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Trail Time

SmokePlume_PhotoByMarciaRoepke.jpg
SmokePlume_PhotoByMarciaRoepke.jpg

Trail Time
8-27-2021
By Marcia Roepke
 
As I write this, it’s Wednesday, August 25, 2021 and the upper part of the Gunflint Trail has been in pre-evacuation mode for almost two days. It was just past 8 pm on Sunday when I read an email marked “urgent” from the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department (GTVFD) requesting that residents from End of the Trail to the south side of Loon Lake prepare to evacuate. The email  linked to a video where Mike Valentini explained how to get ready. Stressing that this was NOT an evacuation, and NOT a time to panic, he calmly and clearly said that “ready mode” means homeowners should turn on sprinklers, pack medications, gather pets and pack up valuables. 

Well, that certainly got my attention. I forwarded the message to neighbors and then my husband Lars and I got busy: He to print out wildfire evacuation checklists, and I to start packing my “Go Bag.” These lists helped us prioritize our actions, and while I wouldn’t say I felt totally calm on the inside, I didn’t feel panicky, just very focused and alert. We’ve been very fire-aware this summer. The air has been smoky for months around here due to the Quetico and Ontario fires. There was the Delta Fire earlier then the fire at Greenwood Lake and now the John Ek was the one heading our way. Minnesota has had one of the driest summers in recorded history. In truth, we had been preparing for this wildfire scenario for years. With the John Ek fire moving closer, Monday night felt like the pointy end of a graph showing a spread of tasks over time leading to this one last job: packing to get ready to go. So that night, after clothing, valuables, medications, and dog food were stowed in backpacks and totes, cell phones were plugged in and charging, we headed outside to complete some of the other chores on our list.

With the sprinklers spraying water pumped from the lake, we moved the two cedar canoes and our tractor into the garage, which is within our spriklers’ perimeter. We moved the gasoline can to a safe area, moved wooden deck furniture and doormats off the deck and made sure both garden hoses were hooked up and had nozzles attached. We checked that the standby generator was gassed up and we filled potable water containers in case we lost electricity. There were many more items on the checklist, but you get the picture. We worked hard and went to bed late that night, keeping company with a beautiful blue moon. I didn’t sleep very well. 

We have been cutting brush and dead trees for years, following a program of wildfire fuel reduction called Firewise. We had created a thirty-foot zone around our cabin with no conifers and, among other things, we had protected the area underneath our wood deck with metal, guarding against blowing embers. But each year there is always more brush to cut and more dead balsam firs to cut down. Firs are the best fuel for wildfire and so they’re the worst thing to have near your home. They grow like weeds.  

The morning after the pre-evacuation notice, Lars set off with Duffer Don to help cut and haul brush to the local brush pile. After they left, I didn’t know what to do with myself. We had done a good job the night before — we were packed and ready to go, but I just couldn’t sit around being ready. I checked our refrigerator and saw the chicken and ribs I had thawed for this week’s meals. I wondered if I should re-freeze it, but instead I decided to start cooking everything I could. So I baked cookies, then roasted chicken wings and after that put the ribs in the oven for a long slow bake. I’m so glad the cooler weather had arrived! Since the campfire ban, I didn’t want to cook outside, not even with a grill. I kept myself busy all day with various chores inside and out, and I had to force myself to not check constantly for email updates and status reports from the Superior National Forest. We knew that we would be informed by someone coming to our house should we need to evacuate.  

We had attended a jam-packed town hall meeting Sunday night to get an update on the John Ek fire and I had been impressed with the professionalism and clarity of each speaker. They stressed many times that fire is unpredictable and they could not tell us with any certainty what would develop in the immediate future. I sat there feeling very grateful for the forest rangers, our emergency preparedness system in Cook County and for our own Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department. We really felt – and still do – that we have excellent people doing their jobs very well to help protect us, our homes and care for the forest. I also thought to myself that nearly two years of Covid has taught me a lot about living with unpredictability and quickly-changing situations. Both fire and pandemic have certainly improved my prayer life.

We live in a boreal forest that requires fire to sustain it. We knew this when we moved here. We accepted the risk and have done our best to prepare for the worst-case scenario. You can’t live up here and be in denial about fire.

Our minds are strange places when we’re anxious, though. The day after that meeting at Schaap Community Center, we headed to town for groceries. We were feeling much more at ease about the wildfire situation. When we had woken up that morning, we did not see or smell smoke. The wind had shifted during the night and the morning sky was clear. The fire felt much farther away than it had the day before. After shopping, we headed back up the Trail. We were on our way to Voyageurs Outfitters to fill some propane tanks when we saw a strangely-colored plume of smoke in the sky. There it was, right in front of us, the smoke from the John Ek fire rising in the distance, stretching south across the western horizon. Suddenly the fire felt closer. Then, as the Trail curved to the northeast, the plume of smoke disappeared from our view, as did that momentary rising of fear I had felt when I first saw it. Like a light switch turning on and off, as the curve of the road changed so did my mental and emotional state. It was a very strange experience. It made me feel more like an animal, but not in a beastly way. I mean like in the way an animal fears fire when it is present, but gives it no thought in its absence.

The wind can change my outlook just as quickly as a changing view. I’ve always loved paddling into the wind, sitting in the bow of a canoe, leaning into the push of air before me. I find it exhilarating. But tonight, as I write this, the wind is picking up and as its velocity increases so does my disquiet about the fire that might be moving closer to the Trail today. I think my attitude  about wind will be changed by the John Ek fire.
 
This is Marcia Roepke from the Gunflint Trail
 

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