During that night’s fitful sleep, Frelich and I take turns unzipping the tent door to see if the fire is moving west toward us. Fortunately, it isn’t. By morning, the wind mercifully subsides, and we paddle out.
Returning to Seagull’s eastern shore, we find a thicket of blackened tree skeletons where there had been a thick green landscape. Ashes fall like snow where we’d launched four days ago. I hear crackling like a campfire from a smoldering hot spot.
Unbelievably, all is well back at my car, though flames had incinerated trees just 30 yards from it. Ignited by a rogue campfire six miles away, the Ham Lake Fire would burn 75,000 acres and cross into Canada. Its ferocity at a time when snow still lies in shadowed pockets is an ominous sign that these woods are getting hotter and drier. And yet, says Frelich, this fire will breathe new life into the boreal forest.
I look at the jack pines with their serotinous cones now opened to spread seeds, and I see at least a whisper of hope in the ravage. Maybe some of those seeds will take hold and adapt to this fast-changing world. And maybe, if we mend our ways, there will be a stand of crooked and craggy jack pines to greet my children when–a few decades from now–they launch canoes at this spot with my grandkids.