Saving Minnesotan history from record-breaking flooding

Protecting history from being washed away

With flooding across the Rainy River Basin, volunteers on Mallard Island put in long hours of effort to try to protect Minnesotan history.

As flooding continues across the Rainy River Basin, volunteers on one small island are trying to protect valuable pieces of Minnesotan history.

“Ernest Oberholtzer was a lover of canoeing and paddling and the Rainy Lake Basin,” explained Ernest C. Oberholtzer Foundation Executive Director Rebecca Otto. “He really worked to create this concept of wilderness and protecting it that we don’t take everything and use it for profit and and business, that we save some of that for people to be healthy, to get recreation fish to camp, whatever it is that you like to do.”

An important historical figure, Oberholtzer called Mallard Island his home.

“It’s like the epicenter of a kind of wilderness history, and he also was a lover of literature,” said Otto. ”We’ve got a very large collection we’re trying to protect right now.”

Mallard Island consists of multiple buildings on a thin stretch of granite. Because of the size and shape of the island, sandbagging is not an option.

“The mitigation is removing things,” said Otto. “We can’t move our buildings, but we can take the collections out.”

There are books in almost every building on the island.

“We started with the lowest books, closest to the floors. We have a building that only has books, and that’s our library,” explained Otto. “And so we’ve been working to empty it, and I’ve been packing all those books, and then we bring them over to another building and get them to higher ground and walk on a plank. It’s been intense, and yet we know that what we’re doing is the right thing because they’re pretty precious.”

To add to the difficulty, the island has not had power or water filtration in about a week.

“Because we have no power, we don’t have light, so we have to get our work done while it’s light,” Otto explained. “I would say at least 12 hour days. And what I find is because we’ve got some steep hills and we’re carrying really heavy loads, eventually you start to get tired.”

With no power, no fresh water, and with much of the dry living space being filled with books, only a handful of volunteers can be on the island at a time.

“Luckily, we can cycle different volunteers through so that people can go and get re-energized at home, take showers, get over their bruises and then go at it again,” said Otto.

Paddling instead of walking, staff members check on the various buildings daily.

“We are finding fish in our buildings. One of my staff caught a baby eelpout in Cedarburg House, and then she caught a baby walleye in Cedarburg House. I mean, there’s animals getting trapped in our buildings and it’s very difficult to see,” said Otto. “Luckily we’re getting our collections out of the way so far and we’re going to continue to work on that, but the mood on the lake is very somber.”

Rainy Lake is expected to rise at least until mid-June. Even when waters recede, more work will need to be done.

“We’re probably going to have some pretty big needs down the road just to make sure these buildings are restored, but there’s not a lot we can do when they’re in the water,” said Otto.