After the fireby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
Many residents and vacationers along the Gunflint Trail are apprehensive about what they'll find when they venture out into the area burned by the Cavity Lake wildfire. The fire is still burning, but the U.S. Forest Service is allowing people into areas where the fire is burned out. From a distance, much of the land looks like it's burned to a crisp. But even in the blackened areas, life is not only surviving, but thriving.
Duluth, Minn. — Early in its life, the Cavity Lake fire roared across Seagull Lake, jumping from island to island and threatening homes and resorts along the Gunflint Trail. Near the end of the Trail, fighters set up their base camp.
Two forest service workers hop in a small boat to document the fire and its aftermath. In places, the fire seems to have consumed everything: the trees. The shrubs and wildflowers. The mosses and lichens. Even the soil is black, dry and crumbly.
But these two are looking for life.
Rugged rocks rise from the water. Here and there a clump of cedars clings to the rocky shore, needles still green against the black ash dusting the steep hills behind them.
Burned snags -- limbless trees the color of charcoal -- stand in scraggly ranks against the sky.
But even here, among the burned jackpines and balsam, biologist Lissa Grover can find signs of life.
"If you look around, you can see the twenty-foot tall trees that took off after the blowdown," she says. "And a lot of them still have cones on the top, and those cones are open, and the seeds will fall from them into the bare soil and germinate."
Ash from the fire will enrich the soil. It's all part of a natural cycle that depends on fire.
"There's a seedbank in the soil, just waiting for a disturbance like this," says Grover. "There's one plant called Bicknell's geranium that sprouts after fire, produces flowers the second year, sets seed. Those seeds will stay in the soil until the next fire, even if it's 200 years from now."
And some plants aren't waiting for the next generation. Sedges, plants that look like grasses, are already pushing green shoots through the blackened dirt.
And grasshoppers flit everywhere.
Our next stop is Three Mile Island, a big island in Seagull Lake.
After the 1999 blowdown, when straight-line winds flattened millions of trees, the Forest Service purposely burned some areas near homes and resorts. The idea was to reduce the amount of fuel available for a future wildfire. Four years ago, crews set this island on fire.
Wilderness ranger Tim McKenzie says that intentional burn saved the island, and the Gunflint resorts, from the Cavity Lake Fire.
"It was traveling pretty good distances and spotting on these islands," He says. "As soon as it hit here it just lay down. So if these burns hadn't been in place, it could have just run up the length of Seagull Lake and run up the Gunflint Trail with a lot of intensity."
You can even see the very place where the Cavity Lake fire stopped. The blowdown fuel was already burned, and the year-old shrubs and trees were too small and green to provide enough fuel to keep the fire going.
Lissa Grover surveys the pioneer plants that thrive on disturbed soil.
"There are a lot of birch trees that have come in," she says. "A lot of jack pine, some spruce, fireweed. We also have raspberries and blueberries." The animals will be gorging on those berries. Grover saw a moose browsing here just a few days ago.
The animals here are adapted to fires. Rodents burrow into the ground. Bears, wolves and moose can walk away from a fire. But Grover says the Cavity Lake fire moved fast. It probably cut off some animals from their trails. Of course, birds can fly away or take refuge in the water.
She does worry about the young eagles, still in their nests and unable to fly.
"We have several eagle nests that fire burned all around," she says. "The trees are still there, the nest is still there, the adult eagles are still here, but it's unlikely that the juveniles in the nest survived the fire."
But a few minutes later, we stop the boat to listen to a sound that gladdens Grover's heart: a young eagle screaming for food.
At least one young eagle survived the Cavity Lake fire.
This is fire country. At the northern end of Seagull Lake, we're surrounded by land that's been swept repeatedly by wildfires, and recently by prescribed fires too.
These fires start, grow, move, and burn out in a patchwork pattern on the land.
Just a year ago, the Alpine Lake fire burned more than a thousand acres of blowdown, until it ran into a patch called the Roy Lake fire. This was a fire that burned 30 years ago. And during the blowdown, seven years ago, these trees were short enough, and flexible enough, to survive the windstorm.
Tim McKenzie battled the Roy Lake fire back then, thirty years ago. He says just as the Roy Lake fire stopped this year's Cavity Lake fire, the Cavity Lake fire will slow or stop other fires in the future.
"Other fires that are west of it that have a lot of potential will bump into this," he says. "At least for several years this has robbed them of any sort of fuel."
And here, where the Roy Lake fire burned across the land to Seagull Lake 30 years ago, is a picture-perfect Boundary Waters portage.
Young balsams scent the air with their clean, northwoods smell. Young birch and alder lean across the path. Vibrant green surrounds us. Soft moss cushions our footsteps. The air is moist, and the mosquitoes are buzzing.
It took 30 years for this community of plants and animals to grow to this point. A generation in human time; less than a blink of an eye for the land.
Lissa Grover and Tim McKenzie say the people who paddle through here in the next few years will get an unusual lesson in how nature works.
"Even though it's heartbreaking in many ways, it's also really fascinating, and a good lesson in how the landscape changes," says Grover.
"It's very exciting actually," adds McKenzie. "Because people are used to seeing a snapshot in time. But the landscape they're used to seeing became that landscape because of this process."
It's a process that's shaped the ecosystem of all of northeastern Minnesota. The Cavity Lake fire has burned 30,000 acres. That's less than a tenth of the land hit by the blowdown. And that's less than half the area of the BWCAW.