Boathouse or Adventure Center? Devil In the Details.

Boathouse or Adventure Center? Devil In the Details.

Most everyone agrees that something has to be done about Devil’s Lake State Park’s boat rental facilities. With the congestion and rental boats stretching nearly a quarter of the way down the busy beach at times, a new boathouse and rental area is a good idea.  But that’s the easy bit. The devil, of course, is in the details.

Part 1. Outfitters

I had talked to the park superintendent a couple of weeks back about construction plans including a new boathouse. At the time it seemed pretty innocuous. However, when a September, 22nd article in the Wisconsin State Journal came out, it included this;

“The DNR also wants to increase services beyond rentals and guided tours, with guided interpretive hikes, rock climbing instruction, scuba diving instruction, etc., as demand increases for those activities.”

This doesn’t seem to describe a boathouse as much as it does a commercial outdoor adventure center. As someone who leads hikes in the park and works with a variety of climbing outfitters in other aspects, it sent off a few alarm bells. It wasn’t long before I received a couple emails from others with similar concerns. Generally;

  1. Is the state going to compete with private outfitters?
  2. Will the state in future deny permits to private outfitters who are seen to be competing with park consessions services?

The answer to the first question is, well yes. If they add these services as they suggest. If the state concessions offer climbing instruction it would certainly be competing at some level with private outfitters who have built their businesses around the park for decades. This could suck depending on how it was done. Private outfitters have to invest in a lot of time, training, equipment, insurance, etc., and often function on a thin margin. The state isn’t under the same pressure and could potentially bury smaller players. (For instance, a private kayak instructor usually maintains costly certifications through the ACA, a park kayak tour guide generally does not.)

The second question is regarding permits and the answer is more nuanced;

Here is the key paragraph from the State Commercial Use Application & Permit Page

“Information supplied on this application may trigger the need for a different permit, license or contract. Activities involving the solicitation or collection of money on state property may require a Special Event Recreational Use License or concession permit. Wisconsin DNR may deny this application if this type of permit or the activity would be inappropriate, or if the activity would compete with existing contracts on the property.

At first read, it suggests that permits could be denied if the activity would compete with existing contracts, say, a new state park rock climbing instruction service. However, in an email conversation with the park superintendent, Steve Schmelzer yesterday, he pointed out that I had skipped over the key phrase,

“Activities involving the solicitation or collection of money on state property” 

To quote Mr. Schmelzer, We have no intention of denying Commercial Use Permits for services or businesses that are paid for outside the park.”  So if payment is received outside of the park boundaries, then they probably won’t be denied a permit. I hope that does alleviate some concern for local outfitters. On the other hand, “intent” is a grey area by any measure and it seems that the relationship between Wisconsin parks and private outfitters may need a review as parks seek to expand into these areas.

Part II – Priorities

Chateau Sauk County Historical Society

  • Change happens. Back in 1925 many folks thought that a North Shore Chateau would be an abomination, blocking the view of the lake. Today, most people love the historic Chateau and can’t imagine the park without it. Adding a boathouse, however, will mean 3 buildings will now occupy the area. We are in a slow process of moving from a historic building (2 actually) to a busy complex. Is this the direction we want to head?
  • Finishing The Job. A new retaining wall was put on the north shore in 2015. It is still unfinished. In December of 2015, the park superintendent told the Baraboo News Republic that this white whale of a wall, “will be stained light brown with some purple added to it to “make it look more natural.” Shouldn’t we finish this upgrade before moving on to the next?
  • The new building will be paid for with a $105,000 donation from the Devil’s Lake Concession Corp. and the Friends of Devil’s Lake State Park. Let’s be clear, a friends group donation means anyone who is a member or has donated to the friends. So you have a vested interest as well. When you donate to the friends, how do you envision your money will be spent? What are your priorities for the park?

