Beachwalk: Assessing the mess on Brighton Beach

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One morning this week, I took a walk along Brighton Beach. I wanted to see firsthand the damage that last week's winter storm had wrought.

I had been gone when the storm, with its powerful northeast winds, lashed our end of Lake Superior into a froth. I hate to miss a good storm.

Waves from the big blow had pummeled the modest road that flirts with the cobblestone beach and riprap along the shore. Sand, beach cobblestones and driftwood tree trunks littered the road. You could walk through it, but you had to be careful. In one area, the waves had buckled and heaved plates of asphalt the size of dining-room tables. The incoming walls of water had tossed basketball-sized boulders onto the roadway, which was closed to vehicle traffic after the storm. Driftwood of all sizes was windrowed on the road and farther inland.

That was a good blow.

I ran into Dannae Olson, who lives just a mile east of Brighton Beach along the shore. She was walking her young Lab, Gus.

"It's pretty devastating, really," said Olson, 35. "I feel bad for this spot."

That's a good way to put it. Brighton Beach is a place that a lot of Duluth residents — and visitors — use and enjoy. We picnic there. We walk our dogs and ourselves there. Runners and bikers swing down to the lake for a look. Kayakers put in there and paddle along the shore.

But it's going to take some serious work to put Brighton Beach back together again. I feel for our city, already too strapped to keep our streets up to par. And now this unexpected expense — even with possible help from the state government.

"I never thought the water would rise this high," Olson said, surveying the mess.

Despite the damage and the repairs that will be required, I'll admit I was impressed, one more time, with the power of a good storm. It's a privilege, as well as an occasional inconvenience, to live in a place where the awe of the natural world displays itself on a regular basis. Such is life in the North, especially along the shore of the world's most expansive freshwater lake.

This time it was the wind-driven ferocity of waves pounding the shoreline, rearranging ponderous boulders, tossing stones willy-nilly or simply ripping to smithereens mankind's best efforts at road construction.

One stands there, in the aftermath, pondering the sheer heft and velocity of all that water crashing ashore and what it accomplished in one night and day.

How many other times have we happened upon — or actively sought out — such wonders? "Sea smoke" on a 25-below morning. Sheets of window-pane ice being shoved ashore on a January afternoon. Or that rare and glorious winter — 2007, remember? — when our end of the lake froze a clear and solid one foot thick. And stayed that way for several days.

All of this occurs because we live in a place with the potential interplay of so many elements, foremost among them water, wind, wildfire, ice, deep cold — and the long fetch of Lake Superior. To say nothing of army worms.

I think farmers would understand. Their lives and livelihoods are completely at the whim of rain, snow, drought, cold, wind and pestilence. They understand what we up here know at the most basic level: We are not in charge.

We can plant and weed and fertilize. We can move around in our cars and trucks and ore boats and planes and four-wheelers. And still, on some fateful days, we are nothing.

Humility and awe come easily.

I kept on poking along on my walk, surveying the damage. Lake Superior sloshed ashore in whispering wavelets as if nothing had happened at all.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com. Find his Facebook page at facebook.com/SamCookOutdoors or his blog at samcook.areavoices.com.