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The Chippewa Flowage may have more musky; the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage more loons, osprey and eagles; but the newest member of the wild waters family is closer to true wilderness, even though it's only 15 miles from busy Minocqua and 12 miles from Tomahawk.
Surrounded by swamps, bogs and other watery lowlands, the Willow Flowage is isolated from roads and development. Year-round residents include three wolf packs and good populations of deer, bear and grouse. Musky and walleye abound within its depths. Colonies of beaver and families of river otter call the Willow home. The tremolo of the loon is often heard at day's end.
This 6,300-acre waterbody started out as a low area at the confluence of the Tomahawk, Squirrel and Willow rivers where a dam was built in 1926 to provide electricity. Five other smaller streams feed into the flowage. In all, this watershed drains 310 square miles of nearly inaccessible country.
To the north and south lie 12,000 acres of swampy low areas mixed with rolling uplands that provide no direct access to the flowage. Occasional logging roads and dusty fire lanes attest to past forest management by the former owners, a paper mill in Tomahawk. The only hard-surfaced roads are Willow Road, four miles off the west shore, and the Cedar Falls-Willow Dam Road skirting the eastern edge. Willow Dam Road, which crosses the dam, bumps the shore for a short distance and provides a partial view of the reservoir held behind the dam.
The dam is owned and operated by the Wisconsin Valley Improvement Company (WVIC). The reservoir provides hydroelectric power for industrial plants along the Wisconsin River. WVIC still owns all the land below the ordinary high water mark, but the state started purchasing the surrounding Willow lands in November 1997.
The initial purchase included 8,720 acres of mainland and 106 islands that included 64 miles of shoreline with an additional 9.4 miles of frontage in a protected easement. Only five percent of the shoreline, mostly on the southeastern end, is in private ownership where four resorts, a commercial cruise service and about 20 seasonal and permanent homes border the water.
Last year, the Department of Natural Resources added another 7,425 acres to the property, mainly on the north and south ends, in a land buy known as the "Great Addition." Currently 16,174 acres around the flowage are in state ownership.
While many people come to enjoy the solitude of the flowage, the walleye fishing is an even bigger draw. Wily walleye find plentiful habitat among the rock, gravel, and stumps at water's edge. No fish are stocked here where natural reproduction can sustain the fishery. Panfish, northern, musky and bass can be caught here.
Seasonal fish refuges at Cedar Falls on the north end and Willow Rapids to the west protect spawning walleye and musky. Angling is prohibited from April 10 through May 20 in these posted areas.
Most anglers launch their boats at one of two access sites on the east shore near the dam. An improved private launch site is available for a fee on the property's north end. You can launch a canoe from several unimproved sites on industrial forestland along the west side. Angler use is generally highest in the spring and fall when walleye search the shallows for small prey; the fish head for deeper, cooler channels once summer winds warm the water.
Starting around Memorial Day, campers and daytime visitors take to approximately 55 campsites on the islands and shore. Some sites provide primitive toilets; most don't, and there's no drinking water available.
All the campsites were evaluated after the state acquired the property. Paul Bruggink, DNR property manager, said some of these old camps are too close to the water's edge and the water table, posing a potential pollution risk.
"What we have proposed in the master plan is 30 single-unit campsites and five group sites," Bruggink said. "We believe this will meet the camping demand while maintaining the wild character of the flowage."
The plan proposes that camping be allowed only at designated sites equipped with a box latrine. Users must pack out all their garbage. As in the past, campsites will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. Camping will be restricted to 10-day stays and once occupied, a site can't be left unattended for more than one night.
"In the past, some people left tents up all summer and came back whenever they felt like it," Bruggink said. This prevented use by other people looking for sites. Most campsites on the Willow are accessible by water and most campers arrive by power boat. Canoeists also find solitude here, especially in drier years when water levels drop six to ten feet. Shallow draft boats can reach areas nearly inaccessible to motorized craft.
Water quality on the flowage is rated "excellent" by state water specialists. In 1997 the Willow was designated as an Outstanding Resources Water, meaning any discharges from nearby communities or industries must be as clean or cleaner than the current water.
The water's brownish tea color is the result of natural tannins produced in the more than 4,000 acres of cedar, tamarack, black spruce and alder lowlands. Those lands, along with 12,000 acres of upland forest, provide a natural buffer around the flowage.
Paper and pulp mill managers from Tomahawk purchased the heavily logged upland forest portion of the parcel shortly after the flowage was created and began planting for the future. Thanks to their management, the forest surrounding the Willow Flowage today consists of aspen, red pine and red maple with a smattering of white birch, fir, and other tree species.
DNR Forester Tim Friedrich says the area can sustain a diverse number of tree species of varying ages and provide a variety of forest products, wildlife habitat and opportunities for recreation.
Recreation sparked the most controversy as the Willow's master plan was developed. All-terrain vehicle (ATV) riders and snowmobilers had some heated discussions about trails with hikers and other silent-sport enthusiasts. Both groups wanted rights to their particular sport without interference.
In one case, motorized recreationists wanted to use the Iron Gate Road as a trail through the property to connect with other existing trails located outside the western property boundary. Nonmotorized silent sports enthusiasts felt the Iron Gate Road should either be closed at Highway Y or relocated just west of an existing ATV trail. This would in effect limit motorized use on the south end of the property.
Following numerous public meetings and compromises, the master planning team proposed building a new gate 2.3 miles from Highway Y. This would allow greater use of the area by motorized vehicles, but prevent direct access to the western trails. Neither group was entirely satisfied with this outcome.
Although the nonmotorized group requested restrictions on existing motorized trails, the planning team decided some trails should be designated for motorized use. Motorized use will be restricted on other parts of the property, and some parts will be off-limits to vehicles.
When water levels drop, people in cars, trucks, and ATVs have driven out onto the exposed shoreline. Bruggink said this illegal activity will not be tolerated and will draw enforcement action. Driving on shore destroys plants, causes erosion, compacts the soils, and ruins fish and wildlife habitat. "It goes against all the things this near-wild area stands for," he said.
The recreation plan emphasizes quiet, dispersed activities in the forested setting to maintain solitude and a sense of remoteness. These activities include hunting, hiking, fishing, trapping, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Mountain biking will be allowed on logging roads unless posted closed.
"The more than 800 people who commented and helped us develop the master plan told us they essentially wanted to keep the area wild and pristine," said Kermit Traska, the planning team co-leader. "Our participants' first action was developing a vision statement that emphasized preserving and protecting scenic beauty and solitude in the area."
Visitors who choose not to camp can use one of four resorts located on a mile of shoreline near the dam. To view the flowage they can hop aboard the Wilderness Queen, an 80-foot excursion boat owned and operated by Tom Tiffany and his wife Chris.
The family has lived on the flowage since they purchased the business 10 years ago. Tiffany was drawn to the waterway for its remote, undeveloped feeling. "That's why so many of my customers come here," he said. "Twenty minutes from the dock you do not see signs of civilization. There aren't too many places in Wisconsin where you can do that."
For many, a walleye on the end of a line captures the Willow experience. For others, it's an eagle soaring above the treetops or a gold sunset across shimmering island-studded waters. A few enjoy a barefoot walk down a sandy, driftwood-strewn beach. Flowage managers, guided by a management plan developed by those who use and live in the area, will ensure that the natural, undeveloped scenic beauty of the Willow will be preserved and enhanced.
James C. Bishop, Jr. is the public affairs manager in DNR's Northern Region. Vicki Miazga is the Associate Editor of The Lakeland Times newspaper in Minocqua.