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ON WISCONSIN | SAXON HARBOR

After 3 years, devastation repaired and Saxon Harbor reopens on Lake Superior

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SAXON HARBOR — 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.

Saxon Harbor

Jeff Soles purchased his 25-foot-long Bayliner in 2016 but has been keeping it in the Ashland harbor. On Wednesday, he moved it to Saxon Harbor, his base for salmon and trout fishing on Lake Superior and just five miles from his home.

“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 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.

Saxon Harbor

Lake Superior was like glass on Thursday and is home to Saxon Habor, a marina in Iron County, about a mile west of the Michigan border.

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 Thursday looked like glass.

Saxon Harbor

The Highway A bridge over Oronto Creek is new and is in a different location. It also is wider and higher to accommodate high water levels in the creek.

“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.

Saxon Harbor

Dozens of boats in Saxon Harbor were destroyed or damaged when floodwaters and debris swamped the harbor in 2016. Several boats were washed out into the lake while some were buried under mud and debris. The boats in this 2016 photo remained in the harbor but were heavily damaged.

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.

Saxon Harbor

A 31-foot speedboat is barely visible under the sediment that washed into Saxon Harbor in 2016. This image is from August 2018, shortly after the boat was located.

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.

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Saxon Harbor

This is the replacement boat of a similar craft that was buried in the muck during the 2016 flood. Another 18 boats were destroyed or heavily damaged during the storm.

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.

Saxon Harbor

Saxon Harbor is now a state-of-the-art facility with improved docks, parking, bathrooms, showers, fuel and roads. The harbor began welcoming boats on Aug. 29.

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 Thursday of last week, 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.

Saxon Harbor

Saxon Harbor opened Aug. 29 after a $14 million restoration and is now welcoming boats for the first time since 2016.

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.

Saxon Harbor

Eric Peterson, Iron County's forest administrator, said the county lost about $500,000 in revenue from boat slip and camping fees over the last three years due to the closing of Saxon Harbor. The harbor reopened Aug. 29, more than three years after being destroyed by floodwaters.

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.”

Saxon Harbor

Fishing boats are among the vessels that call Saxon Harbor home.

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 piloted the boat into Saxon Harbor on Wednesday of last week.

“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.”

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Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at badams@madison.com.

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