By BARRY ADAMS
Wisconsin State Journal
SAXON HARBOR, Wis. (AP) — More than three years have passed since torrents of rain overwhelmed Oronto and Parker creeks and sent waves of mud into Saxon Harbor’s marina.
Boats were destroyed, a firefighter was killed on his way to the scene and Bill and Grace Hines saw their 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 damage finally repaired. Saxon Harbor is again whole and 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 resulted in a state-of-the-art harbor, the Wisconsin State Journal recently reported. Its 81 slips are wide enough to accommodate larger boats, its floating docks will help boaters get to their vessels and its 2,000-gallon gas tank and a new 1,000-gallon diesel tank will provide plenty of fuel.
Nor is the end of the improvements. The Highway A bridge that runs over Oronto Creek is now wider and higher, loads of riprap has been installed along nearby creeks to provide stability and there’s a concrete spillway to divert water in the event of a major storm. There are also new bathrooms and showers, along with a new water system, and plenty of parking for both boaters and people who simply want to take in the views of the largest Great Lake.
“It’s a 2019 marina,” said Eric Peterson, Iron County 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 greatest.”
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. When heavy rains pounded the region, the creeks quickly rose, 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 in length, were pushed out of the harbor and deposited along its beach west. The only thing that hasn’t been recovered is a pontoon boat used by county staff to maintain the harbor. It was last seen in 2018 off Upper Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula.
Peterson estimates that closing down the harbor and the campground has cost the county about $500,000 in lost revenue from rental fees and fuel sales. Other local businesses — restaurants, bars and hotels — have likewise been harmed.
Work to repair and restore the harbor began in early 2018. A dredging machine was used to remove an estimated 3,300 dump-truck loads of sediment from the harbor. The project was prolonged because of its complexity and the large number of government entities and 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 have 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 a recent Thursday, Adrian Wydeven, who spent his career studying wolves, was doing some last-minute preparation work with his wife, Sarah Boles, who owns Northern Native Plantscapes in Cable. Among their tasks was planting 4,000 plants around the harbor to help curtail 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, establishing 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.
“They’re components,” Boles said. “They’re all dependent on each other.”
Boles expects to have the plants all in by the end of this week. The return of the boats, in itself, marks a milestone for the project.
The first boat went in the water on Aug. 29 and, over Labor Day weekend, an estimated 2,000 people came to admire the rebuilt harbor. 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 harbor’s re-opening comes as a relief. He bought his boat in 2016 and has been keeping it 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.”