build a little more than three miles of trail extension. There is no fee to use the trail system, which includes several improved parking areas with restrooms, water, bike repair kiosks and picnic tables. Once a trail section is built, maintenance is generally taken on by local town boards, but many of the trail heads have donation boxes where users can help support the trails financially.
Major contributors along the Manitowish Waters section are part-time residents Elizabeth and Richard Uihlein, who are estimated to have put more than $6.5 million toward trail building and maintenance between 2007 and 2017. Two years ago they established a $2 million trust to maintain elements of the Manitowish Waters trail system and last year committed another $1.5 million to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for a local loop and the recently completed connection to Mercer that travels through state forest. Elizabeth is president of Uline Corp. in Pleasant Prairie.
There are returns to communities on their investments in bike trails. According to the 2010 report, “Valuing Bicycling’s Economic and Health Impacts in Wisconsin,” bicycling was estimated to bring $1.9 billion in economic benefits to the state’s communities annually. Of that, $533 million was considered a direct impact from tourism and recreation.
Jim Herman from Hales Corners and Fred Spieg from Crystal Falls, Mich., are a case in point. The former high school classmates, now in their 70s, spent several days riding 20- to 30-mile excursions.
“In Manitowish Waters we found Dixie’s Coffee House, so we kind of did different loops to stop each one of the days and enjoy the ambiance of that,” Spieg said.
Mary Debilzen, owner and manager of The Corner Store near Sayner, came for the biking and stayed for the business. She said she strayed from the Manitowoc County dairy farm where she grew up and discovered the bike trails in northern Wisconsin.
“I’m a biker. I’ve seen these trails over the years,” she said. “When I saw this for sale, I made the decision to quit my day job and move up here. This is my summer retirement job.”
The Corner Store is an old-fashioned general store and a newer full-service ice cream shop, which is a popular stop for riders during the summer.
“I concentrate on catering to the bike riders and vacationers and campers. That’s how this store was in existence for 85 years, but the bike trail has been a big draw in the five years since I’ve had it. There can be no cars here,” Debilzen said, gesturing to the front parking area, “but there can be 60 bikes parked on the side.”
An informal visual survey of riders makes it clear that the audience is widely varied. On any one day, there will be families with toddlers in bike trailers, seniors on tricycles, couples on tandems, day-trippers on rented electric assisted bikes, recumbent aficionados and long-distance riders in bright jerseys drafting in line aboard sleek road bikes.
“The trails are fantastic. I don’t think there’s a question about that,” Jim Herman said. “There can’t be another place in the country that’s as beautiful as these trails. They’re just gorgeous. Your lungs fill with delicious air.”
Bunnell said her kids love the ride.
“They like to stop and see the things along the trails like mushrooms, rivers and things like that,” she said.
Debilzen said she thinks The Heart of Vilas County Trail is now the longest paved bike trail system in Wisconsin.
“People are very surprised that they have this here (in the northwoods),” she said.
So far, there is no end to the trail in site. The newest section opened last year with 7.8 miles connecting Manitowish Waters to the town of Mercer in Iron County. Another expansion is slated for the Boulder Junction section, and long-term planners have their eyes on connecting the system to Eagle River, Minocqua and Arbor Vitae.
For more information on the Heart of Vilas County Bike Trail System, go to https://biketheheart.org.