We awoke to devastation around us, including the loss of the neighbors’ lofty pine tree, once our treasured view and now snapped like a twig in the storm.
It’s been weeks since the July storm raged through Duluth. Waking in the early morning hours to blinding lightning, constant thunder and howling winds did little to prepare us for the devastation that we would find when dawn came.
Even then, we couldn’t imagine the true extent of the damage.
We were among the fortunate. With just three moderate-sized trees down in our yard, only our driveway was temporarily blocked.
But heartbreak was only a short distance away. Our neighbors lost several venerable old trees, including our very favorite pine tree that dominated the skyline and was perfectly framed in our window.
In its place we saw only jagged shards where the trunk had snapped, sending the majestic tree down into the woods below.
A bike ride around the neighborhood revealed further ruins. Everywhere I looked there were downed trees – in yards, on houses, clobbering fences, blocking streets, dragging down power lines.
The strangest sight was a tree that had been launched 50 feet across a yard to pierce the roof of the house and exit through the end wall. And yet, the apples on the tree below had been blown to the ground in the opposite direction.
That tour was early in the morning, and already people were out working. Neighbors helping neighbors, city crews acting quickly to reopen roads, strangers swapping stories. The camaraderie would continue throughout the lengthy power outage that ensued, as we all learned to cope with being off the grid and as generous offers of help came from friends outside the “war zone.”
We were just two out of the 46,000 customers in Duluth (75,000 across Minnesota’s northern tier) without power.
We quickly learned to be thankful that we were on city water, which kept running, unlike our rural friends whose wells depended on electricity to function. Four days seemed long to us, but the hardest hit areas endured up to a week without power.
With 300 power poles requiring replacement, it took extra crews from as far away as Missouri to restore electricity throughout the 10-mile swath of the storm.
I couldn’t help but think back to other storms with these so-called “straight-line winds” that in recent memory have wreaked havoc with our northern woods. Naturally the July 4, 1999, blowdown in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness comes to mind. The 90-mph winds toppled millions of trees, forever altering that pristine landscape.
The National Weather Service in Duluth reports that our recent storm equaled the intensity of that one, but the BWCAW storm damage extended much farther. Both storms resulted in fatalities in the boundary waters region of the United States and Canada.
In 2006, another late July storm sent howling winds through the Bayfield Art Festival that in about five minutes jettisoned artists’ tents and art into Lake Superior, felled numerous big stately trees and ripped the roof off a local church.
It would be easy to conclude that we are seeing a trend toward larger and stronger storms, but the folks at the weather service assure me it’s not outside our long-term normal weather patterns. These intense winds result from extreme downbursts that come through thunderstorms with the rain and hail. Most downbursts are weak, but occasionally can be very strong, more than 100 mph … as we all well know by now. A more familiar term is straight-line winds, which describes the resulting damage that all occurs in the same direction.
The big difference with this most recent storm is that it hit a very populated area. Carol Christenson at the weather service left me with a shrewd reminder: “This negates the thought that Lake Superior will protect us from damaging thunderstorms.”
By now, many of us have returned to life as usual. The city collected about 7,000 dump truck loads of debris, according to Deputy Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj. But our landscape is forever changed, and the massive cleanup – and healing – effort continues.
Our neighbors decided to do more than just mourn the loss. A mobile lumber mill turned the tree into beautiful boards, ready for a new use.
Sometimes that comes in unusual forms. And I shouldn’t have been surprised when our neighbors topped that list. Enterprising, outdoorsy optimists and just plain good folk, they turned their misfortune into opportunity.
She calls it “making lemonade.” He calls it “building a sauna.”
The big red portable lumber mill appeared on the lawn early in the morning along with a couple of operators. Soon the trunk that was once that big old pine tree made it onto the bed of the mill, and the cab passed back and forth, turning it into planks and posts. It made for marvelous entertainment as I sipped my morning coffee on our deck.
One of these future days, when the sauna heats up and steam releases the pine smell, that giant of a tree will be immortalized. It seems very fitting. For in the process of cutting it into logs, they managed to count its rings: 240. It started growing the very year our country began. I am in awe.
I always knew it was a special tree, I just didn’t realize how special. It took a mighty storm with winds exceeding 100 mph to bring it down.
I will miss its dominating presence in our window. But I’m glad to live next door to folk who are engineering a way for it to live on. Farewell old towering pine.
Molly Hoeg is a frequent contributor to this magazine, when she and her husband, Rich, aren’t bicycling around this country and abroad. She also blogs at Superior Footprints, where you can follow their life journeys.