Dealing with the dam

Editor’s note: The following story on a proposed special tax assessment on the Sturgeon River Diversion Dam is the second in a three-part series.

TAPIOLA – The construction of Sturgeon River Diversion Dam was accomplished with few problems.

But the dam completed in 1974 continues to be a flash-point with some southern Houghton County residents.

Jim Manderfield, who was the project engineer for Mattila Construction, remembers the dam building well.

“It was one of the last jobs I did for Mattila before I got the job as the county road commission engineer,” he recalled recently. “I do recall our workers had to battle a mosquito problem at the site.”

The project encountered few other obstacles, according to Manderfield.

“We had a good sandstone base for the overall structure,” he said. “And there was a similar base for the fish ladder section.”

The fish ladder – or rather its effectiveness – has been a bone of contention over the years.

Former DNR Fisheries Biologist Ray Juetten said at the time of the dam construction there were no known fish ladders that would allow walleyes passage into Otter Lake.

“We monitored the ladder for several years and it appeared the walleye could not navigate it,” Juetten said. “To attempt to supplement the lake’s walleye population an aggressive stocking program began in 1978. That was also the reason for the installation of the walleye spawning reef later on.”

In 1993, the DNR learned that the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans had developed a fish ladder design which would pass walleyes over low head dams similar to the local one.

One of the Canadian DFO engineers came to the area and subsequently provided a plan for ladder modification. The ladder was modified in the fall of 1994 at a cost of $28,000.

Juetten said a 1996 DNR evaluation used a time lapse camera above the ladder and it showed that walleye, pike, sturgeon, bass and panfish were using the ladder.

John Waisanen, who owns property on Otter Lake, said he always had doubts about the ladder.

“I’ve always questioned just how many walleyes were coming up from Portage Lake,” Waisanen said. “Certainly, they weren’t making it up the old ladder.”

The diversion dam was just one part of a state-backed project that was spearheaded by the late Wesley Myllyla of Arnheim.

The Sturgeon Sloughs Wildlife Area was the major part of the project and it had the support of the so-called “U.P. Mafia” connection of State Representatives Dominic Jacobetti and Russell Hellman and State Senator Joe Mack.

The trio of legislators wielded a lot of influence in Lansing and Jacobetti was chairman of the powerful house of appropiations committee.

Myllyla, a local dairy farmer, and several other people who owned property on Otter Lake held informal meetings over the years to discuss the mounting silt problems caused by the Sturgeon River flowing into the lake.

Eino Filpus, Anselm Hyppio, Arnie Beck, John Savela, Lawrence “Hap” Aldrich and Myllyla were all part of the de facto committee, according Harold Filpus, a longtime lake resident.

“Those guys got together over coffee …. and attempted to come up with a plan,” Filpus noted. “Things were different back then, people used more common sense to approach a problem.”

Otter Lake and the Sturgeon River have a long history, dating back to the early 1900s.

The river, which originally did not run into the lake, experienced spring flooding that eventually created a channel into the lake.

That event took place in 1913, and at a time when heavy logging was taking place in the region.

The loggers of the era had used the Sturgeon River to float logs down to sawmills located in Chassell. When the river channel was created, they were able to float logs down the Otter River (on the other side of the lake) across the lake and down the Sturgeon.

But having the Sturgeon flowing into the lake created the mounting silt problem.

“What was happening was that the lake was filling in,” said Dennis Myllyla of Arnheim. “My father and the other people involved saw that …. that’s why they pushed for the action by the state.”

The Sturgeon River Sloughs Wildlife Area is considered an important one in the DNR’s wildlife game area program.

“We’re happy with the Sturgeon River Sloughs, it gets a lot of use,” DNR Upper Peninsula Wildlife Supervisor Terry Minzey said. “But we are looking at federal grants to make some water pump upgrades there.”

With an area of 1,124 acres, 12 miles of dikes, one mile of diversion and 375 acres of flood control fields, the slough project has done much to avert flooding in the area.

It is also managed as a stopover spot for migrating waterfowl, and a nesting place place to increase the resident goose population for hunting.

“It’s a great place for hunting geese and ducks,” Myllyla said. “Quite a few hunters go there every season.”

The area is an ideal spot for birdwatchers. The Audobon Society has its De Vriendt Nature Trail listed as a prime spot to obverve all varieties of birds.

“The Sturgeon Sloughs area is also a good one for trapping (beavers and muskrats),” Minzey pointed out. “And there’s some good deer hunting there.”

But some Otter Lake property-owners feel the diversion dam has permanently damaged the fishery there, and are seeking ways to change that.

Next week: The future of Otter Lake’s fishery and what might be done to improve it.