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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Flood debris creates hazards for boaters

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 5/18/22

REGIONAL— Some of the worst flooding to hit the North Country in generations has left an extraordinary amount of debris floating in area lakes— and that is posing a considerable public …

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Flood debris creates hazards for boaters


REGIONAL— Some of the worst flooding to hit the North Country in generations has left an extraordinary amount of debris floating in area lakes— and that is posing a considerable public safety risk for boaters.
That’s the word from the St. Louis County Sheriff’s office, which has been busy this week trying to assess the situation and respond to reports of a wide range of hazards on the region’s many lakes.
“We’re just having a hard time keeping up with it,” said Jon Skelton, a supervising deputy sheriff, based in Virginia. The high water, combined with considerable ice damage in many locations, has left area lakes riddled with floating debris, ranging from boats to branches, and even entire trees.
“Even as we speak, our lieutenant is on the phone with the county rescue squad to remove a floating dock that’s out on Birch Lake,” said Skelton on Tuesday.
Sheriff’s office officials have also been using drones in recent days to get a better visual handle on the extent of damage to roads and bridges and the hazards that the flooding has created and to alert the public to be extremely careful if they plan to travel on area lakes.
That’s a message that’s echoed by Gretchen Niemeste, who owns and operates Aronson Boat Works on Lake Vermilion with her husband John. “We were out on the lake Sunday evening and there was a lot of debris floating by,” she said. “It was everything from docks to trees, or even logs that were lining shorelines.” Niemeste urged lakeshore residents to move belongings like paddleboats or canoes back from the water’s edge, since the water is still rising on most larger area lakes, including Vermilion. “People are losing things like paddleboards or small sailboats,” she added.
While the water has yet to top the docks at Aronson’s, Niemeste said it’s now within inches of the top deck. Gretchen said it’s the highest she’s ever seen, although her father John recalls similar flooding back in 1950.
Skelton, who grew up in Orr and spent much of his time on Pelican Lake, said he’s never seen the water so high there before, nor has he seen the amount of debris in the water. He said he was back on Pelican this past weekend. “I just put in my boat and saw a big piece of bog floating right in the middle of Orr Bay,” he said.
Navigating in high water
The record water levels are posing other navigational hazards as well for boaters in the area. The late ice-out and high water have prevented some of the county’s contractors from getting navigational buoys in place on bigger lakes, like Vermilion. But given the dramatic rise in water levels, many of the traditional hazards, such a reefs and rock piles located just under the surface in normal times, are far enough underwater that they don’t currently pose a hazard for most boats. At the same time, the water levels have left rocks that are typically visible on area lakes, just under the surface in some cases, creating a whole new set of hazards that likely won’t be identified with buoys.
“That’s exactly right,” said Skelton. “The hazards are moving,” he said.
And conditions aren’t likely to get back to normal anytime soon. According to the National Weather Service, water levels throughout most of the Rainy River basin are expected to continue to rise at least for the next week or two. On Vermilion, Crane, Basswood, and other headwater lakes, the weather service is predicting that water levels will continue to rise up to this weekend, before slowly receding. At the same time, the National Weather Service noted that any heavy rains over the next few weeks could cause conditions to further worsen.
And rain, possibly heavy, was in the forecast for Thursday as the Timberjay went to press. As of presstime, both the 6-10 day and 8-14 day outlooks from the Climate Prediction Center, call for continued below normal temperatures and above normal precipitation. Even without more rain, the weather service predicts that high water conditions will continue throughout the Rainy River basin well into June.


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