When you’re watching a crackling fire in camp on a cold night, it’s impossible to imagine anything more pleasing. But when giant flames are thundering across the backcountry you’re paddling through, you feel something unsettled in an ancient place inside your core. The buzz from waterbomber airplanes overhead doesn’t help.
My anxiety attack comes on an island in the middle of Seagull Lake, inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), as I watch a thick plume of smoke rise a few miles to our south. The good news is that I’m standing next to Lee Frelich, Ph.D., a renowned forest ecologist who has studied fire in the North Woods for 30 years. We hike up a ridge for a better view and get smacked by a wall of wind. That same wind is roiling the blaze into a churning funnel of smoke, with a stratospheric plume trailing north into Canada. The waters below turn ashen in reflection.
“That’s a big fire,” Frelich says simply, exhaling. I wait for the good doctor to elaborate. Maybe offer some expert analysis or words of reassurance. Nothing.
If he’s dumbfounded, it’s not by what he sees so much as when he’s seeing it. It’s only the first weekend of May, unusually early in the year for such a violent fire. The foot-thick ice went out on this lake just days ago. But this isn’t the first out-of-season phenomenon Frelich and I have seen, only two days into this canoe trip. Indeed, he warned me before we met that uncommon sights are becoming commonplace as rising temperatures throw this wilderness into flux.
Photographer Layne Kennedy and I are accompanying Frelich on an early-season excursion to research sites where he studies this forest’s reaction to global warming. We’re here to paddle among dense, dark stands of fir and spruce that have defined this brooding boreal forest since the days of the Roman Empire. We’re also here to catalog how climate change is altering it. But now, as the fire jumps to another stand of jack pines, I’m beginning to wonder if I’m going to wind up writing its obituary.
We launched my Bell NorthWind canoe yesterday on Seagull Lake with plans for a 20-mile loop. Seagull is a 4,000-acre expanse with more than 100 islands and open water that calls for calm winds, steady skills, and a bit of good fortune for safe passage.
Frelich’s bona fides make him the ultimate eco-tour guide for these parts. As director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Hardwood Ecology, vice president of the Eastern Native Tree Society, and foremost expert on the forest dynamics of the Boundary Waters, he knows the origin of nearly every tree in this 1.1-million-acre wilderness. He’s also paddled here dozens of times, though you’d never guess it from his academic bearing and dress. When we met him at the put-in, Frelich was in tan jeans and the kind of collared, button-down plaid shirt that Midwest colleges must issue to every incoming prof.
He stumbled a bit while plopping into the bow, but the 50-year-old’s knowledge of the area was immediately obvious. “Those jack pines regenerated from a 1976 fire,” Frelich said, pointing to a uniform, evenly aged stand along the shoreline. “And see that mixed area of red pine, black spruce, and fir? That dates all the way back to an 1864 fire.”
Frelich maintains 750 wilderness research plots in the Boundary Waters–240-square-yard areas in which he has inventoried every standing tree. “See that tall jack pine with a flat top? That’s as high as the tree can pump water, so it can’t grow taller. Oh, and that paper birch over there is about 175 years old.” When the day’s first breezes kicked up, Frelich kept lecturing, forcing me to lay more muscle into my J-stroking to keep the canoe tracking properly.
By midafternoon, strong southerly gusts were sending waves lapping over our gunwales. Capsizing this soon after ice-out could mean death by hypothermia within minutes, so we paddled into the lee of Three Mile Island to make camp and wait out the wind.
We set about staking out the tent–or I did. My side done, I turned to find Frelich crouched by a birch sapling. “There’s a sign of global warming right there,” he announced. I peered closely, looking for any evidence of planetary collapse in this scrawny but otherwise healthy-looking 8-foot-high tree. Nothing. I squinted harder, expecting proof but also secretly wishing that Frelich and all the other Chicken Littles were wrong. Then he pointed out the obvious, the kind of clue that is frightening in its innocuousness: The little birch was budding several weeks ahead of schedule.