Klondike Days in Eagle River

Note: This event unfortunately no longer occurs...It was canceled in 2015 after a 25 year run.

True or False: The days following August 16, 1896, when George Washington Carmack pried a gold nugget from the bed of Rabbit Creek in the Klondike area of the Yukon were collectively referred to as "Klondike Days".

Enjoying some early morning sunshine

OK - it's a trick question. George Carmack was a real person and he actually did find a gold nugget that led to one of the greatest gold rushes in history. But the Klondike Days I'm talking about is an annual event that takes place in Eagle River, Wisconsin.. It's much easier to get there then to the Yukon and the event is much more fun. Not that finding gold wouldn't be fun... But I'm talking about a weekend chock-full of entertainment and activity that the whole family can enjoy; it was developed to encourage families to enjoy the Northwoods in February.

Heidi and I headed north on a Friday morning and, after a fairly leisurely drive north -- by that I mean that the weather cooperated quite nicely -- we found ourselves in downtown Eagle River (population 1,512 according to the sign) by mid-afternoon. I have only had the pleasure of visiting Eagle River on two other occasions: once for a Fourth of July celebration back in the late 1980s, and once as a very young boy when I attended a nearby church camp (Camp HoneyRock; Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college in Wheaton, Ill., has owned and operated HoneyRock Camp since 1951).

View from Wild Eagle Lodge

One of the things that impressed me most about the town was the people: without exception, everyone was friendly and treated us like we were family.  Smiles were commonplace and conversation was easy and genuine.  It was a very comfortable feel... something that one does not usually encounter in today's world.  After stopping for a few groceries, we headed to our accommodations for the next two days: Wild Eagle Lodge, just a bit north of the town proper, is a premiere resort on the Eagle River Chain of 28 Lakes (and overlooking both Duck and Lynx Lakes), the largest chain of inland freshwater lakes in the world. 

Our lodging consisted of a two-bedroom unit (with a King bed and two twins) complete with two full bathrooms, a gas-operated stone fireplace, satellite television with DVD player, full kitchen, high-speed internet access and a marvelous view of the lake that was about seventy-five feet from our patio.  Other amenities existed as well, such a pool, whirlpool spa, and sauna. There is also a private massage room and locker/shower rooms as well.

A plethora of lakes and streams provide endless opportunities for adventurers, anglers, and nature enthusiasts during the warmer months and five hundred miles of groomed, snowmobile trails can be accessed -- right from your front door -- during the winter months. The arrival of Klondike Days, as well excellent snow conditions on the trails were ample reason for the many sleds we saw in the parking lot at the resort. We settled in to our cushy accommodations, lit the fire, opened a bottle of Chardonnay and poured a glass to celebrate a weekend away from the demands of the office. The weather was perfect -- albeit a tad warm for snow-machiners at thirty-nine degrees -- and it was nice to relax as we watched a few ice-anglers setting up for some late afternoon fishing.

Dinner at the Chanticleer

The setting sun added a warm glow to the snow-covered lake and a long plume of smoke from distant fires (more on that later) wafted through the pines.  This was perfect, and Heidi and I smiled as we contemplated the perfect place for a fish fry.  A little homework before we left had provided us with several possibilities, and I thought the decision might be a difficult one.  But we opted for a restaurant at the Chanticleer Inn, overlooking Lake Voyager and just a few miles away, our choice made easier by the fact that it boasted a smoke-free environment. 

We started with an appetizer of giant portabella mushrooms -- a pair -- with a crabmeat stuffing.  For dinner, Heidi chose a sampler platter, consisting of portions of haddock, cod, shrimp and scallops and I had the lake perch dinner.  The food was excellent; served hot and on hot plates; if I were a food critic I would certainly give Chanticleer Two Thumbs Up!.  My perch (five pieces) was fresh, lightly battered, crispy and tasty and accompanied by some excellent potato pancakes; Heidi's dinner was excellent as well, and served with an outstanding rendition of German potato salad.  The prices were reasonable, service was super and I would return in a heartbeat!

