To the casual visitor, large patches of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness surrounding the Gunflint Trail look a little unusual. Blueberry, chokecherry and other bushes are thriving. Spindly young aspen, birch and pine about 10 feet tall line the hills and lakes. The occasional gray or black trunk of a tall, lifeless tree stretches into the sky.
Paddlers unfamiliar with the area sometimes can’t quite put their finger on what happened there.
“Now it’s to the point where … they just say, ‘What’s up with that area we paddled through?’ ” said Mike Prom, who launches campers into the wilderness at his Voyageur Canoe Outfitters business just off the end of the 58-mile-long Gunflint Trail highway.
Ten years ago, more than 75,000 acres burned in Minnesota and Ontario, much of it down to bedrock. At the time, it was the most destructive forest fire the state had seen in nearly a century.
Dubbed the Ham Lake fire, it burned May 5-12, 2007, and destroyed more than 130 structures on the American side, including residences and commercial buildings. The spreading fire eventually required evacuating almost all of Gunflint Trail and dealt a taxing blow to the local economy and scenery.
But it also brought people together and highlighted locals’ renowned resourcefulness.
“Everybody dropped everything,” recalled Bruce Kerfoot, who owned Gunflint Lodge at the time. “Everybody had a mission.”
Kerfoot’s lodge, a safe distance from the flames in the fire’s early days, hosted hundreds of firefighters from around the country. Though the electricity was out, Upper Lakes Foods out of Cloquet quickly brought in a giant refrigerated trailer and filled it periodically, without Kerfoot even requesting it, he said. Then, before he knew it, community members showed up to make sandwiches.
“You sit there and shake your head and you’re saying, ‘We never even put the request out,’ ” Kerfoot said.
Grand Marais business owners also delivered food and other supplies to people in need. Families close to town took in schoolchildren evacuated from their homes. U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar applied pressure to get phone service restored. The list of kind acts went on and on.
Nobody died in the fire, though a longtime camper who faced charges of letting his campfire grow out of control later took his own life.
The fire’s early May timing was especially cruel for business, Kerfoot said, because that’s when lodges and outfitters are typically booking for the rest of the summer. It took a year before business returned close to normal levels, he said.
At first, businesses and marketers promoted the new scenic vistas and rock formations exposed by the fire as a different kind of beauty to attract visitors. To help the forest rebirth, community members planted new trees on private land and worked with federal officials to plant some 600,000 seedlings — mostly red and white pine — on forest service land along the highway corridor over the past decade.
Prom, who was assistant fire chief of the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department at the time of the fire, credits sprinkler systems for saving a lot of property along the trail; Grant money for fire protection became available after a major wind swept through the area in 1999, blowing down millions of trees on 350,000 acres and littering the forest with dead wood.
Because of sprinklers and tree planting, there is now a patchwork of tall and short trees along the Gunflint, he said: “It’s a nice mosaic.”
A new exhibit on the Ham Lake Fire will open at the Chik-Wauk Museum near the end of Gunflint Trail on Memorial Day weekend.