Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Per-se-ver-ance [pur-suh-veer-uh'ns]

photos and text by staff member Rachel
Per-se-ver-ance [pur-suh-veer-uh'ns] noun. 1. steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.

Spend any amount of time in the wilderness and the observant student of life will be presented with a multitude of lessons. With every canoe trip into the Boundary Waters, I take time to look for a new angle in which to experience the wonders of nature surrounding me. Often my perspective is influenced by those that I am fortunate enough to paddle with. This trip I was lucky enough to have two paddling partners, my co-worker John Kenney and John Muir in the form of his book “Travels in Alaska.” The lesson of perseverance, a difficult virtue in today's society of instant gratification, came from both of my travel companions as well as from nature's own fire and water.

The elemental parts of nature, those at their seemingly simplest forms, can have a great impact on a trip. In canoe country, water is an essential part of why we travel from far and wide to northern Minnesota. Dipping a paddle, tossing a line in, and watching the light shimmer on the lakes watery facade is what most of us dream of. No one ever imagines their perfect trip without the presence of water, but what if that water is persistently drizzling from a leaden sky? Inclement weather can ruin any trip in a flash, flooding out dreams of sun basking with a good book, fishing and cheery campfires. 

In the middle of the night, the pitter patter of raindrops on ripstop forecasted what was to come. Our day off was destined to be a damp one. Despite the dreary outlook for the morning, John was determined to have peanut butter toast for breakfast. All of the firewood left from the previous nights campfire was drenched, making a toasty outlook looked rather bleak. While I fired up my ever dependable camp stove to boil water for breakfast, John started hunting up some dry tinder. As I mixed the cinnamon muesli and brewed my tea, John flicked the lighter again and again when each new attempt sizzled under a fat rain drop. Long after I would have thrown in the wet towel, John made one more attempt before sitting back to eat breakfast. Huddled in our rain jackets watching an empty fire grate, we ate in silence. After the second spoonful, much to my cynical surprise, a promising flame sprang to life! Muesli set aside, John was once again stretched out in front of the fire grate, carefully adding one small, dry twig after another. With a bit more patience and a little light-headedness, a merry blaze was roaring in the grate, defying the storm clouds above. Toast has never tasted finer as we stood next to a hissing fire slowly turning to warm up. Tummies full, yet still drenched from head to foot, we packed up and headed on our way.
Gaskin Lake was our destination on this trip, each for our own reasons. 

I was determined to see the fresh burn from a fire that had started at a campsite in June. John was here for the fish. Paddling through the drizzle we worked our way across Gaskin from our island campsite on the east side to the site of the burn on the west side. As we paddled through the wind and rain, I was reminded of a passage from the book I had been reading;
“A high wind was rushing down the strait dead against us, and just as we were about ready to start, determined to fight our way by creeping close inshore, pelting rain began to fly. We concluded therefore to wait for better weather. The hunters went out for deer and I to see the forests. The rain brought out the fragrance of the drenched trees, and the wind made wild melody in the their tops, while every brown bole was embroidered by a network of rain rills.” Travels in Alaska – John Muir

John Muir was an enthusiastic student of nature who let nothing get in his way of exploring new glaciers in the then largely unexplored Alaska. His descriptions of the places and nature he saw glow with his passion and understanding of the wild places he rambled through. With Muir's words in mind, I began to see the forest instead of focusing on the crummy weather, making the best of the day presented. We paddled near the shoreline, looking at the trees, searching for wild rice, feeling the rain on my face and scanning the skies for eagles. Eventually we arrived at our site seeing destination.

