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Image of forest fire.

Revived by Fire

Wilderness campers become eyewitnesses to the power of wildfire to revitalize a forest ecosystem.

By Gustave Axelson

I stood on a rocky island on Sea Gull Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and I watched a demon's rage boiling in the forest. Furious southern winds enraged the wildfire into a churning column of gray smoke with a dark heart, throwing a plume so high into the sky I had to tilt my head back to observe it. The water below turned ashen in reflection.

The buzz of propellers overhead told me the U.S. Forest Service had declared an emergency to lift the ban on aircraft flying low over the wilderness. Bright yellow waterbomber airplanes attacked the fire plume, like giant bees buzzing to and from a hive. I paddled my canoe to the northern shore, opposite from the fire, for refuge. Later in the afternoon the plume descended to earth, and a smoky, acrid fog settled upon my campsite.

images of the aftermath of the Ham Lake Fire

Forest Fire Revisited:

A photo gallery of images taken one year after the Ham Lake fire.

That night I hiked to an overlook -- the Sea Gull Lake palisades -- to gaze upon a benighted horizon speckled by flaring embers. Those "embers," seen from several miles away, were actually entire stands of jack pine and balsam fir. Flames flashed like solar flares with fiery fingers that stretched several hundred feet high into the darkness. The next day I paddled out through forest that had been returned to mounds of elemental dust. Hot spots crackled like campfires, still smoldering in brush by the water's edge. I saw surreal sights, like smoke emanating from inside a standing tree, twisting from a hole bored by a woodpecker, like the trailing of a cigarette. Ashes flurried from the sky like snow. Among the charred trees were jack pines with opened cones dangling from the tips of branches -- cones that would soon release jack pine seeds to the bed of ashes.

The Ham Lake fire burned for three weeks in May 2007, across more than 70,000 acres of the Boundary Waters and into Ontario. A year later, in July 2008, I returned to Sea Gull Lake -- back to the place where for three days I'd nervously watched the biggest wildfire in the Boundary Waters since 1894. I wanted to see what new life this fire had wrought.

"Most folks avoid the burn area, or they paddle right through it to get where the forest is still standing," local canoe outfitter Mike Prom told me as I picked up my BWCAW entry permit. But to see this place as a dead zone is to misjudge it. The forest dynamics that raged here in presettlement times, when wildfires burned freely and frequently, are at work here again. On my return trip, I paddled with three friends -- Ethan, Andy, and Mike -- to the southern shore of Sea Gull Lake. We landed in burned forest. Clumps of dead trees stood in blackened thickets; their bubbled, boiled, charred bark looked like burnt toast. Many of the burned trees had already blown down. The thick woods had given way to prairielike openness. After a shore lunch of fried bass and potatoes, we set out to do something that isn't easily done in the densely forested Boundary Waters: go for a hike.

Brushy vegetation, such as the aptly named bindweed, tangled our footsteps. Violet bursts of flowering fireweed rose above the brush; below lay Bicknell's geranium plants. The Bicknell's role in a post-fire forest is like that of a band-aid -- the newly sprouted geraniums quickly lock the bare soil into place to withstand erosion until new trees and their roots can gain a foothold. Then, in the shade of a young forest, the geranium seeds go dormant again, until the next fire unleashes the plant like a genie from a bottle. These geranium plants have lain dormant since the last fire on this shore in 1801. Some of the last people to see these plants here were possibly voyageurs and Ojibwe traders.

We also saw abundant raspberry plants growing among the brush. And on a rocky promontory, we picked ripe blueberries by the handful. As I surveyed the landscape, the pink granite boulders of the Saganaga batholith now dominated the vista. The forest soil had been burned down to bedrock, transforming the north woods into a type of canyon country. Perhaps a Westerner would be more appreciative of all these exposed rock terraces and windy vistas. Minnesotans see this landscape and mourn the loss of trees.

On the hike back to camp, I climbed atop another bare rock ridge and discovered shards of granite strewn about, testament to the intensity of wildfire. Here the flames burned hot enough to shatter rock. Ethan spotted a moose cow and calf feasting on knee-high aspen and birch saplings flourishing in the burn area. We kept a watchful eye for a black-backed woodpecker, an uncommon bird that irrupts into burned areas, but we saw only flickers. The wildfire created prime woodpecker habitat with acres of dead trees suitable for nest cavities, their charred trunks teeming with beetles to be eaten. The beetles in turn were eating the dead trees, recycling nutrients back into the soil to feed a replenishing forest. Walking in the wake of a wildfire, we could see the forest wasn't lost -- just under reconstruction. Back in camp we went for a swim to wash the charcoal stains off our legs, then relaxed for a breezy, bugless night by a campfire. In the flickering light of the flames, Andy remarked about the extraordinary opportunity of our day hike: "In three or four years, when the forest grows back, you won't be able to do that anymore."

Loons yodeled; their tremolos reverberated off barren, scorched rock as the moon rose over Sea Gull Lake. The haunting calls reminded me that the loons were silent on that early-May midnight when the fire made a run north across the Canadian border. The bloody-orange luminance in the sky, so bright it cast shadows, was grander than any aurora borealis I've ever seen. I hope I'll never again be camped out when a wildfire erupts. But I'm ever so thankful to have been there when the Ham Lake fire turned night into day -- and made a new forest.

An original version of this essay previously appeared in The New York Times.

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