DULUTH – The next angry storm that pushes mammoth waves into the Lakewalk's shoreline has a new front line to face.
The half-mile section of the Lakewalk closed since the start of 2020 reopened Friday, and visitors will notice a lot more rock, along with an elevated, wider boardwalk and access to the pebble beach restored.
"This is so very different from anything that was here before," said Mike LeBeau, construction project manager for the city.
About 100,000 tons of rock from a North Shore quarry were placed along the waterfront. Massive, 10- to 12-ton "toe" boulders are buried in Lake Superior, some so big only three at a time could fit on a truck. Filter stone is next, and 6- to 8-ton "armor" stones sit on top, creating a level surface. An 18-inch thick, 10-foot deep reinforced marine wall backs up all that rock.
"Whatever wave energy gets through this rock will hit that and not get to the trails," LeBeau said, and what water surges over the rock will end up in a new bioswale. The runoff channel was built between the Lakewalk and the asphalt path, and water pushed over the 40-foot crest of stone will concentrate there. A new drainage system will push it back out into the lake.
The $16 million project is expected to prevent the kind of destruction from increasingly powerful storms seen in October 2017 and again in April and October 2018. Those storms tore up the boardwalk and pavement, uprooted light poles and rock and swept benches and earth away. All told, they caused $30 million in damage along the 7.5-mile Lakewalk stretching to Brighton Beach. This phase of rebuilding followed repairs near the Fitger's complex that cost more than $5 million. The damaged areas were declared state and federal disasters, and state and federal money is paying for the majority of the repair. Work on other portions of the Lakewalk continues through the summer, with Brighton Beach set to close soon for repairs.
The Lakewalk was raised 3 feet and widened from 6 feet to 10, and the parallel asphalt trail from 7 feet to 12. The pebble beach, beloved by sea glass and rock hunters, had been the temporary storage place for those enormous stones. It's now cleared and outfitted with a short wall to prevent pebbles from piling up several feet deep on the Lakewalk during surges.
The closure was painful for Canal Park businesses, but it was a "pill worth swallowing" for the end result, said Matt Baumgartner, president of the Canal Park Business Association. The closure coincided with major downtown roadwork, and then the pandemic hit.
"We were up against it," Baumgartner said. "But then something interesting happened. Construction became a draw. People wanted to see what these big boulders looked like and it coincided with people wanting to be outside to escape the daily stress of the pandemic. ... So it really became something that created hope and optimism."
Paul Kaz is an owner of the Canal Park Lodge and Canal Park Brewery, both directly behind the Lakewalk. With the raised Lakewalk, views are a bit more obstructed at the restaurant than the hotel, he said, but plans are in place to add some decking to address that. The restaurant reopened in May after the pandemic forced its closure in November.
"We are the type of family that will come up with a solution rather than look at it as a barrier," he said. "Sometimes you just have to take your lumps for the common good."
When the next megastorm comes, LeBeau is confident the new wall of rock, built to last 50 to 75 years, will do its job.
Even so, "I'll be sitting here," he joked, to see if it does.