A Decade After Storm, Minnesota Wild Rejuvenates

Ten years ago, a huge windstorm struck the remote Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota.

In just half an hour, winds of up to 90 miles per hour toppled 35 million trees in an area more than 500 square miles. Campers were trapped in a tangle of trunks and branches, and it took three weeks to get everyone out.

Now, the forest is growing back, and in spite of the way it has changed, people are still flocking to the Boundary Waters.

But everybody who was there on July 4, 1999, has a story.

'We All Just Ran'

The day started out calm, but around noon a vicious storm slammed in from the West.

When it hit the sprawling wilderness, U.S. Forest Service worker John Pierce was fishing with friends on Basswood Lake. When it started to rain, he and his friends tried to set up a tarp, but the wind kept ripping it out of their hands.

"You could only see about 20 to 25 feet, because there was so much water and pine needles, sticks, everything in the air, blowing," Pierce says. "And we could also see the trees that were upwind of us were leaning right over us at a very scary angle, and we all just ran; there was no time to talk or coordinate or think."

Pierce ran to the shore. The waves were 6 feet high, and rain and debris were coming at him at 90 miles per hour. Pierce sheltered in the roots of one of the upended trees.

Coming Out Of The Woods

Several thousand campers were in the wilderness that day. Miraculously, none was killed. One group, led by guide Nancy Piragis, was sideswiped by the storm, but unaware of its devastation.

"We came out the Stuart River, which I've done many times, I love it, and I couldn't find the portage," Piragis says. "Finally, I saw a moose standing in the reeds, and I thought, 'That looks like it,' but there was all this stuff. I said, 'This is the portage, but what's wrong with the Forest Service, this is a mess!' "

They got out their hand saws and sawed their way through the downed trees blocking the path.

"We got to the end of the portage, and there's this sign there, 'If you're just coming out of the woods, call home, you probably have family that's worried,' " Piragis says.

When Piragis and other outfitters began to see the magnitude of the disaster, they worried about their livelihood.

This is a wilderness area; there's no replanting. All the Forest Service could do was clear trees away from the portages; the rest was left alone to grow back as it will. But people are curious, and more people come here every year.

The Old Pines Went Down

These days, it takes a little work to see the blowdown.

At Moose Lake, northwest of Ely, the horizon is scraggly. A few tall trees — some still alive, some dead — stand above a thick mass of new trees. The young alder, fir, and maple trees crowd against the rocky portage.

Pierce, who survived the storm by backing up against a root ball on the lake shore, says the forest is young and healthy.

"Here you can see all this brush, this is a lot of dogwood, and that's the dominant thing walking along this trail, not big trees," he says.

Now, the big trees are on the ground. Downed trunks that have been lying there for 10 years break when they are stepped on.

University of Minnesota ecologist Lee Frelich says there will be fewer pines; the forest has jumped ahead to the next generation of trees: spruce, cedar and fir.

"In this case, the wind came and wiped out the old pine forest in a few minutes, and they were able to start taking over immediately because they were small seedlings on the forest floor," Frelich says.

And he says they're growing like mad. Frelich says while it was sad to see the big old pines go down, it's a good reminder that in nature, the only constant is change.

Stephanie Hemphill reports for Minnesota Public Radio.

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