Boundary Waters tourists get close look at fire damage

Associated Press

ALONG THE GUNFLINT TRAIL, Minn. -- As they paddled through the wilderness, Cheryl Mulhausen and her family stared in awe at the scorched hills surrounding Alpine Lake.

"In a way it's shocking to see. But fire is also part of the forest's natural cycle," she said later as her husband, John, hauled the Stillwater family's last pack across the portage linking Alpine to Sea Gull Lake.

"We're grateful our three kids could experience this," the schoolteacher said. "We feel pretty reverent, almost like we're witnesses to death and regeneration."

The Mulhausens are among the first campers getting close looks at the destruction -- and the resilience -- of the forest as they re-enter the 50-square-mile zone of the BWCA where lightning sparked a wildfire a month ago today.


Campers are seeing plenty of green in the fire zone. Many hillsides came out unscathed, and some were only singed. Even in the most heavily charred areas, tiny shoots for aspen and birch trees are starting to emerge. Small sprigs of grass, ferns and wild geraniums already are pushing through blackened soil.

Most of the area that burned since the Cavity Lake fire began July 14 is once again open to the public. But 46 of the approximately 110 campsites in the fire zone remain closed because they're damaged or unsafe. Seven small lakes also remain closed.

"We're expecting a lot more people," forest ranger Steve Schug told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. "Just like after the blowdown in '99, a lot of people will want to see the impact of the fire."

Halfway up a hill on a small island, a camper with blaze-orange pants looked out across Sea Gull Lake. Passers-by had an equally panoramic view of him as he sat on a new latrine.

"We've taken down the dangerous trees overhanging the campsites," Schug said. "But we can't do much to protect the modesty of campers who used to be screened by the trees. People may want to string a tarp around the toilets."

On Sea Gull, a popular entry point for thousands of BWCA visitors every year, only one campsite is still closed. It might never reopen.

The site on Shirt Tail Point looks good from a distance. It's still green, with trees and grass where campers would pitch tents.

"This is worse than it looks," Schug saidas he drove a motorboat up to the site, on a part of the lake where motors are allowed.


Behind the campsite stands a desolate hill. Charred stumps stand like mute sentinels keeping watch over the blackened earth. Atop the hill, now open to erosion, only melted fragments of a fiberglass latrine remain.

"Maybe we can stabilize this area -- us and nature," Schug said. "But not soon."

The Cavity Lake fire was the forest fire residents and officials had feared for seven years. It happened in the area where a massive windstorm in 1999 blew down millions of trees over more than 750 square miles, mostly within the BWCA. And the fire was fairly close to the Gunflint Trail, a major corridor into the wilderness for residents, vacationers, and the resorts and outfitters that serve them.

However, there were no injuries and no structures were burned.

The Cavity Lake fire actually enlarged a safety buffer for the northern end of the Gunflint Trail that had been created by smaller forest fires and by intentionally set fires.

"Now our top priority is the middle of the Gunflint," District Ranger Dennis Nietzke said. "We'll do more prescribed burns there, maybe this fall."

Schug said the burned area won't become a full forest for years, but it will green up quickly. By the end of this decade, campers will wade through waist-high birch, aspen, hazel, mountain ash and maple. In 10 years, some of those trees will be 20 feet tall. Birch likely will dominate, attracting moose.

"The pines will start to come back, but that's a very slow process," said Lee Frelich, director of the Center for Hardwood Ecology at the University of Minnesota. "If global warming doesn't change the pattern, we could see a pine forest again by the year 2150 or 2200."

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