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Lake Superior swallows the shore

The drought brought relief to the lake's shore after years of high water levels and strong storms created massive erosion. The question: How long will it last?

PORT WING, Wis. — The way Mike Briggs looks at it, there's good news and bad news.

The good news: He has far less lawn to mow at his Port Wing, Wisconsin cabin. The bad news: A good chunk of it is now cascading down to the shore of Lake Superior. 

"First, you'd see a big crack. A few weeks later, it would have got to be a bigger crack. After the next big rain, it would have washed down all together," he said.

Mike estimates they've lost about 75 feet of their property to erosion over the last five years.

High water levels on the lake in that time period, paired with Superior's infamous storms, created massive erosion on parts of the shore all around the great lake. 

"In the springtime, after the snow melts, that clay is just like jello," Mike said. "You'd get a good rain and you'd lose another five feet of yard."

Credit: KARE
The lawn at Mike and Kathy Briggs' Port Wing, Wisconsin cabin. The edge of the lawn is where the couple's old cabin used to be. Mike estimates they've lost about 75 feet of yard in about the last five years due to erosion.

The Briggs' watched as the drop-off crept closer to the cabin, which they bought in 1997. 

"And we were still in the cabin and we thought, well, guess we better do something," Kathy said.

They did do something. After the Star Tribune published a story on the couple's predicament, a reader reached out about buying the cabin. 

In 2019, the Briggs' sold the cabin and the garage behind it for a dollar each, with the understanding that the buyers would cover the cost of removing them from the property. In the case of the cabin, Mike estimates that cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The couple now live in their newly built cabin, a safe 200 feet back from the old one.

"If we hadn't moved the cabin two years ago, it would have been hanging over the edge by now," Mike said. 

Credit: Mike Briggs
Mike Briggs stands next to his old cabin, hoisted up and ready to be moved. He sold it for $1 in 2019 with the condition the buyer would move it off his property.

The couple's situation is not entirely unique along the lake. Just ask anyone involved with infrastructure in the City of Duluth. 

The city spent millions improving its famous Lakewalk so it can better withstand storms, after strong waves in a series of storms destroyed portions of it

RELATED: Duluth estimates Lake Superior storm damage at $18.4 million

Further down the shore, along Duluth's Brighton Beach, the city is embarking on a project which includes moving the road away from the shore.

"We have had waves rush up on shore that have taken out parts of the asphalt," said Cliff Knettel, senior park planner for the city. "Between rising lake levels and the severity of the storms we've been having, those storms have been causing significant damage."

The damage comes from a period in which Lake Superior saw 87 months in a row of above average water levels, Associate Director for Outreach at Minnesota Sea Grant Jesse Schomberg. The group researches and educates about the lake.

Schomberg says when looking back at Lake Superior water levels since 1918, those 87 consecutive months from April 2014 through August 2021 are the longest stretch in which the lake's monthly average water level was above the long-term average. A couple of those levels were records, he said.

"What we have seen recently is really rapid swings between high [water] levels and low levels, and they're changing more rapidly than we've seen in the past," Schomberg said.

Pair that with an increasing number of large storms and increased total precipitation fueled by climate change, both of which contribute to higher lake levels, Schomberg said, and you get a lot more damage. 

"When you have that high of lake levels and then you get a big storm on top of it...you get really big waves," he said. "They go right over the rocks [on the edge of the shore] and they wash away [the clay soil]."

Credit: KARE
Jesse Schomberg, with Minnesota Sea Grant, stands along a closed pull-off along scenic Highway 61 in Duluth. It closed due to erosion which crumbled parts of the asphalt.

RELATED: Rising water on Lake Superior causes problems for people on shore

Thanks to this summer's drought, lake levels have gone down significantly on Superior. While that should help slow the erosion, the question for people along the shore is how long those low levels will last. 

"As we see more extremes in weather, we should expect to see more extremes in the changes of the Lake Superior water levels," Schomberg said. 

The Briggs' old cabin was bought by a person who moved it just seven or eight miles down the road, to another lakeside property in Port Wing.

Mike says he's glad the cabin they loved is still near the lake. Meanwhile, the Briggs' new situation isn't too bad, either. 

On a sunny November afternoon, Mike looked out at the concrete slab which used to be the foundation of their garage.

"I miss the old garage, but it makes a nice patio."

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