Marcia Roepke
Trail Time

Trail Time – Getting Prepared

On the Gunflint Trail, we live in a unique and beautiful part of the world. Each season of the year dictates our work and our play. When Spring finally comes, we get busy preparing for summer: We remove the snowblower from the tractor and attach the mower; We haul our dock home from the sheltered bay where it winters; We prepare our garden beds and start planting. We help our neighbors in all sorts of ways and they help us. And here in the Superior National Forest, as elsewhere, we continue to try to make our homes and our part of the woods safer from wildfire.

We trim brush and cut and prune trees all around our cabins to reduce the risk of fire damage. We check the whole length of the sprinkler system, checking for leaks and removing clogged heads where necessary and cleaning them out; We make sure we have full propane tanks on hand for the sprinkler system. We run the system regularly to keep our area watered, increasing its chances of being a defensible green zone. And then, when enough work is done, we go canoeing, and swimming and hiking in this beautiful boreal forest.

The point I’m making is that we prepare for wildfire all the time, not only when there is a close threat. This morning we learned that there is a wildfire 10 miles west of the Gunflint Trail, called the Spice Lake fire, west of Ogishkamuncie Lake. This news is very reminiscent of summer 2021 when the John Eck fire was burning 15 miles away. Like I did then, I have kept handy my wildfire evacuation checklist and my last-minute checklist for protecting home and property. I’ve been reviewing them today in the hopes that I can keep myself from panicking and am able to prepare calmly and thoroughly. The Upper Gunflint Trail didn’t need to evacuate in 2021, though we were in pre-evacuation mode for a while, with go bags packed and ready and all the boxes checked on my lists. I have never been in a wildfire, so I don’t know how that would affect me. Being 10 miles from a forest fire is enough to get my adrenaline going.

At the same time, the woods all around us are in a glorious state of blooming and growing. I’ve seen more bunchberries, strawberries, wild roses, saskatoons and trillium than I have in 10 years. Everything looks so lush until you notice how the moss on the north slopes is getting dry and crunchy. The dirt roads are as hard as stone. Cars and trucks kick up clouds of dust as they roll past. In the woods, the top 4 to 6 inches of soil — the duff — is dry. Added to that are the uncounted balsam firs that have been affected by spruce budworm. There are dead and dying standing fir trees all over this forest, ready to catch a stray falling ember.

How do we set that threat aside and enjoy these achingly beautiful woods? We have to try because why else would we live here? I mean, what is joy if not plunging yourself headlong into something that you know will not last forever? My gamble is that beauty, imagination and the company of good neighbors can win over fear.

Yesterday I watched a hummingbird in a birch tree. It sat on the slenderest of branchlets framed by the bright green semi-translucent leaves. A slight breeze was gusting, the tree branch was swaying and lifting, dipping and swinging as the wind rocked it. The hummingbird rose and fell, swayed from side to side and rode that branch like a seaworthy sailor standing on the deck of a ship in a stormy sea, keeping his balance while all around it roils.

The hummingbird’s poise in the midst of tumult reminded me of a favorite pine tree of mine back in my childhood backyard. It wasn’t a big tree, there were way bigger white pines all around. But this one had branches perfectly placed for the small hands and feet of the five little people that regularly climbed to the top, where the trunk branched out into smaller branches, forming what we called the crow’s nest. We had an old tricycle tire midway up on a knobby pitchy stub. That served as the steering wheel of our ship. But the best ride, on our imaginary stormy seas, was way out on a long branch — the bowsprit. It was stout enough to stand on and the branches above close enough to grab and we would pump that flexible branch up and down, shouting out, “Land Ho! LAND HO,” imagining dark stormy seas. It was fun to do alone, but it was always better with company, helping you ride out the imaginary storm in a make-believe ship.

May we all safely ride out this storm — this latest wildfire threat, with balance and poise and in the company of good neighbors.


— Marcia Roepke