1999 BWCA Blowdown – A Storm Like No Other

Art & Science, People, Recreation

Revisiting the 1999 BWCA Blowdown

Fourth of July weekend, 1999, promised to be a hot one, with both the temperature and the humidity soaring to uncomfortable levels. Ideal conditions for jumping into a lake from a canoe, cannonballs from a rocky outcropping or taking the fly off your tent to let in the evening breeze. By the morning of Sunday, July fourth, forecasters at the National Weather Service in Duluth noticed a strip of weather forming over the Dakotas, headed east-northeast. The system grew. Weather forecasters became alarmed. 

Most of you know what happened next.

In only a few minutes, winds estimated to have reached up to 100 miles per hour blew down millions of trees, some of them several hundred years old, and changed parts of BWCA for more than a generation. The derecho of July 4, 1999, was one of those seminal events that has passed into the legend, part of the historic tapestry of the Boundary Waters. Many reading this know someone who was there, or maybe you were there yourself.

The derecho that tore through the Boundary Waters 25 years ago is the subject of Cary Griffith’s recent book, Gunflint Falling. Griffith is the author of several works of fiction and nonfiction, including the popular account of the Ham Lake Fire, Gunflint Burning. 

A graphic with author Cary Griffith and book cover of the book "Gunflint Falling - Blowdown int he Boundary Waters"

In some ways, your book is a follow up to Gunflint Burning. What draws you to natural disasters in the BWCA? 

I’m not necessarily drawn to natural disasters, at least I don’t think I am. First and foremost, I’m drawn to wilderness, and I’m always looking for the human story, the drama that plays out in the wilderness. I guess that really comes through in natural disasters. When I was interviewing people for Gunflint Burning, I kept hearing about how the Ham Lake fire burned hotter because of the blowdown. And people would then go into their blowdown stories. So, there was a natural connection. You know, the way I see it, this book is really a prequal to Gunflint Burning.

In both cases, no one was directly killed, by either the Ham Lake Fire or the July 4th blowdown. 

It is really surprising! I can’t figure it out. For the Ham Lake fire, people had time to evacuate, there was adequate warning. But with the blowdown, it’s a puzzle. There were anywhere from four to ten-thousand people in the Boundary Waters, in tents, on portage trails that day. The derecho knocked down 48 million trees — but no one died. Now, it did keep moving east into Canada and there some people killed by it. But it’s surprising everyone in the Boundary Waters survived. 

Several thousand people were in the BWCA that weekend. How did you find them to write about them? 

There was a self-published book, Our Wounded Wilderness, which came out a couple years after the blowdown and that was a really great resource to get started with. The people I contacted were generally eager to share their stories and I spent somewhere around 100 hours interviewing people. I had gotten to know a lot of people in the Forest Service from my work on Gunflint Burning, and they were able to walk me through some of the decision making processes in the aftermath of the storm. I also got to learn how agencies like the National Weather Service works, how they track storms and monitor various parts of the state and country.

Five people holding a stretcher with a woman on it, loading her
 into a float plane.

You interviewed dozens of people and parties, including a few with quite serious injuries. What did you learn about how people respond to a disaster? 

I was surprised by how people rise to the occasion, and how heroic people can be when put in extreme situations. I’m not sure if I would have been able to do what some of the people in the book did. Like how the crew at Wilderness Canoe Base went into Seagull Lake, crossed a long portage to get another party out of Alpine Lake. Incredible. Wilderness really brings out the best in people. 

Were there any stories you had to leave out?

Yes. One of the stories that unfortunately didn’t make it into the book was about this guy USFS Wilderness Ranger John Pierce and his two buddies who were out fishing for the day. They had stopped to cook lunch over a fire – brats I believe – and they had a tarp set up because it looked like a storm might be coming. Then all of a sudden the wind hits. All three disperse, John ends up near the shoreline, behind this massive white pine that snapped in half. He has his dog with him and somehow, despite being totally exposed, they all survived without injury.

The tension in the book unfolds and builds around multiple groups of people going into the wilderness, then facing the storm and then its aftermath. Talk about how you structured the book. 

In writing my nonfiction work, I am drawn to drama and fictional devices to help move things along. These include cliff hangers, foreshadowing, suspense and other ways to keep the reader involved. While there are a lot people in the book – bush pilots, forest rangers, guides, campers – it really focuses on two canoe trips and the subsequent injuries and rescue of two women in those groups. So I start the book off with those individuals and groups having no idea about what is coming. Then I go into details and let the events unfold. 

In the aftermath, what were some of the controversies around logging the fallen trees? 

There was some noise about going in and harvesting the fallen trees so that they wouldn’t go to waste, but that was never feasible. First, there’s no infrastructure to do this. You need roads. Even if you could get around the regulatory hurdles of building a road in a Wilderness Area, by the time the roads would be complete the logs would have rotted and degraded in quality. 

What has the rejuvenation process looked like?

The storm happened almost 25 years ago, and it’s remarkable how, after the blowdown and then the Ham Lake fire, and other fires, the forest has returned. I was up there less than two weeks after the Ham Lake Fire, and everything was charred and post-apocalyptic. Now you go up there and it’s just beautiful. 15, 20-foot jack pines as far as you can see. I’m shocked at how the country has come back. It’s a different forest. It’s not the old growth it was, but it’s nonetheless beautiful.

Incidentally, I’m planning to write a follow up to this called Gunflint Rising which will deal with how people, communities and the wilderness around the trail rebuilt, regrew, and changed in the aftermath of these disasters.

To learn where you can order a copy of Gunflint Falling or learn where Cary Griffith will be speaking in the upcoming months, visit carygriffith.com

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Comments (1)

Kathleen

2 weeks ago

I so enjoyed this listening to your presentation on the BWCA. I have lived in Ely and been on several canoe trips too.

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