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Laughter returns to Happy Drive

There was laughter on Happy Drive Friday afternoon.

Two weeks after an EF 3 tornado devastated the south beach of Pickerel Lake, residents were trying to get their lives back in order.

Duane and Clare Hoecherl put away the chain saws and hosted a family reunion as soon as they cleared a big enough area for all the cars to park.

Oh - and they fixed the cabin roof to keep the family dry.

Kids and grandkids frolicked in the water. "We did lose our pontoon and the boat lift," Clare said. We're trying to get the motor repaired."

Little Lily pulled her lollipop out of her mouth long enough to say, "boat" and point to the speedboat docked on rickety sections of metal. Lily, dolled up in a new lime green suit, wanted a boat ride.

"We lucked out," Clare said, smiling at her family.

As you progress along the beach westward, that becomes apparent. Huge sections of fallen trees still mar the shoreline. Monumental efforts went into clearing Happy Drive, which was impassable two weeks ago. Trees are piled 10 feet high on either side of the road.

Down the beach, Susan Vessey's fire pit now has seating for a dozen. It would be a charming scene - if you didn't know where the log seats came from. A look 10 feet in either direction will tell you. Toppled trees are all over the lawn.

"I'm doing fine," she said. Vessey was the only affected resident home on Happy Drive when the twister hit on that Friday morning. Her weather radio alerted her to the approaching tornado, but not soon enough so she could dash to her crawl space. Miraculously, trees fell all around her cabin, sparing the structure itself - and Vessey - who emerged dirty but without injury.

Another miracle occurred next door, where a gray cabin appeared to be demolished June 6 by a monstrous clump of birch trees that toppled onto the roof.

The only damage visible two weeks later, after the trees were removed, is a wrinkle in the roof shingles. The hummingbird feeder, still full of nectar, welcomes back the tiny birds likely scared off by the chaos.

Vessey's kids and grandkids raced up from the Twin Cities to help her after seeing her on the national news. "They worked really hard," she said. "I've had lots of help.

"Everybody pitched in for a week, " she said of all the volunteers and government equipment that arrived to clean up the mess.

"There was lots of labor, but every little bit helps. I'm grateful for every bit I've had," she said.

Vessey sees remarkable progress but acknowledges there's lots more to do. She's waiting for a private tree removal service to come back to remove her stumps, and for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to clear more trees on the vacant lot next door.

"Till that's done we'll just sit tight," Vessey said.

Duane Hoecherl is thankful for the Hubbard County Sheriff's Department and other emergency responders who worked tirelessly throughout that first weekend. "They really did a heck of a job," he said.

He and Clare were gone when the tornado hit, but returned from their Bloomington home early the next morning with a police escort.

Vessey said she's grateful that "there haven't been a lot of gawkers." She winters at Gulf Shores in Alabama and said after a hurricane comes through, curious onlookers flood in to see the damage left behind.

She said she's lucky that she's never experienced a hurricane, although it might be a similar experience.

"Here people are curious and they feel bad for you," she said. "They've really respected our privacy."

Vessey acknowledged that her survival experience tired her out, so she took a mental health break this past weekend and attended Country Fest at Moondance Ranch in Walker. "I just needed to get away from it all," she said.

"I'm still so grateful," she said. "The cabin's still here and I'm still here."

Back down the beach, a toddler's scream of delight pierced the lakeshore. Lily had her arms raised, blond curls flying, as the speedboat, with the little girl in the bow, vroomed away from the dock.

They're the kind of sounds Pickerel Lake probably welcomes on a summer afternoon rather than the continuous drone of chainsaws.