RANIER, Minn. — The sun was shining on Rainy Lake Friday morning, good news for the people who live close to the water along the Minnesota/Ontario border where lakes and rivers are spilling over their banks.
Residents were busy sandbagging around homes and cabins close to the water as the Rainy River watershed continues to flood. Lakes and streams from Lake Vermilion to Lake of The Woods are at levels not seen since the major flood of 2014, and hydrologists say the water could go even higher than it was in 2014, when extensive damage occured.
Namakan Lake is approaching the 2014 flood level and is expected to rise another 7 to 9 inches in coming days, according to the National Weather Service in Duluth. Rainy Lake is expected to rise another 11 to 13 inches by May 20.
The National Weather Service has issued a flood warning for the entire watershed until June 1. Hydrologists say it may take weeks or even months for water levels to drop to the normal mark, all depending on how much more rain falls in coming weeks.
The near-term forecast offers some good news with no major storm systems forecast for the next week.
All along the border region, ditches are flowing like streams, streams look like rivers and lakes are rising up into the woods along their shorelines. A combination of a hefty winter snowpack, late-melting snow and then record April rainfall falling on frozen ground — followed by more rain in May —has pushed the system beyond its capacity. And the extra 1½ inches of rain that fell overnight Thursday into Friday only made things worse.
International Falls has received nearly 10 inches of rain in April and May, almost 7 inches more than normal.
Normally on the day before the Minnesota fishing opener, most people up here would be talking about walleyes. This year they were talking about water. Way too much water.
“Mother Nature is mad,’’ said Kevin Dault of Ranier.
Dault was at Kerry Park in International Falls picking up two pallets full of sandbags. He’ll be back for more, too. He’s helping sandbag his brother’s lakefront house and then will move on to a neighbor’s house to help.
“Last year we had a drought. This year there’s a flood. … Things tend to even out. But not always how you want them to,’’ Dault added.
Dozens of volunteers were busy at the park filling sandbags, along with help from the Red Cross, Koochiching County staff and employees from the U.S. Border Patrol and National Park Service.
Pickup trucks were pulling in to pick up the sandbags nearly as fast as they could be filled.
“We’re in trouble. … It’s over our retaining wall and coming up toward the house,’’ said Jeremy Gutormson of Ranier, who was making runs to get loads of sandbags. “They say it could go higher than the 2014 mark. … I’m going to keep bagging until I can’t do it any more.”
On Friday, water was flowing into Namakan Lake at 800 cubic meters per second and flowing out at just over 600 cubic meters per second. Downstream, Lake of the Woods was taking in water from the Rainy River twice as fast as water can leave the lake into the Winnipeg River.
All dams along the system are wide open.
“There’s just nowhere to put all this water at once,’’ said Matthew DeWolfe, executive engineer for the Lake of the Woods Control Board, earlier this week. “We very likely will have weeks of high water. … How high and how long is entirely dependent on how much it rains going forward.”
North Shore streams raging
A flood warning is also in effect for parts of Lake and Cook counties due to heavy rain on top of melting snow, a combination that has pushed many streams well beyond their usual high-water marks. Upland areas in Cook and Lake counties are experiencing road washouts and closures. Some rivers were nearly washing over Highway 61 along the North Shore.
Ann Pierce, Minnesota parks and trails division director, advised people to steer clear of danger, with portions of state trails and parks temporaily closed.
“Our first priority is ensuring public safety and the safety of our staff,” she said. “Last night’s severe storms, paired with the late-spring melt, caused rivers to flood. These waters are dangerous and unpredictable and have the power to sweep away anything. Please stay safe by staying away from these areas.”
Parks and trails affected by the closures include Gooseberry Falls, Tettegouche, George H. Crosby Manitou, Temperance River, Cascade River and Judge C.R. Magney state parks and portions of the Gitchi-Gami and North Shore state trails and the Superior Hiking Trail. The DNR recommends visitors to any of these state parks or trails check with park staff about current conditions.
Superior National Forest officials note that some campgrounds and boat landings have been flooded out in recent days and may be unusable for the fishing opener.
One Facebook post appeared to show the Superior Hiking Trail bridge over the Baptism River in Tettegouche State park washing out.
“In the past 48 hours, between 1-2 inches of rain fell in Cook County, which is still in the midst of peak winter snowmelt and waterfall season.
The rivers along the North Shore of Lake Superior are now bursting with water at levels not seen in decades,” Kjersti Vick, marketing and public relations director for Visit Cook County, said Friday in a statement.
This story was updated at 6:35 p.m. May 13 with additional information about state park and trail closures. It was originally posted at 5:29 p.m. the same day.