SAXON HARBOR – The power of water is on constant display here.
It can be seen from the erosion of the steep clay banks, the waves that crash into the breakwalls and the rising waters that have consumed the beach.
On Wednesday, the first Noreaster of the season arrived and brought with it 5- to 6-foot rollers, temperatures in the 50s but a real-feel in the upper 40s thanks to the steady winds.
But the carnage just over two years ago of one of Wisconsin’s most remote harbors didn’t come from the temperamental waters of Lake Superior. Instead, the devastation came in the form of torrential rains that brought the usually shallow and slow-moving Oronto and Parker creeks into a rage. The fast-moving waters devoured vehicles, destroyed boats, wiped out a county campground and killed a firefighter on his way to the scene.
Saxon Harbor is being made whole, but it is taking time and has altered the norms at this secluded outpost in northeastern Iron County, just a mile from the Michigan border.
“It’s been week, after week, after week of a relatively calm lake. There’s been a little bit of chop here and there but you could have been fishing 90 percent of the time (this season), but you can’t go out, of course,” said Grace Hines, as she prepared to open the Harbor Lights bar and restaurant she and her husband, Bill, have owned and operated for 44 years. “We get a chuckle over some very macabre things.”
The Hineses have a front-row seat to a $12 million reconstruction project that began this spring. Their business is at the base of a hill and overlooks the harbor where the boat ramps are closed and the docks, slips, retaining walls, boats and even much of the water has vanished.
An estimated 44,000 cubic yards (about 3,000 dump trucks) of soil, rock and debris filled much of the harbor during the July 11, 2016, storm. Just last week, a 31-foot Chris-Craft boat was found on the harbor’s south side. It was buried under dirt in a spot that should have had 10 feet of water. On the night of the storm, 18 more boats, ranging from 21 feet to 36 feet long, were pushed out of the harbor and deposited along the beach west of the harbor. The 10-foot-high, 90-foot-long culvert underneath Highway A and just south of Harbor Lights also washed away.
Eric Peterson, the county’s forest administrator who oversees the county-owned harbor, said there has still been no signs of a KIA automobile that was lost in the storm. The pontoon boat used for maintenance in the harbor was last spotted months ago off Upper Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, more than 125 nautical miles away.
Peterson, a Trenary, Michigan, native and Michigan Tech graduate, sat at the Harbor Lights’ bar last week and looked through the bay windows as yellow excavators, front-end loaders, a dredger and a parade of trucks worked in an effort to restore the harbor so that it can open in time for the 2019 season.
“It’s not a big watershed, it’s like 17 square miles. The problem is it has just over a 400-foot drop between here and U.S. (Highway 2),” Peterson said. “So, as Bill and Grace know, when it rains it comes fast here. A flash, 2-inch rainstorm brings the water up (in the creeks) very quickly. And when 14 inches comes, it takes out the harbor.”
Oronto Creek, which flows from southwest to northeast, winds down the hill behind Harbor Lights, before crossing Highway A at the campground and then flowing around the harbor before it dumps into Lake Superior. Parker Creek is more southeast of the harbor but flows into Oronto Creek about 100 yards before the Oronto empties into the lake east of the harbor on the lake side of the break wall.
Oronto Creek last week had less than a foot of water in most places. Parker Creek appeared to be dry. They stood in contrast to the turbid lake and construction crews who worked to bring back anglers, pleasure boaters, campers and character.
The marina, which had been home to 75 boats, won’t reopen until next spring as 41 docks — ranging from 28 to 40 feet long — retaining walls and cement supports are replaced. A steady stream of dump trucks and semi-trailers are also making 20-mile round trips to a county quarry where debris removed from the harbor is being deposited.
Construction on the 26-site campground is scheduled to begin this fall but it likely won’t reopen until next summer. The campground, which was evacuated during the storm and then destroyed by the flood waters, is being rebuilt on higher ground on the east side of Highway A, which will require removing part of the hill. The bridge over Oronto Creek, which has new riprap along its banks, is also in a new location. It has a 110-foot span and is 11-feet high compared to the old bridge that had just a 40-foot span and 9 feet of clearance.
The project has involved myriad government agencies including Iron County, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Wisconsin Emergency Management, the state departments of Transportation and Natural Resources and the Federal Highway Administration.
“It was a solid year of planning because there’s so many entities involved in this project,” Peterson said. “This is unique on many levels. And since it’s all one big blurred project we had to go through the trials and tribulations of dividing up who was covering what.”
What is now the harbor proved to be a prime destination for fur traders beginning in the mid- to late 1700s. This is where they came ashore to connect with the Flambeau Trail on their way to the Northwest Fur Trading Co. in Lac du Flambeau, about 60 miles to the south. The harbor, which is on Oronto Bay, was also home to John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company from 1808 to 1830. But in modern times it has been a recreational focal point.
For Bill and Grace Hines, it has served as a livelihood but with no campers or boaters and only a smattering of tourists who come to gawk at the reconstruction project, sales at Harbor Lights are down 45 percent this year when compared to 2015.
The high school sweethearts from Tomahawk both attended UW-Madison and lived in an apartment on Lakeside Street. Grace attended only through her sophomore year, but Bill graduated in 1966 with degrees in zoology and biology. After serving in Vietnam, Bill worked for a paper mill in Appleton but in 1974 he and Grace purchased Harbor Lights, three years after it was moved inland by a few hundred yards to get it away from the eroding shoreline.
Lake trout share wall space with photos of Green Bay Packers players, a 1982 Milwaukee Brewers pennant, Leinenkugel beer signs and a rendering of the new harbor and campground. Fishing lures hang from the ceiling and whitefish sandwiches can be had for $6.50. Customers can sit at the bar and thumb through a 38-page Shutterfly book jammed with photos of the storm’s aftermath. On the night of the storm, with the power out, the Hineses sat at the bar and watched through flashes of lightning as boats were tossed and destroyed. They had no idea at the time that their way of life would be upended for nearly three years.
“I’ve always said I’ll stay as long as I’m having a good time and I still am because the people have been absolutely wonderful,” Grace Hines said. “We’ve got one more winter to make it through. Hopefully next spring we’ll be back at it.”