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One of the lesser-known gems in Michigan's Upper Peninsula is the Cisco Chain of Lakes. This chain of interconnected lakes straddles the border between Michigan and Wisconsin, with the majority of them within Gogebic County in Michigan, two shared with Vilas County, Wisconsin and one completely in Vilas County. Originally not connected with navigable streams, 19th century loggers dammed the Cisco Lake outlet to the Cisco Branch of the Ontonagon River to facilitate floating logs out of the area. A permanent low dam was constructed in 1931 to store water for hydroelectric facilities downstream at Victoria Dam. This permanent dam raised water levels between four and five feet, creating navigable channels between the lakes. This dam created the water-sports paradise that the chain is known for today. Water levels vary only about six inches throughout the year, so the lakes are accessible to boating all summer long.
Local sources say there are 15 lakes in the Cisco Chain of Lakes; official state sources refer to 14 lakes. Both are probably correct, as Clearwater Lake has no navigable channel connecting it to nearby Little African Lake, although a small creek meanders the few hundred yards between the two. The commonly listed 14 lakes are: Cisco Lake with 567 surface acres, Thousand Island Lake with 1,009 acres, Little African Lake with 31 acres, Big African Lake with 86 acres, Record Lake with 68 acres, Lindsley Lake with 156 acres, Fishhawk Lake with 77 acres, Morley Lake with 59 acres, Poor Lake with 106 acres, Indian Lake with 129 acres, East Bay Lake with 277 acres, all entirely within Michigan. Big Lake with 733 acres and West Bay Lake with 362 acres are partially in both states, and Mamie Lake with 337 acres is entirely within Wisconsin. Together these lakes total 3,987 acres. The state has not recorded the statistics for Clearwater Lake, but it is of reasonably good size and brings the total to over 4,000 acres of water.
Most of the 271 miles of shoreline is private property. The Cisco Chain of Lakes has increasingly attracted private owners to build residences along the shoreline ranging from simple cabins to elegant homes. Several of the lakes still have no development on them, and the surrounding forested lands help to maintain a northwoods wilderness atmosphere. Wildlife is abundant, including black bear, deer, coyote, smaller mammals, waterfowl, eagles and ospreys. Loons regularly nest in the more remote areas. Thousand Island Lake, the largest and most developed in the chain, is the choice of power boaters, water skiers, and other watersports enthusiasts. A few of its many islands have a cottage or two on them, but most are uninhabited. Most of the channels are navigable by nearly all watercraft, although underwater hazards in the form of sunken logs and sand bars exist. Most of these are clearly marked on navigation maps. The same underwater obstructions that frustrate inattentive boaters offer excellent fish spawning and feeding areas to a variety of game fish. Most lakes have a public boat launch site. Larger craft may launch at the one marina on the chain, located on the south end of Big Lake. The marina rents boats, motors and pontoons, provides indoor winter storage, and offers repairs and necessary supplies.
The Cisco Chain of Lakes is noted for trophy fish. Walleye and muskellunge grow to hefty size, with stat records for muskellunge still held by a 1980 catch on Thousand Island Lake. Northern pike, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, perch, rock bass, bluegill and crappie are also caught. Thousand Island Lake is the deepest lake in the chain, reaching depths of 40 feet. Only half of the waters in the entire chain are deeper than 20 feet. Combined with the excellent underwater structure, good weed cover and spring-fed waters, the chain is a favorite destination of fishermen who come to the resorts along the shore to spend their vacation. Some special regulations cover fishing in the chain. Check current regulations and Michigan/Wisconsin reciprocity when purchasing a fishing license. Ice fishing is also popular, although some areas do not freeze solidly due to underwater springs near the surface. Cisco Chain of Lakes has some areas of restricted water use, but most boating etiquette is a matter of common sense and respect for the enjoyment of others.
The Cisco Chain of Lakes has been a famed fishing destination for many years. Former President Eisenhower came here to the resorts to fish many times before and after his term in office. Nearly a dozen resorts still dot the shores of the lakes, and anglers are regularly seen casting their favorite haunts around the many islands and near the inlets. There are no campgrounds directly on the chain, but two state parks and several areas for camping within Ottawa National Forest exist within a few miles of the lakes. Both Lake Gogebic State Park and Bond Falls State Park provide camping, water fun and fishing to visitors. Much of the surrounding area is within state or national public lands, and fishing opportunities abound in the area. The Sylvania Recreation Area lies east of the Cisco Chain and includes a forest-controlled camping area with boat launches on three additional lakes. South of this area, the Sylvania Wilderness is a 19,000-acre no-motors wilderness with trails for hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and primitive camping, Several lakes can be fished within the wilderness with only a short portage. The newly developed Wilderness Lakes Trail is a series of hiking and biking trails that stretch around a 32-mile loop and extend as far south as Eagle River.
Watersmeet, Michigan and Land O' Lakes, Wisconsin leaders have cooperated to provide snowmobile trails, maps and lists of lodgings and recreational opportunities spanning the borderlands. The area is filled with small inns and motels, guest cottages, resort cabins and private rentals on Cisco Chain of Lakes. Lakefront visitors enjoy swimming on sandy beaches and viewing sunsets across serene waters. Real estate is often available, particularly existing cottages and homes.
The Cisco Chain Riparian Owners Association, Inc. educates visitors and residents on the threats posed by invasive species and works toward maintaining excellent water quality. Currently the group is collecting enough donations to purchase the Cisco Dam from Integrys Energy Group and is applying for permission to do so from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. With nearly $300,000 collected, they now have enough cash to purchase the dam outright but need to build a cash reserve to pay for dam maintenance. An interesting day trip is a visit to Victoria Dam, site where the famous 'copper boulder' was discovered. The boulder itself resides in the National Museum in Washington DC. Several old mines and smelting facilities in the area are in State hands and are open to visitors. The Cisco Chain of Lakes is a great place to live and a great place to visit in all seasons. Come North: The Upper Peninsula awaits, along with some trophy muskies.
*Statistics are for Thousand Island Lake only.
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