Kate Kubiak stood on the old Chester Bowl dam and pointed downstream toward Skyline Drive, a stretch where Chester Creek meanders under tall trees, riffling through boulders and around logs - shaded, cool and unencumbered by development.
"That's what we hope it looks like upstream from here when we're finished," said Kubiak, project manager with the South St. Louis County Soil and Water Conservation District.
Chester Creek is getting a makeover in coming weeks as it winds through Chester Bowl in Duluth, with two dams coming out, the stream channel realigned to its natural course and trees planted along the banks.
The 1930s-vintage dams lost most of their holding power after the June 2012 downpour and flood, blown out by the massive force of water rolling downstream. But the dams are still in place and still altering the river. Work will start Monday pulling the dams out and "re-meandering" the stream as it flows between the popular ski hill on one side and the outdoor concert venue and playground on the other.
"We have a designated trout stream running through the heart of the city's most used park, so there's a lot to consider when doing a project like this," Kubiak said.
Where the dams are coming out, the stream's drop toward Lake Superior will be made more gradual, with a series of rock rapids, and with pools below each where trout can hang out. Rocks will be moved to strategic places. Big tree trunks will be buried under banks to provide hiding places for fish.
The project covers about 750 feet of the stream, from just downstream of the chalet to the lower dam. The state Legislature authorized $516,000 for the project through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, as storm recovery funding. But bids came in much lower, just under $200,000. The remaining money will go back to the state.
Work usually is prohibited in trout streams in the fall when brook trout spawn. But because there are so few fish left in the project area the DNR is allowing an exception this time. Working earlier in the summer would have been almost impossible because the park hosts so many people and events.
"We should mostly wrap up this fall, in about six weeks, except for the tree planting which will be next spring. So we're asking people to be patient. It's going to take a year or two before it looks right again after the work," Kubiak said. "And we're asking people to stay off the worked-on areas - the areas right along the creek."
Deserae Hendrickson, Duluth area fisheries supervisor for the DNR, said the agency has moved to stocking brown trout in much of Chester Creek because they are better suited for warmer waters. Native brook trout are still reproducing farther upstream, closer to the creek's cold spring headwaters near Duluth International Airport.
"There may still be a few natural wild brook trout that make their way down to that Chester Bowl area. But it's more likely it will be (stocked) brown trout that will be the most numerous in that part of the creek," Hendrickson said.
The city will pay for a modest pedestrian bridge that will cross the creek where the larger, downstream dam is now located. A second, seasonal bridge will continue to be placed near the chalet each winter to allow access across the creek to the ski hill.
The goal of the current project is to retain all of the public recreation at Chester Bowl - from skiing and snowboarding to summer youth camps, concerts, festivals and daily dog walkers - but also restore the creek so it can live up to its official designation as a trout stream.
The nonprofit Chester Bowl Improvement Club, which runs both the winter ski hill and a summer camp program in Chester Bowl, has worked with Kubiak, the DNR and city officials to ensure that the hugely popular youth programs won't be adversely impacted by the work. The club also also has started a fundraising campaign to expand and modernize the chalet, working with city and DNR officials to meet stream setback requirements while still accommodating the rapidly growing winter sports program.
That compromise meant keeping the bottom of the ski hill intact. That area will continue to be a lower floodplain, a place where the creek can expand after heavy rain or snowmelt. But it won't be planted with trees or otherwise changed, Kubiak noted. It's the area where the ponds were once located, above the dams, before the flood mostly emptied them.
While some park users wanted to see the ponds restored, for kids to kayak and canoe on, the DNR instead wanted better trout habitat: Dams tend to slow streams, warming the water to make them unsuitable for fish in summer.
"I think people, by now, have gotten used to not having the ponds. So that's not as controversial as it might have been before" the flood, Kubiak noted.
The city helped restore upstream areas of the creek, just below Kenwood Avenue, two years ago, also using state storm recovery grants. And the Soil and Water Conservation District is working on areas even further upstream, near the Aspenwood housing development, to remove long culverts and open the stream to daylight and make it more natural. That work could start in 2018, again with state conservation grants and help from Trout Unlimited.
"It's a mess up there," Kubiak said. "This stream goes through a lot on its way down to the lake."
If you go
Chester Creek restoration project information meetings
Public open house: Wednesday, 5:30-7:30 p.m., Grant Recreation Center, 901 E. 11th St.
Public walk-through of project: Wednesday 10 a.m at Chester Bowl Park
For more information: Contact Jim Shoberg, city of Duluth project coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (218) 730-4316 or Kate Kubiak, South St. Louis Soil and Water Conservation District, at email@example.com or at (218) 723-4946.