Canoe-Camping Wisconsin’s Turtle-Flambeau Flowage

Two of my favorite activities outdoors combines paddling (either canoe or kayak) with backpack camping. Whenever I can combine the two, my enjoyment level soars!

I recently found a place that had me flying pretty high. It’s called the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage, a 14,000-acre impoundment in Northeast Wisconsin that rivals the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in pristine beauty and canoeing opportunities.

Man in canoe
Totally primitive, north woods shorelines offer miles of paddling exploration.

Lacking the splurges of Canadian Shield rock outcroppings that gives the BWCAW much of its personality, the T-F Flowage is probably more comparable to a cross between the waters of Voyageurs National Park and side channels in the Mississippi River in southern Minnesota. The red and white pines give it a northern look while the maples and other deciduous trees create a more southern backdrop. The white birch gleaming in clumps along the shoreline in some areas is just icing on the cake!

The appeal of the “Flowage” is as much the type of camping as it is about scenery. The lake complex has over 114 miles of mainland shoreline. Add the perimeters of the 195 islands scattered throughout the lakes and that figure skyrockets!

empty boat on shore
All campsites are water accessible only offering privacy with great vistas out across bays.

Even though campsites are free, first-come, first-served, the fact that every site is only accessible by water makes the area very special. Fifty-eight sites are considered family sites and are limited to a single camping party. Forty sites are considered “rustic” and offer only a pit toilet and a fire ring — no picnic table like the other sites. There are also handicapped sites and group sites. The group sites (six more were recently added) are the only camping areas that can be reserved, and for which a fee is collected ($40/night).

The campsites have been scattered around islands varying in size from tiny pill boxes to large mounds covered in forest. Most all sites command an impressive view out across the lake or out towards the mouth of the bays in which they are located. While all the sites are located on a map in the brochure of the area, the exact locations are sometimes a challenge to find. Some surrounding or cross-reference islands are not shown on the map and many passages are quite narrow and blend into the background of islands and shorelines.

Turtle-Flambeau is one of the very few places left where you can gather firewood from the area around your camp(from the ground only). There is no water available at the sites so it must be brought into camp. The lake water is stained the color of ice tea from the tannins in the trees.

If you are a fisher-camper, you’ll love this area. It’s renowned for its walleye fishing. A non-resident, 4-day license will cost you $24 so hopefully fishing — and catching — will be satisfying. Other species worthy of pursuit include muskies, northern pike and both largemouth/smallmouth bass. Local sporting good stores can supply you with bait and other fishing needs.

campsite with tents
Campsites can be found on islands in narrow channels or at heads of bays.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has a well-rounded map/brochure entitled, the “Turtle-Flambeau Scenic Water Area” ( a much more appealing name than “flowage” that appears on the state’s road maps!). You can request this and other information at Wisconsin DNR Site. You can also call 715-476-7846 for more information.

If a BWCA experience beckons you, but neither time nor driving distance favors a two- to three-day camping trip, consider the Turtle-Flambeau. It’s rustic camping and casual, but adventurous paddling at its combined best.

Here’s a link to Businesses and Services on the flowage.

Editor’s Note: Severe weather in July, 2010 damaged several campsites in the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage — make sure to call ahead (call 715-476-7846) to check on the conditions before you go camping there.

Make sure you have the best camping equipment for any canoeing trip. Visit Sportsman’s Guide for the latest assortment of camping gear.

Tom Watson is an award-winning writer who lived in Alaska for 16 years, 12 of which were on Kodiak Island. He is a frequent contributor to “Camping Life,” “Canoe & Kayak” magazines, author of three books:” Sixty Hikes within Sixty Miles of Minneapolis,” “Best Tent Camping-Minnesota,” both by Menasha Ridge Press, and “How to Think Like a Survivor,” by Creative Publishing International. He’s also an avid kayaker, camper, naturalist, writer, and photographer residing in western Minnesota. He will write a weekly column on camping tips for sportsmansguide.com.

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