The morning brought an azure-blue sky, ample sun and a crisp five degrees; it was going to be a great day in the north woods! After a cup of coffee and a light breakfast, we headed over to Klondike Days. It was just after nine o'clock and the thermometer had now passed eighteen; cars were already arriving, as competitions were scheduled to start at 9:00am. Held every year during the third week in February on Saturday and Sunday, this year's event took place at the Eagle River High School and Rocking W Stable. Now celebrating its 20th year, the event has grown in size every year and continues to attract more visitors; more than 10,000 people now enjoy the weekend festivities. From the KlondikeDays.org website:

"Eagle River stalwart and business owner, Trig Solberg, of Trig's Stores has been a major sponsor and supporter of Klondike Days right from the beginning.."

Trig's has been a major sponsor from the get-go, but is now joined by about four dozen additional supporters -- including numerous banks, resorts and businesses -- from the local area; hundreds of volunteers are also key in helping to make the event the huge success that it is.

Chain saw carving competition

Upon entering the grounds, the first thing that I heard was the sound of chain saws, so naturally we headed in the direction from which the sound emanated.  Shortly we came upon the source of the noise: the Chainsaw Carving Competition.  What took place over the course of the weekend was nothing short of amazing.  Like artists working with canvas, these carvers took three to four-feet in diameter logs that stood eight feet tall and, with the dexterity of surgeons, turned them into beautifully textured eagles, Indians, hunters and various forms of wildlife.  It was mesmerizing to watch and difficult to leave, but there were many more events to see.  Nearby was the Dog Weight Pull... but the dogs weren't quite ready yet, so we ventured over to River Country Red's Rendezvous and Living History Encampment.

Teepees at Klondike Days

Sponsored by Wild Eagle Lodge and presented by the "Hidden Prairie Rendezvous Club" from Phillips, Wisconsin, this had to be one of my favorite events of the weekend.  Lots of people may wonder what is was like to live in the 1800s: the days of the fur trapper and buck-skinner, but I doubt that few ever ever actually "walk the walk"...  As we entered the encampment, the very first thing that we noticed was a canvas teepee.  Naturally, I assumed that it was simply there as a replica.  Suddenly I noticed that Heidi had disappeared.  She had poked her head inside the tent and had been invited in by the inhabitant: he was sitting there in a long-sleeved tee-shirt and sipping his morning coffee.  What was unusual was the fact that the canvas teepee was a toasty 75 degrees, heated only by a tiny wood-burning stove.  He had spent the night -- mind you, the temperature had fallen to five degrees -- warm and snug inside the teepee! 

A blacksmith at Klondike Days

We later stopped at another teepee where the occupants were slow-roasting a leg of venison, at a lean-to where a blacksmith was plying his trade, at a Tomahawk and Knife Throwing exhibition, at a Black Powder Shooting demonstration, fire starting, cooking and more.  Some may say that a weekend jaunt such as this, done every now and then, would be an easy accomplishment; I would strongly disagree.  Setting up, taking down and living in a teepee for three days in a Wisconsin winter would definitely be a challenge, even for a seasoned "camper".  And it surely and easily should remind all visitors just how cushy we have it in 2010.

Fur hats

Just outside the encampment I noticed a flurry of activity. Getting closer, I saw the reason: an assortment of of every size, shape and type fur hat that would have made even Daniel Boone jealous. Ranging in price from about $50 to several hundred, the variety was endless. It seemed as if everyone on the grounds wanted one. An by the end of the day... it seemed as if everyone had one! A short walk from hats brought us to the Great Northern Lumberjack Competition, where there was chain sawing, crosscutting, and ax throwing. We watched as a pair of lumber "jills" went head to head in a crosscutting contest; the winner sawed through the (approximate) 16-inch diameter log in just under fourteen seconds! Immediately adjacent to the lumberjack competition was the event I knew would be Heidi's favorite: the Great Northern Log Pull Classic. How did I know? Well, it was because horses -- draft horses in this case -- would be doing the pulling.

