Tourism Floats Rainy Lake Business in Spite of Flooding

Updated: 07/06/2014 10:21 PM
Created: 07/06/2014 7:16 PM
By: Travis Dill

Resorts and businesses in the Northland rely on busy holiday weekends to stay afloat. Flooding issues continue to plague Rainy Lake near International Falls, but businesses there said tourism is going strong despite the hassles.

Flooding on Rainy Lake has given Tom Dougherty a new sales pitch for his houseboats.

“Well, I've been telling people we rent arks so get everybody on there and have a good time,” Dougherty said.

The owner of Rainy Lake Houseboats said business has been good over the Fourth of July holiday.

“It's just as busy and right on pace with last year,” Dougherty said. “Oh I feel good about it.”

He and other resort owners along the lake were concerned about how the flooding would impact tourism, but those worries are drying up.

Layers of pallets and about 10,000 pounds of sandbags weighing down docks let his crews service the fleet. That means a little more work for them to keep guests out enjoying the flooded lake.

“Oh it's amazing. They all come off the lake and they've had a fantastic time. They're catching fish right from the boat. They're not having any trouble finding tie-up spots. They've had some fairly good weather,” Dougherty said.

Sandbags didn't stop guests at the Thunderbird Lodge either. Owner Mary Jane Haanen said all her cabins were full for the holiday week.

“Oh, it's always wonderful, and we've got such loyal customers. We just try to provide the best service for them even though we have this flood,” Haanen said.

She said the cabins and lodge restaurant are still open for business, but the flooding is posing some problems. She said a pump is running nearly around the clock to clear water from the under the lodge.

And the docks are still under at least 2 feet of water with sandbags holding them down. Haanen said that hurts business because the sunken marina is usually full of local boats.

Locals like Joe Mershon typically lease the docks so they can launch to island cabins on Rainy Lake, but this year that revenue is missing.

Mershon is a faithful customer at the Thunderbird Lodge, and he's hoping the lake has crested.

“The hope is it won't get much higher. Then, naturally, we'd like to see it drop 2 feet every day, but that's not going to happen so we're probably stuck with this water for another four to six weeks before we can get to our docks that are underwater. Then the fun starts,” Mershon said.

Haanen and Dougherty also worried about the costs of dealing with flood cleanup.

“Certainly there will be dock repairs, and you worry about mold with water sitting in the dock house and the crawl space so we really don't know,” Haanen said.

Those are concerns for the future, but for the time being the local businesses are happy that tourists are keeping them afloat.

Dougherty also said there have been several years with high water problems on the lake since water flow changes were instituted at area dams in 2000. The water flow at the dams is also referred to as the rule curve.

“Since they changed the rule curve in 2000 to 2014, we've had seven high water events on Rainy Lake. Two of them have been extremely high. That's a 50 percent fail rate. If you're in business or in school you flunked,” Dougherty said.

He said water levels will always fluctuate, but the International Rainy Lake Board of Control should make changes so the high water issues can be avoided in the future.

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