September–October 2021


Back in the Flow

This dam removal project has many winners—especially fish.

Keith Goetzman

On a simmering July day, a profusion of “d” flies—deer, dragon, and damsel—dart around a visitor to Portage Creek near Leech Lake. As he wades in the cool waters beneath the Soo Line North Trail bridge, an ATV rumbles over the thick planks above.

The site is notable in part for what’s not here: a dam. For decades, an aging dam spanned the creek, blocking passage of fish and other aquatic life between Portage Lake and Leech Lake and sometimes causing high water upstream on Portage Lake. The trail crossed a similarly aged bridge over the dam. Now a carefully constructed set of rock weirs, or stepped ledges, allows fish such as northern pike and walleye to pass in the water below while a new bridge lets ATVs pass on the trail above, all while better moderating Portage Lake’s levels.

The project has been deemed a success by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Legacy Fund Restoration Evaluation Program. “It benefits lots of different interests, including lake and stream ecosystems, fish communities, anglers, ATV riders, and lakeshore owners,” says Gina Quiram, DNR restoration evaluation specialist.

It’s fitting, then, that the project involved multiple parties—namely the U.S. Forest Service, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and the DNR. This three-way cooperation was key, since the site lies within both the Leech Lake Reservation and the Chippewa National Forest, on public waters managed by the DNR and crossed by a DNR-run trail.

The dam’s demise is part of a steady Minnesota trend in which dam removals outnumber new dams, says DNR river scientist Luther Aadland, who reviewed Forest Service plans for the Portage Creek project. “Overall there’s more awareness of the environmental impacts of dams,” says Aadland, such as blocking the passage of fish and other aquatic organisms.

The Forest Service saw this impact when assessing waterways in the Chippewa National Forest in 2008 and 2009. “The light bulb went on when we went out to some of these sites, including Portage Creek, in springtime with all these fish trying to jump the dam stopboards,” says Todd Tisler, fish and wildlife program manager for the forest and project co-leader. The Forest Service designed the project, working with the Leech Lake band and incorporating expertise from the DNR Walker fisheries office and from past DNR dam removal projects.

So what was at the site before the dam? Nothing—nothing, that is, except pristine wilderness and a byway of an earlier era, a canoe portage used by Indigenous people and fur traders.

“It’s called Portage Creek because that was the historical portage between Leech Lake and Lake Winnibigoshish,” says Steve Mortensen, director of the Leech Lake band’s fish and wildlife program. “You’d come up off of Leech, go up Portage Creek into Portage Lake, and then there was an overland portage about a mile or so into Winnie.”