Up the Creek: Tragedy at Lake DuBay Dam
Up the Creek
Ken M. Blomberg
The boss and I were enjoying our Saturday morning coffee in our living room when we heard the first of many sirens. An county ambulance, followed by sheriff squad cars, first responders, fire department trucks, another ambulance – well, we lost count. Perhaps a dozen emergency response vehicles roared past our house. We looked at each other and knew something terrible had happened north of our house. The law enforcement trailered boat and airboat at the end of the parade told the story.
We live a mile from the Wisconsin River, two and a half miles from Lake DuBay, and just under three miles from the lake’s hydroelectric dam. Boating accidents on the big lake are uncommon, but do happen. Danger however, lurks below the dam, where currents are strong and fish and people congregate throughout the year. As it turned out, tragedy occurred that day below two open gates.
The Wisconsin, considered the hardest working river in the nation, is 420 miles in length and drains a watershed of 12,280 square miles, or 20 percent of the state. In that process, by the time it flowed through our dam last weekend at Lake DuBay – the river’s 4th largest reservoir – it was flowing at approximately 6,500 cubic feet per second. According to the Wisconsin Valley Improvement Company,
“The river descends 1,071 feet, and have 26 power dams using 640 feet of the fall of the river producing an average of one billion kilowatt hours annually of electrical energy. 21 reservoir dams store water in the upper valley during high flows for downstream power dams during periods of low flows.”
On the way to Wausau later that morning, the boss and I drove to the dam and found the parking area crowded with emergency vehicles. Several boats were positioned below the dam including a pontoon boat carrying underwater sonar equipment. An airboat and several motorboats were resting along the shore. Sgt. Jeff Coey with the Portage County Sheriff’s Department told me at the scene that rescue crews found the first victim within two hours and was pronounced dead at the scene. However, the other victim had not been located by the end of Sunday. Both were local residents but their names were being withheld until family members were contacted.
Sgt. Coey asked me to remind my readers of the importance of safety below this and all dams, so here goes. The Wisconsin Valley Improvement Company stresses safety near all dams and spillways. Their public safety program reminds us that,
“Every year people are killed or seriously injured at dams. Most of these accidents could be avoided by simply staying clear of the restricted zones at dams, by understanding the dangers dams can create, and by obeying all warning devices.Boating above or below a dam can be very dangerous.
Always maintain a safe distance from the dam. Keep your motor running when near a dam so that you are always ready to maneuver or leave the area quickly.Stay away from spillways. Changing currents and unpredictable waves make boat control difficult. Never anchor a boat below a dam. Rapid surges in water levels can pull an anchored boat under water in seconds.Beware of dangerous and unseen currents. Backrollers, eddys, and whirlpools can pull a boat upstream into a spillway and quickly capsize it.”