High Water Wreaks Havoc on Rainy Lake

By Greg Seitz

Submerged stone bridge at Mallard Island on June 16, 2014 (Photo by Bob Hilke, courtesy Oberholtzer Foundation)

Heavy rains and the remnants of spring runoff have combined to cause extremely high water levels on Rainy Lake on the Minnesota-Ontario border. The impacts include the lake encroaching on Mallard Island, the home of 20th-century wilderness explorer and advocate Ernest Oberholtzer.

A few buildings on the island have been flooded, according to Beth Waterhouse, executive director of the Oberholtzer Foundation, which preserves and operates the site as a retreat for small groups today. She described many “heartbreaking” scenes.

“At this moment in time, there is water in Cedarbark House, also home of a beautiful antique piano, currently up on blocks.  At this time, there is also water in the Pump House, though that structure is a cement base, and should do OK, if all this is temporary.”

The deluge started on June 12, when almost four inches of rain fell on the region. The U.S. National Weather Service has issued a flood warning for Koochiching County, and reports the lake will continue to go up the rest of the month, “The monitoring station near Fort Frances indicates the lake level at has increased 5 inches since Friday morning. Inflows to the lake from the south have been decreasing. The Lake of The Woods control board reports that with current forecast precipitation the lake level should peak at the end of June with an additional 4 to 7 inch increase from Sunday mornings level.”

Voyageurs National Park, which covers most of Rainy Lake on the American side, reports all docks in the park are submerged, and has closed some campsites. Voyageurs National Park Association shared this “before and after” photo illustrating how high the waters have risen:

The state has responded by sending 108 soldiers of the Minnesota National Guard to International Falls, where the mayor told Minnesota Public Radio News that, in 25 years living on the Rainy River, he had never seen it so high. The soldiers will reinforce local volunteers, who have been sandbagging around the clock. “They’ve had to take some people to the hospital just from pure exhaustion,” Koochiching County Public Health and Human Services Director Terry Murray told MPR. “They just won’t quit working.”

Oberholtzer Foundation director Waterhouse closed her report by acknowledging the widespread flooding, and sending strength to everyone affected, “We don’t forget that Rainy Lake is a mess, across the board.  Our thoughts and prayers go to island-dwellers all across the region, to the resorts and docks who are struggling to stay afloat, quite literally.  And to the communities of Ranier and International Falls.  Oberholtzer’s tiny islands are four out of hundreds and hundreds of beautiful spaces.  There is heartbreak everywhere this week, and we send our energies broadly as we name these questions and attempt to keep up with our own small duties of island management.”

Waterhouse: “The floating dock looks over to what was a vegetable garden, now submerged. There is a grape arbor there with water to the seat. The ridge of rock behind it is the general ridge of Mallard Island. Oberholtzer built a lot of that island with the walls and earth “wings” that stretch it out in many areas. All of those earthen additions are now covered by Rainy Lake.”
Waterhouse: “The house is called “Front House” and normally sits some distance from the lake! This house should be all right.”
Waterhouse: “Caretaker Jane Lund digging out a rhubarb plant on a rainy Sunday, June 15th, in a vegetable garden space (usually!)”
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