A whiff of smoke, a glimpse of orange, then hell descended

Trapped on a lake by the BWCA blaze, two campers fled for their lives.


Julie and Greg Welch after being blown to the east side of Kawasachong Lake, and just after the rain put the fire out.

It was a perfect September afternoon in Minnesota's north woods. Julie Welch sent her husband off to fish so she could sit in peace and read her book in the slanting sunlight on the west side of Kawasachong Lake, where they had set up camp.

As Greg began loading his kayak, he saw the light had changed. The trees had become iridescent.

It was so striking that he pulled out his camera and took a few photographs. Reviewing the pictures, he saw that the camera had picked up something he couldn't see with the naked eye -- orange streaks against the blue sky.

It couldn't be the Pagami Creek fire, he thought. Just a day earlier, when they entered the BWCA, a forest ranger in Tofte had told them the fire was 14 miles to the west. Sure, the wind had shifted and was now blowing east, but the fire couldn't possibly move that fast, he thought.

A little rattled, Welch, 48, paddled toward a river outlet just up the shore so he could get a better view to the west.

As he rounded the point, he saw hell racing toward him.

A hot wind howled out of the woods with the sound of a freight train, flattening tall pine trees. And the flames -- the flames were moving so fast they were horizontal.

Greg turned and paddled furiously for their campsite, yelling to his wife, "We have to get out of here right now!"

Julie, 38, was already running. She grabbed their bags, jumped down the rock face from their campsite to the water's edge, and pulled her kayak out of the bushes. She was about to launch when she panicked -- her life jacket was back in the tent.

Greg leaped up the rocky slope. When he got to the top, the smoke was so thick he had crawl to the tent and find the life jacket by feel. He grabbed what he could and ran down to the boats, throwing Julie her jacket. He stepped into his own boat and pushed off.

"At that point it went as black as night. Instantly," he recalled.

The fire had, in fact, raced an extraordinary 14 miles in one afternoon, driven by a hard hot wind that came up unexpectedly between noon and 5 p.m. on Sept. 12.

The blackness, Greg Welch said, "was the fire cresting over the bank behind me, pushing the smoke down to the lake.''

Julie was already on the water, but when she looked back, she could see nothing but black smoke and burning trees crashing into the water. She screamed Greg's name as she paddled away from shore, and when the smoke lifted for just a moment she saw him just a few feet away. The roar of fire and wind was so loud they couldn't hear each other.

"Oh my god, he made it," she thought, just as the wind knocked her kayak over.

"I was trying to get to her, but I couldn't do it, the wind was so strong,'' Greg said. "It was blowing me past her."

Soon, both were in the water up to their necks, clinging to a kayak, surrounded by the inferno. The shoreline and the islands in the middle of the lake were engulfed. Embers and ash blew past as the wind pushed them toward the east side off the lake.

It had happened so fast, Greg said, that just for a moment they had to think about whether they could even survive. "It was the smoke," he said. "It was so intense. But pretty quickly we decided we were not going to give up."

To survive, however, they would have to stay in the water. Julie clutched the boat with one hand, using the other to hold Greg's fleece jacket over her face to filter the smoke. Greg did the same. With the fire raging around them, they used their legs to fight the wind and stay in the middle of the lake. Finally, exhausted, they let the wind push them to shallower water, where they could wedge their feet against the lake bottom.

By this time, they'd been in the water for nearly an hour, Greg said. Julie was so cold she had to tie her wrist to the kayak strap. Greg could see her shaking uncontrollably, and he could feel the cold seeping into his muscles.

"We needed to get out of water -- fire or no fire," Greg said.

They could see a boulder rising from the water and pushed toward it. Greg lifted the boat onto the rock. As he pulled Julie up, it began to rain. Not just any rain, but a torrential downpour. Thunder pealed and lightening cracked overhead, and then white chunks of hail bounced off the rock and their bare legs.

"It was like it was the end of the world," Julie said.

And then it stopped. The wind died, the smoke cleared. The sun came out.

Just like that, it was over.

Greg said he now understands what happened. The fire was so big it created its own weather system. Moisture collecting above the flames came down as rain and hail, dousing the fire around them.

"It was crazy," he said.

When the smoked cleared, they could see their rock was the end of a peninsula that, miraculously, had been spared by the fire. Shivering and exhausted, they dragged their boat to shore.

By now it was about 6 p.m., too late to paddle out of the wilderness. They took stock of what they had: beef jerky, crackers, a little camp stove, a tarp that Julie had insisted on bringing in case it rained, and half of the cherry pie they had bought in Tofte, still in its tin.

Julie stripped off her wet clothes and huddled in a sleeping bag. They couldn't make a fire -- another delicious irony -- because the rain had soaked every twig and stick. Greg heated water and the cherry pie over the camp stove, and that was dinner.

"It was wonderful," Julie said. "We ate it with our fingers."

They didn't sleep that night, terrified that the fire would come roaring back. Instead, they watched the blackened trees and ground glow red in the darkness.

At dawn, Greg saw their second kayak across the lake. They were packed up and headed home by 7 a.m. When they reached the put-in point in Kawishiwi Lake they were out of the burn zone, and their truck was right where they left it.

At the National Forest station in Tofte they told their story to the stunned forest rangers. "We did the right things, and made the right moves at the right time," Greg said.

The forest rangers, Julie said, "were in awe. "

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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