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Mark Hoffman, Mct
Gary Johnson, right, collects a free will offering aboard the Chief Waupaca paddleboat on the Chain O' Lakes in Waupaca, Wis.

WAUPACA, Wis. — There's no cross, no steeple, nothing that says God here on the top deck of the Chief Waupaca as it plies the waters of Wisconsin's Chain O' Lakes.

There's nothing that says God unless you count, well, everything else.

The lush stand of pines that bends in the unseen wind. The blue heron sunning itself on a boulder near shore. The charcoal clouds that let go of their rain at the sound of a prayer.

"The gift of creation reveals to us all of God's blessings," the Rev. Bob Blackburn tells the faithful aboard the Chapel on the Lakes, an hourlong prayer cruise that departs on Wednesdays from the Clear Water Harbor on Taylor Lake.

"Nature assures us that God can be trusted to care for us," he said.

The chapel is an ecumenical ministry of Trinity Lutheran Church in Waupaca, Wis., that has served the vacationers and residents along the chain of spring-fed lakes for 36 summers.

Trinity rents the 60-foot stern-wheeler and invites guest preachers from area churches for an evening of prayer and fellowship that evokes the divine in ways no man-made edifice — regardless of its grandeur — could ever hope to.

"It's just so serene," Linda Schober of Waupaca, Wis., said as the boat pulls away from the dock on this balmy Wednesday evening in late July. "It really is God's country out here."

For Jan Hanke of Mirror Lake, the ride brings to mind images of Christ as the fisherman.

"He spent so much time on the water," she says. "The word of God just comes alive here."

The chapel, which runs from June through mid-August, may be the tamest trip the Chief takes all week.

Owned by Pat and Mimi Meighan, who also own the Clear Water Harbor Restaurant & Bar, the Chief is best known as a pleasure boat that hosts regular brunch and music cruises and is a popular venue for class reunions, wedding receptions and other festive occasions.

It's legendary around these parts, synonymous with a great time, and most everyone, even the most prayerful, have a fond or funny memory to share.

For John Nelson, it was whipping his new bride's garter into the hands of an unsuspecting nephew at their wedding in 1999.

"The private parties can get a little wild," said boat Captain Bill Storck, who was at the wheel on this chapel cruise.

The atmosphere is much more subdued on Wednesday nights. "I feel like I'm getting paid to go to church," said Storck.

Trinity volunteers Alvera Peterson and Audrey Schmidt sign in chapel passengers as they have for the past 36 years.

It's not the crowd it drew in the old days — "We used to have to turn people away," said Peterson — but still, more than 50 settle in to chairs and benches lining both decks.

Blackburn of Parfreyville United Methodist Church has traded his collar for a green polo shirt. He takes the microphone at the podium below, and his voice, strong and clear, is piped into the air above.

"God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble," Blackburn recites from the 46th Psalm, as the Chief glides through the green, dappled waters.

He implores the passengers to slow their lives, to revel in the wonder and beauty of creation. And as if on cue, the lake shows them how it's done: Boaters wave from passing crafts; a faint shout fills the air as a swimmer executes a cannon ball off the side of a pontoon.

For a brief moment, it's as if there are no cellphones, no traffic jams, no pressing deadlines or financial worries.

"The 46th Psalm implores us that even in the midst of roaring seas, we need to take time to be still," Blackburn tells them.

"We spend so much time conquering our outer space that we've forgotten about our inner space. If we're not careful, we spend more time doing something than being someone."

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