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Continued: Taking the river in stride

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: March 28, 2011 - 10:14 AM

In Grey Cloud Island Township, a place as ruggedly beautiful as the Mississippi River that enfolds it, the 300 or so residents watched the water's fast-shifting mood with wary calm Saturday.

They've seen this before.

"We're all river types. You don't second-guess Old Man River," said Rich Mullen, Grey Cloud's town clerk. He's lived on the island for most of his 87 years, and is helping oversee flood preparations that could include evacuations.

Upriver a few miles in Inver Grove Heights, the water was rising and ice chunks hurtled by at Drifters Bar & Grill, where barbecues were fired up and people gathered to cheerily thumb their noses at the river before it enveloped their favorite haunt -- possibly by nightfall.

"You can't stop it, so you might as well mock it," shrugged bar owner Billy Ruiz, wearing hip waders as he tended to his guests while keeping an eye on the hose that was filling the bar's basement with fresh water to save his foundation and stave off silting. He's seen this before, too.

This spring's flooding season already has brought tragedy and destruction, and more appears likely. But some along the roiling river have learned to take the peril in stride, proud to stick it out as long as they can in the unique and beautiful place they call home.

Island in the stream

Covering less than 4 square miles, Grey Cloud Island Township is in the southwestern corner of Washington County where the Mississippi takes a sharp bend from southward to almost straight east.

"It's like a big family. We have about 125 households, and we all know everybody," Mullen said. "Once in a while we have a few klinkers, but they usually move out."

Residents are attracted by the rustic landscape. And the river.

"I love the river," Mullen said. "I always say if heaven doesn't have a river, I'm not going."

Part of the township is on shore next to St. Paul Park and Cottage Grove, linked to the upper island by a causeway that runs across a backwater channel. The causeway essentially is a small dam capped by the roadway -- County Road 75, commonly known as "First Fill."

The lower island is now part of Cottage Grove. It is linked to the upper island across a broad channel in the river called Mooers Lake by a causeway and bridge called "Second Fill." The lower island is linked to Cottage Grove by another span known as "Third Fill" or Green Bridge.

A couple of homes in danger of flooding are being sandbagged, but most are high enough on the limestone hillsides to avoid damage. The main concern, said Richard Adams, chairman of the township board, is if the bridges would be washed away.

That is looking more unlikely with the new forecast. Plus, he said, soil borings on the First Fill taken last week by Washington County indicate that it would take an extraordinary flood to breach the road.

"Residents would be asked to evacuate -- it would be a matter of public safety if the road were to breach," he said. "The truth is, we don't expect anybody to leave, except maybe people with small children or children who have to get to school, or people with medical issues."

Residents, who know they are on their own if they opt to ignore an evacuation order, are prepared with extra food and supplies, and most have portable generators, he said. St. Paul Park and Cottage Grove are on standby to help with evacuations; emergency vehicles would be placed on the island and the Town Hall parking lot would serve as a heliport.

"We're planning for the worst and hoping for the best," Adams said.

Partying with ducks

Like Grey Cloud Island, people come to Drifters Bar & Grill for the river.

From the dockside deck, you can see towboats amble by, eagles showing off their fishing skills, sunset colors shimmering in the water. When the river is nice.

But on Saturday, it was swollen and angry, and looking to take it out on anything in its way.

Ruiz watched as the water, already swallowing his parking lot, crept up the stairway leading to his deck -- 14 inches between Friday and Saturday. Tall boots and a bit of determination were needed to reach the "island party" -- so named because that's what his business is likely to be for a while.

"I've got a beautiful location, but this is the price I pay," he said, never losing his easy smile.

Ruiz had to close for 12 days a year ago, then another nine days last fall when the waters rose again.

"These are events that are supposed to happen, what? every two decades, not back-to-back-to-back like that," he said. "But Mother Nature will do what she wants -- it's not up to us."

Drifters, which has been around in one form or another since at least the 1950s, lies between the river and a massive levee built to protect Inver Grove Heights after the 1965 flood. Last week, the city plugged his parking lot entrance with massive sandbags, so partiers had to hike over the levee to get to Saturday's party.

Monday marks the fifth anniversary since he took over ownership of the bar. Having lived in the marina since 1997, he knew what he was getting into. Because the building is older, his flood insurance rates aren't unbearable. "It's not a huge expense, but it's worth the protection -- especially after what we've been through the past couple of years," he said.

After he has closed up, he'll be checking the bar daily to see how it's faring -- even if he needs a duck boat to get there.

The self-described "river rat" is taking the latest difficulty in stride.

"You have fun," he said. "If you can't smile at what happens today, why get out of bed?"

Jim Anderson • 651-735-0999

  • about this series

  • An early spring and a rapid snow melt forced communities in Minnesota and North Dakota to quicken their flood fighting efforts.

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