ON THE GUNFLINT TRAIL -- The renewal of spring, always welcome in this harsh border country, has special significance this year, on the anniversary of the Ham Lake fire.
This weekend, about 500 people are planting 77,000 trees on land that has thawed but still needs to heal. Some say the people involved need that too.
"It's about believing in the future and what we're going to leave for our children," said Nancy Seaton, co-owner of Hungry Jack Outfitters.
The wide swaths of blackened forest and the naked concrete foundations where cabins once stood attest to how bad it got a year ago this week, when a carelessly tended campfire became the conflagration area residents had dreaded since the Blow-down of 1999 left millions of acres of dead trees, ready to burn.
By the time it was done, the fire had become Minnesota's most destructive since 1918, burning 76,000 acres in Minnesota and Ontario and consuming 138 structures on the American side.
Former trail resident Pat Shunn vividly remembers the inferno, which took her home and others around it.
"I saw my friends' and neighbors' houses burning down," she said.
A year later, an old-fashioned bitter winter has only grudgingly given way to a cold, wet spring, Shaded ground still hoards snow, and lakes have been slow to give up their ice. The fire danger is nil.
Along the Gunflint, shock and sadness are also giving way to a resolve to rebuild, replant and recover.
Regrowing the landmarks
The planting is part of the Gunflint Green Up, billed as a "celebration" of recovery.
The idea took root a few weeks after the fire, when some local business owners called for volunteers to help plant a few thousand trees on hard-hit properties.
"My phone rang off the hook," said Seaton. "We got calls from all over."
Encouraged by that enthusiasm, business owners and residents began planning this spring's planting. It grew to three days of events, including forest ecology lectures, a dinner and dance, and a half-marathon. As of last week, more than 450 people had paid a $30 registration fee, a response so great that organizers are talking about doing it every year.
Managers of the Superior National Forest embraced the idea and identified the best areas to plant, dovetailing the volunteer effort into forest management plans, said Myra Theimer of the Gunflint Ranger District.
"If a fire goes through your town, you rebuild your landmarks," Seaton said. "Up here, the trees are the landmarks."
While most of the burned areas have begun to regenerate, the U.S. Forest Service will plant about 1,000 acres with seedling white and red pine, and seed 2,000 acres with jack pine, Theimer said.
About 400 acres of that goal will likely be reached this year, and the Green Up volunteers could cover an additional 300 acres this weekend, in areas visible from the trail. (Those areas are near Trail's End and Iron Lake campgrounds, the Chik-Wauk Museum, the Seagull Guard Station, and the Sea Gull and Round Lake public landings.)
"We're hopeful that people will help adopt a planting site and come back each year to tend it," Theimer said.
The mostly donated seedlings are 60 percent red pine and 40 percent white pine, Seaton said. That fits with the Forest Service's plan for a more pine-dominated forest, like the one that existed before old-growth timber was logged.
No planting will occur within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where federal rules require that nature take its course.
Still unresolved is whether anyone will face criminal or civil penalties for starting the fire. Superior National Forest spokeswoman Kris Reichenbach said evidence was submitted to the U.S. attorney's office in Minnesota. So far no charges have been filed.
Rising from ashes
Of 102 buildings consumed and subject to Cook County zoning rules, owners have permits to replace 87 so far, said county planning director Tim Nelson. They include six year-round homes and 22 cabins. Owners had 180 days to apply to replace their structures on the original footprint, regardless of current setback rules. Forty of 53 property owners met the deadline, Nelson said.
"Only two permanent homes and several cabins are not being rebuilt, and the properties are up for sale," he added.
One of those homes was Pat and Frank Shunn's. Frank built it with his own hands in 1979, atop a rock bluff with a breathtaking view of Saganaga Lake. They always felt lucky to live there and were devastated to learn that the fire had taken their home and killed trees that seemed like old friends.
Feeling too old -- he's 74; she's 67 -- and too heart-broken to rebuild, they've listed their lot for $300,000, Before the fire, they would have asked $550,000 for their place, Pat Shunn said.
"We knew it the way it was," she said from Cloquet, where they now live. "I guess I don't want to go back there now. But I miss it so bad."
Gunflint Trail builder Rick Austin saw up close the emotional stages other owners went through.
"When I first met with them, they talked about their old places a lot," Austin said. "But then, after a while, they got excited about planning their new places, and pretty soon, they could hardly even see the burned trees."
Kyle Edlund, a dentist from Woodbury, said he was "shocked and disappointed" when a fishing-guide friend telephoned to say Edlund's A-frame cabin on Saganaga had burned.
But within a couple days he was talking to Austin about replacing the cabin, which is now nearly complete. Unlike the original, it has in-floor heat, a walk-out basement and a game room in the second-floor loft.
"It's the place I wanted to eventually have and will probably be able to use the rest of my life," Edlund said. The fire killed many of his trees and changed the view, but Edlund is philosophical about that too.
"You see things -- rock formations and cliffs -- that you couldn't see before," he said. "And I know that in 10 years you'll hardly be able to tell there was a fire."
Larry Oakes • 1-218-727-7344