Raptors Rule Wisconsin's Turtle-Flambeau Waterway

Paddle Wisconsin's Turtle-Flambeau waterway, watch the aerial show, and lay claim to your own island.

Normally, the sight of a soaring bald eagle would hold my attention, but on this trip, eagles were as common as squirrels. As I glanced overhead at yet another ivory-headed raptor, my eyes were suddenly drawn back to shore, where something white flashed high in a tree. I noticed a woven bundle of branches and wondered who occupied the nest.

The answer exploded out of the tree when an osprey rose to confront the eagle. A raucous, midair showdown ensued. With wings pumping furiously, the two birds circled and screeched at each other, a mere 3 feet separating their beaks. Before long, the eagle withdrew.

I was paddling the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage, a long, meandering lake in northern Wisconsin, when I witnessed the aerial battle for territory. The Turtle-Flambeau boasts the highest density of bald eagle, osprey, and common loon breeding pairs in the state. One recent survey counted 11 pairs of nesting eagles, 18 pairs of osprey, and 21 pairs of loons among the hundred-plus bird species raising young on the flowage. Nonavian residents can be a little harder to spot, but include timber wolves, otters, bobcats, pine martens, black bears, and a moose here and there.

After 5 days of canoe camping in Turtle-Flambeau's eastern and southern branches, I selected the remote southern area—between Rat Lake and Otter Creek—as my favorite place for a quiet getaway. Most of the shoreline consists of sheltered nooks and crannies, dominated by a mix of hardwoods, pine, and an occasional cedar swamp. Isolated backcountry campsites are tucked away in the forest fringes on numerous little islands (195 all told), any of which can be yours for a day or 2.

Don't be scared off by the motorboats. If you do hear an engine, it'll be a lone fisherman puttering along. Water skiing and jet skis are rare, thanks to the prevailing etiquette and the dissuading power of submerged stumps, snags, and rock reefs.

My verdict? I'll follow the lead of the area's migratory residents and return next year.

EXPEDITION PLANNER: Turtle-Flambeau Flowage, Wisconsin

DRIVE TIME: The Turtle-Flambeau Flowage is 200 miles (3 hours) northeast of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota.

THE WAY: From Minneapolis-St. Paul, head north on I-35, then east on US 8 to the junction with WI 13. Drive north on WI 13 to Butternut and take County F (then FF) east for 14 miles. Turn at the signed turnoff for Turtle Dam and continue east 2 miles to Sportsman's Landing boat ramp.

TRAILS: All travel on the Turtle-Flambeau's 14,300-acre flowage is by water only. There are six designated boat ramps for public access. To get to the southern arm and Otter Creek, as described at left, use Sportsman's Landing and paddle south along the western shore for 7 miles. The first of several prime campsites appears at mile 4. For the eastern arm of the flowage (a designated quiet area), use Murray's Landing and paddle west. The flowage has 60 designated backcountry campsites. Figure on paddling a maximum of 10 miles per day with a loaded canoe or kayak.

ELEVATION: 1,571 feet.

CAN'T MISS: Evening on the lake, when shadows lengthen and the tremolo of loon song echoes from bay to bay.

CROWD CONTROL: Avoid holiday weekends. Campsites in the quiet area fill first. The south end of the flowage offers the best chance for solitude. Spring and fall are the least crowded times, but avoid fall duck hunting season.

SEASON: Paddling begins in mid-April when the ice melts and continues until the ice returns in late October. The best weather is from June through early September.

GUIDES: Turtle-Flambeau Scenic Waters Area Map/Brochure from Mercer Department of Natural Resources (DNR) (see Contact below).

WALK SOFTLY: View all nests and loons with young from afar.

CONTACT: Mercer DNR Ranger Station, Turtle-Flambeau Scenic Waters Area, (715) 476-2240; www.dnr.state.wi.us.