The state's just a little bit wilder than it used to be.

I pull up to Clam Lake's combination gas station-hotel and see a sign advertising dry camp wood—covered in snow—for $5.50. Soon, a Chevy Silverado filled with hay joins me, an antenna rigged up with a two-by-six spinning on its roof. That "MacGyvered" tracking system will lead us along northwest Wisconsin's backroads, searching one radio collar at a time for the state's biggest, fattest, reintroduced ungulate: the elk.

wild elk wisconsin
Credit: Tim Young

Elk haven't roamed Wisconsin since the 1880s, and I want to see one, desperately. I want proof that my home is antlered, forested, wild. It's why I'm here in the dead of winter in the first place, tailing that antenna like a police chase, holding my breath whenever it dials in on a four-legged signal.

"At first, the state's DNR was not interested in an elk reintroduction," says Josh Spiegel, wildlife biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and owner of the truck leading me through the snow. His story buzzes through my two-way radio: Led by the late Dr. Ray Anderson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a team from the college and public took that first critical step, introducing 25 in 1995. Once successful, the Wisconsin DNR translocated another 150 from Kentucky to Wisconsin's growing herd from 2014 to 2019. "We were plucking 'em off Kentucky coal-mine tops!" he laughs. Now, over 400 elk munch their way across Wisconsin's Black River State Forest, Flambeau River State Forest and Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, our hardwood labyrinth. All I need to see is one.

But I never get the antlered proof I came for. Ten inches of snow coats the forest in a thick, puffy layer of marshmallow, obscuring any significant view into the trees. Once my disappointment subsides, though, I realize that having to trust the elk are there is fitting—Dr. Anderson didn't see his legacy roaming through the forest or napping by backyard work sheds, either. But his children will, and his children's children. And though I'm heading home empty-handed this time, I still felt it, navigating those frozen backroads, climbing under thick canopies of aspen and spruce, watching that antenna spin and halt. I felt it: Wisconsin's just a little bit wilder than it used to be.

When to Visit

Although I visited in mid-winter, the best times to spot elk in Wisconsin's Northwoods are fall, spring and early winter. (Fall is mating season for elk—listen for the distinct bugling sound the males make.)Start in Clam Lake, where you can get the morning elk report at Clam Lake Junction to follow recent sightings.

You'll likely be sent down WI-77, the Great Divide National Scenic Highway. Also look out for black bears, wolves, white-tailed deer and bald eagles. Clam Lake isn't far from the Cable area, which has miles of trails, plus cute restaurants and cafes. Book a cabin to extend your time there—you can often find cozy digs for around $200 per night.