Fire is another one of those elemental parts of nature that brightens our wilderness experience, but is also something we often demonize. Campfires in grates, well contained and fed by campers, become welcome companions on any trip. Once the illusion of control is lost, fires become things of nightmares, raging out of control and consuming the scenery canoeists come to enjoy. In reality, fire is as natural and as essential a part of nature as water is, cleaning up the old and renewing the landscape. The peninsula of Gaskin that was burned was not a scarred black moonscape but a mottled collection of charred balsam and birch mixed with green cedars and solid white pines. This had been a small fire that burned erratically, as fire is often wont, coming close to shore at some points and leaving a green buffer in others. Already new growth was persevering, slowly covering the blackened ground. Next summer, hosts of fire loving forbs will flower all over this spot such as fireweed, pearly everlasting, and my favorite Bicknell's geranium. As I took pictures of the burn, we slowly drifted with the wind until I hear John quietly say “Moose. 11 o'clock.”
Standing on a ridge, blending in with the burned tree trunks, was a huge moose. She slowly alternated between watching us closely and munching on some of the young growth that had started to shoot up in the past two months since the fire had gone through. Moose love when fires scorch through the woods. Their favorite salads include the fresh, young growth of balsam, alder, willow and birch that populate open areas such as these. Her bulk was little hindrance as we watched her stealthily move through the woods and down the far side of the ridge. We paddled around the point, hoping to catch a glimpse of her on the other side. Barely touched by the fire at all, the far side's lush green growth easily concealed our moose who made as much sound as a squirrel in the underbrush. Our only reward for rounding the point was being circled by a low flying osprey, annoyed with us for intruding on his favorite fishing bay.

The rest of the day we completed the loop up through Henson, Meeds, and Poplar. We took in the sights through a steady haze of rain and were rewarded for our perseverance with a sense of solitude. Not once did we pass another traveler after leaving Gaskin behind or see a far off canoe. It was just us, the woods and the drizzle. As we moved from lake to lake, John would occasionally expertly flick out his fishing line, testing the waters for a nibble. It would seem that the fish also though that this was a day better suited for hunkering down and waiting it out. Although there would be no shore lunch for us, John continued to flick out his line here and there with a fisherman's tenacity, never giving up completely, just trying out a new spot then moving on.

This had not been a trip of postcard blue skies and star filled nights, but as we loaded up the car we both agreed that it had been a fun trip. I had to work a little harder to find the silver lining in the heavy gray clouds that dogged our day off, but once I really started to look, they were as shiny as ever. Taking away a new lesson from the woods, on future trips I will persistently look for the good in each day and the small little beauties that make up the wilderness. The challenges we face on canoe trips and in life can sometimes feel like we are constantly trying to start a fire in the rain. It may take a while to get going in the right direction, but with a little perseverance the flame finally catches, making the blaze more than worth the wait.

Monday, September 19, 2011

May the blessing of the rain be on you....

May the blessing of the rain be on you—
the soft sweet rain.
May it fall upon your spirit
The Celtic blessing kept ringing in my head yesterday morning as Denali and I ran the access road to Round Lake.   We were really happy to run through the rain.  It seems like such a miracle-- it really is when you consider the energy and work behind all the water bombers dropping gallons and gallons of water on the Pagami Lake Fire in the other corner of the Boundary Waters.  Here we were running through the big giant perfect sprinkler system.

The fire hasn't been growing much, if at all...
What happens next?
    High Cliffs Saturday afternoon
  1. They keep monitoring the big giant footprint down near Ely.  And the planes and helicopters look for spot fires.  On Saturday--before the rain--the fire was supposed to be more active.  It was beautiful and breezy--Rachel and I hiked to High Cliffs in search of smoke.  We couldn't identify any. 
    Photo courtesy of Dennis Neitzke
    The aerial photo from late afternoon on Saturday shows a lot of black, but not a lot of activity (taken down by Polly Lake, if you know that area).  
  2. They have started to let the people evacuated in the Isabella area back into their homes.
  3. They'll start opening up entry points tomorrow (Tuesday).  The entire Gunflint Trail will be open, with some restrictions.  They still do not want people paddling toward Alice Lake--It's completely understandable why the folks in charge of public safety are so jumpy about that.  Last Monday was a mighty weird weather day. 
  4. Now will be the time for some people to try pin the blame on somebody.  Is that the natural thing to do to try to be in control?   We can all say in hindsight it was the wrong decision not to start fighting  fire on August 18th when the Pagami Creek Fire was little.  But I can't say it was a bad decision.  I wasn't sitting at that table, considering past fire behavior, calculating the odds, weighing policy against other factors, trying to predict the future based on a bunch of weather models.  I do know that the people at the table were qualified,  ones I'd probably still chose to make that decision again if it were up to me........ ........I also remember another flukey weather day 5 years ago when one guy was blamed for the Ham Lake fire.  While his campfire was his responsibility, you couldn't imagine what the weather was like that day that fire took off.  Ironically, I'll bet I've talked to 15 different people who stopped to put out unattended campfires in August--and that was just me. Was that really his fault?
  5. As we ran yesterday.....on this favorite little piece of road with a recovering forest...I was reminded about some other things that  happen next---

