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Historic flooding hits part of northern Minnesota as water levels continue to rise

25 May 2022

KABETOGAMA TOWNSHIP, Minn. — A steady hum fills Pine Aire Resort as eight water pumps run almost nonstop to help combat flooding from the still-swelling Lake Kabetogama.

A garage sits in over 2 feet of water, several docks in the nearby harbor are topsy-turvy and there are thousands of sandbags holding the water back from most of the cabins and RVs on the 12-acre property on the southern part of Lake Kabetogama.

Things could get worse. There is precipitation in the forecast, according to the National Weather Service.

“I hope we don’t get a north wind,” said Niles Wilkins, who has owned the resort with his wife, Denice, and brother Kurt for the past 21 years. “The sandbags can’t take the waves pounding.”

Historic flooding has overtaken the Rainy River Basin and water levels continue to rise. In late April, heavy rains fell on still-frozen terrain and lakes here. This combined with rapid snow melt to create flood conditions along Lakes Kabetogama and Namakan in addition to Rainy Lake — surpassing the memorable levels reached eight years earlier.

As of Wednesday, Lakes Namakan and Kabetogama are above the peak set in 2014 and are expected to go up 5-7 inches in the next week — surpassing record levels set in 1916. Rainy Lake is 4 inches above 2014 and is expected to rise about another 12 inches in the next week. It’s likely to continue to rise into mid-June, if not longer.

“This is a prolonged event,” said Steve Gohde, a hydrologist at the Duluth office of the National Weather Service. “I’ve been trying to come up with a metaphor. You pack a crowd into a concert venue or stadium and you keep adding people. Once the concert is over, and you try to leave, it’s a traffic jam as people try to leave out of one area.

“This one area is the dam at International Falls.”

Some of the township’s road-side ditches are filled with water and in some places entire roads are submerged. At least one home is now its own island and nearby Sandy Point Lodge and Resort has been surrounded by water and sandbags for days.

At the Kabetogama Visitor Center, boats were loaded on trailers in the parking lot, truck tires deep in water.

Pine Aire Resort workers, dressed in chest-high waders like many of the township’s residents, have made repeated trips for supplies from the nearby Town Hall — a building that normally hosts meetings, yoga and graduation parties. It is now flood headquarters. Members of the Minnesota National Guard, activated last week by Gov. Tim Walz, have been working 10-hour days in the parking lot to put sand from a pit at Elbow Lake into tens of thousands of bags using shovels and Bobcats.

Wilkins said he had picked up five loads of sandbags just on Monday. He estimated that an acre of his land is under water — and 2 more acres would be under water without the sandbags.

Volunteers at the Town Hall also bagged sandwiches for other volunteers — including high school students who came in by bus from nearby towns. The building smelled of the sweet-and-sour chicken made by the driver of a Twin Cities’ based Salvation Army mobile canteen. Bradley King served some 90 plates on Tuesday.

Tim Watson, a real estate agent and fishing guide, has lived on the lake long enough to know in March that this flood was on the horizon. His family homesteaded in the region and later owned Watson’s Lake View Resort from 1916 to 1945.

Earlier this week, he worked with a small team to push water back 20 feet — an effort to protect the septic tank he shares with two neighbors.

“We’ve been sand-bagging and running pumps for 13 days in a row,” Watson said.

There is optimism in this region, too. Many of the more than 20 resorts are still open and serving guests — some who have volunteered to help build dikes. There are anglers on Lake Kabetogama, and more are expected through the upcoming Memorial Day weekend. (They have been warned to watch for debris and submerged docks.)

And for some, it is life as usual.

Koni Nelson, who has a spot at Pine Aire Resort, weeded gardens around the cabins on Tuesday afternoon. She recalled the drought of last summer — how it just would not rain. She has planted flowers all over the resort already this year, including in some spots that were submerged, and said she wasn’t sure what it will look like when water goes down.

“It’ll be interesting,” she said. “Nature is … surprising sometimes.”

There is also humor. Mary Tomczak at the Pine Ridge Gift Shop considered the buggy after effects of the rain.

“Can you imagine the mosquitos in July?” she asked. “Maybe we’ll have locusts by then.”

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