GARRISON -- It looked as if the remains of a shipwreck had somehow blown onto the shores of Mille Lacs Lake.
The beach along Garrison Bay on Tuesday was littered with thousands of wooden blocks, butane lighters, pieces of Styrofoam, propane cylinders, plastic pails and de-icer bottles, smokeless tobacco boxes, candles, beer and pop cans, water and milk jugs, shoes, socks, boots, hats, road signs, tennis balls, Frisbees and even two full-size telephone poles.
The Titanic-like mass of garbage was left by ice fishermen, who last winter came to Mille Lacs by the thousands. When the ice melted last week the garbage floated to shore. Each spring some unlucky Mille Lacs residents must clean it up. Prevailing winds after ice-out decide who gets the job. This year it fell to the residents of Garrison Bay, thanks to a southeast wind that blew most of last weekend. Nobody knows where the junk will end up next year but many agree the problem is getting worse.
"This is the worst we've ever seen it," said property owner Shane Chaput, who with his wife Rosemarie and two children moved to Garrison Bay from Apple Valley five years ago. "A lady up the street who's been here 25 years said this is the worst she's seen it. In years past we've picked up maybe a hundred pieces of wood. This year we've picked up four times that much."
The pieces of wood Chaput refers to are 4 inch by 4 inch blocks commonly used to prop up fish houses. Placing a house on blocks prevents it from freezing into the ice, making house removal at winter's end quicker and easier. But many people leave the blocks behind, resulting in huge rafts of floating wood come spring. Some of the wood is big enough to rip a hole in the hull of a boat -- a potential hazard with walleye season opening Saturday. And some of it is pressure-treated and contains arsenic, worsening its pollution potential.
Solid waste on the ice is not regulated, said Kelli Huxford, an information officer with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in Brainerd. "We suggest that (Chaput) and the lake association and maybe the tribe get together and work on educating people a bit more," Huxford said. "Maybe get the resort owners involved too."
Tuesday as Chaput walked along his 500 feet of lakeshore he wondered how he would remove the trash. Last year he replaced his wheelbarrow with a six-wheel all-terrain vehicle. But the magnitude of the job is more than a six-wheeler and one family can handle.
"The DNR said they would organize some help but I've heard nothing yet," said Chaput, who had hoped to spend his free time this week preparing for the fishing opener instead of cleaning his beach. "If we could get a Bobcat and a dump truck down here we could get it out. But we'll have to move fast. When all the docks are in it will be much tougher."
The Mille Lacs problem in general and Chaput's problem in particular are compounded by two facts: Mille Lacs averages 5,000 permanent fish houses per winter, more than any lake its size, and Chaput's property is located in a corner of Garrison Bay next to Garrison Creek Marina, whose levee forms a natural corral and helps bring to shore a lot of trash that would float past a less protected shoreline.
"I'm not blaming resort owners for all of this," Chaput said, "but they profit from ice house rentals. If they don't take time to remove their signs they won't take time to remove their blocks either."
Rosemarie suggests that ice fishermen who come to Mille Lacs next winter spend an extra half hour chiseling out their blocks and picking up around their houses.
"You know who you are," Rosemarie said. "Let your conscience be your guide."
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