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Diane Claycomb holds up her lucky fishing rod amid the blowdown that was their campsite July 21 in the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage. Ed Claycomb photo
Diane Claycomb holds up her lucky fishing rod amid the blowdown that was their campsite July 21 in the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage. Ed Claycomb photo

Wild Side: Couple survives tornado

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sports River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

When I first came to Wisconsin in 1970, I was attracted to the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage like a moth to a light bulb. The flowage is a jewel of a place; one of the wilder areas in Wisconsin.

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A number of natural lakes and three rivers were impounded when the hydropower dam was constructed in 1926, resulting in the 18,900-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, birches, cedars and poplar 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.

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 motor boat. 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 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 survive the July 21 storm that raked the flowage with downburst winds and tornadoes.

Ed and Diane were camped near the middle of the flowage in a beautiful campsite 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 when the roots of a two-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 hotels.

The next morning Ed and Diane returned to salvage their gear and found 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.

The DNR closed the flowage to camping after the storm, but recently reopened about 30 of the campsites. Trees in a big swath across the middle of the flowage were blown down. Although it will appear unsightly for some time, the trees will grow back.

Forest ecologists have estimated that trees on every spot of land in the northern Great Lakes region get blown over on average of once every 500 years by storms. That's why the ground is so lumpy with tree tip holes and soil piles up north. You don't want to be there at the wrong time and don't be close to big trees when the wind picks up.

Please send any comments and suggestions for this column to me at wildside@rivertowns.net.

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