Richard and Kathy Robinson, owners of the Rainbow Lodge, are taking a wait-and-see attitude about whether they’ll rebuild their small tourist outpost near the shore of Lake Superior. “We’re going to have to keep cleaning up and see what happens,” Richard Robinson said. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)
Luce County — The foundations of what used to be the Rainbow Lodge are still there, but little else remains. Even its cement walls have been burned so badly in the Duck Lake wildfire that they can't be reused.
Six weeks after emergency crews contained the blaze — a fire which consumed nearly 50 structures — owners Richard and Kathy Robinson are facing a major decision about whether to rebuild this place, a small tourist outpost near the shore of Lake Superior for 40 years.
"We're going to have to keep cleaning up and see what happens," Richard Robinson said while walking through the debris that used to be his home, his lodges and his cafe.
Following a three-week wildfire that spent late May and half of June rolling through 21,000 acres of land in northern Luce County, the wildlife and people who call this area home are moving forward. For nature, there are no decisions to be made — it does what it does.
But for the human residents and property owners in this part of the Upper Peninsula, there are tough calls ahead. The fire caused more than $4 million in damage.
Michigan's Department of Natural Resources already has made some choices, opting to sell off roughly 10,000 acres of fire-damaged timber to private harvesters to the tune of $515,855.
Those were easier choices than what to do with the thousands of burned, naked and remaining dead trees that have no value as a fuel source, building materials or paper.
"Those trees will stand probably five to 10 years or so before they come down," said Paul Gaberdiel, a DNR forest fire supervisor based in Newberry, as he drove past acres of charred landscape last week.
"There is a seed bank just laying in the soil there — seeds that have been dropped in the past that are just waiting for their chance to grow."
Other areas that have been clear-cut within the last decade or so may need some help. In these areas, trees had not reached cone-bearing age and may require reseeding or a process called scarification, which seeks to stir up damaged soil to expose its minerals.
"Our forestry staff has been on the ground since the later stages of the fire assessing reforestation needs, some of which won't become clear until probably next spring," said Don Johnson, a DNR fire management specialist.
And there is always the next fire to worry about. Johnson said there are indications parts of the state will see below-average rainfall in August and as much as a 50 percent chance of above normal temperatures across Michigan.
"This means the current drought is unlikely to ease much in the foreseeable future," he said. "It also means we are anticipating a fall fire season, which we do not always have."
Loss of lodge affects many
Residents such as the Robinsons are the other part of the human equation up here. In a sparsely populated area, the loss of a cornerstone business such as their Rainbow Lodge can have an impact on many people.
"They used to say 'All roads lead to the Rainbow,'" Kathy Robinson said.
The business served as a launching point for many tourists interested in hiking, fishing and canoeing along the Two-Hearted River or boating in Lake Superior. In the winter months, the lodge's gas pump and the cafe's chili, hamburgers and pasties drew in the snowmobiling crowd.
Paradise resident Ben Musielak has been grooming the three-leg snowmobile trail — between his town, Grand Marais and Newberry — for more than a decade. With the potential loss of the gas pump located at the Rainbow Lodge, that trail may have to be moved.
"There is no fuel up there, so why run the snowmobilers through there anymore?" asked Musielak, 63.
And the loss is being felt beyond the local community. In the days before the fire, the Rainbow's Facebook page had 360 "likes," Robinson said. Today, there are 1,385.
Tecumseh resident Barbara Rymal is one of them. She has been traveling to Luce County for years and would like to see the Rainbow return. But she can understand why it might not.
"How many people are going to be camping in that area anymore?" she asked.
Some state forest campgrounds in the area — at Culhane Lake and Pike Lake — remain closed after the fires, but could reopen soon. The Mouth of the Two-Hearted River State Forest Campground reopened Friday after being shut down for a month and a half.
Jomay Bomber, a director of the Newberry Area Chamber of Commerce, said many of the local inns and motels weren't as devastated by the loss of business as the fires drew a large influx of emergency workers to the area in the early part of the summer.
"But we have people who own vacation cabins up here, or family cabins handed down through the years, that burned down," she said. "And many of those did not have insurance."
All of the area's main tourist attractions, including Tahquamenon Falls and the Culhane Lake and Pike Lake campgrounds, are open.
The fire never came closer than four miles to the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery & Pub, but the business was forced to close for five-days and cost owner Lark Carlyle Ludlow $65,000 in revenues. Despite this, the dry conditions that created the setting for the Duck Lake fire are less worrisome to her than the pattern over the last few years that brought less snow than usual.
For businesses like hers and the Robinson's, fewer snowmobilers mean less money to be made.
"It's been an interesting time in the last few years," Ludlow said. "Economically, the area has really suffered. We need Mother Nature to be more cooperative with the snow."
Fire part of natural cycle
For nature, there are no decisions to be made. Fire is just part of the cycle out here. Residents in neighboring Schoolcraft County know it after seeing the largest fire in modern state history — more than three times the size of the Duck Lake — back in 1976.
Nature begins the regeneration process long before the flames are extinguished. The jack pines that make up so much of the fire-scorched acreage here start their regeneration when the heat of the flames melts resins coating their outside. Days later, when they've dried, they open and release their seedlings to the ground.
Even the white and red pines up here take calamities such as fire in stride. After seasons of great stress, such as drought conditions, fires and excessive temperatures, or diseases, the trees will generate more cones for regeneration the following year as a means of continuing the species in a location.
On the dirt and mud roads crossing the more than 20,000 acres in Luce County swallowed by the fire, more signs of nature starting its next cycle exist. New-growth ferns, a sharp green against the blackened soil, cover the forest floor. Elsewhere under the charred tree limbs, there are starts of new blueberry bushes, and in some areas, new oaks sprouting.
"It will happen, but it will happen slowly," said David Neumann, a silviculturist with DNR's Forest, Mineral and Fire Management Division. "You won't see forests of the same character there for potentially 30 or 40 years."