Paddling through the BWCAW’s Pagami Creek Fire zone
My family paddled through the eastern heart of the Pagami Creek Fire zone in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for four days last week. Along with my wife and daughter, the trip marked a return to the Fernberg Trail country, Lake One Entry Point, and the number lakes for my three sons and I.
Some background: On August 18, 2011, I was camping on Lake Three with my boys, my brother-in-law, and his three children. An unremarkable thunderstorm storm, including some lightning, moved through that morning then cleared off into a pleasant day. As we exited through the Lake One entry point two days later, we had no idea that a strike from that storm had sparked a small fire that lay smoldering less than a mile to our west. A couple weeks later, after plunging humidity combined with high winds, the wildfire exploded and engulfed more than 92,000 acres by mid-September.
Last week, I’d intended to push through the fire zone and move into the northern half of Insula Lake, which marked the border of the fire. I’d declared to my wife that I wasn’t interested in staring at a fire-scarred landscape for four days.
Alas, wilderness camping with young children demands flexibility. After about four hours of paddling, they’d had enough on our entry day, and we found a suitable spot on the east side of Lake Four.
After nursing a sore back and fishing for a couple days, we toured the area via day trip, including a loop through Fire Lake then back west after dropping into Hudson. The northern portion gave us ridiculous solitude and classic views of unburned canoe country. The latter, southern portion revealed an area that must’ve resembled a moonscape immediately after the Pagami Creek Fire. Farther west, the fire had skipped around a bit and patches of green jack pine remained, but heading toward Insula, it burned incredibly hot and torched everything.
That was five years ago, however, and today tens of thousands – hell, maybe millions – of little four- and five-foot jackpines dominate the landscape. Wildflowers, too. We intend to explore other areas of the BWCAW in upcoming years, but a return to the fire zone will be fascinating in about a decade when those jackpines have serious growth under their rings.
How was the fishing? Solid. Without trying too hard, we caught a bunch of smallmouth bass on topwater Rapalas and other artificials. Brought enough food (even for my perpetually ravenous, growing sons), so we returned all smallies to the water.
Mosquitoes? Tolerable. Locating west-facing campsites with steady breezes helped tremendously, and I’ve seen BWCA bugs much worse. In fact, we encountered more mosquito bites in a walk around a Twin Cities lake last Sunday than we did during our Boundary Waters vacation.
As for wildlife, we saw eagles, loons, pileated woodpeckers (go figure with all those dead trees), and other birds, but no mammals larger than a red squirrel. Thought we might see a moose in the fire zone, but no dice. With my loud clan, I suspect most critters take cover pretty fast when they hear us coming.
Hearing rumors of a “major storm” on our exit day, we moved our camp closer to our entry/exit point on our penultimate camping day. We found a great, windswept spot that kept the bugs off, though my wife and I slept poorly as we worried about the wind and stormy weather during that final night. I awoke early and packed our gear and canoes while the kids still slept, then insisted we leave during a break in the storm. Twenty minutes into our final portage, the “break in the storm” developed into a full-blown bluebird day. All those fellow campers who heeded the weatherman’s advice and left the day before missed a gorgeous morning.
Again, I’ll offer the obligatory complaint that not enough people are exposing their kids to the out-of-doors. We saw mostly aging Boomers, a couple Scout groups, and a few heavily bearded Millennials during our trip. My 5-year-old daughter was the youngest person we saw in the BWCAW. No other kids came close until our final morning when we saw a younger family with a couple of 7- and 8-year-olds.
You know why more people don’t mentor their kids in wilderness camping? Because it’s hard damn work! That said, I’m proud that my 11-year-old just completed his fifth trip to the BWCAW and that my daughter was a real trooper during her first wilderness camping experience. (Back home in the Twin Cities the day we returned, however, she did ask, “Daddy, on our next trip, can we stay in a hotel?”)
I wouldn’t want to take every canoe country trip into a fire zone, but looking at our pictures, our 2016 adventure was unique. Fire exposes the rocks and the sweep of the land that usually remains hidden under pines and spruce. It’ll be fun to return in a decade or so and compare pictures as Mother Nature reclaims the landscape.