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Mark Magnuson, with DNR parks and trails, slices up a fallen tree in Bear Paw campground in Itasca State Park after a storm blew through Monday evening around supper time. Magnuson was called in from Maplewood State Park early Tuesday morning, arriving at Itasca around 10 a.m. with a chain saw in hand. Jesse Trelstad | Forum Communications

Storm rips through Itasca State Park

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ITASCA STATE PARK, Minn. - Steve Holewa went to see the headwaters of the Mississippi River on Monday night.

Who knew it would be a story of a lifetime?

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Holewa and a companion were halfway back to their campsite when a thunderstorm ripped through the park, packing straight-line winds of 60 to 80 mph.

They ran for the Bear Paw campsite bathhouse and shelter.

"The winds and trees were blowing sideways," Holewa said. "Trees were literally bending. One just snapped right behind us, came down right behind us. We just ran, watching for trees. They were literally breaking as we were running. It was the fastest 1.1 miles I've ever ran."

When they emerged from their shelter, dozens of trees were downed throughout the campsite, with several cars, trucks, and campers damaged, he said.

"We went back and our tent was still standing. We made dinner and stayed the night," he said, capping his tale with a little Minnesota matter-of-fact.

Heavy thunderstorms snapped hundreds of trees at Itasca on Monday when the storm blew through about 6:30 p.m., witnesses and park officials said.

Brad Hopkins, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, said there were many reports of 60-mph winds, with one report in the Lake George area clocking winds of 80 mph.

Almost miraculously, no injuries or deaths were reported, Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Kristi Coughlon said Tuesday.

And the park remains open, though people are being discouraged from buying day passes to sight-see through the damaged campgrounds and trails, she said.

High winds also blew through the La Salle Lake State Recreation Area, snapping dozens of acres of trees off 10 to 20 feet above the ground in a straight-line swath that left two of the three gates to the recreation area blocked by downed trees, a couple of them massive old-growth timber.

La Salle was evacuated and closed, and the DNR announced that all reservations are canceled through July 11. It will remain closed until further notice, as Itasca park officials say it may be next week before clean-up can even be started there.

Keith Lynnes of Walcott, N.D., watched Monday's storm from beneath the awning of his tent.

Trees branches fell around the car of his girlfriend, Denise Rogers of Fargo. Then she bolted for the safety of the bathhouse.

Shortly after, he watched a huge tree fall onto the roof of the bathhouse.

"I ran over to the bathroom and said, "Are you OK? She thought it was hail," he said.

"It was a mess," Lynnes said of the campground, toting up the damage. A camper lost its canopy. A fold-down camper was smashed, as was a pickup cab. Several other vehicles were also damaged, he said.

Perhaps 40 yards away from his tent, a fish cleaning house was still covered by another downed tree Tuesday afternoon.

"It was a real wild storm," he said.

But not wild enough to stop Internet access at the park. By Tuesday morning, Lynnes had sat down on the picnic table in front of his tent, logged onto Facebook with his laptop, and downloaded pictures of the damage.

"I think everybody was pretty lucky no one got hurt," Lynnes said. "Everybody was walking around checking on everyone. ... Three o'clock this morning, you could still hear chain saws," he said.

Itasca Park Manager Bob Chance, who is also in charge of the La Salle Lake recreation area, said that aerial assessments were under way and would probably be finished Tuesday.

He said hundreds of trees in the north half of Itasca State Park were destroyed by the storm.

"I was six miles from here and standing in my garage looking at the trees bending down to the ground," Chance said, including one that ended up lying across the top of his boat.

"All the roads had trees laying across them" on the way to the park. "And once I got to the park, I had to cut my way in," Chance said.

"I was expecting to find injuries, but we didn't," he said.

"They were such big trees. Some of these were 200- and 300-year-old trees," Chance said. "I was very happy that we had no injuries."

Chance estimated that perhaps three of four vehicles were significantly damaged by fallen limbs and trees Monday night, while several others had dents or glass damage and scratches.

DNR crews and contractors were working throughout the park and the campgrounds to clear fallen trees and branches. Most of the bigger trunks were just being pushed to the side to speed clearing of roads, Chance and Coughlon said.

Because of the sheer amount of damage, and the busy summer season, they said it could be a month or two before the damage in Itasca is fully cleaned up.

Connie Fredrickson of Bemidji said the storm "came really fast."

She and her husband went into their camper, which lost its awning, and then they were trapped briefly due to branches.

Fredrickson said they had been at the park since Thursday, but weren't planning on leaving until Sunday.

Ruth Burdick of Park Rapids said she and her husband "had just backed up the camper and it hit."

During the storm, a branch dropped onto their Winnebago and broke a vent.

She said they were unhappy about one aspect of the park's response. When the park lost power, the bathhouses were closed by employees. For people who only had tents, that left them with little shelter, even as the thunderstorm was still producing lightning, Burdick and Fredrickson said.

The DNR said the storm blocked roads and shut off power to an area stretching from Bemidji to east of Grand Rapids on Monday night. The area around Cass Lake was most severely affected.

Roads were blocked to Chippewa National Forest Campgrounds at Norway Beach and Pike Lake, the DNR said.

No injuries were reported, and campground roads were open by noon so campers could leave the area. The campgrounds remain closed until further notice, the DNR said.

The Winnie (Forest Service campground on the west side of Lake Winnie) and Cass Lake Campgrounds and the Migizi bicycle trail also remain closed, the DNR said.

About 100 recreational homes under special use permit from the Chippewa National Forest were also affected. Those home were along Pike Bay of Cass Lake, the DNR said.

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