A Decade After Storm, Minnesota Wild Rejuvenates Ten years ago, a huge windstorm struck the remote Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota and killed 35 million trees. It took three weeks to get all the trapped campers out of the woods. Now, the forest is growing back and people are still flocking to the sprawling wilderness.

A Decade After Storm, Minnesota Wild Rejuvenates

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Now to a remote area along Minnesota's border with Canada, ten years after it was devastated by a windstorm. On July 4th, 1999, millions of trees in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness were toppled by 90 mile an hour winds. There were fears that tourists would stop coming. Well, 10 years later, the forest is growing back and, as Minnesota Public Radio's Stephanie Hemphill reports, people are returning.

STEPHANIE HEMPHILL: The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a sprawling wilderness on the border between Minnesota and Canada. The pristine lakes and boreal forests are normally peaceful. But on the 4th of July, 10 years ago, it was a very different scene here. That day started out calm, but around noon, a vicious storm slammed in from the west. In just half an hour, it knocked down about 35 million trees. Thirty-five million - that's more than the combined population of America's 20 biggest cities. Everybody who was here that day has a story. John Pierce is a U.S. Forest Service worker who was fishing with friends on Basswood Lake. When it started to rain, they tried to set up a tarp, but the wind kept ripping it out of their hands.

Mr. JOHN PIERCE (U.S. Forest Service): You couldn't see very far, you could probably only see about 20 to 25 feet because there was so much, both water and well, pine needles, sticks, everything in the air, blowing. And we could also see the trees that were upwind of us were all leaning right over us at a very scary angle, and we all just ran. There was no time to talk or coordinate or think.

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

Ms. NANCY PIRAGIS (Park Guide): And we came out the Stuart River, which I've done many times, I love it, and I couldn't find the portage. And finally, I saw a moose standing in the reeds, and I went, that looks like it, but there was all this stuff. And I went in. I went, this is the portage, what in the world's wrong with the Forest Service. This is a mess.

HEMPHILL: They got out their handsaws and sawed their way through the downed trees blocking the path.

Ms. PIRAGIS: We got to the end of the portage, and there's this sign there saying, if you're just coming out of the woods, call home, you probably have family that's worried.

HEMPHILL: It took three weeks to get everyone out of the wilderness. 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 to grow back as it will. But people are curious, and more people come here every year.

(Soundbite of wood breaking)

HEMPHILL: These days, you have to do 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.

(Soundbite of wood breaking)

HEMPHILL: The young alder, fir, and maples crowd against us as we tramp the rocky portage. John Pierce, who survived the storm by backing up against a root ball on the lakeshore, says the forest is young and healthy.

Mr. PIERCE: Even here you can just see all this brush. This is a lot of dogwood, and that's the dominant thing walking along this trail, not big trees.

HEMPHILL: Now, the big trees are on the ground.

(Soundbite of wood breaking)

HEMPHILL: Still we're jumping over downed trunks that have been lying here for 10 years and some of them are breaking as we step on them.

Dr. LEE FRELICH (Ecologist, University of Minnesota): Pine is a big concern in Minnesota. People love pine trees.

HEMPHILL: University of Minnesota ecologist Lee Frelich says there'll be fewer pines here. The forest has jumped ahead to the next generation of trees: spruce, cedar, and fir.

Dr. FRELICH: In this case, the wind came and it 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.

HEMPHILL: 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.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Hemphill.

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