New mining proposals near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are a complex problem. Big enough for 2,800 words and still not covering all the issues.
I did my best to provide a comprehensive status report on the issue for the spring 2013 issue of Wilderness News, published by the Quetico-Superior Foundation.
The Twin Metals copper mine proposal has been described by supporters as an “underground city,” a “juggernaut,” a “monster deposit,” and possibly the “largest mine in Minnesota history.” Opponents talk about the short-term proposed gains versus the long-term environmental damage of the mine; mining’s history of “boom, then bust” in Minnesota; and ask what, if any, price should be put on preserving our state’s largest and most beloved natural area, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
In every creative writing class I’ve ever taken, it has been stressed that you must be specific when you write — include details. The instruction is often misinterpreted as to include all the details, or as many as possible.
In my introduction to Volume 1 of The Firegrate Review, I wrote that “every canoe trip is a story.” That held true for me in 2011, as I managed to paddle into Lake Insula just as the Pagami Creek Fire was set to explode into the biggest wildfire in the recorded history of Minnesota.
My friend Stephen Wilbers, who has shared excerpts from his latest Boundary Waters book in this publication, told me recently that he could not have written his books without keeping a detailed journal of every trip he has taken to the wilderness over the past several decades. It made me think about how I can recall each trip I have been on, but it usually just one or two highlights: A night at a terrific campsite, a day with a bad headwind, a moose or the northern lights or a long, hard portage. I have to consult my own logs to remember the minutia.
A good story is about the details, and that is why Stephen’s journals are essential to his books. If you read his work, you inevitably feel like you were there with him, his dad, his son and the other companions that joined him in the wilderness. That is because he includes details like breaking a fishing rod, a conversation around the campfire, a solo paddle after dinner on a perfectly still lake.
Even though my experience with the Pagami Creek Fire is a story I will probably tell for the rest of my life, I hold fast to parts of that trip that had nothing to do with the fire.
One afternoon while we were camped on Insula, there was not a breath of wind, the water was perfectly calm, and the air was hazy with smoke from the fire, which was several miles away. A quarter-mile across the lake, a group of young men landed their canoe on an island and took turns jumping off a 15-foot cliff into the water.
We watched them from our campsite, and we would see the splash when they hit the water, but only a second later would we hear it. That sense of the empty expanse of water between us and the island was powerful – it amplified the vastness of the wilderness we were in, and how empty it was of humans.
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.
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.
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.
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:
I spent Thursday and Friday last week playing tour guide for a reporter in the woods of northern Minnesota. The trip was personally rewarding because in seeking to provide a good story for the reporter, I experienced one myself.
My journey north on Thursday took me to Two Harbors and then straight north to visit a man who has read everything Thoreau ever wrote and owns a canoe Garrison Keillor once paddled. Friday afternoon was foggy as I drove home via a circuitous route on lonely National Forest roads. I went 20 miles at a time or more without seeing another vehicle.
There was pretty scenery, but there was also interesting scenes. I documented the trip with some photos in the slideshow below.