It was one of those events forever etched into the memory of many. Ask any Gunflint Trail resident what happened on the 4th of July in 1999 and you’ll get the same answer, "The Blowdown." You can also ask that same resident, "What were you doing when the storm hit?" Most will be able to tell you a blow by blow story of how the storm unfolded and what was left when it had passed.
As one of those residents I can tell you what I was doing on July 4, 1999 just before noon. I was upstairs in the lodge waiting for all of the summer staff to come in for lunch for a little "speech" about attitude. Of course I can’t remember the details or who was on our crew that year(well, maybe a few), but I can tell you it was hot and muggy. When I looked out the door the sky was a very odd color, something between a fluorescent green mixed with grey and you could feel the pressure changing. Then I heard a strange sound that happened to be an 80-90 mile per hour wind approaching. Trees began to sway, limbs started dropping to the ground, rain poured from the sky and canoes flew through the air. We stood in awe while the storm raged outside the window and almost as quickly as it had started it was over.
Our lodge sits lower than most of the land surrounding it as some of you may know. When it rains our store has a nice waterfall that runs down the enormous rock we had to build on. This water tends to pool creating beautiful lakes in our store. Located on the Seagull River we are also protected from waves and high wind that occur on bigger lakes. That combined with the fact we were on the north edge of the blowdown we weren’t really sure what the impact of the brief storm we experienced was.
Weather on different parts of the Gunflint Trail can vary tremendously. It may be raining on Poplar and sunny on Saganaga or vice versa. Our power was out, but being at the end of the road it wasn’t an uncommon occurence. When I went outside I saw branches and trees that had toppled over and immediately started to work with the saw to clear some of the brush off of the canoe piles and driveway. Other staff members were busy assessing the roadway in case an emergency vehicle needed to get through while yet others were making their way by boat to check on some cabin owners across the river.
A side note on the neighbors. Some of you know or are familiar with Ralph and Bea Griffith, the last owners of Chik-Wauk Resort. They were staying at Chik-Wauk during the storm and I sent Mike’s cousin over to check on them and to let them know we would get someone over there with a chain saw to get their driveway cleared just as soon as we could. Mike’s cousin knocked on the door, then knocked a little louder until they came to the door. When she asked if they were ok they gave her a strange look, like, "Why wouldn’t we be?" It turns out they had been taking a nap and hadn’t even heard the storm go through! Their lights had been turned off so they hadn’t even realized their power was out.
Anyway. It was extremely hot and muggy after the storm went through and adrenaline was coursing through my veins as I worked to cut branches out of the way. Panting and exhausted I felt a twinge in my stomach and then thought better of working so hard. The twinge was my reminder that I was carrying a baby in my belly at the time.
Damage at the end of the Gunflint Trail wasn’t too bad from the Blowdown but we kept hearing local reports about damage elsewhere on the Trail. The next day I had the job of driving a group of our guests down to Duluth in our 15-passenger van. Their van had been smashed by a tree and they had no way to get home. Still without power the group of men had been unable to shower before loading up in my van. The air conditioner was not working in the van and the scent in the van was not a pleasant one.
The Gunflint Trail was a mess. I had heard there was one lane of the Gunflint Trail open but no one had told me it wasn’t the same lane. We zig-zagged our way from one side of the road to another, onto the shoulder, into the ditch, over trees and powerlines for over 4 hours until we finally reached Grand Marais. What normally takes an hour to drive took 4 hours if that gives you an idea of how many trees had fallen on the Trail. Eventually the County brought a grader up to move the trees but no one beyond the Gunflint Trail seemed to know how bad it was up there.
While no one died during the Blowdown there were injuries to both person and property. Trees had fallen on vehicles, houses and people. Reports of broken bones and attempts to evacuate stranded BWCA campers began immediately. Our Voyageur gang spent a couple of days down the Trail at Bearskin and Golden Eagle helping to clear trees since they had been hard hit.
Without electricity and telephone service I felt as though my prayers had been answered when Mike decided I should set up an office in Grand Marais. I could work where there was electricity and computer access to take care of phone calls and other Voyageur business. I had a place reserved at a B & B with air conditioning and I was in heaven thinking about how comfortable I would be.(Everyone knows it was the hottest summer ever, maybe because I was pregnant?).
My dreams were shattered just as I pulled into the driveway of the B & B. My cell phone, the monster sized one in a bag, began to ring. When I answered and heard the voice of my employee I asked, "Where are you calling me from?" To which she replied, "Voyageur, the phones are working again!" Needless to say I was not thrilled in the least. I backed up my vehicle and headed up the Gunflint Trail to be miserable in the extreme heat of my loft bedroom. No electricity meant no air conditioner for me.
We were without electricity for two weeks, 14 days. I don’t know how we managed to operate during that time but I do remember Upper Lakes Foods brought a freezer and refrigerator trailer up to the end of the Trail for us to use to store our food. Anytime we needed something from the refrigerator we had to drive to the landing. I think we eventually rented a generator for the bare necessities which did not include my air conditioner.
The landscape of the BWCA and Gunflint Trail did change after the Blowdown just as it has changed after each forest fire. Ten years have gone by and it’s hard to remember what it looked like before the blowdown. I drive by areas trying to remember… Did a fire go through here? A prescribed burn there? Was that road construction or a blowdown area? Guests ask about what lakes have been affected by forest fires. The answer to that is probably all of them at one time or another. Some people paddle through areas not even knowing a fire or blowdown had occured, it all tends to blend together creating a dynamic landscape.
There you have it. My recollection of what happened 10 years ago on July 4, 1999, the day of the BWCA Blowdown. Were you there? Do you have a story or pictures to share? I’d love to hear about it if you do. You can also find a short video clip, article and slideshow on the MPR website. Oh, and before I forget, Happy Anniversary Blowdown.