Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019 photo shows the Saxon, Wis.,
Harbor, which reopened on Aug. 29 after a $14
million restoration and is now welcoming boats for
the first time since 2016.
SAXON HARBOR — More than
three years have passed since torrents of rain overwhelmed
Oronto and Parker creeks and sent waves of mud into the
Boats were destroyed, a
firefighter on his way to the scene was killed and Bill
and Grace Hines saw revenues plummet at Harbor Lights, the
bar and restaurant they own and the only commercial
business in this remote outpost of Iron County along Lake
Superior's southwestern shore.
But the wait is over and
the destruction finally restored. Saxon Harbor is again
whole and now open.
"For the local people
this was like cutting off their arm. I mean, this was the
place. It was a terrible thing," said Jeff Soles, a
retired wildlife biologist as he readied his 25-foot-long
Bayliner in one of the harbor's slips. "I'm from here
and I've been here most of my life and I've seen this
place change. I just hope this improvement lasts."
A $14 million
reconstruction project has created a state-of-the-art
harbor, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. The 81 slips
are wider to accommodate larger boats, floating docks will
help boaters more easily access their vessels and there's
a larger, 2,000-gallon gas tank and a new 1,000-gallon
diesel tank from which boats can purchase fuel.
The Highway A bridge over
Oronto Creek is wider and higher, loads of riprap line the
creeks for more stability and there's a concrete spillway
to divert water from the creeks in the event of a major
storm. New bathrooms and showers along with a new water
system are part of the amenities, and there is plenty of
parking for both boaters and those who just come to take
in the views of the largest Great Lake that on a recent
Thursday looked like glass.
"It's a 2019
marina," said Eric Peterson, Iron County's forest
administrator, who oversees the county-owned harbor.
"Many of these facilities were built a long time ago
and constructed under different codes and standards. When
you do a project like this today, you don't get
grandfathered in. It has to be all the latest and
But the worst came on the
evening of July 11, 2016.
The harbor, a destination
for fur traders in the 1700s, sits at the base of a steep
hill where the two creeks meet. So when heavy rains
pounded the region, the creeks quickly filled from the
17-square-mile watershed, topped their banks and filled
the harbor with sediment, debris and chaos.
A 31-foot Chris-Craft boat
was found last summer on the harbor's south side buried
under dirt in a spot that should have had 10 feet of
water. A few weeks later a Kia automobile was found
nearby. On the night of the storm, 18 boats, ranging from
21 feet to 36 feet long, were pushed out of the harbor and
deposited along the beach west of it. The only thing that
hasn't been recovered is a pontoon boat that was used by
county staff to maintain the harbor. It was last seen in
2018 off Upper Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula.
Peterson estimates that the
closure of the harbor and the campground has cost the
county about $500,000 in lost revenues from rental fees
and fuel sales, while other area businesses like
restaurants, bars and hotels felt the impact as well.
Work to repair and restore
the harbor began in early 2018 and included a dredging
machine that removed an estimated 3,300 dump-truck loads
of sediment from the harbor. The project was prolonged due
to its complexity and the multiple agencies involved. They
included Iron County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,
the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state
departments of Natural Resources and Transportation.
The campground, which will
include water and electrical hookups at each of its 26
sites, has been moved to higher ground but won't reopen
until July 2020, Peterson said.
On that Thursday, Adrian
Wydeven, who spent his career studying wolves, worked with
his wife, Sarah Boles, who owns Northern Native
Plantscapes in Cable. The couple was in the midst of
planting 4,000 plants around the harbor to help mitigate
runoff. They included a mix of native wetland species such
as New England asters, boneset, swamp milkweed,
Maximillian sunflowers and blue joint grass.
The landscape was also
seeded underneath an erosion blanket with a native seed
mix, creating a large version of a rain garden.
"I've been involved
with Sarah's business quite a bit and restoring native
plants is kind of not all that different from restoring a
native wildlife species, I guess," Wydeven said as he
worked on his knees to fill holes drilled by Boles with a
small auger attached to a power drill.
components," Boles said. "They're all dependent
on each other."
Boles expects to have the
plants all in by the end of this week, weather permitting,
but the return of the boats to the harbor is a milestone.
The first boat went in the
water on Aug. 29 and over Labor Day weekend an estimated
2,000 people came to check out the new digs. Last week, 11
boats were parked in the harbor's slips even though the
harbor will close for the season in about six weeks.
"People were itching
to get back in," Peterson said. "A lot of these
boaters that are here right now have been in other marinas
farther away from home and they're getting their boats
closer to home for the fall. There's other boaters that
lost a boat during the 2016 storm, replaced them but a few
of them haven't even put them in the water yet."
For Soles, the opening of
the harbor is a relief. He purchased his boat in 2016 and
has been keeping the craft in the Ashland harbor, 25 miles
from his Saxon home. Equipped with down riggers to troll
for salmon and trout, Soles' boat, named Outa Range, is
now just five miles down the hill from his house. He
recently piloted the boat into Saxon Harbor.
"I'm happy to be over
here," said Soles as he sipped a cup of coffee brewed
moments before below deck. "It's a huge improvement.
It's nice and new."