The thundercloud-like effect of the smoke, Saturday evening

Pagami proximity

The latest post on my Star Tribune blog.

Looking south from the narrows between Lake Four and Three

A week ago, I was waking up at my campsite on Lake Insula, in the Boundary Waters. It was going to be another beautiful day, the morning light seemingly soft and quiet. I made coffee and enjoyed the view west across the bay, where an old white pine stood tall over blowdown forest — mostly scrubby balsam and birch. Several miles behind the pine, a column of smoke rose from the horizon.

The next morning, the campsite was smoky. It wasn’t unbearable, but made for a scratchy throat. I wondered if we would have to move if the smoke didn’t lift. But by noon, the column was not stretched out toward us, but rose straight into the sky. A big stormlike cloud flowed east over our heads.

That evening, we went out fishing on the lake and watched the sun set behind the plume. I snapped a photo of my friend Wade, in the bow of the canoe, starting at the smoke. I did not imagine it would grace the front page of the Star Tribune just a couple days later.

On Monday, after we had gotten out of the woods, I posted a photo slideshow of the trip on YouTube. It has now been watched more than 2,800 times. The photos literally spread like wildfire as the Pagami Creek Fire blew up from 1,000 acres to 4,500 to 11,000 to suddenly 60,000 and then 100,000 acres.

Ultimately, in addition to the Star Tribune, the pictures showed up on MPR’s homepage, on KARE 11’s broadcasts, on KTTC in Rochester, and even the Door County Daily News, where smoke from the fire was noticeable hundreds of miles away.

Wednesday, I was interviewed by Bill Hudson of WCCO-TV about the experience. The headline for the story on the station’s website was sensational — our trip was neither “harrowing” nor an “escape” — and there were some problems with the chronology and other facts. Maybe I told the story disjointedly, or maybe it wasn’t exciting enough. I posted a full, factual account of the experience on my personal blog.

Now, the fire has moved on and so has the attention. Reporters have flocked to the north woods and there is a considerable amount of on-the-ground reporting being done. I have told my story enough times, anyway.

This fire has grabbed the attention of the whole state, it seems. The Boundary Waters is like nowhere else in Minnesota, nor even the country or the world. And now 10 percent of it has burned.

Lake Three

As far as I can tell from the fire progression maps, it looks like that whole half of the lake where we were camped for three nights was burned over a day or two after we left. A group of rangers out checking for visitors got caught out on the lake when the fire hit and had what sounds like a truly harrowing experience as the fire whipped up a windstorm and forced them to take cover under their fire shelters on a rocky island in the middle of the lake for an hour as hot embers and ash rained down on them. I wonder if that that centuries-old pine across from our campsite on Insula still stands.

This week, I have also thought a lot about the people who live at the edge of the Boundary Waters. I know what the smoke from just 4,500 acres looked like. It appears on the horizon like a mythical creature, out-of-control and possessing incredible destructive power. It is a force like an earthquake or a hurricane and we feel small against it.

The past couple days have been cool and calm, and there has even been some rain and snow, which has given firefighters a chance to regroup and bring in reinforcements. But the next couple days are forecast to be warmer and windier again.

While we were camped on Insula last week, a bald eagle frequently perched in a tree on an island across from us. It spent long hours there watching the lake. As we paddled across the lake on our way out, the eagle flew above us and past us and into the big white pine we had been admiring. I figure its nest was there. I wonder if it still is.

If the fire flares up again, though, I hope it is only white pines and eagle’s nests that suffer, not humans or homes. The boreal forest is meant to burn sometimes; our habitations are simply not.

The thundercloud-like effect of the smoke, Saturday evening

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