When four of us arrived at the pair of portages from Lake One to Lake Two on Thursday morning, there were a dozen or so Forest Service personnel scattered along the trails. The Pagami Creek Fire, which had been started by lightning a couple weeks earlier, had moved toward this popular area of the wilderness, and threatened to run north into private property. A controlled burn of about 700 acres had been executed a couple days earlier to prevent the fire from spreading in this direction. The air was hazy, and occasionally a tree could be heard falling back in the woods, the result of either fire or water-softened soils from fire control sprinkler lines.
As I pulled on a Duluth pack, I ran into my old friend Thompson, who has been working as a wilderness ranger out of Ely for the past couple years. He and others were on a public safety crew, ensuring no visitors were harmed by the fire activity. He had been camped on Lake Two for 14 days, and would be heading back to town later that day.
We paddled across calm lakes eastward, soon putting the fire behind us. We arrived at Lake Insula late that afternoon, and picked a campsite featuring a huge beach and a view to the west, toward the direction where smoke from the fire was still visible on the horizon. We stayed on Insula for three nights and the shifting character of the smoke was a source of constant interest.
One morning, I woke up first as usual and started water boiling for coffee. The lake seemed hazier, and the smoke on the horizon less defined than previously. It occurred to me that we were now directly downwind, something I had been afraid would happen. As the morning progressed, it never got very smoky, but I’m not sure we could have stuck it out if that level of smoke had continued. Fortunately, the winds shifted and the smoke rose up off the lake by midday. It continued to blow overhead, and ash and crispy, half-burnt leaves fell on us all day long.
We left Insula on Sunday morning and started paddling back east, first into Hudson Lake and then Lake Four. The smoke plume was massive, and for the first day since we arrived, there was wind, blowing out of the northwest. While carrying the canoe over the quarter-mile portage between Insula and Hudson, a helicopter and an airplane few over, low to the ground. The helicopter passed over us again as we paddled hard against the wind on Hudson. For my friend Eric, who was home on leave from flying Blackhawk helicopters in Afghanistan, and who wanted nothing more than a few days of peace and quiet and certainly the absence of helicopters, the visit was unwelcome but accepted.
At the portage into Lake Four, another party pulled up to land and said the area was being evacuated. That was about all I gleaned, and we continued on our way. We paddled another couple miles before meeting a Forest Service canoe mid-lake. In addition to telling us that the area was being closed to visitors, they took the names of everyone in our party and said they would relay it back to people at the landing, who would check our names off the list when we arrived. We also saw a couple big canoes with motors on the back, an incongruous sight on the non-motorized wilderness lakes.
Crossing Lake Three, we got our best views of the fire and the smoke. We only saw a few distant flares of flame, but the plume had risen to some 25,000 feet in the sky, by pilot Eric’s estimation, and consumed much of the southern horizon. The smoke was luckily blowing away from us, to the south and east, and we paddled under sunny blue skies.
Our progress toward the landing was marked by Forest Service personnel positioned on shore seemingly every half-mile. As we would paddle past, they would talk into their radios. At the portages, groups of the hardhat-wearing young men volunteered to carry our gear over the portages. While I respected that they were just trying to keep the portages clear while dozens of groups were streaming out of the wilderness, I had to politely declined the offers, explaining I don’t come to the Boundary Waters to have other people carry my stuff.
We had another couple miles to paddle on Lake One and met one more canoe of Forest Service staff. The man in the back started by saying, “I’m sure you’re sick of talking to the Forest Service,” and then just confirmed we knew we had to leave.
While the fire was maybe 1,000 acres when we went into the woods on Thursday, estimates were that it was 4,500 acres yesterday. Word comes today that it is believed to have grown to 11,000 acres, fueled by the dry air and strong winds. It is being allowed to burn for the most part, as fires are a natural part of the ecosystem and wilderness is uniquely managed to let natural processes occur. A few efforts are being made to control the fire where it threatens to escape the wilderness and potentially harm private property.
Check out the below slideshow of photos of the fire: