The Source of the Wisconsin River, Lac Vieux Desert

January 20, 2012

If you have spent any time browsing this web site, you know I am a nut for rivers and streams. Living in Wausau, the Wisconsin River flows by just down the street a couple blocks. I have gone kayaking on this section. I have also visited Iowa’s and Wisconsin’s lookouts over where the Wisconsin River empties into the Mighty Mississippi. For this trip, in winter, I decided I wanted to go to Lac Vieux Desert in Vilas County up in the north woods to see the Wisconsin River’s source.

Before I show you the source, let me give you a few shots of the river to put the astounding shots of the source into some context.


Here she is in January 2006 flowing through Crawford County in the south.


That is her left and center flowing into the Mississippi, again January 2006, shot taken from the Iowa lookout.


This is October 2006, viewed from Grant County, Wisconsin, emptying into the Mississippi. Those bluffs in the center of the photo are in Iowa.


This is the river just down the street form my home in Wausau, taken from my kayak.


Well, you get the idea. She is a big river. She flows about 430 miles and is the state’s longest river. For most of her length, she flows essentially southward, but at portage north of Madison, turns to the west heading to the Mississippi.

Now let’s head to the source. I said the source of the Wisconsin River is Lac Vieux Desert.


The Wisconsin Historical Society provides this description of Lac Vieux Desert:

“Description from John W. Hunt's 1853 Wisconsin Gazetteer: ‘LAC VIEUX DESERT, (Kattakittekon), is the name of a lake, the middle of which is the boundary line between this State and Michigan, between the northern corner of Marathon and Oconto counties. It is the source of the Wisconsin, and occupies a high level above the lakes. Upon this elevation are the sources of several large streams, the Ontonagon and Montreal of Lake Superior, the Menominee of Lake Michigan, and the Wisconsin and Chippewa of the Mississippi. This lake is about 4 miles long from north to south, and of very irregular shape. In the middle of it is an island which is made a point in the boundary between Michigan and Wisconsin.’ “

To the south of the state boundary is Wisconsin’s Vilas County, to the north is Michigan’s Gogebic County, which is also the name of a major iron ore deposit.


Lac Vieux Desert is a natural lake, about 34 square miles. A natural lake simply means it is an inland body of water occupying a hollow surface of the earth’s surface. Its primary sources of water are precipitation that may enter the depression directly as runoff from surrounding higher ground, or through underground springs. The point at which the lake serves as the source of the Wisconsin River, located by the arrow, is 1693 ft above sea level (ASL). This section of Lac Vieux Desert is known as Outlet Bay.


There are hills to the southeast of the lake that rise to 1865 ft. And there is a lower-lying area on the west side of the lake which helps explain it serving as the source of the Wisconsin River. There are five tributary streams and many, many unmapped streams feeding the lake. Much of the surrounding area, the watershed, is either forested land or water and wetlands. On average, the area receives about 33.8 in. of precipitation each year; this rate of precipitation varies considerably. There is a major aquifer in the area. As you can see from this graphic, the watershed area serving the lake is fairly large and mostly in Michigan.


When I visited the source, I traveled on W. Shore Dr. off of CH E (the vertical road left of center) and stopped where I saw a stream crossing under the road. I am not happy with this satellite view but it is the best I can get my hands on for the moment. I wish I could get a much closer view of the dam, located approximately by the single arrow. While the lake is a natural lake, there is a dam here at the lake’s natural outlet which artificially controls the lake stage. The natural outlet is the source of the Wisconsin River. The two arrows point to the river heading out.


There was a parking lot off to the right and a sign pointing to a path to the source. Pretty easy to follow!


Just to the right of the sign, there was a walking bridge crossing over the Wisconsin River.


The path was obvious, and the surroundings beautiful.


The path narrowed a bit as we got closer. The path is a short walk. You can hear the stream off to the right, but cannot see it through the foliage. If I would have been wearing decent boots, I might have tried walking through the foliage to see the river.


Believe it or not, this is the source of the Wisconsin River, a small dam blocking the natural outlet from Lac Vieux Desert. Elevation is 1693 ft. It’s worth noting that the Wisconsin River drops from 1693 ft. here to 610 ft. above sea level when it meets the Mississippi. Experts consider this a steep drop, makin the river especially good for producing hydroelectric power. This section of the river is in relatively flat land, but drops quickly as the river heads south.

Let’s get a closer look at the source.


What is interesting here is how small the opening from the Lac Vieux Desert we have as the source. But also note the antenna and some sort of junction box off to the left. There is also some stuff sticking vertically into the river and attached to the wall. This is part of an overall Gauging Station at the source of the river. It is used to measure the flow into the Wisconsin River.

The following show some shots of the river as it leaves the lake.




This next shot shows the river approaching W. Shore Rd. You can see the tubes through which it flows under the road.


Now, hearkening back to the photos of the Mighty Wisconsin River I showed at the outset, it is wild to see it going through a couple aluminum tubes under a road!


And there she goes sports fans, out from under W. Shore Road in Vilas County and on her way to the Mississippi and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico.