Before they even set their kayaks in the water at Kawishiwi Lake, Greg and Julie Welch had heard about the Pagami Creek Fire. They’d been told about it by Rangers, who were watching it, who said it was small and hadn’t moved much, and who had closed a swath of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area that was twice as large as they thought necessary, just to be safe. The fire was miles away from them.
Besides, Greg had been a photojournalist back in Michigan, where he’d often followed forest fire crews out to take photos. He’d seen flames jump 30-foot roads and do other strange things. Given all he knew about fires, he figured they were more than a safe distance from it. Plus, the wind had been blowing the wrong way, gusting at their backs as they paddled north.
The day was perfect, 70 degrees, sunny, quiet—one of those days you dream of when you think about getting back into the wild. This was what they loved. This was what they looked forward to all year. During the summer, they worked 12-hour days at their family business, building vinyl docks for people to put out behind their lake cabins. The orders came in an avalanche each spring, and they spent the rest of the summer digging out. By August, things usually began to wind down, and they would pack their bags, strap their kayaks on the roof, leave their daughters (now 15 and 20 years old) home with family, and head out for what Sigurd Olson once called “the singing wilderness.” It was something they’d been doing for the last 20 years. After two weeks cut off from everything but the calls of wolves and loons and eagles, they always came home feeling like new people.
This time, they planned to take it easy. By early afternoon, just two days into a 10-day trip, they reached Kawasachong Lake and found a campsite on the western side. It sat on top of a steep, 25-foot bank, and gave them a nice view of the water—calm and bright blue that day. They beached their boats, hauled up their dry bags up, and began the pleasant routine of setting up camp. After eating some food, they put up their tent and Greg started getting ready to go fishing.
Around this time, the wind started to pick up, gusting. There seemed to be more smoke lingering around them. Far off, there was a strange cracking noise that sounded like branches breaking. Greg took a photo of the clouds to the west, and when he took a look on the camera, there were streaks of orange shot through.
Julie started getting uneasy, so Greg agreed to paddle out and have a look to west to see if he could see if the smoke from the Pagami Creek Fire looked any closer. He walked down to his kayak and paddled out into a little river just to the north of the lake. As soon as he rounded a bend, he saw it: The entire horizon, all the way across, was on fire. The flames were horizontal, blowing straight at them.
THE PAGAMI CREEK FIRE had started about three weeks earlier when lightning stuck a bog east of Ely. It seemed to be slow moving and manageable. But on the day the Welchs stopped at Kawasachong Lake, it became a fire of legend, burning 80,000 acres in one day and racing across an unheard-of 16 miles of land. It vaporized trees, and resulted in a massive, 35,000-foot plume that created its own weather system. By the end of the day, the fire would consume some 92,000 total acres of wilderness. Nothing in the historical record suggested that a fire could move that fast through the area. None of the alerts indicated conditions were even right for a fire of that scale. But a rare, unstable mass of air formed over the fire. At the same time a strong wind kicked up out of the west, the instability pulled it through the fire like a bellows blowing through a blacksmith’s forge.
Welch raced back to the campsite as fast as he could, yelling up from the water for Julie to get moving. Julie had heard the fire roaring through the woods, though, and she was already throwing dry bags down to shore before jumping herself.