Part III – My Opinion

Personally, I know we need a new boathouse at Devil’s Lake. I’m for it. (I’m not keen on the location but..) My thought would be this;

  • Let’s build a boathouse but also examine and update the park’s relationship with private outfitters. Many national parks can provide examples.
  • Let’s finish what we start. Let’s stain that white retaining wall before laying a brick of the new boathouse.
  • Let’s set minds to updating and correctly repairing our janky trails once and for all in 2018. It’s the silk purse & sow’s ear metaphor. Fancy Buildings & Janky Trails Don’t Mix.

My gut tells me that we can’t keep asking the public (ultimately) to pay for new buildings through increased fees or donations while they’re tripping over broken blacktop, jumping gullies or sitting on broken benches. If we’re going to invest in a big beautiful boathouse, let’s make sure the rest of the park is up to snuff as well.

Part IV – Make Yourself Heard

Whatever you think about the new boathouse, please, please take time to comment. This is YOUR park and your input makes a big difference.

***Obligatory Disclaimer: This website is NOT associated with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The views expressed in this blog are mine and do not represent the views of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

, , ,


  1. Beth

    It looks like we only have a brief window for comment due by October 5th! I am concerned that the state will offer this concession to an outsourced company like the one by the North Shore. Derrick, I understand that you offer private guided tours as well. Do you know if the state is going to put this out for a bid? Seems that the adventure firm at the doorway to the North Shore may already be having conversations…..pure speculation of course. But if I sat at the doorway to the park, and had parking, the equipment and the business already in place, it would make sense to contact the state to provide services in the park. I agree that the boat rental spot at the park is cluttered and way too small. My concern is that the park suffers greatly already with trash, graffiti, and filth in the restrooms, unfinished walls, etc. Adding services only makes for greater use, more people. We need to fund maintenance and upkeep. I understand that the more users increases revenue. much needed. but is it being put to the best use?

  2. Author

    Hi Beth,
    You know, there is not much info provided publicly. My feeling is that nothing has been done or looked into. I think the park is simply looking for new revenue streams, leaving doors open and watching private outfitters and thinking they would like part of that action. 🙂 That said, the lack of any real public notification from the state (I’m on the mailing list and didn’t get any notice) and the closing date for public comment, does seem like it was meant to keep comments to the minimum.

  3. Beth

    Have you spoken with the Devil’s Lake superintendent? He might have more information about what they are thinking. Thanks for sending the link and I will for sure share it. Thanks for being our eyes and ears for a park that we all love so much and want to keep in good shape. I really would prefer a new bathroom building on the far north side area. there is a defunct bathroom there now that is an eyesore. So let’s get the current list of maintenance completed, updated, and then look for spending the 105,000 from the Friends. I thought that the Nature Center was providing outings. We went on a great kayaking trip with the park naturalist. it was wonderful.

  4. Kevin Olson

    I’d be in favor of delaying any decision on a new boathouse until plans for the new nature center are in place. I’d also take a look at some additional details regarding use of the existing facilities on the North Shore before deciding on new construction. For example, the entire Chateau has been turned into a poorly planned and tacky looking gift shop, selling a bunch of junk. Perhaps we should take a look at how the Chateau is being used and maybe make better and more appropriate use of the existing Chateau before adding new buildings. Same with the existing shelter between the Chateau and boat landing on the North Shore. Perhaps that shelter should be updated and expanded for use as a boat house and changing rooms. I’m not recommending that option, but just recommending that it be evaluated to see if it might be feasible As for the State expanding into commercial services, I’m opposed. It’s a shame the State of Wisconsin is no longer willing to financially support its State Parks, but having the individual parks make money by operating tacky tourist shops and offering half-baked adventure services is not the answer.

  5. Amy

    While I haven’t actually used the boat rental portion of the park. I do know that other items such as the ones mentioned in other comments / upgrading bathrooms / and most certainly the trails should take a higher priority. Also I think the trails need better signage as I’ve encountered a lot of people walking on the roads this summer more than others. I think it’s either that they didn’t know there was a trail parallel to the road or because of the terrain on the trails. Also I would hate for the chateau be the victim of a new facility. Can’t another spot be laid out?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *