When I first came to Wisconsin in 1970 I was attracted to the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage like a moth to a light bulb. The Flambeau Flowage is a jewel of a place, one of the wilder areas in Wisconsin.
A number of natural lakes and three rivers were impounded when the hydropower dam was constructed in 1926, resulting in the approximately 14,000-acre flowage with many bays and islands. The Chippewa and Flambeau Improvement Company used the flowage as a low flow augmentation reservoir to provide flow to the hydropower plants down the Flambeau and Chippewa rivers.
Majestic white pines, spruces, balsam, birch, white cedar, red maple and quaking aspen trees line the shores. Much of the flowage is undeveloped and parts of it remind me of wild places in Canada. The fishing there is good for football-shaped smallmouth bass, walleyes, northern pike, yellow perch, black crappies and muskellunge. The many old snags, floating wood and rock bars make navigating a challenge so there’s not as much boat traffic as on many other northern Wisconsin lakes.
The state of Wisconsin acquired the flowage in 1990 and now owns 38,000 acres there on 214 miles of mainland shoreline and 195 islands. The Turtle-Flambeau Scenic Waters Area is now managed to preserve its scenic qualities and fish and wildlife. There are about 60 remote campsites that are accessible by water only.
Carol and I have gone there many times canoeing and by motorboat. Years ago we were camped on a small island in the east part of the flowage when we saw a storm approaching. We staked down the tent and I hauled the canoe out of the water and turned it over. A fierce downburst of wind made our tent jump up and down and toppled some of the trees on the island. The wind threw our old wood and canvas canoe against a tree, cracking the gunwales. We were fortunate to escape injury and to paddle out to Murray’s Landing the next morning.
Our friends Ed and Diane Claycomb who live east of River Falls are also fans of the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage. They return there often to camp and fish. They are lucky to have survived the July 21, 2010, storm that raked the flowage with downburst winds and tornadoes.
Ed and Diane were camped near the middle of the flowage on a beautiful island with big white pines.
They had just finished supper when Ed said, "Looks like we have 15 minutes until the next rain." They settled under a tarp to watch the rain roll in; often a beautiful sight. They had no sooner sat under the tarp and turned on the weather radio when they heard "Possible tornado headed for Park Falls and then Turtle-Flambeau arrival at 7:15." Diane told Ed, "It’s 7:13." They saw sheets of rain coming across the water with a yellow hue.
Ed and Diane jumped into their tent to get out of the rain, a lucky move because a big tree landed on their tarp a minute later. They were rolled in their tent for about 30 feet by the wind and then the roots of a 2-foot diameter white pine lifted them when it toppled over. Ed used his jackknife to cut their way out of the tent. Other trees landed right on the tent they used to store their gear and onto their boat that was anchored just off the shore.
They emerged soaked but unscathed. They checked to see if people in neighboring campsites were OK, struggled to free their boat from under a fallen tree, and then motored back to the landing under scary lightning while maneuvering around woody debris in the water.
A birch tree was resting on their van but they got inside and dried out.
First responders had a hard time getting to the boat landings through fallen trees and a harder time checking on all the campers scattered around the flowage. Three people were evacuated to the hospital with injuries; many others who were stranded were taken to local resorts and motels.
The next morning Ed and Diane returned to salvage their gear to find their campsite a tangled blow-down of trees. Diane was able to salvage her lucky fishing rod. They returned home with vivid memories of that experience and feeling lucky to be alive.
Ed and Diane had a 10-year reunion with other survivors of the 2010 storm on the Flambeau Flowage in August.
Carol and I returned to the Flowage a couple weeks ago, enjoyed some fine weather but had one night with plenty of rain, lightning and thunder. The fishing was slow, but we caught some big smallmouth bass, enjoyed watching sandhill cranes, loons, kingfishers, eagles, ospreys and otters from our campsite.
When we decided to pack up to go home, a pop-up thunderstorm soaked us, just to remind us that the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage is a really wild place.
Dan Wilcox of River Falls, Wis., writes a periodic column. Send comments and suggestions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org