Fire will transform Boundary Waters experience

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 17, 2011 - 10:16 PM

New look will be compelling to some, off-putting to others.

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(R to L) Under a beautiful September sky with no smoke in sight, Brandon Todd, Nick Siedow, and Mike Plekkenpol, all of Shakopee, load canoes at the Moose Lake entry point east of Ely Thursday afternoon. The men had reservations at an entry point along the Gunflint Trail that was closed because of the Pagami Creek Fire, so they adjusted their plans and put in at Moose Lake.

Photo: Star Tribune, Brian Peterson

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ELY, MINN. - Fall color in much of the southern Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is now black.

Lofty balsams are charred, snapped or toppled, their roots burned away. Scattered braids of smoke curl upward from smoldering logs and twigs. Winter's snows will eventually put out the Pagami Creek fire, but its impact will continue for years as paddlers and hikers confront a profoundly changed landscape in what has been the most visited corner of Minnesota's signature natural wonder.

The wildfire -- Minnesota's largest in 50 years -- started with a lightning strike Aug. 18 in the federally protected wilderness area and meandered harmlessly for several weeks until early last week, when high winds and parched landscape sent it racing, creating a giant plume that sent smoke as far as Milwaukee and Chicago.

No one has been injured or killed in the blaze, and a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources cabin has been the only property loss so far.

Many of the changes in the wilderness, like the fire that is spawning them, will be hard to predict. But what seems sure is that even if firefighters are successful in halting the fire's spread any farther, the BWCA experience that many remember will no longer be the same. For some people, that doesn't mean things will necessarily be worse, they'll just be different.

Marcus Andrusko is executive director of Boundary Waters Experience, which takes groups of at-risk urban kids through the wilderness outside Ely. He said six of the 12 routes he uses have been burned over. He expects to have to "educate customers" about the changes.

"It's not going to look the way it does on the postcards," he said. "But it's still going to be interesting."

Since the 1999 blowdown, which flattened one-third of the forest in the nearly 1,600-square-mile Boundary Waters, parts of the wilderness area have been similarly scorched -- by the 2007 Ham Lake fire, the 2006 Cavity Lake fire, and by deliberate "burnouts" by the U.S. Forest Service in the blown down area. The Pagami Creek fire so far has burned more than 146 square miles -- about 9 percent of the total designated wilderness. But it's an area where more than half of all the paddlers with permits to enter the BWCA last week were originally headed.

Kris Reichenbach, public affairs officer for the Superior National Forest, which includes the Boundary Waters, said teams will venture into the burned areas once it is safe to assess what changes might be needed for future use. The changes may include closing some campsites or portages, or limiting permits, but it's too early to say, she said.

Adam Hansen, whose family owns Sawbill Outfitters, in an area surrounded by the fire, said he couldn't predict how people planning to come to the BWCA might react to the latest burn. Some are likely to balk at not being able to hang their food packs from trees, away from hungry bears, he said.

"People's expectations just vary so widely," he said. "We've had customers who, if [officials] announce a fire ban, say, 'We're not going to come. My favorite experience is having a campfire.' What has meaning and what's valuable? It runs the gamut."

Makeover ahead

But many expect people to want to paddle into the burned area precisely because of the new fire. The standard scenery will be replaced by a forest beginning a makeover, which many will find compelling, said several paddlers, outfitters and other wilderness lovers. It should be easier to see moose, noted Nick Roos, a natural resources student from Ely who was paddling near the fire only last week. Blueberries could return as soon as next year to help fatten up bears, he added.

"After the blowdown, I don't remember anyone being disappointed," said photographer Jim Brandenburg, who lives outside Ely in a home that on Friday was only four miles from the edge of the fire. "I remember people remarking on the power of nature and how it changed the landscape. There was some sadness, but also a sense of wonderment.

"People who go into the Boundary Waters are kind of a rare breed of people who have an unusually high appreciation of nature," Brandenburg added. "It's not easy to go canoeing in there. But for people who love nature, I think this fire is an unusual opportunity to see nature in a most profound and definitive way."

If last week was any indication, the area is likely to hold its appeal. Even with Minnesota's largest fire in nearly 100 years still burning, few outfitters reported cancellations, and the entries that remained open were busy with paddlers who'd changed their itineraries.

Mike Plekkenpol of Shakopee and two pals, for example, were shoving off into Moose Lake on Thursday. Their families, they said, had "thought the whole place was on fire," but they simply changed their permitted entry point from the Gunflint Trail, likely downwind from the fire, to a route that would take them away from it. Others made similar switches.

"This time of year up here is usually so quiet, but holy cow," Plekkenpol said. "It's almost like there are more people coming up."

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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