Northwoods naturalist John Bates helps us explore 'Wisconsin's Wild Lakes' with new book

·5 min read
Naturalist John Bates of Manitowish has produced a new book: "Wisconsin's Wild Lakes: A Guide to the Last Undeveloped Natural Lakes."
Naturalist John Bates of Manitowish has produced a new book: "Wisconsin's Wild Lakes: A Guide to the Last Undeveloped Natural Lakes."

MANITOWISH - It was a long process, identifying, finding and describing the most pristine, undeveloped lakes in Wisconsin, not to mention writing a book about all of it.

Naturalist John Bates of Manitowish pored over maps, scrutinized satellite photos and consulted lake experts for years. He created a set of criteria that defined what he considered to be "wild." He visited nearly every one, most often accompanied by his wife, Mary Burns, usually paddling the waters in a canoe or kayak. He took note of the animals and plants he found, and delved into the natural history of these bodies of water.

It was often tedious work, but it was always a labor of love. The result is a soon-to-be available book, titled "Wisconsin's Wild Lakes: A Guide to the Last Undeveloped Natural Lakes."

The purpose of it all, Bates said, is to get people out into Wisconsin nature to find both themselves and a sense of belonging to something much greater than themselves.

"What I'm after is a deeper sense of belonging to a place, a deeper sense of connection to places that are truly natural," Bates said. "These are places where you can think the deeper thoughts, I think. I hope. That is the prayer of the book."

Those familiar with Bates's work know he is attracted to the rare, the untouched and the endangered patches of our landscape. One of his previous books is "Our Living Ancestors: The History and Ecology of Old-Growth Forests in Wisconsin." Like "Wisconsin's Wild Lakes," it serves to beckon us into them, and warn us about their fragile existence.

All told, Bates found 136 lakes in Wisconsin that met his standards for being "wild." Some of his criteria included:

  • No private homes visible from the lake. (Public campgrounds are allowed, though.)

  • No private landholdings around the lake.

  • No gas engines allowed. (Lakes that allowed electric motors, which are near silent, were included.)

  • No lakes less than 30 acres.

  • No dams.

Book cover of "Wisconsin's Wild Lakes" by John Bates.
Book cover of "Wisconsin's Wild Lakes" by John Bates.

Although 136 might seem like a lot at first, the number is less than 1 percent of Wisconsin's roughly 15,000 lakes. So visiting a wild lake is something akin to spotting an endangered species or a white deer.

The bulk of the book is devoted to profiles of 55 of Bates's favorite wild lakes. These surveys include detailed directions to get to the lake, a summary of Bates's impression when he visited and a sampling of metrics such as surface area and water quality.

Along with the lake profiles, Bates intersperses the book with essays about a variety of lake-oriented subjects, including lake science, water plants and the animals that call lakes home. One example: He provides a charming and hopeful piece of writing about the return of the trumpeter swan.

Bates also includes the scientific and artistic illustrations of Manitowoc artist Rebecca Jabs, which gives the work a feeling of a coffee table art book.

The two met while Jabs was in an artist residency at the University of Wisconsin Center for Limnology's Trout Lake Station, a research field station located in the Northern Highland Lake District.

For "Wisconsin's Wild Lakes," Jabs adopted a style "somewhere between field guide style and nature notes," she said, nature notes being a quicker style of drawing that might fit into an artist's nature journal.

The book is "formatted as a guide to locations," Jabs said. "But I love that it also treads a little bit into the territory of interpretation to help people get more out of their experience when they are paddling."

Through it all Bates the environmentalist reminds the reader of the preciousness of these lakes, and need for their protection. At the conclusion of the book, he offers "philosophical approaches to lake stewardship" and "the 10 most important ecological actions for lake stewardship."

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At the same time, Bates understands that there is some risk of luring people into these wild places; it's entirely possible to "love something to death" if it become too popular.

He has really good friends, he said, that oppose him writing anything about these unspoiled places.

So he pleads with people to visit with a light touch, and asks them to bring a sense of humility and respect when they do. Ultimately, he has faith that the rewards will be worth it.

"The whole point of this is to fall in love with the natural world more deeply," Bates said. "And if you fall in love with the world, you will conserve the world. Because we only conserve what we love, right? We only fight for that which we are passionate about."

How buy "Wisconsin's Wild Lakes"

Right now, the best way to get a copy of the $25 book is to pre-order it from John Bates's small publishing house, Manitowish River Press. Bates had hoped to have physical copies of "Wisconsin's Wild Lakes" in hand, but the printer he uses has been delayed because of supply-chain problems. Bates said he hopes the books will be available around Thanksgiving, and he'll ship out the pre-orders as soon as he gets them. To find our more or to order, log on to manitowishriverpress.com.

Contact Keith Uhlig at 715-845-0651 or kuhlig@gannett.com. Follow him at @UhligK on Twitter and Instagram or on Facebook.

This article originally appeared on Wausau Daily Herald: Wisconsin's Wild Lakes get profiled in author John Bates new book

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