Resorters work as the smoke clearsby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
Memorial Day weekend is traditionally the season-opener for resorts and outfitters on the Gunflint Trail. But this year the area is just starting to recover from the devastating Ham Lake fire, that destroyed 140 buildings and burned 75,000 acres.
But the outfitters say they're ready for business. They're used to improvising, and they know how to work together.
On the Gunflint Trail, Cook County, Minn. — At Voyageur Canoe Outfitters near the end of the Gunflint Trail, dozens of canoes are lined up on their racks, ready for a summer of adventure in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The owners here, Mike and Sue Prom, had to buy a few new canoes, after firefighters used some to fight the Ham Lake fire.
At the height of the fire, Mike Prom - who's also assistant chief of the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department - prepared three meals a day for more than a hundred firefighters from around the country
He stayed here, but his family was evacuated for more than two weeks. They operated the business from a resort down the road, Gunflint Pines. He says the complications were surprisingly ordinary.
"To forward your phone, which seems like would be very easy task, is not, because you're supposed to forward from phone you're leaving from," he says. "So it took us almost 48 hours to find the right person in the phone company who could actually go ahead and forward it."
Finally, his phones were forwarded to Gunflint Pines. Owner Shari Baker pushed things aside in her office to make room for her neighbors. The Bakers had a business phone line and a personal line.
"So we had their phones forwarded to our personal line," she says. "And then we changed the ringer tones on the phones so we could keep everything separate. It worked out pretty good: we'd answer each other's lines and took messages for each other, got them on line so they could keep things going."
But just a few days later, the fire raced to the east and threatened the Gunflint resorts. Everyone had to move to Grand Marais, and the phones were forwarded again.
That evacuation lasted almost a week. Shari Baker has no trouble explaining why she bent over backwards to accommodate her friends -- who also happen to be her competitors.
"Because that's what we do up here," she says. "It's a great community. You know, we're friends, we're neighbors. And we're also a community But the businesses up here are pretty unique, in that we really do try to take care of each other."
Communicating with customers and vendors is still a challenge for the resorts at the end of the trail. The phone lines were burned, and the local phone company doesn't know when service can be restored. The area wasn't covered by cell phones before, but now Verizon has installed a temporary tower.
At Seagull Outfitters, Shira McDonald says the cell phone signal doesn't make it to the office.
"It is very challenging," she says. "You think, 'Oh, I want to call and check on this,' and you can't. And so, 'Well I'll just go up on the hill and call with the cell phone.' But you can't. So you make up a list: 'Okay, we're going to go up on the hill and call these people.' It works, but it's a little challenging."
And you can't use a cell phone to run a credit card or get a fishing license.
Debbie Mark is the owner of Seagull Outfitters. She says it's unusually quiet this weekend.
"We've lost probably over 50 percent of our Memorial weekend business," she says. "More than that, actually -- probably 60-70 percent, something like that. As I look at the chart, it's all erased."
But she's just finished loading up one adventurous group.
A philosophy class from Minnesota State Mankato had planned their trip to the Boundary Waters for two years.
Ryan Feldbrugge says he's looking forward to seeing what a burned forest looks like.
"We drove up, we saw quite a lot of damage, and I thought it was really interesting to see how rocky the terrain is, because it sort of clears everything away," he says. "I don't think it's going to detract from the experience at all, it's just a different kind of trip I guess."
Outfitters hope there are lots more groups like that coming up this summer.
A handful of Boundary Waters entry points are still closed, including Magnetic Lake and Larch Creek. But outfitters say there are still lots of good routes -- including trips that show the forest growing back after forest fires years ago.
- Morning Edition, 05/25/2007, 7:25 a.m.