Rising Rainy Lake threatens environmentalist Ernest Oberholtzer's historic retreat

A building flooding with water
The water levels continue to rise at Mallard Island in Rainy Lake Ranier, Minn. on June 6, 2022.
Courtesy of Mallard Island in Rainy Lake Facebook page.

For more than a month hundreds of homeowners have frantically built sandbag walls around their homes on Rainy Lake to try to hold off record-setting floodwaters.

But sandbags are of no use on Mallard Island, a tiny sliver of granite about two miles from the mainland at Rainy's eastern end, near the town of International Falls. Some of the buildings there are now submerged in several feet of water, including one known as Cedar Bark House.

"That one is really suffering. It's very deep in water” said Rebecca Otto, executive director of the Ernest C. Oberholtzer Foundation.

Otto, a former Minnesota State Auditor, says these are no ordinary cabins. One hundred years ago this year, Ober began building his home on Mallard Island, a series of unique dwellings perched on granite outcroppings, some extending high above the water, like treehouses.

“He has trapdoors, and all these different secret areas throughout his buildings,” said Otto. “You almost feel like a kid exploring.”

A house with flooding
The water levels continue to rise near a house at Mallard Island in Rainy Lake Ranier, Minn. on June 6, 2022.
Courtesy of Mallard Island in Rainy Lake Facebook page.

The island is on the National Register of Historic Places. Volunteers have managed to save Oberholtzer's extensive book collection. But Otto says it's emotional for people to see such a special place drowning.

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"When people come up for the first day of, you know, working up here, it's like a gut punch,” she said. “People have a really hard time taking in what they're seeing. It's hard to fathom how much water there is on this island. And in this lake."

Ernest Oberholtzer was a tiny man - only 5-foot-2-inches. But he had an outsized impact on the vast region of lakes and rivers along the Minnesota - Canada border.

He first canoed in the region in 1909. A couple years later he and an Anishinaabe friend named Billy Magee canoed two thousand miles to Hudson Bay. He fell in love with the wilderness.

He bought Mallard Island in 1922, and three years later, became the leading figure in a fight against a proposal to build a series of seven dams along the border that would have raised the water levels of lakes by 80 feet.

"It was really a David and Goliath kind of story" said Kevin Proescholdt, the Conservation Director for the national group Wilderness Watch who was involved in the effort to pass the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act in 1978.

"Little, physically small, diminutive Ernest Oberholtzer versus the millionaire Edward Wellington Backus, who had money and millions of dollars and members of Congress in his pocket and [was] incredibly powerful."

A man in a black and white photo
Ernest Oberholtzer, 1940.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

What Oberholtzer lacked in money he made up for with charisma, said Robin Monahan, 78, of Shoreview, Minn., a longtime family friend who spent summers on Mallard Island as a child, and whose father canoed with Ober.

“He had a lively face and just a wonderful way of engaging people,” Monahan said. “And he was able to engage others who had more financial resources and persons who had more political connections.”

Oberholtzer began traveling to Washington D.C. to pitch a plan for an international peace park with a wilderness area at its center. Monahan said he prepared a pamphlet promoting the proposal that was delivered to every member of Congress.

“On the back…there was a large photograph of my 18-year old father holding up a huge muskie that stretched from my dad's elbow to the ground.”

Oberholtzer also hosted influential people at Mallard Island and took them on canoe trips.

Proescholdt says Ober deserves a lot of credit for the passage of a 1930 law called the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act that stopped the proposed dams and prohibited homesteading and logging near shorelines.

"That was a monumental achievement,” Proescholdt said, “Considering that we were then in the depths of the Great Depression, and we were still more than three decades away from passing the 1964 Wilderness Act. So he was a real visionary."

Cabin in Koochiching
Ernest Oberholtzer's "Japanese House" (1920), Rainy Lake, Koochiching County. This 2007 image shows one of the structures in drier times.
Courtesy of Doug Ohman

Ober died in 1977. His legacy lives on in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park — and at Mallard Island, where thousands of writers, artists, conservationists and others have come for weeklong creative retreats, to work, and recharge.

Sarah Stonich is a Minnesota novelist who's spent several weeks on Mallard Island since the 1990s. She's just starting a new crime series set on a lake very much like Rainy Lake.

"It's the sort of place that just gives you the opportunity to black out almost everything else.,” she says. “Be in the moment, be at this place, which clearly has something special about it."

Which is why it's so painful for Stonich and others who have spent time on the island to see the current destruction.

“Honestly, it makes me pretty emotional seeing that,” said Teghan Grulkowski, 23, who first spent a week on the island three years ago when she was a sophomore at Bemidji State University.

She says that experience completely changed what she wanted to do with her life. She know works in energy efficiency and sustainability, and comes back to the island every summer, where she always stays at Cedar Bark House, which is now underwater.

“It’s pretty hard seeing that, actually. It's really sad.”

Rainy Lake has finally crested, and the water is expected to drop by a couple inches this week. But Rebbeca Otto knows the work is just beginning.

"It's hard to imagine all the things that are going to have to be be done,” she said. “My hope is that our buildings that are really low like Cedar Bark House, hang on, that we don't get any big waves, because that could be pretty devastating."

The goal she says will be to restore the island, so more Minnesotans can learn about this special place and Ober's legacy of wilderness protection.