Last year, I had the opportunity to join a group of friends on what I consider a “pretty awesome trip.”
"X" marks out campsite. Red indicates our canoe route.
It all began when a friend asked if I would like to be part of a camping/fishing trip in northern Minnesota. He had gone earlier that year and could not stop talking about his experience. He spoke of the big fish caught, the sights of the wilderness, the comradery of those in the group. Not knowing really what to expect, I thought why not.
For the next year the anticipation grew and grew. As we got closer to the date of the trip, there were planning meetings to determine what to bring, who had canoes to share, how many canoes we needed, who was planning the meals, etc. My excitement was building! It seemed to be taking a long time for the date to arrive.
Even though we had these meetings, I still was a little unsure what to bring as I started to put together my list. (I discovered later when we had to pack and portage three canoes, that it was probably too much. But I was ready!)
The date finally arrived early August 2021. But will we be able to go? Why you ask? If you had been following the news for the previous several months you would have heard of many wildfires across the United States and Canada. If you didn’t hear it on the nightly news, you may have seen or smelled the smoke in the sky all the way into northern Wisconsin. The area of the Boundary Waters Canoeing Area north of the border in Canada known as the Quetico had been closed for the past year due to the worldwide pandemic and, more recently, wildfires. As these fires grew some of the entry ports were closed, limiting access to this wilderness. We knew that there were restrictions on open fires such as campfires, so we were planned to add a small cookstove to the packing list.
Fortunately, we were able to go on our planned trip. On Sunday, our travel day, we passed the beginning of what would grow into a major wildfire. Alongside Minnesota Highway 2 smoke was billowing up into the sky. The fire, known as the Greenwood Fiire, is reported to have started from a lightning strike. In the week that followed, it would burn well over 9,000 acres.
We ended that first day in Ely, Minnesota where we spent our first night at a nearby lodge. The next morning we got a boat ride to the first portage in the Boundary Waters Canoeing Area. After a medium portage we loaded our canoes and paddled the first lake in search of a campsite to call home for the next five days. In the Boundary Waters it is first come first served when choosing a site. Our group looked at several sites before we chose the “perfect” one. We unloaded our gear, set up camp, and enjoyed our first day in the wilderness.
At our campsite when we arrived. One of three tents at the campsite.
Each day of the trip started just after sunrise with a cup of coffee and some breakfast before heading off to fish for the next several hours. With all the fires in the area, the smoke reddened the sunrise and moon which allowed for some beautiful pictures. When you rose in the morning and throughout the day you could smell smoke. It was intense at times.
I am grateful for the canoeing experience I received a Trees For Tomorrow (TFT) when I was an environmental educator. I was comfortable managing both the bow or stern. Some of the days found us fighting some strong headwinds. On one particular day we battled large white caps on our return to camp. It took all our strength to keep the bow pointed into the waves and not get sideways. Needless to say, we made it back to camp safely, without getting dumped!
Fishing was awesome also! Each day the group was successful in supplying enough fish for a tasty and plentiful dinner. Walleye, bass, and northern pike were the bounties of the day.
One thing I found myself doing on the trip was trying to identify various plants and animal signs comparing what grew in this area to what grew near my home. As an educator at TFT, it was part of my job to identify these things to students, and I was able to point these things out and educate my friends. (Once an educator always an educator!)
Saturday August 21, the last day of our trip, found us preparing to leave. We packed up and loaded our gear, paddled back across the lake, and got a boat ride to the lodge. We spoke with the outfitters and discussed the fire and our trip. Later that day we were informed that the Boundary Waters Canoeing Area was closed due to the above-mentioned wildfires. Even the rain that fell during Friday night was not enough to douse the flames. We just made it in time.
Sunset through the smoke of the Greenwood Fire
Wildfires have always intrigued me. I know many students share this intrigue. Fortunately Trees For Tomorrow (TFT) has curriculum for high schoolers that includes the study of wildfires and prescribed burning as a management tool. In fact, TFT's courses in canoeing, survival skills and cooking over a campfire provided a good base for my trip to the Bounday Waters!
By Vern Gentele, former Trees For Tomorrow Environmental Educator