Ten years after blowdown, Boundary Waters still recovering

Area between Bonnie and Knife Lake
The prescribed burns were meant to clean out the fuel left as a result of the blowdown.
Photo courtesy Brent Reimnitz

Ten years after millions of trees blew down in Minnesota's pristine Boundary Waters Wilderness, the forest is in the midst of a comeback.

It was July 4, 1999, when a huge storm roared across the remote woods, terrifying campers and trapping them in a tangle of uprooted trees that blocked their way out.

These days, you have to do a little work to see the effects of the blowdown.

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View a slideshow of the blowdown in the Boundary Waters.

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 dogwoods, balsam fir, and maples crowd against canoeists tramping the rocky portage.

Nothing here hints of a disastrous wind storm, until you turn off the portage and start crashing through the brush.

That's when you stumble over downed trunks, some knee-high, some lying on the ground.

The logs touching the ground are rotted enough to break under your weight. The others, you have to climb over.

At the top of a high outcrop of rock, there's a great view of Moose Lake. It's cloudy and cool, and the wind is whispering a little reminder of what it was like here ten years ago.

John Pierce
U.S. Forest Service recreation planner John Pierce surveys regrowth on the shore of Moose Lake north of Ely.
MPR Photo/Nate Minor

Leading the way is John Pierce, a recreation planner for the U.S. Forest Service. On that Fourth of July, he 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.

"You could only see about 20 to 25 feet, because there was so much water, and pine needles, sticks, everything in the air, blowing," he recalls. "And we could also see that the trees that were upwind of us were leaning right over us at a very scary angle."

With no time to plan or even think, Pierce and his friends ran. His friends ran east, away from the direction the wind was coming from.

But Pierce ran into the wind.

The blowdown storm on July 4, 1999, damaged timber on an estimated 400,000 acres of forest in the BWCA. Forest officials have been concerned about the possibility of fire in that area ever since.
Photo courtesy of the Superior National Forest

A couple of years earlier, after helping some campers who'd been injured by falling trees, he had done some thinking about what he would do in this kind of situation. He'd decided then that the safest place might be the lakeshore, because the wind would come off the lake, pushing the trees down inland, away from the shore.

So that's what he did. As he ran toward the lakeshore, the wind was ripping trees right out of the ground, roots and all.

"I knew it was a flat run to the lakeshore but for some reason I was running uphill," he remembers. He was running up a root ball as it was tilting up from the ground. "So the root wad actually tossed me backwards. I landed on my feet, and had to run around the root wad to get to the shore."

Tops of dead trees at Moose Lake
Tops of dead trees are still visible among the new growth.
MPR Photo/Nate Minor

He stopped beside the roots of another downed tree and waited there, between the uprooted tree and the lake. The wind whipped the waves six feet high, and the air was full of debris, and it was all coming at him at 90 miles an hour.

Then suddenly, it was over. "The storm passed, and the sun came out," he said. "There wasn't a cloud in the sky."

They salvaged their boat and trolled around Basswood Lake to check out the damage. They helped some other campers -- one of them had a broken leg.

Pierce didn't know it at the time, but this was a huge storm.

It started near Fargo, killed some people in Canada, roared off the eastern seaboard into the Atlantic, curved back to shore, and ended two days later in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the Boundary Waters, the damage was almost unbelievable. In a swath 30 miles long and between 4 and 12 miles wide, it knocked down millions of trees, jumping and bucking across the ridges and leaving some pockets of land strangely untouched.

Map: Blowdown damage
The blowdown storm on July 4, 1999, damaged and estimated 600 square miles of forests.
Superior National Forest

John Pierce and the rest of the Forest Service spent the next two weeks helping campers trapped by the tree trunks that lay in a huge impenetrable tangle. There were head injuries, broken arms and legs, but not a single person died in the Boundary Waters.

Every camper who was in the area that day -- there may have been as many as 3,000 -- has a story to tell.

Nancy Piragis, of Piragis Northwoods Outfitters in Ely, was leading a group of women up the Little Indian Sioux River. The storm hit when they were on the first portage of the first day of their five-day trip.

"I had this feeling that the storm was going to be bad, so I told everybody to tie their canoes in," Piragis said. "We found a perfect spot that was sheltered from the west where the storm was coming from, and it was down low. But even so, I got agitated, and I said, 'this is bad, I wonder what we should do?' And one of them said, 'you're the guide!'"

When the sun came out they continued with their trip. They didn't see many people, but they did see quite a few airplanes. She wondered about that, but the rest of their trip went along normally. Her group was completely unaware of the disaster that had struck just a few miles away.

They came out five days later at the Stuart River.

Nancy Piragis
Nancy Piragis was leading a group through the western part of the BWCA when the blowdown hit on July 4, 1999.
MPR Photo/Nate Minor

"I've done that many times and I love it, but I couldn't find the portage!" Piragis said. "Finally I saw a moose standing in the reeds, and I thought, 'that looks like the portage, but this is a mess -- what's wrong with the Forest Service?'"

At the end of the portage, there was a sign saying "If you're just coming out of the woods, call home: you probably have family that's worried." Piragis and her campers still had no idea what had happened.

The storm hit some areas harder than others. Now, some parts of the Boundary Waters look much as they did 20 years ago; other places look quite different.

Some areas are turning into the type of forest that experts expected to see 50 years from now.

Ecologist Lee Frelich said the evolution of the forest leaped ahead because of the blowdown.

Ten years ago, under the big old pines, another generation of trees was coming up, ready to take over as the pines slowly died off.

"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 said.

And he said they're growing like mad. White cedar trees that usually only grow a few inches are growing two feet in a year. They're no longer competing for nutrients with the big old pines, and they have plenty of sun.

Frelich is worried about exotic species. Invaders like Canada thistle thrive in sunny areas with roughed-up soil. But he hopes, as the forest gets shadier, those invaders will die out.

He said it was sad to see the big old pines go down, but he says in nature, the only constant is change.