Paddling through the Pagami Creek fire


In September of 2011 a large forest fire burned about 10% of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It was named the Pagami Creek Fire because it started on Pagami Creek. It was the third largest fire in Minnesota history. This week Amy and I spent several days paddling and portaging along the Isabella and Perent Rivers. Most of the forest along the Isabella and Perent Rivers burned during the Pagami Creek fire. It was interesting to explore the area and see how the landscape and the forest have changed.

We paddled for miles and miles through burned forest. Almost all of the adult trees were killed by the fire. We were glad to be exploring the burn area in the fall when the weather is cool; there was very little shade. We noticed lots of small trees growing. These new trees like all the sunshine and will eventually replace the trees that burned in the fire. In a way it was sad to see all the burned trees, but it was interesting to see all the tiny trees and new growth in the forest. We had to remind ourselves that forest fires are natural. The Pagami Creek fire was started by lightning.

These jack pine cones just opened up after the fire burned through. Photo courtesy of the US Forest Service

These jack pine cones just opened up after the fire burned through. Photo courtesy of the US Forest Service

Forest fires play an important role in the boreal forest. The Boundary Waters is on the southern edge of the boreal forest. Can you find a map of the boreal forest? The boreal forest covers a large part of Canada, Alaska, Russia, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. The boreal forest forms a donut around the northern hemisphere. Fire started by lightning is a regular part of the life cycle of the boreal forest. Typically this type of forest burns every 75 to 100 years.

Fires help forests regenerate. They return nutrients to the soil. They create openings in the trees for animals to graze. Moose and deer like these openings. Some plants, such as jack pine, won’t grow until after their seed cones have been in a fire. However, when a wildfire burns close to a town, threatening people and buildings, the wildland firefighters work to contain the fire.

Our friend Lynn Anne Vesper was one of the fire fighters who worked on the Pagami Creek fire. In October of 2011 we interviewed Lynn Anne about the Pagami Creek fire and what it was like to work as a wildland fire fighter.

Amy and I also paddled through a forest fire in the Northwest Territories in June of 2011. You can read our blog post from that adventure and see photos of a forest fire up close. It was amazing to feel the heat of the fire and watch it burn. I bet that area has lots of small trees growing in it and is full of new life, just like the forest that burned during the Pagami Creek fire.

Portaging through an area that burned during the Pagami Creek fire

Portaging through an area that burned during the Pagami Creek fire

Amy and I have left the part of the Boundary Waters that burned during the Pagami Creek fire and we are camped on a beautiful lake called Bald Eagle. We will continue to travel and explore the Boundary Waters and look forward to sharing more of our experiences with you soon.

Keep Exploring!

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Day 8: Capturing the Power of the Sun

Most of the time Wilderness travel and spending time in nature are good opportunities to leave your cell phone at home, unplug, and get away from the stresses that come with always being connected. However, for Amy and me sharing our experiences during A Year in the Wilderness is an important part of our journey. Because of this we have some cameras and other electronics with us, which would usually be left at home when we head out into the Wilderness. People often ask us how we can keep our satellite phone and other electronics charged.
Well, we carry a couple of small, portable solar panels and battery packs made by GoalZero. When the sun is out we lay these on top of our canoe to collect energy from the sun. We do not have an unlimited supply of power, so we have to be very conscious of our power consumption. We usually use a journal to organize our thoughts and write a first draft with pen and paper. Then we turn on our ipad, type the final draft, add a photo, send our entry to the internet, and turn off our electronics. Then its back to enjoying all the wonders that the Wilderness has to offer. We don’t want to miss something because we had our nose glued to the screen. Spending time in the Wilderness has helped us understand how important it is to unplug and spend time outside in nature, we hope that you can set aside a little time each day to spend outside, with your electronics turned off, observing and enjoying nature.

Day 7: Misty Morning on Clear Lake

Clear Lake was covered in a blanket of fog this morning when I climbed out of our tent to light the camp stove to boil water for oatmeal and coffee. The low temperature during the night had been below freezing. As we ate breakfast the sun slowly burned through the fog. After breakfast we finished packing up and loaded the canoe to head southeast towards Bald Eagle Lake. We portaged our canoe and all our supplies from Clear Lake into the South Kawishiwi River and were soon stripping of layers of warm clothes as the sun rose higher in the sky.

Portaging is hard but rewarding work. It is amazing to think that we can carry everything we need across a portage in two trips. First one of us carries the canoe and a small daypack across the portage while the other person carries the large pack with our tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, cooking pots, clothing, and a few other odds and ends. When we reach the end of the portage we drop our load and walk back across the portage to retrieve the second load. Our second load consists of two large blue barrels, which are outfitted with special backpack harnesses made by Granite Gear. One barrel contains all of our food and the other barrel contains our communication equipment, which we wrap in clothing to protect it, as well as our first aid kit, and other odds and ends. Plus, we carry our paddles, small camera case, and fishing poles in our hands.

Today we did three portages and tomorrow we will head up the Isabella River, which has many portages. We will probably do 10 portages tomorrow, and many more the next day. We may be out of contact for a few days, but we look forward to sharing more photos and stories with you again soon.

