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Extreme Northern Minnesota sees worst flooding in 72 years

The Rainy River watershed is overflowing from Lake Vermilion to Lake of the Woods, with flood records possible.

Lake Kabetogama flooding.
A crew sandbags around the main building at Sandy Point Resort on Lake Kabetogama on Thursday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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LAKE KABETOGAMA, Minn. — It’s not so much that Sandy Point Lodge and Resort is situated on this big, beautiful lake these days. It’s more like in the lake.

The 25,000-acre lake that has been the lifeblood of this resort community for a century or more, the reason people come here to visit and fish and to live, is once again playing the villain.

“You could get mad or angry ... but that’s not going to help. So you just wake up every day, take a deep breath, and go back to work to keep the water out,’’ said Jennifer Gelo, who has owned the lodge with her husband, Gordon, for two decades.

The declaration will allow the county to qualify for state, and possibly federal, assistance for governmental entities.

Floodwaters along the entire Rainy River watershed continue to rise, from Lake Vermilion on the south to Lake of the Woods to the north, blowing past the modern-day flood high-water mark set in 2014 in some areas and now approaching the record flood level of 1950.

The problem is especially bad this week on Crane, Namakan and Kabetogama lakes where homes and businesses are fighting a constant battle to keep water out.

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Lake Kabetogama flooding.
An aerial view of part of Sandy Point Resort shows two of the resort’s cabins standing in Lake Kabetogama’s flood waters and sandbags around the main lodge Thursday. The resort's docks are underwater to the right.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“We thought 2014 was bad, but it’s already way past that and it’s still coming up,’’ said Gordon Gelo.

The main lodge building is now ringed with sandbags, with more coming all day long Thursday, as family, staff and friends continued a desperate attempt to keep the lake out of the building. Seven of the resort’s 12 guest cabins already are surrounded by water and unusable. Porta-potties have been brought in because the septic system may become inundated. Sump pumps are running 24/7 to move out any water that flows past the sandbag dike.

“We had one cabin that was pretty well sandbagged, but then the wind came up yesterday and the waves blew the sandbags down,’’ Gordon Gelo said.

Lake Kabetogama flooding.
Sandbags and a pump work to keep the water level down around a Lake Kabetogama cabin Thursday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Volunteer firefighters brought in bigger pumps to help move more water as the dike was rebuilt.

“We’re past trying to save docks now. We’re trying to save homes,” said Bryan Wichner, chief of the Kabetogama Volunteer Fire Department.

Forecasters for the National Weather Service in Duluth predict the Namakan/Kabetogama system will rise another 11-13 inches over the next week before cresting near the record high-water mark. Rainy Lake also is expected to rise more than a foot over the next week and then, as it continues to receive water from Namakan, rise even higher later in May.

Rainy River watershed flooding.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

How much higher all the lakes and rivers along this system go depends on the amount of rain that comes over the next few weeks. Over the next seven days, the National Weather Service forecasts between a half-inch and an inch of rain. May and June are usually the region's wettest months.

“It could eclipse the (1950) record,’’ said Joe Moore, National Weather Service meteorologist. A flood warning remains in effect for the Rainy River watershed through May.

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"This is a long-term hazard, and water levels will take a long time to decrease throughout the summer," Moore added, noting additional heavy rainfall could cause even higher levels than are currently expected.

Lake Kabetogama flooding.
Pine Aire Resort owner Nyles Wilkins works on a rental boat on what is normally dry ground at the resort Thursday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Just down the lake, Nyles Wilkins, owner of Pine Aire Resort, was wearing a pair of waders while working on a rental fishing boat in his flooded driveway, just outside his flooded garage. He had spent seven of the last eight days filling sandbags at the township hall — some for his place, most for his neighbors — but he needed to get some work done in preparation of resort guests arriving this weekend to go fishing. Despite the flood, and even as resort owners are busy trying to save their buildings, guests continue to arrive. And many of them are helping out.

“I had 11 of my guests who were here for the fishing opener come out and help me fill sandbags,’’ Wilkins said. “People have been just fantastic. I guess people who have been coming up here for 20 years with us are sort of like family now.”

Others agreed.

“We have guests calling asking what they can do to help,’’ Jennifer Gelo said.

Lake Kabetogama flooding.
Lake Kabetogama waters have flooded a building along the docks at Pine Aire Resort.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Few, if any, of the resort owners have flood insurance. And business risk insurance generally doesn't cover slow-rising lake floods. Resort owners will have to rebuild docks and waterfront buildings and, potentially, rebuild entire cabins that become flooded. Most have had to turn away business at what should be the busiest time of year.

“I never got a penny back in 2014,’’ Wilkins noted.

Wilkins’ main lodge is surrounded by a 2-foot wall of sandbags with pumps running constantly. He had about a foot of clearance before the sandbags were topped. Nearby, several of his cabins were less than a foot from being inundated.

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Lake Kabetogama flooding.
Building at Pine Aire Resort sit in a flooding Lake Kabetogama on Thursday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Still, Wilkins remained hopeful, even upbeat.

“It seems to be slowing down a little. … It only came up an inch last night," he noted. "It had been coming up 4 or 5 inches every day earlier in the week.”

A mile or so down the road, about two dozen people were busy filling sandbags at the town hall, including staff from Voyageurs National Park and a youth crew from the Minnesota Conservation Corps. Several local residents also were helping as were some people who came from far away. A class of eighth graders from Little Fork was scheduled to help Friday.

