Where There’s Smoke

A personal encounter with the heat of the Ham Lake fire

“HEY GUYS, I think you better see this.” The words woke me in the pre-dawn darkness, and I could hear the worry in my friend’s voice. I scrambled out of my sleeping bag and emerg­ed from the tent to see an eastern sky stained blood-red.

I suggested that the scarlet glow was just the dawn. But I couldn’t help recalling what we had seen the previous afternoon. Paddling across Seagull Lake, in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, our party had noticed a feathery wisp of black smoke hanging like a question mark in the southern sky, toward Ham Lake. “Looks like a forest fire,” one of us said. We kept paddling.

Our party of three was on assignment for a backpacking magazine. It was early May, and the ice had just disappeared from the lakes. We had not expected to encounter a blaze. But two hours after we’d first glimpsed smoke, the buzz of propellers overhead told us the Forest Service had lifted its ban on aircraft flying lower than 4,000-feet over the wilderness. This was officially an emergency.

Gathered around the breakfast campfire, we convinced ourselves that we were not in danger. The fire was burning to the south. And between the flames and our position lay 30,000 acres of burned-out forest from last year’s fire at Cavity Lake. Forest fires generally don’t cross fields of charcoal.

But that evening, after sunset, the red dawn in the east reappeared. Two of us donned headlamps and hiked up a ridge to get a look at the conflagration. The headlamps weren’t needed. The blood-orange luminance above cast shadows. We could see fiery flashes boiling up above trees a few miles away. They looked to be 100-feet tall. The fire was sweeping past our entry point, around the Cavity Lake burn, and up the Gunflint Trail. Our cars, parked at a distant campground, were probably melting.

Our sleep that night was fitful. Nobody talked about escape plans, but we were all hatching them in our heads. My idea was to paddle west into the Cavity Lake burn, where there was hardly enough fuel left to feed a fire. But it was windy, and if the canoe tipped, we’d quickly die of hypothermia in the chilly waters. Still, I thought, it beat being incinerated.

By morning, the wind had subsided, and we decided to head out. Seagull Lake’s eastern shore had been transformed: The balsam firs and jack pines we passed on our way in were now skeletons of black, bare branches. Hot spots crackled like campfires. A fire still smoldered inside a standing tree, the smoke twisting lazily through a woodpecker’s hole.

Our cars had been spared, though trees just 30 yards away were charred. On the drive out I saw scorched propane tanks beside the ruins of cabins, a few of the 140 buildings that would eventually be lost in the 75,000-acre fire. But I also spotted opened cones dangling from the branches of jack pines. I knew that a year later, there would be saplings here, a forest reborn. I could hardly wait to come back.

Gustave Axelson is a St. Paul-based freelance writer.