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Castle Rock Lake, Necedah NWR and Buckhorn State Park: Could be the next big Chicago getaway

The Castle Rock Lake area is developing around it’s natural resources and drawing Chicagoans.

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Artwork of cranes provides a backdrop or front drop in the viewing area by the visitor’s center at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.
Dale Bowman

CASTLE ROCK LAKE, Wis.--During Lovie Smith’s brief stint at Wisconsin, he was Brad Pavloski’s position coach.

``When the Bears had Lovie Smith, I was like, `Oh, [shucks],’ ‘’ Pavloski said.

After he told that story, I relaxed. Chicago-Wisconsin push-pull I know.

Normally, I don’t hang with developers. But Pavloski guided me around Castle Rock Lake, Buckhorn State Park and Necedah National Wildlife Refuge on a tour in July.

Castle Rock, fourth largest lake in Wisconsin, was created by the Wisconsin River Power Company in 1947 and completed in 1951 with the damming of the Wisconsin River. It’s notable for sandy bottoms and beaches, a short drive north of the Dells.

The Castle Rock area is relatively undiscovered. I briefly visited once on a Dells trip, otherwise only noting it zooming past on the interstates.

As we crossed the bridge toward Buckhorn SP, Pavloski said, ``Now when the fish are biting, they are lined up on the bridge.’’

The lake is filled with usual range of fish, but this trip was for touring. Pavloski noted on various quick stops that Castle Rock ranked high for scenic beaches and its paddling. A fawn staged a star turn crossing a road.

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A fawn crossing the road at Buckhorn State Park.
Dale Bowman

Before we headed to Necedah NWR, Pavloski gave a tour and background of the Pavloski Waterfront Developments he does with his brother, around the edges of Castle Rock and nearby public lands.

They know people want to live by water, so they build lakes with lots around them. Their target is people looking for a retirement or vacation home in the $250-350,000 range. Chicago, the north and west suburbs make up a good chunk of their market.

To Necedah NWR, which was formed in 1939. It’s noted for whooping cranes, trumpeter swans, wolves and Karner blue butterflies.

It is a large public hunting area with 44,000 acres. Fishing, birdwatching, wildlife viewing and photography are other great draws.

``A lot of people happen upon us,’’ said Katie Goodwin, visitor services manager for the refuge. ``It is a great place to come and get away.’’

She was absolutely right. I came back with my wife.

July and August are birding, wildlife watching and berry picking.

``Summer is great; every day, the plant communities changes,’’ Goodwin said. ``If you’re a photographer, this is the place to go. They will sit for hours.’’

From the viewing areas by the visitor’s center, you can see sandhill cranes, whoopers and tundra swans in the right times. The refuge had five naturally born whooper chicks this year.

The warbler migration is notable in May.

``People literally flock here,’’ Goodwin said.

(OK, I enjoy cracks like that.)

``Colors should be great this year, unless we lose our water,’’ Goodwin said.

Eggs of Karner blue butterflies winter under leaf litter. There are now three wolf packs in the refuge. Sometimes in winter, they can be spotted on the ice.

Goodwin waxed poetic about foggy mornings and play of the light and colors. And the sounds, nature’s symphony, in the spring and summer of frogs, insects and birds.

But, there comes a day, usually late October, when the south winds switch and the birds are gone. ``And it stays silent,’’ she said.

If you regularly knock around refuges or state parks, be prepared for a piece of art in the visitor’s center, completed in 2011. It’s special and be sure to look up.

Then it was a boat tour with two former Chicago-area men who made lives on the water at Castle Rock, Eddie Vince of Docking Solutions and Fred Buoni of Smith II Marine.

We cruised by Alcatraz Island, just off Buckhorn SP, and around the dam. Alcatraz is to Castle Rock Lake what the Play Pen is to the Chicago lakefront.

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During busy weekends, Alcatraz Island on Castle Rock Lake becomes the great drawing spot for the boating crowd; this photo was taken mid-week.
Dale Bowman

Alcatraz is where Vince, Buoni and Laurie Norwick of Castle Rock Marine started Boat Bash--Wisconsin’s largest on-water party--a decade ago as customer appreciation. It now draws thousands and nearly a thousand boats with major sponsors and big-name bands playing on a Docking Solutions barge.

I can see what Pavloski, Vince and Buoni mean when they talk about Castle Rock Lake becoming Chicago North, the way Lake Geneva did decades ago.

On shore, I met my wife for lunch at Shipwreck Bay, overlooking the water. When Castle Rock becomes Chicago North II, there will be more such places.

My wife and I did our own tour, hiking a scenic overlook at the north end of the lake, then visiting and walking Necedah NWR. We finished with Effigy Mounds in New Lisbon. We had to hunt for the gravel road and small sign for the animal-shaped burial mounds.

It was time.

Back to the Interstate and past the Dells toward home.

For Buckhorn SP, go to https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/buckhorn/. For Necedah NWF, go to https://www.fws.gov/refuge/necedah/. For Pavloski Waterfront Developments, go to https://www.castlerocklake.com/lakefronthomes.