Storm closes C-NNF campgrounds, rec sites
By Greg Seubert
For the Star Journal
LAKEWOOD – Two campgrounds and several recreation areas are temporarily closed after severe storms rolled through the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest July 19.
Forest officials decided to close campgrounds at the Bagley Rapids Recreation Area near Mountain and Boot Lake Recreation Area near Townsend until further notice. Both campgrounds are in northern Oconto County, about an hour southeast of Rhinelander.
Straight-line winds are blamed for the damage, which hit the Boot Lake campground especially hard.
“The wind event that happened on Friday night caused extensive damage across the national forest,” forest spokesman Hilary Markin told Wisconsin Outdoor News July 23 from the forest’s Lakewood-Laona Ranger District office in Lakewood.
“We have trees down all over and large swaths of timber as well,” she said. “We’re still working on assessing how much of the forest was damaged. We had an aerial flight today (July 23) and that information is just starting to come in. We do have almost all of our recreation sites in the impacted area, which includes pretty much all of Oconto County in the national forest as well as parts of Langlade County, closed until further notice.”
The campground at the Boulder Lake Recreation Area, on the Oconto/Langlade county line, was also closed, but has reopened.
“Boot Lake was the most affected campground,” Markin said. “We did have a lot of campers, but some of them had evacuated the campground prior to the storm. We do have campers that received damage and vehicles that were damaged. It’s major tree damage. Some of them are tipped over. The ones laying on the ground will be cut up, but then it’ll be looking up to see if there are any hazard trees that need to be taken down.”
The Boot Lake campground has reservable campsites, while sites at Bagley Rapids are first-come, first-serve.
“We’ve canceled those reservations and issued refunds to anyone with reservations at Boot Lake,” Markin said. “Boulder Lake had a short closure. If folks are seeking a refund, they can work through recreation.gov. As of today (July 23), we still didn’t have power at Boulder Lake Campground, so there is no electricity or no water. There are lots of power lines down and Wisconsin Public Service is working as fast as they can to restore service to those areas. We are anticipating that that will be done soon.”
The Lakewood-Laona Ranger District also has several out-of-the-way dispersed campsites.
“Those are going to take longer to clean up,” Markin said. “They’re remote and there are a lot of them on this district. There are two of those that we’re still working on cutting our way into. We have a couple of vehicles stranded in those areas. We have several vehicles stuck at dispersed sites that had trees fall on them or they couldn’t get out because of tree damage that happened on roads. We got up there as quickly as possible trying to cut into area to see who was up there that needed to get out. We’ve been working very closely with the Oconto County Sheriff’s Office. I think we have everybody accounted for.”
Several other C-NNF recreation areas remain closed until further notice, including a barrier-free fishing trail on the South Branch of the Oconto River; Bass Lake Recreation Area; the Mountain Fire Tower; and Chute Pond Overlook, Jones Spring Area and Lakewood Cross-Country Ski trails.
The forest website also lists several dispersed recreation areas that are also closed, including Bear Paw, Fanny, Farr, Jesse, Lincoln, Long, Nelligan, Perch and Wischer lakes; Waupee Flowage; Old Grave Road; Trickle Creek; and Knowles Dam on the North Branch of the Oconto River.
Markin said a closure order is in place for the closed areas.
“They’re very much a safety problem,” she said. “We’ve been doing assessments since Saturday morning (July 20), cutting into roads to get back to check to see if there are vehicles or camping equipment stranded back there. We basically cut in a route and what we’re finding is we’re have to cut a way back out within that same day. It’s a dangerous situation for everyone right now. It’s kind of scary when you cut your way in and an hour later, you have to cut your way back out.”
Clean-up crews in the Lakewood area also faced windy conditions July 23, four days after the storm hit, Markin said.
