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Gales of October: Lake Superior roars with rain, high winds, big waves

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Mammoth Lake Superior waves crashing ashore in Canal Park.
Mammoth Lake Superior waves crashed ashore in Canal Park in Duluth on Wednesday.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

Updated 6 p.m. | Posted 10:31 a.m.

Winds that gusted over 60 mph and waves that reached nearly 20 feet high on Lake Superior battered Duluth Wednesday, causing flooding and closing roads. Despite the damage, lots of people braved the weather to see the lake's fury firsthand.

Weather geeks and gawkers had to lean into the wind to stay standing. Parking lots were under water, rubber boots filled with the stuff, and frigid waves ambushed the unwary. 

A fine time to stay inside, but it was a magnet for people like Linda Whitehouse who drove 60 miles south from Hoyt Lakes to see for herself. 

"Wow, I haven't ever seen it like this," she exulted. "I was down here last spring, it wasn't as wild as it is today. I've never seen it like this, it's crazy."

A Canadian freighter along the Minnesota North Shore near Two Harbors measured a wind gust early Wednesday morning of 86 miles per hour. 

Wind from the northeast causes the biggest waves in Duluth, because it blows over the length of the lake for hundreds of miles. Surfers call that distance "fetch." The bigger the fetch, the bigger the waves. 

"The wind creates little ripples in the water, and then as those waves start to build, they have more area for the wind to blow on, and so, they sort of are reinforced by the wind, and they keep getting larger and larger," said Sam Kelly, a physicist at the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth who studies waves. 

The longer the wind blows across the lake, the more of the surface water that it pushes downwind, he said. 

"And so that water starts to pile up, in this case in Duluth, and that can raise the lake level on our end by a couple of feet."

And that storm surge, together with the huge waves that crash on to shore, caused flooding of roads and parking lots and trails in Duluth. 

It's reminiscent of a storm last October, when huge winds and waves caused $10 million worth of damage to the Duluth Lakewalk and Brighton Beach park. The city just started rebuilding the lakewalk this week, and Mike LeBeau, construction project supervisor, said Wednesday afternoon there's already new damage. 

"More land loss behind Fitger's, the asphalt path is caving in, boardwalk panels are flipped up and moving around in the waves and wind," he said.

The Duluth Police Department also discouraged people from walking through Canal Park because there may be open manholes or dangerous debris hidden under the water. 

City administrator Keith Hamre said people should stay away from the area if possible.

"Yes it is an interesting thing to see, the power of Lake Superior," he said. "But, again, we need to be respectful of that power of Lake Superior, it can be very deadly, very quickly."  

Lake Superior is famous for its Gales of November, but physicist Sam Kelly said data from buoys in the lake dating back to 1996 actually show that waves in October are slighty larger. 

"But both October and November have the largest waves. I don't think either month is particualrly nice to be out there in a storm," Kelly said.

But it can be pretty amazing to watch from shore, especially in Canal Park.

I think this is the most incredible thing I've ever seen, and I can knock coming down to the canal during a storm off my bucket list," said Gary Lundstrom, a graphic artist who grew up in Duluth and moved back 20 years ago from Denver. He didn't even mind that he got drenched. 

"It's just awe-some, in the truest form of the word."