Where the Roads End in Water: The Lake That Won't Stop Rising

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A February 2011 study by North Dakota State University calculated that the ongoing flood will cause the region $194.4 million in losses this year, stemming almost entirely from lost agricultural production. For a population this small, that's a huge hit. And yet at the same time, a bittersweet trade-off is taking place, as the rising waters allow the growth of a new, albeit much smaller, market: tourism.

Even when it was small, Devils Lake was a popular fishing spot, but since 1993 it has become a destination for anglers from all over the region. Many of the landmarks that have disappeared are now reappearing on fishing maps of the lake, as angling hot spots with names like "Howards Farm" and "Haybale Bay." Most renowned is the site of old County Road 0322, which used to lead out of Minnewaukan to a popular state park. In a premonition sometime before the flooding began, the county raised the road what seemed like a ridiculous 12 feet above the lakebed. Today the road is 14 feet underwater, and on contour maps it has been renamed "The Golden Highway": its steep slopes are a perfect habitat for walleye, and fishing guides go there when they need reliable bites for their clients.

Accompanying the fishing is an alternate economy in the form of bait shops and guide services, resorts and RV parks. The capital infusion is welcome, but the shift toward a tourist economy comes with a strange transformation of the community and landscape. As houses are torn down because of flooding, often the land is sold for pennies to people from Fargo or Minneapolis, who set up trailers and use the lots as fishing camps. On the dry side of the K-12 school in Minnewaukan, a motel has taken over an entire neighborhood block. There's no restaurant in town anymore, but the bait shop is open daily.

In 2002, the year after the Yris bought their farm, they went to the bank in spring as usual. But this time, instead of asking for the customary farm loan to cover seeds and fertilizer, they had in hand a business plan for an endeavor called "West Bay Resort"—and a request for far more capital than they had ever borrowed before. As they tell the story, the banker was unfazed. His only question: "When do you need the money?"

The Yris brought in three fishing cabins—all modular, so that if it didn't work out they could sell them off. But it did work, and soon thereafter they put in three more. Then an RV park with 30 spots, and 37 more planned. The latest expansion is turning their driveway into a satellite salesroom for Ice Castle Fishing House trailers, which they sell in partnership with a dealer in Minnesota.

"When we came up with the idea for the resort, we'd never done anything like this," Jim said. "We'd never written a business plan before. We'd never even stayed in a resort or a campground. But like they say, it's 'location, location, location,' y'know?"

I asked him and Diane if they felt nervous about the decision, and Diane quickly answered no. "In fact," she said, "when we went to the bank finally, it was the first time I signed loan papers that I didn't feel nervous about."

At first Jim kept farming—he couldn't imagine not farming—but after a few years of success with the resort, he realized he couldn't do both. Spring was especially difficult, as planting came at the same time as prepping the resort for the summer season. In time both businesses fell behind, and he was forced to choose between them. In 2006 he rented out his land to a larger farming operation based in another county, and focused full-time on the resort.

With their son, DJ, they still keep cattle in the pasture alongside the lake. Jim still gets out on the old tractor to put up hay for the herd, or to move equipment around the resort. But does he miss being a professional farmer?

"No, I haven't missed it," he said, then corrected himself. "At least, I haven't missed the stress of it."

I asked what happens if the lake recedes, if their farm ceases to be the prime waterfront location that it is now. They said they hope that their regular customers would keep coming back because of the other benefits of their place—the quiet seclusion, the natural setting.

"I guess our thought is that if we do it right, we'll have a reputation that will mean people will still want to come," Jim said. "It wouldn't necessarily have to be a fishing resort, it could be a—what do you call it?—a getaway destination. And, what the heck, I'm 55. If it takes the lake 10 years to crash, I'll be ready to retire." In the moment he seemed eternally good-natured and optimistic.

But weeks after my visit, as I read an email from him, I could see another storm passing over, darkening his brow. He wrote that the south winds were up to 40 mile per hour again, and the farm was sure to lose more ground. He told me that he was just hoping the loss would be measured "in feet and not acres."

As I read the email I recalled two wall hangings that decorate the Yri home. One read, "The years tell us much that the days never knew." The other, hanging in the office above where they take reservations for the resort, was more of a joke: "I hope our ship comes in before the dock rots."

This article was written with the support of the Alicia Patterson Foundation.
Images: Lisa M. Hamilton

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Lisa M. Hamilton is a writer and photographer who focuses on agriculture and rural communities around the world.

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