“We’re getting to the point where we’ve been able to assess all of our roads,” she said. “We have our heavy equipment operators with us and they are starting to push back roads to allow safer access for our guys. We’ve been working very hard with the townships, the DNR and the sheriff’s office to coordinate our effort to get access to these areas. We did our recreation site assessment and closed those areas. Now, we’re working on our roads. Then, we’ll move into the next phase, which is a trail assessment.”
Six of the Lakewood-Laona Ranger District’s recreation areas with campgrounds remained open as of July 23: Boulder Lake; Ada Lake; Bear Lake; Laura and Gordon Lake; Pine Lake; and Richardson Lake.
“The storm really started right past Ada Lake and went all the way across the district,” Markin said. “Some of the hardest-hit areas are Boot Lake and the Popple Ridge Horse Trail and that was damaged pretty badly. We’re still working on cutting our way into that place.”
The closed recreation areas will eventually reopen, but Markin said it’s too soon to tell when.
“It’s case-by-case, depending on how much damage there is,” she said. “We’re encouraging visitors to check our website. We have a closure order in place to enforce that so that folks aren’t in our recreation sites. The biggest reason for that is we need to do those safety assessments and ensure that it’s safe for visitors to those sites.
“Some of them may look fine when you get out of your vehicle and you start walking down the trail, but what you don’t realize is 25 feet up in the tree canopy are limbs that are just hanging there,” she said. “It’s a very dangerous situation. We need to get our qualified folks in there to assess those trees. I’m standing at the Lakewood office right now and I’m hearing branches fall out of trees with the wind.”
The storm’s timing couldn’t be worse, as it hit during the forest’s busiest recreation time of the year.
“The major warnings were actually issued for the west side of our forest,” Markin said. “We did have a call on Friday afternoon sizing up who was available and what resources we may need. We’ve unfortunately had numerous events over the years. We had one in 2014, a blowdown. In 2016, we had floods followed by another blowdown and another flood event in 2018. We’re poised to respond to incidents like this. We get all the resources we need and get them out as quickly as we can.”
Oconto and Langlade counties had the most damage in the forest, which covers more than 1 1/2 million acres across northern Wisconsin.
Other damage include downed trees in the Chippewa Campground in the Medford-Park Falls Ranger District and in a campground near Eagle River in Forest County.
“When you go camping, that’s the last thing on your mind,” Markin said. “You want to enjoy it and have a good time. I’m a camper, so that’s something I think about. Where’s the local fire department? Where are the stores where maybe you could see shelter during a storm event?”
All of the closed recreation areas are located in the Lakewood-Laona Ranger District.
“It was pretty minor compared to what we see over here,” Markin said. “A large portion of this area is all closed, but each day, we’re getting more progress and we’ll be able to open more roads. The recreation sites will eventually start to open as well.
“Right now, we’re focusing on roads,” she added. “I think we were planning on doing a second assessment of Boot Lake today. Campers still have property in there, so we want to go in there and see if it’s safe for those folks to go in and retrieve their property from their campground. They’re taking a second look at Bagley Rapids to see what it’s going to take to clean that up to get it back open. Damage to that campground was minor in comparison to Boot Lake. Most likely, Bagley will be the next one to open and then Boot Lake will follow I’m going to say in the coming weeks. It’s still a little early to tell how long it’s going to take to clear that out.”
Markin said the best way for forest visitors to get information is to check daily updates on the forest’s website, Twitter feed or Facebook page or call the Lakewood-Laona Ranger District offices in Lakewood at (715) 276-6333 or Laona at (715) 674-4481.
“If you’re looking to come and enjoy your national forest, maybe check out a new area,” Markin said. “It might be a little further beyond where you typically go, but the rest of the forest is definitely open and ready for visitors. It’s a very busy time, so we really encourage visitors to respect those closure orders right now. We are going to be working as fast as we can to get those areas open. We know that everybody likes to come and enjoy their national forest. We want it to be available to them.”
Greg Seubert is the sports editor of the Waupaca County Post, a Multi-Media Channels publication in Waupaca.