Story by Connie Rosinsky
June 7, 2007, started out to be the prefect summer day, with the temperature just right to feel comfortable with a t-shirt, shorts and sandals on. Little did we know that the day was going to dramatically change the life of the entire mid-western paddling community. As I packed my car to head up to the cabin in Langlade, I listened to the weather alerts on the radio about bad storms that might be moving across the north central part of Wisconsin. Amanda, a friend that I met through paddling, called and mentioned that she was also heading to the cabin for the weekend. We talked about the weather conditions and agreed it was hard to believe bad weather was on the way as it was such a beautiful day with the sun shining.
When I arrived up north I made a stop at Bear Paw as usual to catch up on the paddling news and to find out who was there for a paddle. Before heading to the cabin, I made one more stop at Mike and Alice’s gas station. Alice told me that Langlade County was under a tornado watch all afternoon, and warned me to stay off the water. She also told me that if a storm hits I should leave the cabin and head for safety.
It was around 3:30 p.m. when I arrived at the cabin and Amanda arrived shortly thereafter. The television was giving us an up-to-date weather report and announced that the storm was producing high winds and hail and moving at 50 miles per hour east of Antigo. Around 4:50 p.m. looking to the west out the cabin window, Amanda noticed the sky turning completely black as if it were the middle of the night. The air was very still and gave us an eerie feeling. That is when Amanda said we should leave the cabin and head to Bear Paw for safety. I started closing all the windows and turning off all the lights when we heard an extremely loud crack of thunder that made both of us jump. The rain was coming down hard as we both ran for the car. At 5:25 we left the cabin which is about six miles away from Bear Paw. When we were about a quarter of a mile from Bear Paw, Amanda and I noticed the road was covered with leaves. Then we noticed all the trees down on the road ahead of us, and, to our horror, we saw parts of trees that were left standing across the road with kayaks wrapped around them and debris strewn all over. The road was littered with lumber that had nails sticking out of it. Amanda and I pulled into a driveway and a speeding truck drove up next to us. I rolled down my window and asked where we were. The driver said “Bear Paw.” Amanda looked forward and said “Oh no, the Sun Bear Restaurant is gone!” All that was left standing was the bathroom doors marked Men and Women. When we stepped out of the car, the smell of lumber permeated the air. Within five minutes, the police, fire and rescue departments were all at Bear Paw. I turned and looked to my left and noticed that the office and trading post were gone and then I realized that the kayaks that had been in or near the office and trading post were the ones I had seen in the trees across the road.
The next thought that raced through my mind was that there was no way anyone could have lived through this. The rain was still coming down hard and the police officers would not let anyone go any farther than the parking lot because of live power lines being down. They kept reassuring us that everyone at Bear Paw was okay, but I would not believe it until I could see proof. As campers and Bear Paw employees started walking up to the parking lot, we could see that most of them were bleeding from cuts they sustained from the tornado. The last one coming up to the parking lot was the co-owner, Jamee. She had such a distraught look on her face that we did not even know it was her at first. I agreed with Dave Moss, an employee at Bear Paw, when he said the most beautiful sight that day was when we saw Jamee walking up to the parking lot and we knew that she was alive. I stood looking around for a moment in shock; the only two buildings still standing were the four-plex rental and the metal building that was the boat shed. I wondered if this was what a war zone looked like and where to start the clean-up. We heard a couple days later that it was a F3 tornado with up to 175 mph winds that devastated 36 miles and finally dissipated after the town of Riverview.
Within two hours after the tornado hit, the sun was out again and everyone at Bear Paw started helping Jamee and Shirlee look for anything valuable before the sun went down for the evening. That weekend there were over 100 volunteers who showed up to help. The clean-up was so well organized and drew so many volunteers that, by the end of the weekend, about the only work remaining were for chain saws and heavy machinery. The phone calls and emails started pouring in from paddlers wanting to help in any way they could. A call came from as far away as South Dakota from a paddler wanting to donate his crew and supplies to rebuild the Sun Bear Restaurant. The Red Cross and the Raw Hide Boys Ranch were at Bear Paw that weekend doing an excellent job at helping with the clean up. The Salvation Army and the White Lake Food Pantry donated food and water for the volunteers. A number of paddling clubs also came to Bear Paw to help. Craig, a paddler from Illinois that had been staying at Bear Paw for the weekend, was kayaking at Gilmore’s Mistake when the tornado hit. Craig has helped with the clean-up from the start and told me he is not going home until it is finished.
If you were looking for someone to kayak with for the day, all you had to do was show up at Bear Paw in the morning and you would always find someone eager to paddle with you. Later in the evening, it was always fun just to sit back and relax in the Sun Bear Restaurant for a great meal and talk about the day on the water and what river was going to be paddled in the morning. The Sun Bear reminded me of the television show, Cheers. When you walked in, everyone knew your name, and, if they didn’t know you at first, they did by the time you walked out. I have met life-long friends at Bear Paw.
Bear Paw ran a number of different classes and especially enjoyed getting beginners started in kayaking. One of the courses offered was a Women’s Whitewater Festival. It was an awesome three day event offering clinics to women at kayaking levels from beginner to advanced. Anna Levesque and Emily Jackson helped teach the clinics. In one of the clinics, there were over fifteen women that paddled the Red River. At Monastery Falls, a women kayaker that was not with the clinic paddled over to me and asked me what was going on and where we were from, saying that she had never seen that many women on the water at one time before.
There was a big ceramic bear that marked the entrance to Bear Paw. The bear is still missing with countless other things that vanished with the tornado. The one thing that the tornado could not destroy is all the great memories and sense of community that Bear Paw created.
I respect Jamee and Shirlee’s decision on what the future holds for Bear Paw whether their plans include rebuilding or hanging up their aprons for the last time, turning the lights off, and calling it a day. They had a very special place at Bear Paw and I would like to thank them for making life “so damn much fun!”