A 1930s photo provided the only clue Conservation Warden David Youngquist had about the wicked, twisted steel beams that rose like claws from the Wisconsin River only to slither below the water’s surface into eerie silent darkness.
“I can’t believe no one was killed by it,” Youngquist says of an ever-present danger that lurked for years near the Mazomanie beach island on the Wisconsin River, not far from his Spring Green station. Neither could Timm Zumm, the president of the all-volunteer Friends of the Lower Wisconsin River, also known as FLOW.
Zumm, who also lives in the Spring Green area, first spotted the large, rusty jagged steel beams and cables resting like a mine field when he was on the river about a decade ago. “I do quite a bit of paddling and am always on the lookout for stuff,” he says.
Stuff would be too gentle of a word for debris that actually, as Zumm speculated, could have impaled a rider on an inflatable dragged behind a pleasure boat or flipped a canoe or kayak – or even have destroyed the watercrafts.
That all changed this late summer when the Department of Natural Resources warden, who covers the Spring Green area, collaborated with volunteers from FLOW, area business owners and other DNR staffers to pull the remaining 5 tons of this jagged steel and rusting cable from the water.
This strong-man project had been on the warden’s must-do list since he first eyed the unbelievable mess in 1999. And with the lower river levels due to the drought, the time was right to move.
A clue from the ‘30s
There is no firm answer as to how this mangled steel ended up in the stretch of the river long known as one of the nation’s most dangerous. It runs wild from the last dam at Prairie du Sac in Sauk County for more than 92 miles until it meets the Mississippi River on the state’s most southwestern edge. Fallen trees, often invisible tree roots and brush, sandbars that form as fast as they dissolve and a quick current of sometimes 5 mph makes this river a challenge for all.
“I looked at a 1930s photo and saw the power line in this area,” Youngquist says. “And there was a power pole was on the Mazomanie Beach Island. Over time, the current kept pushing this downstream.”
Zumm found that 1937 photo showing this stretch of river – not far from Ferry Bluff — that documented the utility line. “Or, I was thinking it could have even been a telegraph line,” he said. Whoever cut the steel, whenever it was cut and why it was cut likely may never be known.
What does matter is the river has been cleared. “This was a huge success,” Youngquist says of the removal operation. “It was a team effort.”
An army of helpers
The first big push came in 2003 when Timm Zumm and other volunteers from the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin River worked with McFarlane’s Hardware and Equipment store in Sauk City. Thanks to the use of the business’s skid-loader, the group was able to remove about 2 tons that day – and thought they had removed 75 percent of the stuff. “Now, looking back, I’m sure I had that wrong. I think we only removed about 25 percent that year,” Zumm says, basing his newfound calculations on the pile that formed after the final push in September.
That push by FLOW started in late August. A few days later on Sept. 5, Youngquist picked up the gauntlet with Dale Gasser and Cale Severson of the DNR fisheries program. Gasser and Severson brought back-up — in the form of a 52,000-pound back-hoe. With this massive machine, they were able to pull more steel from the water and from the river’s sandy bottom where it had taken root. It took about three hours to stack the steel like pick-up sticks on the sandbar. FLOW volunteers Jennifer Kerr and Roger Reynolds also helped with spotting steel and grabbing smaller pieces of the cable, steel and even some tires.
Next, Youngquist met with John Leightey of DNR Fleet to see what equipment would be needed to keep doing the job until the river was cleared. Simple! More muscle.
That muscle came in the form of a larger back-hoe that came with a clamp, a large hydraulic claw and tracks big enough to keep it atop the sand versus sinking into the wet foundation.
With that powerful machine operated by Patrick Kelly, the remaining steel was transported back to the parking lot where dumpsters were waiting to be filled with the steel. This took about five trips back to the parking lot to get all the steel off the sandbar.
In 90 minutes or so, they had pulled enough steel to fill four large dumpsters donated by Gauger Salvage in Arena. That was on Sept. 10 when the last of the 5.27 tons was removed from the water. “Bill Gauger of Gauger Salvage was great to work with and very willing to help out as much as he could with numerous trips to the property with the dumpsters,” Youngquist says.
Zumm says timing was on their side. “We had to get it done when we did because the water levels were so low,” he says. “I like to say the great river spirit was with us to allow us to get it done – and in a timely fashion.”
Another plus? No one was hurt in the process of removing this dangerous material.
What could make this better? No debt. Gauger Salvage was able to cover the expenses through its sale of the steel. “That covered all the expenses and meant no impact to anyone’s budget,” Youngquist says.
While the river is clear of the long-forgotten steel, the best part of the story for Zumm is this: “It’s another great example of what can be done when an all-volunteer group works with the DNR. I can’t say enough good things about Warden Youngquist and how we all worked together.”
Image courtesy Wisconsin DNR