MERCER — Scores of dragonflies rose as John Bates (UW-Green Bay alumnus ’74, ’86) navigated his Subaru Ascent around potholes, over bumps and through the occasional puddle.
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The ¾-mile dirt road to Sherman Lake is just wide enough for a single vehicle and a step up perhaps from a logging road.
Located just east of Highway 47, the 126-acre lake sits on the edge of the Powell Marsh and is bisected nearly evenly by the line that separates Vilas County from Iron County. There’s at least one beaver lodge on its shore, eagles and loons are common here, along with bullfrogs and, at times, common mergansers.
We were deep into the Wisconsin Northwoods on this day and it was clear that Bates was in his element as he showed off one of the discoveries that consumed nearly four years of his life.
“It’s just a wonderful adventure,” Bates said as we slowly bounced along the access road. “I always laugh because we pretended to be Sherlock Holmes, we’re going to analyze this lake for its various values. But really, most of the time, we were Inspector Clouseau. We got lost a lot.”
By using plat maps, websites, data from the Department of Natural Resources and tenacious detective work, Bates, who was often joined by his wife, Mary Burns, has chronicled an exhaustive list of the 140 lakes out of more than 15,000 in the state that are fully surrounded by public lands.
Some have campsites or campgrounds, boat landings and even picnic areas. Several can only be accessed by foot, some require paddling across a different lake and then portaging, and some weren’t accessible at all, thanks to natural barriers like bogs, trees and shrubs that have overgrown trails and, in at least one case, a beaver dam.
The result of Bates’ efforts is his 240-page book, “Wisconsin’s Wild Lakes: A Guide to the Last Undeveloped Natural Lakes,” published through Manitowish River Press, which he operates out of his home along the Manitowish River just south of Mercer. He has seven wild lakes within 6 miles of his house, including Sherman Lake.
Bates, a Pennsylvania native who in 1971 dropped out of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire when he was a sophomore and began hitchhiking across the country, later earned an english degree at UW-Green Bay, where in the late 1970s he met Burns.
He taught in an alternative school for a time before getting a master’s degree in environmental studies in the early 1980s at UW-Green Bay. That led to working with at-risk students in three northern Wisconsin high schools and 19 years working with students with disabilities at Nicolet College in Rhinelander. He spent six summers working as a naturalist for the DNR in the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest before forming Trails North, his own naturalists guide service.