HISTORY: The dam creating the Little Tamarack Flowage was permitted to Vilas County by the State of Wisconsin in 1942, to “increase fire protection and opportunity for public recreation”. (Translate the last part of that quotation to “fishing”.) In the fall of 1942 Bill and Mary Steiner, with the participation of neighbor Fritz Christofferson, proceeded with construction of a cement dam, at a cost to them of $900. Unfortunately, within a year the dam failed, washing out nearby County Hwy. S with it.
Prior to this attempt to impound the waters of the Little Tamarack Creek, throughout the 1930’s, an impoundment of the creek actually had occurred, thanks to a large beaver dam. By the end of the 1930’s,the price of beaver pelts rose dramatically, the beavers were trapped out, their dam fell into disrepair, and the impounded water disappeared.
In 1941, having observed the success of the beavers, Steiners and Christofferson made two attempts to construct wooden “spillways”, but both failed. Thus the application for a permit to construct a proper dam was sought and obtained. At the time, Steiners and Christoffersons were the only owners of improved properties on what was then called the “Tamarack Marsh”.
World War II was raging at the time of the dam’s failure in August of 1943, and continued until the latter half of 1945. It was said that Bill Steiner made requests of Vilas County to rebuild the dam, but it understandably was not a priority item. By June of 1946, frustrated by realizing that Vilas County would likely never consider the dam project, action was taken. “Chicky” Feder of Land O’ Lakes was hired, along with his newly purchased bulldozer, to fill the gap with earth from a nearby hill.
By 1949 the Flowage reached its intended level, and a new lake and wetland area was created. In 1951 Vilas County, acknowledging the potential of this body of water, established a public boat landing on a small portion of a 40-acre frontage parcel owned by the County. Following the completion of the boat landing the County subdivided the balance of the parcel in 100-foot lots, and sold the land to a developer. This is the origin of all the waterfront lots now on Flowage Landing Road.
The origin of the Town of Conover’s culvert, which for years served as the spillway for the Flowage, is somewhat misty. We know that it must have already existed when the Town constructed East Flowage Road, but even that date is not substantiated, at least at the time of this writing.
Over 70 years, the Little Tamarack Flowage has developed into a body of water – including extensive areas of wetlands and bogs – of approximately 375 acres. The embankment / dam is intact, and the water levels of three adjoining lakes and their connecting waterways all benefit.
In 2008 the State of Wisconsin’s DNR realized that the current dam is not technically the same structure for which the original permit was issued. The State requires that a responsible party assume ownership of the dam, and that it meet State engineering requirements. The Town of Conover took the initiative to fund an engineering study to determine the requirements to meet Wisconsin’s standards. A lake association – The Flowage Preservation Alliance – was formed. Members included area residents, visitors, businesses, and sportsmen who partnered in 2011 with the Town in its efforts. In 2014 a Lake District was formed to take ownership of the dam, and work toward reconstruction.
In 2016 the dam reconstruction project was completed, and the Lake District has taken over ownership of the dam and its operation. The Flowage Preservation Alliance had accomplished its goals, and was dissolved in 2017.
(Our thanks to Wilma Steiner Winfield, the late Les Steiner, and Tom Christofferson, direct descendants of our first Flowage pioneers, for much of the information above.)
WHAT WAS AT STAKE? Every taxpayer in Vilas County and Conover Township would have been negatively affected, if the Little Tamarack dam and the Flowage had disappeared. Property values around the Flowage could have dropped by up to 50%. Vilas County could have lost up to $160,000 over ten years from the drop in property tax revenue, Northland Pines School District could have lost close to $400,000 over ten years, and the Town of Conover up to $80,000.
THE ECOLOGICAL IMPACT of the loss of the Flowage would have been even more dramatic. The Flowage, Baker and Spring Lakes, are a unique combination of nature that results in a very diverse ecological area. From pristine Baker Lake – a jewel with very little visible development – to the almost primeval bog/marsh/wetlands area surrounding Spring Lake, the Flowage is simply a treasure of biodiversity. Almost a third of the shoreline is owned by Vilas County as Forestland. This County Forestland area is completely undeveloped, and comprises the majority of the springs, wetland, and bogs of the Flowage.
There are two public boat landings on these waters, beautifully maintained by the Wisconsin DNR and Vilas County. Because the Flowage is not suitable for jet-skis or waterskiing, it is a quiet fisherman’s paradise. Panfish, Bass, Northerns, and Muskies abound. Ice-fishing for Perch is popular in the winter.
Three pairs of loons have raised their young here for many years, recorded by official Loon Watch Rangers. The same eagles return every year to nest. Wolves, bobcats, fishers, otters, muskrats, beaver, black bear, the occasional moose, and possibly a cougar have all been seen using the habitat. During migration season, many species of ducks, geese, and many other birds use the Flowage. Sandhill Cranes, Great Blue Herons, Mergansers, Trumpeter Swans, and other waterfowl spend the whole season here and raise their young.
On the plant side, a rare orchid makes its home in the bogs of the Little Tamarack Flowage. Sedges, pitcher plants, bog laurel, labrador tea, wild cranberries, many species of water lilies and other flowers and plants that love wetlands and bogs, come and go through the season.
Water quality has been measured for over a decade for the DNR by Citizen Lake Monitors, with water clarity consistently over 8.5 feet. Springs are the source of most of the water in this chain of waterways, and maintain it at a consistent water level.
Trees for Tomorrow, Elder Hostel, Discovery Center, UW Extension, and outfitters conduct canoe and kayak trips on the Flowage, observing nature and enjoying the quiet of the backwaters. In the past several years, pontoon boats have become popular, making slow sight-seeing tours through the channels and marshland.
The Little Tamarack Lake District and its riparian members are dedicated to preserving the Flowage, educating the public, and providing the public access to this treasure.
LAKES ARE THE MAJOR ASSETS of Vilas County and the Town of Conover. Without them, tourism would dry up. With two public boat landings, the Little Tamarack Flowage Chain has a lot to offer to the hunter, fisherman, and boater, and is the hope and future of its property owners.The Little Tamarack Flowage fills a niche for those who desire quiet / backwater / remote lakes and wetlands, much loved by canoists, kayakers, fishermen, duck hunters, bird and wildlife watchers.