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Storm rips through Itasca State Park

Itasca State Park’s rustic-style cabins took a heavy hit when Thursday’s high winds pitched trees to the ground. Often booked months in advance, the cabins, overlooking Lake Itasca, were built in the 1930s. (Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)1 / 3
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SUBMITTED PHOTO As of Friday morning, Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center (above), Douglas Lodge Restaurant and Headwaters Cafe remained closed due to storm damage.3 / 3

Heavy storms and damaging winds toppled trees and knocked out power at Itasca State Park early Thursday.

Park management spent Thursday assessing damage, with DNR crews clearing debris in stifling, 90-degree heat.

Lead Park Naturalist Connie Cox lives a few miles north of the park. An automated storm alert awakened her a half-hour before the storm hit. She tracked the weather on her iPad, watching two storm cells split. One headed for Bemidji, the other toward Itasca State Park.

"There wasn’t a puff of wind, then swoosh – a wall of wind," Cox said. "It sounded like a million marching feet."

Around 1 a.m., straight-line winds reached 80 to 90 miles per hour, said Bill Barrett, a National Weather Service specialist.

"That’s certainly enough to do damage," he said. "Bemidji was particularly hard hit."

A "bow tie" storm system – so-named due to its appearance on radar – is associated with high winds, Barrett explained.

Wind-monitoring equipment at the Park Rapids airport read 54 miles per hour, according to Barrett.

A National Weather Service storm spotter seven miles northwest of Park Rapids reported large, uprooted trees one foot in diameter. Whole root structures were visible. The spotter suspected that considerably moist soil conditions put trees at greater risk for pitching over in high winds.

Smokey Bear Day festivities at Itasca State Park were canceled Thursday, along with other scheduled events. Both the east and south entrances were closed, with only customers with camping reservations able to enter the park.

Most of the park’s public buildings, including cabins, the lodge and the visitor center were temporarily closed.

According to a DNR press release, the Douglas Lodge area, including Forest Inn, will remain closed for tree removal, as of Friday. The visitor center was also closed. The campground office and park office have reopened.

Huge, old-growth red and white pines fell around Douglas Lodge and the historic, log cabins built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, just uphill from the lodge.

A massive tree landed on Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center. 

Three cabins at Bear Paw Campground were reportedly damaged as well.

Bike trails were closed until trees could be removed from the pathways.

"It’s a sad site because of the big, ol’ trees. Numerous," said Assistant Park Manager Jeff Korels.

The east entrance road was closed due to hazards where trees were down, he said. Overturned root balls left craters by the blacktop road.

"We don’t want people to fall in," Korels said.

He counted three such craters along the county road. Hubbard County sent a crew Thursday to determine how much fill would be needed for repairs.

By mid-day Thursday, all roads in the park were passable, except past Bert’s Cabins on Wilderness Drive, according to Korels.

Two-hundred-year-old Norway pine by Preacher’s Grove were snapped in half. DNR crews tackled one particularly large pine leaning precariously over Wilderness Drive.

"It’ll be a long timeline," Korels said of the process. "Our priority is definitely hazards first. Safety is number one, then the cleanup will begin."

The park’s DNR staff was assisting with clean-up. More equipment and DNR staff was on its way to help.

Dan Hagler of St. Paul and Margaret Short of Fairbanks, Alaska were camping in their tent at Bear Paw Campground when the storm unleashed its fury.

"I wasn’t sure our tent was going to hold up," Hagler said. Rain lashed horizontally into their tent.

"It was intense," Short said.

A tree fell 15 feet from their tent into a neighboring campsite.

The tree, about 16 inches in diameter, "just folded over," Hager said.

"There were no injuries, but there were a lot of scared people," he said. Many campers sought shelter in their vehicles or attempted to leave the park in the middle of the night, but found roads blocked by downed trees.

"All varieties of trees are down," Hager said.

As of Friday, power was restored at the park. Phones are currently down.

The park remains open for day use and the campground is fully operational. Staff continues to assess the condition of lodging units. Camping and lodging availability will be reviewed daily.

Visitors are encouraged to use caution because parks and trails crews are busy cleaning up downed trees and other damage. The latest updates and current conditions are posted online www.mndnr.gov/itasca.

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