Abandon Camp!

Photos by Norma Christianson.
Photos by Norma Christianson.


By Larry Christianson

“Abandon Camp” and “Pagami Creek Fire” entered our boundary waters lingo in a sudden and dramatic escape from a fast spreading forest fire.

But first . . . the rest of the story, beginning with extra care in planning for what was to be our longest canoe trip yet. Pushing beyond our usual five to seven day journey with a ten day adventure in the wilderness.

We headed for Ely on an early autumn “don’t have to start school” retirement time of relaxation, and paddled in from Lake One landing on Labor Day with morning fog and smoke disorientation on a very familiar route – along with two canoes of Forest Service guys just as confused as us. Their GPS finally led the way to Kawishiwi channel. And a beautiful day of sunshine and warmth burned off the fog and diminished the smoke from a smoldering, small forest fire nearby on Pagami Creek that had been ignited two weeks before by a lightning strike.

Fire management crews involved in a back burning operation off the portages between Lakes One and Two enthusiastically carried our packs as part of a strategy to keep the well used portages open and moving – very helpful to us older folks! Lots of noise with gas powered generators operating water pumps and sprinklers, plus helicopters and small planes overhead. We camped on the small island site marked #10 in the far south of Lake Three and settled in for a long stay – trying to answer the question of “how many days do you have to stay before losing track of what day it is?” And the even more important follow up: “how many more days before you don’t care what day it is?”

We were content to sit and relax – enjoying the incredible beauty of wilderness landscape and appreciating the simplicity of the setting. The easy going pace of days matched my aging abilities and flagging motivation. Weariness is for real. Reading and fishing, hanging around camp and paddling on the lake were nicely balanced – along with the companionship of my best friend Norma, and the interesting meals we prepare and happy hours enjoyed together.

A rewarding day trip to the east end of Lake Four – with flat water paddling and sharing a simple lunch while revisiting a special place I long ago named “Picnic Rapids.” Now a trickle as the Kawishiwi River finds a way through huge boulders, rock rubble and remnants of trees reduced to driftwood through erosion and time passing. Still a beautiful spot holding many cherished memories. Dead calm water and a light rain of ashes and partially burned leaves accompanied our paddle back to our campsite – gently signaling what felt like a subtle change in fire status, but no alarm yet.

The Pagami Creek Fire continued through all our days with trails of smoke in the distance, and sometimes settling near enough to smell and see as a gray haze mixed with morning mists to create spooky scenes. Daytime airplane activity let us know the fire was still smoldering. Rain was needed more than anything in this season of a long, hot, dry spell. Extremely low water levels. Swimming every day – nearly unbelievable for September in the boundary waters.

Warm days and mild nights brought the best of summer and only a few hints of autumn unfolding. Refreshing swims and hardly any mosquitoes at twilight. Warm water and birch trees beginning to show yellow leaves. Delicious fish meals began with a dandy smallmouth bass worthy of steaming with dried cranberries and sliced almonds. And continued with lemon sizzled fried walleye before our abrupt early evening escape from camp shortly before sunset on what was day six of our canoe trip due to the rapidly deteriorating fire situation –with the smoldering forest fire sending giant plumbs of smoke reaching high in the clear blue sky and flaming up and spreading fast in our direction on a sudden, rising west wind.

A Forest Service crew arrived out of nowhere, paddling fast to our camp, and telling us to pack everything up and evacuate out to Lake Four – immediately! Our campsite was now considered to be in the fire hot spot area, with ashes falling like a heavy rain and smoke thickening and billowing high overhead. It was a colorful yet haunting sight with the setting sun shining behind and through the ever changing smoke clouds.

So – with about two hours of daylight and twilight remaining, we scurried around and quickly tossed our equipment and food in the Duluth packs in a haphazard mess. And less than an hour later, we launched the canoe while listening to what sounded like the ear splitting roar of a jet plane never ending and watching towering flames consume the forest right to the south shore of Lake Three – barely more than a half mile from our then abandoned campsite. A sight never before seen by either of us, and incredibly sobering. An awesome display of the overwhelming destructive power of nature and everything captured in its path.

With adrenalin running big time, we paddled away from the flames and around a few small islands out into the open lake and two miles north in the wind and smoky twilight, before arriving at the Forest Service recommended overnight area on a small peninsula where Lake Three gives way to Lake Four very near the well known “Diamond Rock” landmark.

We settled in for a long night of windblown smoke on fire watch from our little red camp chairs snuggled into a cozy, sheltered area of small pine and cedar trees overlooking the water of both lakes. A double escape route – either east onto Lake Four or west onto Lake Three if the wind shifted and drove the flames northward. And we were both well aware of the worst case scenario being that of getting into the water with our life jackets on and wet towels strung over our heads – eerily reminiscent of my long ago great-great grandparents spending a similar night with their three young children in the Peshtigo River way back in 1871 during a massive forest fire in northern Wisconsin. They all survived to tell the story in a way that lives on through the generations of our family lore – which I don’t want to repeat for the sake of poetic symmetry!

Snacks and wine, talking and togetherness helped settle our rattled nerves and pass the time along with some writing and reading by head lamp. A nearly full moon shrouded in a smoky, burnt orange
color accompanied by a few stars held off the pitch black of night as it so often can be in the wilderness. A very spooky scene – and all a good reminder about how very long a night can really be. No tent. No sleeping bags. No bugs. No sleep beyond a little uneasy dozing. Lying on the ground during portions of the night with a hooded sweatshirt pulled up over my face helped me breathe better, and hopefully minimized potential harmful effects on my health issues related to arterial aneurysms awaiting surgical repair. And no flames – for which we both continued to be eternally grateful. No extra drama is a very good thing sometimes!

We had the canoe all loaded up and on the water before sunrise, and paddled out of the wilderness in the wind to Lake One landing on a very smoky, sunny, surreal Sunday morning – September 11 oddly enough. Forest Service crews and firefighters were everywhere, and all very helpful in clearing the entire Lake One route area, as well as providing updated information on what was becoming an ever increasing, dangerous forest fire spreading deeper into the boundary waters.

At the landing we learned that the fire was burning the islands on the south part of Lake Three – which hit us very hard. And shook us up even more than we imagined. It was very emotional to think that out of a one million acre wilderness area, the forest fire encompassed the exact place where we were camping, including our little island paradise of the north country. It was then we realized that we were in the first wave of evacuations, and that our hasty departure was not merely a precaution – it was a critical matter of personal safety and survival. For the presence, expertise and diligence of the Forest Service crews, we are deeply appreciative.

And we well know that fire is a natural event in the wilderness – good and healthy for the forest. Especially in this area of the boundary waters which has not seen a major forest fire since before the old logging era of a century ago. And who knows how many decades or centuries before all that human activity. Renewal in the form of fire as an essential part of the fabric of forest culture.

So – we wonder if we are the last campers to enjoy the small island site #10 in the far south of Lake Three, and we are curious about how it will regenerate and what it will look like in the future. A very unique canoe trip with a gripping story to tell the grandchildren about when grandpa and grandma escaped the big forest fire on Lake Three in the boundary waters canoe area. Next year a full 10 days in the wilderness – hopefully!

Photos by Norma Christianson.
Photos by Norma Christianson.

Larry Christianson is a retired chaplain and Norma is a retired teacher living in the Twin Cities. Both are longtime Boundary Waters paddlers. Larry is a poet whose books are published by North Star Press of St. Cloud. www.larrychristianson.com  


This article appeared in Wilderness News Fall-Winter 2011 >

More Photos from the Pagami Creek Fire >

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