Miles traveled: 12
Portages: 3
Otters: 3
Loons: 4
Eagles: 2
Mink: 1

Celebrating Dave’s Birthday in Style

We saw the swans on Clear Lake several times again today. It was such a beautiful day, perhaps a day to rest if you’re a swan rather than migrating, which seems like a lot of work. We spent most of the day paddling and portaging from lake to lake, enjoying the warm and sunny weather. First, we made a trip into Eskwagama Lake. Then we went back into Clear Lake and the North Kawishiwi River in order to access South Farm Lake. As we paddled west along the North Kawishiwi River we noticed a solo paddler heading towards us. We soon recognized our friend Elton, who had paddled into the Wilderness to find us. We enjoyed our visit with Elton and we paddled together for several miles before he turned around and headed home. His smiling face and the fact that he came out looking for us was a welcome gift, but he also brought us chocolate and fresh tomatoes and beans from his garden! For the entire rest of the day we paddled to the rhythm of the song he sang for us. Thank you Elton! When we returned to our campsite Amy announced that it was time to bake a cake. Today is my birthday and so we baked a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting! We can bake just about anything you can bake at home in a conventional oven using a neat little pot with a special lid called a FryBake. The cake was delicious and we have one small piece left, which we plan to split as a special breakfast treat tomorrow. Miles traveled: 8 Portages: 6 Water Quality tests completed today: 2

Day 5: Surrounded by Birds as We Paddle

After breakfast we packed our lunch, rain gear, and water quality testing equipment into our Frost River day pack and paddled South towards the portage between Clear Lake and the South Kawishiwi River. A pair of Tundra Swans looking out of place with a small flock of Canada Geese floated near the first of the 10 portage portages. We rarely see Tundra Swans in the Boundary Waters, this pair must be migrating South for the winter. We have only seen a couple loons and they have already lost their summer plumage. Every time we hear their haunting call I wonder when we will hear it for the last time this year. Soon the Geese, Swans, and Loons will all have migrated South. We will say farewell to them for the winter. Luckily some of the hardy birds like the Grouse, Ravens, and Bald Eagles will stick around for the winter. Most of the Eagles migrate South, but even in the dead of winter we occasionally catch a glimpse of an eagle soaring overhead. Today we saw 4 eagles scattered alo ng the Kawishiwi River. This one circled over head several times before landing in a large, dead tree along the waters edge.

The wind has died and we are cooking dinner on a large rock overlooking Clear Lake. Two loons are calling to each other in the distance. I hope we continue to hear them for many more days. Its hard to imagine a Boundary Waters Canoe Trip without the sound of a loons haunting calls across the lakes still surface at dusk.

Bald Eagles: 4
Common Loons: 3
Canada Geese: 16
Miles paddled: 12
Number of portages: 10
Water quality measurements taken: 6

Day 4: Paddling and Portaging to Clear Lake

This morning we packed up camp and paddled North up the Kawishiwi River. A hint of blue sky appeared as we were loading the canoe and within an hour the sun was out for the first time in 4 days. We are measuring water quality in the deepest part of each lake that we visit. The Kawishiwi River is 50ft deep in front of our campsite, which is the deepest point for many miles, so we only paddled a few hundred yards before stopping to lower our probe into the water. I worked to keep the canoe from drifting while Amy slowly lowered the probe, taking readings every meter from the surface down to 15 meters. It took about 15 minutes to record all the data and then we paddled on. It seems novel today, but soon it will become part of our routine. We paddle and portaged for several hours and are camped on my favorite site on Clear Lake. A gentle breeze blew all day and we have spent much of the afternoon on a large rock by the waters edge soaking in the sun. We even went for a swim and Amy wondered if September 26th will be our last swim of the year. It feels like a summer day, but we know this weather will not last long, so we better enjoy these fleeting warm days while we can. We lingered on the rock as the sunset cast a warm glow over the lake before disappearing below the horizon. Miles Paddled: 6 Canoes Encountered: 2 Portages: 2

Day 3: Gathering mushrooms with our first visitor

We had our first visitor join us today! Our friend Steve Piragis paddled out to visit with us for a few hours and brought us chocolate and a giant bag of purple beans from his garden. We paddled over to Bruin Lake together to collect water quality data and walk the mile long portage from Bruin Lake to Little Gabro Lake. The leaves are starting to change and it was a real treat to walk through the woods on such a beautiful day. Steve loves to collect mushrooms and he helped us find many different mushrooms growing along the trail. Some were poisonous, but we found several editable species of mushrooms, which we brought back to camp and cooked up for dinner. We chopped up a bright orange mushroom and sautéed it in olive oil with a little salt, pepper, and basil. It was a yummy addition to our pasta. We are planning to pack up camp tomorrow and move deeper into the wilderness. We are feeling rested and are starting to fall into a routine. More than anything I am struck by the silence of the wilderness and how peaceful it is out here in the Boundary Waters. There is no other place like it on earth.

Miles traveled: 3

Water Quality tests completed today: 1

Mushrooms picked: 11

Bald Eagles seen: 3