SAXON HARBOR, Wis. — More than three years have passed since torrents of rain overwhelmed Oronto and Parker creeks and sent waves of mud into the marina.
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 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. 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.
"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, 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."
An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by Wisconsin State Journal