Lake Kabetogama flooding.
Volunteer Lee Arman came from Lino Lakes, Minnesota to help fill sandbags at the Kabetogama Town Hall on Thursday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“I saw something saying they desperately needed volunteers, so I came up," said Lee Arman, of Lino Lakes, Minnesota. “I bought my camper up to stay in. ... You try to do what you can to help people who are in this much need."

St. Louis County had delivered 33 dump truck loads of sand to Kabetogama Township through Thursday and more than 19,000 bags have been filled.

“We’re going to need a lot more sandbags. And a lot more people to help,’’ said Mary Manninen, township clerk.

Lake Kabetogama flooding.
Members of the Minnesota Conservation Corps fill sandbags at the Kabetogama Town Hall on Thursday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

John Stegmeir, township supervisor, said more volunteers are badly needed for at least the next week or so to get more sandbags in place. But they may be needed for much longer.

Hydrologists “don’t seem to be able to tell us when the water is going to peak. It just keeps coming up,” Stegmeir said. “We’re going to need volunteers not just next week, but into next month. … All of these sandbags are going to have to come back out, too.”

Downstream on the Rainy River system, Lake of the Woods rose 10 inches over the past seven days and is expected to rise another 7 inches over the next week, surpassing the 2014 flood levels. Water continues to flow into the big lake at more than twice the rate that it can flow out.

All that water continues to head north, into the Winnipeg River system, on its way to Hudson Bay.

Lake Kabetogama flooding.
With Ellie, 1, on her back, Heather Olson holds a sandbag for son, Mack, 2, at the Kabetogama Town Hall on Thursday. “We do what we can to help,” Olson said. Shortly after this, Olson was tying shut the open ends of filled sandbags while Mack searched for treasure in the sand pile.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Governor activates National Guard to help

Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday signed an executive order activating the Minnesota National Guard to support flood operations in Northeastern Minnesota. At the request of sheriffs and emergency management directors of St. Louis and Koochiching counties, the governor declared a peacetime emergency and authorized the Minnesota National Guard to provide logistics and operations support with the production and staging of flood protection materials like sandbags.

“As severe weather pushes flooding beyond historic highs, I’m incredibly grateful that the members of our National Guard have again raised their hands to help their neighbors,” Walz said in a statement. “I’ve seen firsthand the impact flooding is having on our farmers and communities, and we will ensure that our fellow Minnesotans continue to receive the support they need.”

Ranier residents sandbagging homes and cabins as lakes and rivers flood over their banks.

Hydrological convergence

The great flood of 2022 has been caused by a hydrological perfect storm. Deep snow covered most of the region well into April — up to twice the usual winter precipitation in some areas. Then record rainfall fell in April on top of the melting snow. But because the ground was still frozen and couldn't soak in, almost all that water was running off at once. Continued rounds of rain and thunderstorms have continued in May adding to the problem.

Some 200 lakefront properties are in danger.

On Thursday, water was flowing into Namakan Lake at about 33,000 cubic feet per second, but could only get out at about 27,000. Because Kabetogama is connected to and at the same level as Namakan, Kabetogama is flooding as well. Water was flowing into Rainy Lake from all sources at about 65,000 cubic feet per second, but only able to flow out at 37,000. As long as inflow remains higher than outflow, the lakes will continue to rise.

Voyageurs, Superior National Forest, BWCAW impacted

The Rainy River watershed stretches as far east as the Gunflint Trail, and parts of the Superior National Forest and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness have been impacted by the flooding, with some lakes and rivers backed up into campsites and some forest roads covered in standing water.

Forest Service officials are warning visitors to call ahead to the nearest district ranger office to see what campsites and roads might not be accessible.

Anyone planning to visit the area should call ahead to make sure their campsite or lodging facility is accessible. Some boat ramps, docks, campsites, access roads and other facilities across much of the region are underwater.

BWCAW campsite flooded
A U.S. Forest Service employee stands on a submerged fire grate at a flooded campsite on the South Kawishiwi River in the Superior National Forest.
Contributed / Superior National Forest

Hazards across many lakes

St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office officials are warning all boaters on northern lakes to be on the lookout for floating debris, not just on the heavily flooded border lakes but on the many lakes that are seeing high water.

The debris includes pieces of buildings and lawn furniture and big logs and tree trunks that may be hard to see on the water.

The water also has submerged previously visible rocks and the hazards that now may be lurking just underwater.

"Due to rising levels, water routes that people may have used in the past may not be a safe navigational route now, and new hazards are emerging daily," said Jason Lukovsky, St. Louis County undersheriff. "We're also asking boaters to be aware of the damage they may cause to shorelines from their boat's wake."

Lake Kabetogama flooding.
National Park Service employees Chloe Sullivan and Adam Miles fill a trailer with sandbags at the Kabetogama Town Hall on Thursday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

How to help

  • Volunteers are needed every day at Kabetogama Township Hall, 9707 Gamma Road, from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Call 218-875-2082 to sign up groups or individuals to help.

Get more information

  • To help residents and government jurisdictions affected by the flooding, St. Louis County has created a new resource page on its website: stlouiscountymn.gov/damageinfo . The page includes links for property owners to file damage reports with the County Assessor for possible property tax relief. It also includes a link to a new map showing county roads and forest management roads that are currently closed due to flooding or water damage.
  • The National Weather Service has set up a page on their website with information on water levels and hydrological forecasts. Go to weather.gov/dlh/RainyRiverBasin .
    Lake Kabetogama flooding.
    Boats float over submerged docks at Sandy Point Resort on Thursday.
    Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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