Floodwaters up north submerge campsites, threaten cabins and resorts

First came a long, snowy winter. Then came drenching spring rains. 

And now, near-record floodwaters are swamping areas on a long stretch of far northeastern Minnesota, drowning docks and ATV trails, encroaching on homes and resorts and submerging campsites from Voyageurs National Park to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. 

Some of the most severe impacts are on Kabetogama and Crane Lakes, huge bodies of water near the Canadian border that are lined with resorts and cabins which also border the national park. 

For the past several days residents and volunteers have stacked sandbags to try to protect their property from rising floodwaters, and they’re asking for help over the next several days, as floodwaters are forecast to continue to rise. 

In Kabetogama Township, St. Louis County officials say most docks are under water, with many homes, resorts and other pieces of infrastructure at risk. 

a picnic table submerged in water
A picnic table is completely flooded at a day use site on Sand Point Lake in Voyageurs National Park.
Courtesy of National Park Service

But the problems extend across the Rainy River watershed, which spans the Canadian border and flows from the Boundary Waters in the east, to Lake Vermillion near Tower and Ely, to Voyageurs National Park, Rainy Lake and eventually to Lake of the Woods in Ontario. 

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In the Boundary Waters, high water has submerged some campsites and portage trails, created rushing rapids in rivers and flooded access to some entry points. 

“We're hearing from a lot of visitors that they're making it to a certain point in the wilderness. And then, the water is just moving so fast, and there's rapids, and they're turning around,” said Superior National Forest spokesperson Joanna Gilkeson. 

Gilkeson encourages anyone with reservations to enter the Boundary Waters in the next several weeks to call ahead and get the latest information on what the conditions are like where they’re headed. She said some people are canceling reservations. 

a forest road covered in water
A forest road used by ATVs is covered in water on the Superior National Forest.
Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service

“Folks with a high level of wilderness skill,” should be the people going into the wilderness right now, Gilkeson said “because it just is unpredictable.”

There have already been several visitors rescued from capsized boats and canoe. On Monday, two paddlers capsized on Hudson Lake in the wilderness area. A Minnesota State Patrol helicopter evacuated the father and son, according to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. 

High water is also taking a toll on the Superior National Forest surrounding the Boundary Waters. Several forest roads and ATV trails have been closed because of flooding. 

At Voyageurs National Park, officials have closed several campsites, trails and day use sites because of rising floodwaters. All docks throughout the park are submerged. 

Officials are pleading with visitors to boat slowly and responsibly near shorelines, because wakes coupled with the high water levels can cause significant erosion. 

“Especially if you are 300 feet or less from the shoreline, you should really slow down to a no-wake speed,” said Voyageurs National Park Superintendent Bob DeGross. 

While there isn’t significant rainfall forecast for the next few days, water levels in the park are expected to continue to rise.

DeGross predicts the park will “probably be experiencing some level of flood conditions into mid-June.” Then clean-up and damage assessment would take place.

“This is a slow moving situation,” explained National Weather Service meteorologist Joe Moore. “There's a lot of water to move through the Rainy River Basin, and it will take a long time for it to move downstream.”

The Weather Service predicts an additional 11 to 15 inch rise on Namakan and Kabetogama Lakes in the next week, and an 11 to 13 inch rise on Rainy Lake. 

“We are approaching record territory.,” Moore said. “Earlier this week we passed the 2014 level, and at this rate we're expected to possibly eclipse the all time record set in 1950 for the highest level set in Namakan Lake.”

The St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office urges boaters to slow down and remain vigilant. 

“There have been numerous hazards created,” said Undersheriff Jason Lukovsky. “Floating dock sections, chairs, all kinds of debris from yards and resorts that are affected by this.”

St. Louis County has created a web page for residents to report damage and access additional resources.

Gov. Tim Walz activated the Minnesota National Guard to support flood operations in the region on Thursday. 

“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. 

A man stands on a fire gate submerged
Superior National Forest wilderness ranger Justin Olen stands on a fire grate in a submerged campsite on the South Kawishiwi River in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on May 18.
Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service