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“The Blowdown,” 20 Years Later

“The Blowdown.”  July 4, 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of this famous BWCA weather event; at Bearskin, we still get asked about it constantly.  While the signs of the blowdown are no longer as obvious as they once were, our landscape in the Mid-Gunflint Trail area was indelibly marked by this storm. For anyone who was in the area at the time, or for anyone who came up later to help with the massive clean-up, the blowdown will never be forgotten.

The blowdown was actually a derecho, a type of straight-line wind storm. It knocked down about 20 million trees in the BWCA, cutting a swath about 10 miles wide and 30 miles long. Most of Bearskin’s immense white pines survived the storm. They are 200 – 300 years old and perhaps withstood even worse weather events through the centuries. But aspens, birches, jack pines, cedars, and balsams broke off as if a giant had come through swinging a scythe 15 feet above the ground.

Every Bearskin guest from that era has their own unique story, depending on where they were and what they were doing at the moment.  The common thread seems to be the muggy, unpleasantly hot day and a very dark, green sky. Almost everyone recalls their sense of wariness resulting from the unusual sky color, and how frightening it was when the weather changed suddenly and how rapidly the trees began snapping off  all around them. Some guests were stranded on the Gunflint Trail, their vehicles surrounded by trees that fell on the trail like matchsticks in a line. Other guests were in cabins, listening to trees crashing around them and wondering how they would ever get out again. Cars did not fare well, but a few bicycles survived. Luckily, Bearskin suffered primarily injuries to things, not to people.

It was over quickly, and then the truly hard moments began. Guests stranded on the Gunflint Trail left their cars and began painstakingly making their way over an endless line of downed trees. Guests in cabins struggled to get out.  Their vacations were ruined, their cars were flattened, they no longer had water or electricity, and because of the chaos on the trail, leaving was not an option. Most guests stayed to help with the clean-up, because after all, what else could they do? Everyone who was here loves to recount their own story. Once people realized that they had somehow survived it, their natural instinct was to pitch in and help. When the roads were cleared, other guests drove up to assist with the tough job of putting Bearskin back together.

Realistically, clean-up from this storm went on for years and twenty years later, our woods is still full of fallen trees from the blowdown. For a long time we had a higher risk of fire danger from all the downed wood in the forest, “fuel” for future fires. At this point most blowdown debris has rotted enough that fire danger is not as significant as it once was. The forest has regenerated, although with a different mix of trees than it had before the storm. Foresters say there are fewer conifers now and more aspen and birch. Jack Pines, in particular, did not regenerate because they require fire, not wind, to reseed themselves.

We’re sharing some of the many pictures from the days after the blowdown at Bearskin.  In a few photos, it’s tough to even see that under all those branches there is a cabin hiding.  Dave and Barb Tuttle, who owned Bearskin from when they were in their young 20’s in the 1970s until 2001, faced an almost insurmountable clean-up job after the storm. They’ve often said that the blowdown was the toughest challenge they faced in all those years.

Would you like to learn more about this weather event? Here is one of the best articles about it we’ve read. 

Another great blog was written by Ted Young, from Boundary Country Trekking, back in 2016. He recounted some legendary stories and then also assessed the long-term community impact of the blowdown.

So what’s  your blowdown story? Share in the comments below, or add to the blowdown post on Facebook.  We’d love to hear your experience.