Signs of new life in BWCA ashes

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 20, 2011 - 6:45 AM

Despite the ravages of the Pagami Creek fire, greenery abounds, old-growth and new.

view larger photos

  

ELY, MINN. - The biggest forest fire in Minnesota in half a century has left the most popular region of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area black and blue and green.

Two months after lightning touched off a small blaze that later exploded into a 145-square-mile burn and a $21 million firefight, the route through Lakes One, Two and Three east of Ely is lined with stretches of blackened trees, uniform as teeth on a comb.

But the view across any lake, even from charred campsites, is still dominated by the green forest that has inspired millions of canoeists for decades.

U.S. Forest Service officials, who took members of the news media on a paddling tour through the area Wednesday, call the pattern a "mosaic" that, come spring, will be bursting with new greenery and wildlife, and a few new dangers.

Already, some recovery is evident, with new, green grasses sprouting among charred, fallen logs. Wolf scat lay along a portage trail and freshly gnawed tree branches were piled atop a beaver lodge at the edge of a burned area. A bald eagle scouted for fish most of the morning from a treetop along Lake Three.

The last of an army of ground firefighters who have been camping in 14-day stretches in the woods will be pulling out this week, and firefighters in the southeast corner who've been tackling the blaze day-to-day should finish their work as well, said Forest Service district ranger Mark Van Every. The fire, which at its peak was being battled by nearly 1,000 firefighters, was considered more than 91 percent contained earlier this week. It will be patrolled and attacked, if necessary, by air, until the first snows douse it for good.

To the west, a lightning-induced fire in Voyageurs National Park remained at about 300 acres in size earlier this week. Officials indicated they did not expect it to spread and that it also would burn until snow falls.

'Snags' out, biffies in

Only about five campsites -- of more than 2,000 in the BWCA and of the 51 listed as suffering "severe" damage from the fire that began Aug. 18 near Pagami Creek-- might remain closed next year, Van Every said. The rest will be cleared this fall of "snags" -- trees with roots burned so badly that they could topple onto campers. Another key project is underway: "We're replacing latrines already," Van Every said.

But paddlers also will be warned not to cruise close to shore along burned stretches. Those won't be cleared, leaving many trees that could fall into the water, added Forest Service wilderness zone manager Carl Skustad.

Areas east of the most popular routes out of Lake One saw some more damage, as the fire burned more intensely there during its spectacular, wind-driven expansion from 14,000 acres, or nearly 22 square miles, to 92,800 acres on Sept. 12. But the mix of burned and healthy areas exists there, too: The mosaic pattern is common in forest fires, Van Every said.

The week that the fire exploded, half of all the paddling permits issued for the BWCA were for the Lake One entry. The area is popular because it leads to a route with short portages, numerous island campsites and stands of large trees, some of which escaped logging in the first half of the last century.

Outfitters confident

Outfitters seem generally confident that paddlers who might be discouraged by damage to a landscape they've long found thrilling will be replaced by others curious to see the fire's aftermath. Area outfitters will get a look themselves Monday on a tour with forestry officials.

Zack Imes, operations manager at Wilderness Outfitters in Ely, said he's eager to be able to "give customers the first honest sense of what it looks like."

Lee Frelich, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Forest Ecology, said visitors next spring will encounter a landscape that will combine delicate beauty with risks. Blueberry and raspberry shrubs, often the first to repopulate a burned forest, should flourish. A small magenta flower known as Bicknell's geranium may sprout near Seagull Lake, where its seeds have been buried following fires through the years -- some for more than two centuries, he said. Young jackpine, whose seeds are released by fire, might be several inches tall late next season.

But the fire will also have burned sharp tips onto branches of some conifers, he said.

In the burned areas, it could be 10 to 15 years before visitors once again walk under canopies of trees, so familiar in the forest, Frelich added. But the trees themselves could be different, with more maple or oak. "It could take several decades to look as it did before the fire," he said. "But with all we know about climate change, it may never."

The Pagami Creek fire area covered about 145 square miles, roughly 9.2 percent of the entire BWCA. It burned down one structure -- a remote Minnesota DNR cabin. For BWCA neighbors, the ebbing of the fire has allowed life to get back to normal.

Mark Wilhelmson of Duluth returned Tuesday to the cabin he and his wife, Elizabeth, share near Isabella, bringing some of the valuables they hurriedly removed more than four weeks ago. As a fire glowed again in the corner woodstove, Wilhelmson began refurnishing the cabin and yard with emblems of the family heritage: wedding dishes, cabin diaries, the cedar canoe handmade by his brother, his father's 50-year-old, three-horsepower Johnson outboard motor, the cedar chest he built, bags of fabric that Elizabeth might make into quilts.

