A Massive Forest Fire Chased Us Through the Wilderness

5 years ago

It was just a bitty little thing, said the rangers who issued the permit for our ten day wilderness canoe trip in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota last fall (Sept 2011).  And it was, at the time.  Just a small fire near our put in point.  It had been started by lightning two weeks earlier. Some of the campsites were a little smoky, but unless we had asthma or breathing problems, the rangers told us we should be fine.  Plus, our itinerary would quickly have us out the area.  A backfire had been lit by firefighters at the portage between Lake One, our put in, and Lake Two, so the firefighters were there making sure everything was under control. Here's a picture of our group before we started:

At the first portage, we met the firefighters and gave them candy bars.  We saw a lot of smoke, then we saw a tree explode into flames.  Next firefighter I saw got two candy bars. 

Smoky paddling in Lake Two 

What happy, beautiful paddling.  Little did we know as we paddled deeper into the wilderness, that we were going to be in a race with the third largest forest fire in Minnesota history, burning over 93,000 acres. 

On the second day we went through Lake Two, Three, and Four, then into Lake Hudson.  The weather was very warm, up into the high 80’s.  We could see smoky clouds from the fire back by Lake One, but every morning the smoke abated.  We swam, paddled, fished, spotted beavers and even a mama bear and her cub swimming to an island.  All that magnificent wilderness was about to go up in smoke.

  Lake Hudson

 The night before the fire went out of control we camped on Lake Insula, a large lake. We found a perfect campsite and had a moonlight paddle around some islands on silky water. 

     Lake Insula

The fire cloud was getting bigger, and by the next afternoon, the campsite where we currently were would be burned to the ground. We did not know this on that perfect night, as we got into our sleeping bags and zipped up our tents.

In the morning some canoeists came by and told us the fire was growing and that they had closed Lake One, Two, Three, Four and Hudson, where we had come from.  We jumped up and hurried to break camp, loaded the canoes and headed to the north end of Lake Insula.

That’s when the wind came up.  It was at our backs as we headed north.  Canoeists usually don’t mind when the wind is from behind, but this wind was perilously strong, about 30-35mph.  The waves got huge, and at one point we had to turn sideways to the waves and I remember screaming, even though I’m an experienced canoer.  We paddled as hard as we could.

We later learned that three firefighters capsized on this lake that day and were in the water for 25 minutes.  They were rescued by a float plane and taken to the hospital with hypothermia. 

The southerly wind fanned the fire bigger, and closer.

We came to the portage at the north end of Lake Insula, a long portage of more than a half mile.  Trees were tossing and cracking in the wind.  Leaves flew around us.  One of our group was carrying two packs along the portage when he heard a tree snap, and looked around to see if a tree was about to fall.  He couldn’t see it, but something told him to RUN.  He ran 5 or 6 strides, and a big birch tree hit the ground 5 feet behind him. 

During the portage, walking alone with dry sacks, I could hear animals running through the woods, away from the fire, but I did not see them.  I kept telling myself that it was only Bambi, not a moose or a bear.

Coming back to the beginning of the portage for my second load, the sky had changed from a smoke cloud to a red glow filling the whole southern horizon.  The dark, smoky wind was warm and blowing the fire right at us.  We had no idea how close it was, but the sky looked too weird for anyone to be blasé.  We did not know it had already reached the southern half of Lake Insula and was burning our campsite of that morning.  There were other campers on Lake Insula, and we were all fleeing for our lives.


Time to pray.

As we went into the next lake, Lake Kiana, the clouds of smoke were huge, soaring upwards of 20,000 feet. 



By this time, the fire was so big and hot that it was jumping out to the islands in Lake Insula, so even if we had stayed there on an island we would not have been safe.


Praying harder.

We canoed through small Lake Kiana and into Lake Thomas.  Many canoeists were fleeing the fire.  We stopped at Lake Thomas.  To the north of us, away from the fire, lay narrow beaver passageways that would not be good to canoe into if there was a forest fire raging around us.  However, the wind was strong and we were surrounded by trees.  We feared they might crash down any minute.

But then we all looked to the south and we could not believe what we saw.  At first the smoke started getting lighter. 

But soon, it looked like there was an extremely bright sun just behind the trees, but the sun was to the west of us. 


Some of our group did not believe the fire was as close as it turned out it was.  Looking back at the fire was the scariest part.  We found out later that by this time it was less than three miles away and approaching fast with the high winds. 

I wondered what the next few hours would bring.  If we had to get into the water, how long would we have before hypothermia set in?  Would the smoke be so dense that we would be asphyxiated?  In some fires, the air is so hot that humans can’t breathe, the hot air gets inhaled and cooks the lungs.  I could imagine ashes falling on us, then burning leaves and cinders, then we’d have to get into the water.  Could we sink our canoes?  Canoes usually have floatation systems so that they don’t sink.  Would they burn up and we would be stuck out there until someone found us?  If we could get our supplies into dry sacks and sunk, they would be safe.  The area where we had stopped had a steep drop off and there wasn’t really a place to stand up in the water. 

We could see small planes flying against the smoke clouds, either taking firefighters in or getting other people out.  We had a large group and I did not think we would all fit into a little float plane, if one found us it was going to have to fly us out a few at a time.  A big plane flew directly over us but did not land on our lake.  I was pretty sure that the pilot had spotted us.

We later learned that two women were caught in a narrow inlet of Lake Insula and got in the water to escape the fire.  They suffered hypothermia, but were rescued and taken to the hospital.

The smoke clouds were evilly soaring up and were mighty impressive.  I think we were all praying by this point.

But then?  Thunder!  Huge thunder!  Mighty peals of it warned us to take cover, and then the heavens opened up and poured down rain and hail.  The hail pummeled us so hard it hurt to hold up the tarp, they were the size of large mothballs.  The lake was churning with them like a maelstrom.  The storm did not last long, only 15 minutes, but that was enough.  I can’t think of anything that could have happened to save us except this.  Right at this moment, it chose to rain.

Hail and rainwater from our 15 minute storm.

When it was over, we could no longer see the clouds or the fire.  Later in the evening, we saw a red glow on the horizon. During the night, I woke up worried about the wind, but it seemed that there was a dome of protection over us and no trees fell down in our campground that night.

In the morning, we paddled to Lake Ima, but the winds were so high we had to stop.  The portages were crammed with people fleeing and we took the first campsite we could find.

The temperature dropped and the wind was horrible.  We feared we should flee, but the winds and whitecaps were really bad.  We wound up staying two nights there, even though it was cold and windy and we really wanted to be somewhere more sheltered.  That night it was 21 degrees.

The next day was breezy, but we got up before dawn and crossed the lake to the portage.  We had a beautiful day among small lakes, thankful that the thunderstorm had dampened the fire’s threat, as the small lakes we passed through afforded little protection if we had been overrun by the fire while in them.  Instead, we were able to appreciate their beauty.  It was some of the prettiest paddling I ever have done.  Loons, beaver lodges, pine trees and still water. 

The last people out of the forest fire area, who were interviewed by the newspaper, met up with us on the last portage, and we canoed across Snowbank Lake to the take out together. Because we out paddled them to the take out, we really can’t say we were the last ones out.  There we met some rangers who said that whole area we were in was closed.  The rangers said no one had been killed by the fire, and only one structure had burned but no one had lived there.

The fire is called the Pagami Creek fire.  While I’m really sad that it burned one of our nation’s most beautiful spots, I’m pretty sure that the same source responsible for the thunderstorm can manage the area’s restoration.  I can’t wait to go back.


Our crew at the take out.  I'm in the blue hat, 4th from the right.

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