Listen: Jansen's trip to the BWCA post-windstorm

MPR’s Eric Jansen reports on trip from the BWCA, after the severe storm on the Fourth of July that downed millions of trees over more than 300,000 acres. Despite the devastation, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is already showing signs of recovery.


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ERIC JANSEN: As a newcomer to Minnesota, this was my first trip to the Boundary Waters, an area I'd heard about before moving here a year and a half ago. I went with a group of friends, some of whom have been to the Boundary Waters many times. We put in at Moose Lake renting canoes from Canadian border outfitters, which packs out nearly 700 groups a year. Manager Dave Sebesta told us the storm had affected business only slightly.

DAVE SEBESTA: Very few have actually canceled the trip because of the effects of the storm. I think most people-- there's a certain amount of people, I think, that are going to see it. Just like in any natural disaster, there's a certain amount of interest involved in seeing the effects of a storm of that magnitude.

ERIC JANSEN: Which is your preferred side? That side?

SPEAKER: No, I like the other side. But I can paddle on this side.

ERIC JANSEN: We had planned our trip before the July 4 storm, whose 100 mile per hour plus winds smashed through the area. We were worried about whether the snarling of chainsaws would disturb our peace as the Forest Service cut the thousands of trees fallen across canoe portages. Luckily, we found crews had finished their portage work and cleared campsites within two weeks of the storm. So among the loudest sounds we heard were chipmunks and squirrels scrambling around our campsite, gobbling cedar nuts or crumbs from our fresh, breaded and fried walleye dinners or granola breakfast.

But the devastation we saw while traversing some of our higher portages was, well, a sight to behold. Vast areas with virtually no trees left standing. Some were snapped off 10 or 20 feet above ground, others uprooted. Randy Wagner, a BWCA regular over the past decade, said the area didn't look as bad overall as he'd feared. But in some spots--

RANDY WAGNER: It was amazing in the sense that all the trees that were down were huge. And they were one right after another. So that just the clearing of that particular portage, I can imagine, was tremendous because it was all big trees, and just all of them, they were all down.

ERIC JANSEN: Troy Bermel, another frequent BWCA visitor, was also astounded.

TROY BERMEL: To think that if you were in here when that happened, it would be a nightmare to try to get out over all those portages or even just to find it. You might find it along the shoreline. But where the trees are down, I don't know how you'd ever see-- find your way back through it.

ERIC JANSEN: Still, both say their camping experience was largely unaffected, except for having a few less trees to hang hammocks and clotheslines from. And Troy, a landscaper by trade, even says he's eager to return to see how the forest recovers.

TROY BERMEL: All the light now getting down into the forest floor, which once was shaded, now there'll be lots of berries. And so all the birds and squirrels and the bear, everything will have a lot more food, I would think, with the light. So it'd be interesting to see what this area looks like with the new growth in a couple of years.

ERIC JANSEN: On our trip back home, I stopped at the US Forest Service office in Ely and spoke with fire management officer Jim Hines. He said our group saw some of the hardest hit areas. But there are worse areas he's seen from aerial flyovers.

JIM HINES: If you go to Scooter Lake or Dick's Lake, something like that, that's a pretty barren landscape in there nowadays. You just came from Anson Lake. And from what you saw, there are a lot of trees still standing on the landscapes. And it really doesn't look all that bad from a lot of those places.

ERIC JANSEN: Hines says many visitors won't notice the destruction from the water because for reasons he can't explain, the storm left most trees along lakeshores untouched. So those who canoe in and camp without doing many portages won't see most damage. What he's worried about is fire danger next year. He says with so many trees down over an area 10 miles wide by 30 miles long, the amount of fuel on the forest floor has grown substantially from about 20 tons per acre normal to about 200 tons per acre.

Hines says it's quite possible nothing could happen. He doesn't want to be a Chicken Little. Next year's weather conditions may never get hot and dry enough for widespread fires to start. But he says he's got to plan for what could happen if all the downed trees turn dry and brown next year.

JIM HINES: Fires can be expected to travel at anywhere from two to four times faster and with more intensity than what they had in the past. The fire behavior is going to be much more significant. When you don't have an overstory, things dry out a lot quicker.

ERIC JANSEN: But Hines says new growth is already underway.

JIM HINES: If you walk out in the blowdown right now, you'll already see young Aspen suckers come up. It happens really quick.

ERIC JANSEN: In total acreage, less than half of the BWCA was affected. And of course, the Boundary Waters has experienced huge storms, fires, and other natural disasters before. Foresters say it's all part of the natural cycle that began long before there were human tourists to fret about it. I'm Eric Jansen, Minnesota Public Radio.


In 2008, Minnesota's voters passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution: to protect drinking water sources; to protect, enhance, and restore wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game, and wildlife habitat; to preserve arts and cultural heritage; to support parks and trails; and to protect, enhance, and restore lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater.

Efforts to digitize this initial assortment of thousands of historical audio material was made possible through the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. A wide range of Minnesota subject matter is represented within this collection.

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