Jim Downs poses Tuesday with a catfish left stranded in the bed of what remains of Lake Delton after heavy rains caused the 267-acre lake to escape its banks near the Wisconsin Dells. (Tribune photo / E. Jason Wambsgans / June 10, 2008)
LAKE DELTON, Wis. - One of the most scenic getaways for Chicagoans is devastated.
Weekend rains of biblical proportions dumped so much water into Lake Delton that it literally burst its banks.
Tens of thousands of gallons of lake water barreled through the woods, taking with it a roadway, several houses, boats, fish and lake bed. It emptied into the nearby Wisconsin River and was gone in hours.
On Tuesday morning, some 24 hours after the catastrophe, the massive lake is nearly drained. The lake is a muddy moonscape of cracked earth. Fish bake in the sun, flopping until their deaths. Mounds of dead fish are piled high. The shoreline is jagged and cracked. Boats hang in the air suspended by what is left of the docks. In parts, the little water that is left meanders like a silent brook. The roadway and earth that held the river back is now a grand canyon.
"Just this weekend it was full of fish, full of boaters, full of life and now it's gone," said Harland Tourdoy who has been fishing these waters for a half-century.
Standing on beachhead, where lake waters used to lap at his feet, Tourdoy watched as a lone canoeist attempted to navigated a narrow channel that was left of the lake center. "I wonder if it'll ever be the same," he said.
Lake Delton is nature's signature landscape for the Wisconsin Dells. While the region draws thousands to its indoor and outdoor water parks, Delton was the natural draw for water skiing, fishing and other recreation.
Condominiums, hotels, and mom and pop homes dot the jagged shoreline that offered serene vistas of the lakes. State officials vow to refill the lake as soon as possible. But locals are skeptical.
"When will I ever get my view back?" asked Sue Schultz, who lives on a bluff above the lake.
Up until Monday morning, residents were worried about flooding. Schultz's neighbors were furiously sandbagging, worrying that a nearby dam could bust, sending the lake to high levels. Instead, Schultz watched incredulously as the lake drained Monday morning.
"I was in a state of shock," she said. "I wondered where it was all going."
Within hours, Schultz's view was of a giant mud pit.
"Never in my wildest imagination could I dream of seeing this," she said.
With summer tourist season in full swing, residents worry about the impact.
At the gorge that only hours ago was a roadway, several locals scampered into the riverbed pulling out dead fish and walking along the sticky riverbed.
"At fist it will be a novelty that people will want to come and see," said Jim Downs, who fished a dead perch out of the mud.
"But soon it will begin to stink here pretty bad and it will drive people away," he said. "I don't see this lake coming back for years."