Paddlers playground marred by wildfire
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
Clouds at dusk the color of rose; diffused and soft. Sun, blood-red; vivid in the western sky, burning like fire, fierce and merciless. Water reflects the color of the sky; orange-red splashed as burning coals shimmering on the lake. It is calm, the lake at peace; an August evening.
We watch the sun lower until it is hidden behind the trees and the trees go dark to nighttime shadow. Then the sun is gone and the red sky with it.
The next morning the air is heavy and damp. There is an acrid smell at daybreak, the smell of burn, of smoke and ash, an uncomfortable odor that adds a burden to the humid air. I stand in the early morning light and for an instant I am not here but gone to my childhood and visits to my mother’s family in Ohio and the smell there was the hot spark of coal burning in the steel mill smelters.
My grandfather was an immigrant who worked in the mills in unbearable heat where the men could work no longer than 20 minutes before they had to be relived and the men were expendable and when they could not work another would take their place. Cheap labor. Easy come, easy go.
I never knew my grandfather; he died young, but I remember the visits in summertime and the smell of smoke in the air. For a moment my mind went there but I knew this smoke was different, this was smoke from forest fires in Minnesota, smoke blown by the westerly winds and come to us, smoke that had reddened the sky the evening before and had set the stage for the crimson sun that glowed like an ember in the sky. And now, at daybreak, the scent and haze of bitter smoke.
Sit around a campfire and the wood smoke is sweet and comforting. Wood burns and flames dance and you can catch the scent of pine or popple, can tell the tangy smell of oak. Woodsmoke from a campfire is pleasant, familiar, soothing.
Smoke from the wood stove at the hunt shack is the same; flames rise to wood; wood falls to coals; coals to ember and the heat fights back the cold.
This smoke was different, this smoke from distant fires. This smoke was was sharp and sour, this smoke was discomforting; this smoke left one uneasy. This smoke, this smoke was evil; it carried malice on the soft breeze on the late summer morning.
I’d read about the fires this summer, read that Quetico, the great wilderness area just north of the Minnesota border had been closed to camping; the fires raged, 100,000 acres aflame, pushing closer to the border. The Boundary Waters were ordered closed; fires threatened homes and resorts, firefighters were making little or no headway. So they closed it down; no camping, no paddling; get out and stay out.
I looked online at the maps, looked at where the fires were in the Boundary Waters. The John Ek Fire just a couple miles away from Little Saganaga Lake; I’d paddled there in May. The Greenwood Fire burning and growing; 25,000 acres plus this week. The Fourtown Lake Fire.
I pulled down the map of the Fourtown Lake Fire. Small in comparison, a couple hundred acres. The map showed a red stain on the map as if ink had spilled. I looked at the contours of the shoreline, let my memory drift, drift to the day on Fourtown on a hot afternoon when Sally landed a northern pike the size of her leg! Fourtown; where we’d camped at a beautiful campsite.
We’d camped there two nights; we did not want to leave it was so perfect. Two years later we’d busted our tails, paddled into the afternoon swelter so we could camp there and when we got there the site was taken. And we looked at each other on that blue water lake and said, if we can’t camp there we were not going to camp anywhere else and we paddled and portaged the last miles to our take-out site and drove to Ely, exhausted, for steaks and beer.
The campsite, the shoreline where we’d fished, where Sally had caught the pike; all in the fire zone now. I wondered of the trees that had given us shelter, wondered if they were gone to flame, wondered if the duff was burned to char.
We live in the time of fires. Western fires rage, infernos in the brush county of California, leaving the landscape black and apocalyptic. Mountains glow in endless flame and ember. Smoke ruins the air.
We read of fires; “Gunflint Burning” when tens of thousands acres burned in the Boundary Waters; “Young Men and Fire, where 13 firefighters died. Read of Peshtigo and Hinckley and fires of the past. Now smoke in the air on a Wisconsin morning and it seems more real. Real because the forests of northern Minnesota are similar to northern Wisconsin and to see fire there, to learn of the fires not remote, not far flung across the nation or buried in history, makes it real. It brings it closer. It brings a fear. Could it happen here?
It’s been dry in the Boundary Waters this summer. Moss turns brittle; trees, stressed with drought, show color in August. Campfires have been banned. The tinder box of a forest in drought has built, built slowly, inexorably until lightning flashed in the dark night, sparked and smoldered and fire began. And spread.
Gone to flame, gone to fury, gone, gone.
It was damp on the day the air smelled of smoke. The grass was wet with dew, green as it rarely is in August. We’ve been fortunate. We’ve had rain. But on the morning of the bitter smoke of distant fire I thought of morning on Fourtown Lake, the smell of bacon and coffee; solitude.
And on this day I wondered what I would find should I return.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.