Running on Empty

On June 9, 2008, Lake Delton disappeared, leaving businesses badly bruised and a billion-dollar tourism industry in flux. A year later, the water has returned, a hopeful sign that the Wisconsin Dells is back in action.

After a turbulent year, Kathy and Steve Zowin of Lake Delton Watersports are still in business

PHOTO by Peter F. Castro

After a turbulent year, Kathy and Steve Zowin of Lake Delton Watersports are still in business PHOTO by Peter F. Castro

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The rain is unbelievable. For two days it pours, the sky opening its belly and shedding its burden like a theatrical set, some cosmic stagehand yanking rope after rope and releasing buckets of water below. In thirty years of boat rentals and sales,

Kathy and Steve Zowin have never seen the lake this high. It’s a small body of water, and not very deep, so in a particularly wet or dry year they’ve seen it fluctuate as much as two or three inches, but never anything like this. They spend all of Sunday racing to stay ahead of the flooding, Steve and a couple of the guys from the shop pulling boats out, picking debris, watching the waters rise. Kathy and Steve can’t sleep that night so they go for a drive to the other side of Lake Delton. Around two a.m. they stop on Highway A where the police have it closed off, watch the water streaming across the road and the hundred or so people sandbagging the dam. The water just keeps on rising.

At seven the next morning Kathy, a member of the Sauk County Land Conservation Committee, takes a meeting at the nearby Mirror Lake dam, a seventy-year-old structure that’s holding its own for now but is a source of concern—if it fails it will force all of Mirror Lake through the already swollen Dell Creek and into Lake Delton, where they’re worried about the Delton dam, the one they were sandbagging a few hours earlier. Plus, for Steve and Kathy, that small channel where Dell Creek feeds Lake Delton, right below the tiny Adams Street bridge, is where the water sports business they’ve been running for three decades sits. Right next door to their home.

What is normally a small feeder creek already looks to Steve’s trained eye like Class 5 rapids. After the meeting, Kathy rushes back to tell Steve the strange thing the committee chair Joe Van Berkel told her. “Joe said, ‘I don’t think the dam’s gonna be a problem,’” Kathy tells her husband. “But, he said, ‘I think you’re gonna lose your lake.’ He said, ‘I think it’s gonna go right out through County A.’”

An Ill-Fated Rescue

Steve doesn’t have the luxury right now of letting Joe’s prophecy register; this is a time for action. Besides, he tells himself, it doesn’t make any sense. For two days they’ve been concentrating on their end of Lake Delton, the Mirror Lake side, not the Highway A side, and they’ve been preparing for a flood not the opposite, not losing the lake, no way. The water is rising, not dropping. He tunes out the thoughts and gives in to his body, works the motions it’s known since boyhood, focuses on the lake he knows as well as he knows himself.

Kathy goes back in to man the phones at the store, and Steve and his son, Steve Jr., slide back into the lake. But somewhere around ten a.m. the whole lake starts dropping, like somebody pulled the plug out of a 267-acre bathtub. The phone in Steve’s pocket shrieks and it’s Kathy back at the shop, telling him the police dispatcher has called about a problem on the lake, the one they both already know is happening. The cops order everyone off but they let Steve and his son stay because those guys know what they’re doing better than anyone, and they keep working desperately to save as many boats as possible. They go after them, tie them up, tow them to safety and stack them like sardines on the shore, go back in for more.

Steve focuses hard on the bizarre task at hand, and tries not to think about the business he’s breathed and bled for three decades. He tries not to think about his house. He barely registers the rush of debris in his wake, the pontoon flipped and crushed against the bridge, the staccato drumbeat of his heart.

He and Steve Jr. press on and on as the water drops an inch and a half per minute, until they’re scraping the bottom of what was once the middle of Lake Delton and they can no longer force their boat back toward home. They abandon it, climb out, and walk the block or two back in a daze, shell-shocked—because three hours after Kathy’s land conservation meeting, Joe Van Berkel’s prediction comes true.

The Making of Boom Town

“Timme’s Dam” is actually what Kathy Zowin calls the dam at Mirror Lake, named for the family who operated it from 1893 to 1925, when Sauk County bought and repaired it. The area of Lake Delton and Wisconsin Dells (usually lumped together in the mind of the public) is a small community where everybody knows everybody, and where it almost always comes down to family names.

Glacial flooding was the original architect of the area, and for a long while the Dells was famous mostly for its stunning rock formations along the Wisconsin River. But in the twentieth century, people took over the job. Boat rides (including steamboats and rowboats), the Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial and the Original Wisconsin Ducks were the main attractions until 1951, when Tommy Bartlett and his water-ski show came to town.

In 1979, the Waterman family built Noah’s Ark, and the Dells cemented its status as a bona fide tourist destination. In 1994 the Polynesian Resort Hotel put a roof over its water attraction to become the first indoor water park in the country. From then on a friendly but wildly competitive game of one-upmanship began in earnest, particularly among a number of guys who went to high school together in the ’70s.

Meanwhile, smaller proprietors grappled for their share, and today the town sort of resembles a cobbled bed of painted seashells pocking the natural landscape. The businesses seem dropped in waves by the decade, radiating outward from the downtown river district strip and butting up against the shore of I-94 where the monster indoor water park resorts now reign, kings of the sea.

The Wisconsin Dells population sign on the edge of town says 2,481, and yet according to a 2007 economic impact report, the area provided 23,911 jobs that year. It’s big, big business. But for all the money in the Dells, it’s still small-town Wisconsin. Everybody knows each other at the grocery store, their kids play together at school, and when disaster strikes, it takes only a couple of phone calls to get a hundred people sandbagging in the middle of the night.

Part of it is good old-fashioned neighboring, but here in the Dells there’s more at stake: This town is a product. The entire place sinks or swims as one, and everybody knows it. Of the more than five hundred businesses, only about twenty-five rim Lake Delton, and yet the entire community was profoundly impacted by the breach—from a tourism standpoint. If you watched the news at all last summer, from the local stations all the way up to CNN, you would have thought the whole town had shuttered.

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