    • The birch seeds will get early dibs in there--traveling on the autumn winds.
    • The moose love young those birch saplings--hopefully some will enjoy them in the years to come.
    • The jack pine and spruce cones need fire to open--the cones will have scatted seeds on the rich black ground.
      Jack pine cones
    • These poplars--5 years old, over 10 feet tall
    • The poplar tree roots will have been stimulated by the fire..  They're like wild men--sprouting after a fire like that.  Even fallen limbs that are unburned will start to sprout.
    • The raspberries
    • Berries go crazy....
    • The field--with pearly everlasting
    • Also the wildflowers--like the white pearly everlasting get some sun, and can thrive....I'm not a naturalist or a botanist..or a forester...but I think I've heard that there are seeds that are dormant waiting for a fire to clear the view.
    • I understand the animals like the contrast.  On this particular hill I've seen moose, bear, wolves, deer.  
    • Grandma White Pines
      Happy little guys
    • The more fire resistant white pines that weather the storm go on to be the seed sources for the whole area.
    • Grove of birches
    • Not everything burns in every fire--so the patches of growth may remain.
    • The old standing trees become habitat for some rare birds sometimes.  I don't know how the black backed woodpeckers found these so quickly--but apparently the word gets out. 
    •  It's a pleasure to watch the woods recover! 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood

But a little chilly!   Some entry points around here reamin closed, but cabin and canoe guests are finding plenty of lovely places to paddle the Gunflint Trail today.

The cold weather is holding that Pagami Creek Fire steady on the west end.  Lots of reinforcements have arrived from all over the country to fight the fire down there, but we're still waiting for the clouds to change---the greatest reinforcements will be the big soaking rains.  Until then, if you check out the map you can see the most current map of the fire. 
I'm really thankful that the people are still safe.  I'm remembering that fire is good--we need it in this fire-dependent ecosystem.  The woods will be fine, but that is enough for this year, thank you.   In the sure is a lovely day.  (thanks again to Rachel Swenson for the photographs)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pagami Creek Fire

Are we worried?  You bet.  But not so much about Tuscarora or our guests today.
The Pagami Creek Fire started by lightening on August 18th--down near Ely.
Yesterday was a big windy dry day, and the fire made a run.  Today is a little windy too but not nearly as dramatic, or alarming.

We know that the woods need to burn.  We love our BWCAW lakes and our blueberries- our new forests and our old ones--it's such a mosaical experience these days.  But this fire feels out of hand, on all fronts.   Please pray for the safety of the fire fighters, and of those on the west end that are evacuating.   Our hearts go out to our friends on the edge of this thing---and we're wishing them peace and calm until the rains will come.  They always do.

Today, the USFS closed all BWCAW entry points west of us---including Cross Bay, Brant, Missing Link.  We can set people up on the east side of the Gunflint Trail, but it is not a good day to start a canoe trip headed south and west.  Not until we get some rain.

Forecasts call for cold weather--frost advisories starting on Wednesday night.  We'd prefer cold and wet, to calm that fire right down. 

Detailed updated information available:

Please call us if we can re-book your permit to the east side, or Quetico or if you would like to re-schedule your trip.  Thanks for your flexibility.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Morning Fog Has LIfted

Our favorite Jerry Vandiver wrote this song as a tribute to his friend....Jerry shared the following email recently:

Meanwhile, a paddling friend of mine recently lost his 2 yr battle with lymphoma. He was 42. He had a couple of BW pics he took of the fog coming off a lake and I decided to write a tribute to him and couple the song with a slide show of his pictures. The song is called "The Morning Fog Has Lifted"