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Northeast Minnesota border lakes still rising, flood goes on and on

With more rain forecast, sandbagging resorts and businesses try to stay open amidst record flooding.

A flooded campsite in Voyageurs National Park
A campsite in Voyageurs National Park, normally high and dry, is nearly inundated by rising floodwaters. Crane, Namakan, Sand Point, Kabetogama and Rainy lakes are all at or near record-high water levels and many campsites are closed.
Contributed / National Park Service
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CANADIAN BORDER — When many people think of a flood, they imagine a rush of water that comes up fast, wreaks havoc, and then subsides quickly to reveal the damage done.

But in the water world that residents along Minnesota’s border lakes with Ontario are living this spring, the flood waters came up weeks ago and just keep getting higher, expected to surpass record levels in coming days.

It may be into July before water levels drop back close to normal as the Rainy River watershed continues to spill out of its boundaries, with flooding occurring from just north of Lake Vermilion to Lake of the Woods and beyond.

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

The flood of 2022 this week eclipsed the modern record flooding event set in 2014, according to the National Weather Service in Duluth, and border lakes will likely set records in the next week or two, topping even 1950 and 1916 events.

“It will take a long time for these levels to decrease once they peak, and those experiencing flooding should be prepared for weeks of high water levels into June,” the Weather Service noted Thursday.

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The good news is that the heavy rains of April and early May slowed some. And far upstream, some rivers have crested and have begun to fall slowly from flood stage, including the Basswood, Vermilion and Kawishiwi. All are still well above normal, however.

The bad news is that the Weather Service is forecasting a good chance of strong thunderstorms across the region this weekend, which could produce another 1-3 inches of new rainfall. And, even without more rain, there is still far more water coming into Crane, Namakan, Sand Point, Kabetogama, Rainy and Lake of the Woods than can get out of each lake, and water levels for each are forecast to continue rising.

“We’re entering a very active weather pattern. The outlook is not good,’’ said Joe Moore, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Duluth. Moore said above-average rainfall is expected through June.

Voyageurs Park crew filling sandbags
Staff from Voyageurs National Park help fill sandbags being used to protect homes and business from flooding along Crane, Kabetogama and Rainy lakes. The big, border lakes are expected to keep rising past record levels for another week and then take a month or more to drop back to normal levels.
Contributed / National Park Service

On Thursday, Namakan Lake and connected Kabetogama Lake were at 1,122.0 feet above sea levels — 17.7 inches above the 2014 peak level. A rise of another 5-7 inches is expected by June 1 with continued rises into mid-June possible. At this rate, Namakan Lake will reach the record high level of 1,122.8 feet set in 1916.

Rainy Lake is currently at 1,111.7 feet, which is 4 inches above the 2014 peak. A rise of 11-13 inches is expected by June 1 with high water likely into at least mid-June. At this rate, Rainy Lake is expected to break the record high level of 1,112.95 feet set in 1950.

Water on Thursday was flowing into Rainy Lake 28,000 cubic feet per second faster than it can go out, and it was entering Lake of the Woods 25,000 cubic feet per second faster than it can get out.

The flood of 2022 has been caused after heavy rains fell on top of deep snow on frozen ground in April, creating an unprecedented runoff in volume and speed. More rain in early May compounded the problem, and the lakes and rivers along the waterway spilled their banks.

Sandbagging continues around homes, cabins, resorts and other businesses near the lakes. Local, state and federal government agencies and the Minnesota National Guard have been working to help.

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

Most resorts at least partially open

Somehow, many businesses remain open, including resorts, taking advantage of any high ground they have and sending anglers out to fish on flooded lakes. It takes more work to launch and land boats every day with docks flooded or destroyed, but the fishing has been good.

“The water is winning right now. But we’re putting up a good fight,’’ said Tracy Lindstrom at Northern Lights Resort on Kabetogama.

So far, the resort has been able to remain open, with only three of their 14 cabins out of commission due to flooding. But they were sandbagging until dark Wednesday night and were up early Thursday trying to keep their sandbag dikes from collapsing.

“We’ve got great guests here. We’re trying to do what’s best for them right now. That’s the focus,’’ Lindstorm said.

John Stegmeir, a Kabetogama Township supervisor, said there was a 20-person emergency management team from St. Louis County attempting to save buildings at two resorts Thursday. Meanwhile, a 20-person Minnesota National Guard crew has been working this week filling sandbags at the town hall, with another 20-person crew set to arrive Friday.

“We had big problems with the wind (Wednesday) and we were losing sandbags; they were collapsing with that wave action,’’ Stegmeir said. “There may be some places where we just can’t keep up, can’t keep the water out. … They are managing it by priorities now, what can be saved and what can’t.”

Campsites flooded, dangerous debris

Many campsites in Voyageurs National Park and upstream in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are impacted by the flooding and campers with reservations are warned to call ahead to make sure their site is usable. Many boat landings are also flooded, although some are still usable.

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As of Thursday, more than 40 campsites and houseboat sites in Voyageurs were closed, many inundated by rising lakes.

Debris, from uprooted trees to large pieces of docks, continues to be a major issue across the region, with boaters warned to go slow. No-wake rules have been put into effect near shorelines in an effort to reduce the impact of erosion.

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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