Since they cleared out in mid-September, Wilhelmson said he'd been tracking conditions on the Forest Service website and by keeping in touch with a neighbor who'd stayed.

Next year, he added, he's sure he'll be shocked to see the effects of the fire along the Kawishiwi River, where the family canoes, and on some of the forest roads where he rides a mountain bike.

"On the plus side, the blueberries are going to be great," he said. "This helps regenerate the forest."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

  • related content

  • Carl Skustad

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.

ADVERTISEMENT

Oakland - LP: D. Otero 8 FINAL
Kansas City - WP: J. Frasor 9
Minnesota 10/2/14 7:25 PM
Green Bay
Buffalo 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Detroit
Chicago 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Cleveland 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Tennessee
St. Louis 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Philadelphia
Atlanta 10/5/14 12:00 PM
NY Giants
Tampa Bay 10/5/14 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Houston 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Dallas
Baltimore 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Indianapolis
Pittsburgh 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Jacksonville
Arizona 10/5/14 3:05 PM
Denver
Kansas City 10/5/14 3:25 PM
San Francisco
NY Jets 10/5/14 3:25 PM
San Diego
Cincinnati 10/5/14 7:30 PM
New England
Seattle 10/6/14 7:30 PM
Washington
NY Islanders 5 FINAL
Boston 3
NY Rangers 2 FINAL
Philadelphia 4
Ottawa 1 FINAL
Winnipeg 2
Carolina 1 FINAL
St. Louis 3
Tampa Bay 5 FINAL
Dallas 1
Colorado 0 FINAL
Calgary 2
Los Angeles 4 FINAL
San Jose 1
Fla Atlantic 10/2/14 6:00 PM
FIU
UCF 10/2/14 6:00 PM
Houston
Arizona 10/2/14 9:30 PM
(2) Oregon
Louisville 10/3/14 6:00 PM
Syracuse
San Diego St 10/3/14 9:00 PM
Fresno State
Utah State 10/3/14 9:15 PM
(18) BYU
(6) Texas A&M 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(12) Miss State
Ball State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Army
Iowa State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(21) Oklahoma State
Marshall 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Old Dominion
Southern Miss 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Middle Tennessee
(20) Ohio State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Maryland
Purdue 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Illinois
Florida 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Tennessee
SMU 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(22) East Carolina
Virginia Tech 10/4/14 11:30 AM
North Carolina
Eastern Mich 10/4/14 1:00 PM
Akron
North Texas 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Indiana
Massachusetts 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Miami-Ohio
Tulsa 10/4/14 2:00 PM
Colorado State
New Mexico 10/4/14 2:30 PM
TX-San Antonio
(3) Alabama 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(11) Ole Miss
(14) Stanford 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(9) Notre Dame
(17) Wisconsin 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Northwestern
Navy 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Air Force
(7) Baylor 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Texas
(4) Oklahoma 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(25) TCU
Wake Forest 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(1) Florida State
NC State 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Clemson
Buffalo 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Bowling Green
Ohio U 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Central Mich
Oregon State 10/4/14 3:00 PM
Colorado
Vanderbilt 10/4/14 3:00 PM
(13) Georgia
Kansas 10/4/14 3:00 PM
West Virginia
Kent State 10/4/14 4:00 PM
Northern Ill
South Alabama 10/4/14 5:00 PM
Appalachian St
Texas-El Paso 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
(15) LSU 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(5) Auburn
UAB 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Ky
Texas Tech 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(23) Kansas State
Michigan 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Rutgers
Hawaii 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Rice
Toledo 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Mich
ULM 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Arkansas State
Georgia State 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Louisiana
Idaho 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Texas State
Memphis 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Cincinnati
Arizona State 10/4/14 6:30 PM
(16) USC
So Carolina 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Kentucky
Pittsburgh 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Virginia
Miami-Florida 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Georgia Tech
(19) Nebraska 10/4/14 7:00 PM
(10) Michigan State
UNLV 10/4/14 7:00 PM
San Jose St
Ga Southern 10/4/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico St
California 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Washington St
Utah 10/4/14 9:30 PM
(8) UCLA
Boise State 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Nevada
Winnipeg 10/3/14 6:00 PM
Ottawa
Calgary 10/3/14 9:00 PM
Saskatchewan
Edmonton 10/4/14 3:00 PM
Toronto
Brt Columbia 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Hamilton
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close