Heidi's love for horses goes way back to an early age when she owned a couple of them, and the love has remained strong.  Any time we are anywhere near a horse farm, stable, pasture or horse event, we make it a point to stop. 

Charlie with Heidi

In this case, single horses as well as two-horse teams were competing for prize money.  Not only were the horses at Klondike Days well-cared for, they were possibly some of the biggest and strongest I have yet seen... and they were eager to take on the challenge.

Sloppy Joe bluegrass band

By now, our stomachs were beginning to growl.  Luckily for us, a food tent was close by; inside it was warm and filled with great aromas from elk and buffalo burgers, as well as chili, soup and other delights.  We both dined on a buffalo burger and chips, washing it down with some very cold Leinenkugel draught beer as we were treated to some excellent bluegrass music performed by the band Sloppy Joe.  The musicians added some jug-band instrumentation (spoons, jug, wash-tub, etc.), while band-members exchanged guitars, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and bass around the stage.  Great and original stuff; check 'em out on MySpace!  By the time we had listened to most of a music set, sated our hunger and warmed our feet, the line for food extended right out the front entrance to the tent!

Panning for gold!

Heading over to the high school field house, we checked again on the chainsaw carving; the lifeless logs were beginning to take on a personality and the pile of sawdust around the carvers was getting deeper.  Inside the 55,000 square-foot field house was the giant Klondike Craft Show offering every imaginable craft possible from 100 crafters (rugs bowls, artwork, wood, leather, furniture, photography, personal items and more fur hats... to mention only a few).  And there was Educational Programming 2010, with everything from lessons in how to pan for gold (yep, there really is gold that can be panned for in Wisconsin!), to lessons in native skills and primitive crafts, to minerals, outdoor lore and more.  There was definitely something there for everyone's interest.

Free sleigh ride for kids

Did I mention the free dogsled rides for children, sleigh rides, the Klondike Antique Sleigh Rally, snowshoe races, more food, more music and entertainment, and on Sunday, a Native American Cultural Exhibition?  Phew!  There is a lot to see and do... and it can all be done at a very reasonable price: a Family Pass (two adults and three children for one day) is $35.00  in advance or $40.00 at the gate.  The sun was getting low and the carvers were almost done.  I knew I was done, and was looking forward to a hot shower back at Wild Eagle Lodge.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention one last "event" for the day. We were only mildly hungry, but we had seen a place in town (while checking out the Ice Palace -- something that has been "happening" since the 1920s. From the Eagle River Chamber of Commerce website:

"Each winter, volunteers headed by the area firefighters, put in more than 700 “man hours” to cut nearly 3000 12-inch-thick ice blocks from a local lake, haul them to downtown Eagle River, Wisconsin, and build a huge ice palace."

Very cool -- don't miss it if you are in the area! Anyway, the place I want to mention is a restaurant called Riverstone Restaurant and Tavern, where we enjoyed a marvelous Walleye Cakes appetizer and a cocktail as we discussed the days sights and sounds. Riverstone is another smoke-free environment and the food is excellent (really excellent home-made bread) -- I only wish we were hungry enough to have stayed for dinner; we will definitely go back next time we are in Eagle River as the menu included numerous and interesting selections of beef, veal, pork and seafood.

It would be difficult to say too much about Eagle River, Wild Eagle Lodge and Klondike Days. It is also mandatory to again mention how great the people of that area are; we really enjoyed our time there. (For more information about Eagle River, contact the Eagle River chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center at 800-359-6315 or visit the Eagle River website.)

And I think that I'll start saving now, because I am going back to Klondike Days next year... and I will come home with a hat!

R. Karl

Special thanks to

  • Heather Beach, Director of Sales; Wild Eagle Lodge for some great accommodations
  • Klondike Days' current Executive Director, Christine Schilling, the Eagle River businesses and dedicated volunteers who put together such a great event
  • Naomi Shapiro of Creative Brilliance, for her assistance in connecting me with the event