Out Alive: Trapped by Wildfire

Two kayakers survive a howling inferno by clinging to their crafts in the middle of a frigid lake-and then hypothermia threatens.
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Two kayakers survive a howling inferno by clinging to their crafts in the middle of a frigid lake-and then hypothermia threatens.

Flames shot over my head as I slid down the bank to my kayak. My only chance for survival was in the water where my wife, Julie, had already sought harbor from the wildfire. I couldn’t see her through the dense, black smoke that choked me as I screamed her name. In the next moment, a gust of scorching wind blasted across the lake, lifting the smoke enough for me to see Julie tipping out of her kayak to immerse herself in the water’s safety. When I paddled out to her moments later, I realized the entire lakeshore was burning. There was no way out.

The day before, as Julie and I drove toward Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, we noticed smoke blowing across the road from the supposedly managed Pagami Creek Fire. We heard about the fire again at the park ranger station, but our designated camping zone wasn’t closed and rangers told us everything was under control. After a hot summer drought, we knew the area was ripe with fuel, but we didn’t anticipate a firestorm.

We paddled 5 miles from Kawishiwi Lake to Kawasachong Lake, marveling at a giant, dark plume cloud we mistook for a thunderhead—it should have been a red flag (unlike thunderclouds, fire plumes don’t have flat bottoms). In the early afternoon, I led us up the west bank of Kawasachong Lake to search for a campsite, and we found one that overlooked the water from a steep, 25-foot bank. A smoky smell settled in over our camp, but we figured the day’s gusty winds had just carried the wildfire’s scent toward us—our third mistake. The wind had shifted, so we should have evacuated right away.

Then the sky changed. I had been preparing to fish for dinner while Julie set up the tent, but the sky’s dark orange hue stopped us immediately. Just then, gust after gust of hot wind slammed our camp. I hopped into my kayak to get a better view of the fire.

I hadn’t gone more than 30 yards when I realized everything to our west was in flames—the inferno was heading straight at us, and just a few hundred yards away.

I shouted to Julie, but she was already sprinting for her kayak with arms full of gear. I paddled back to shore and grabbed a few drybags as firebrands flew into our campsite. Then I launched down the hill toward my boat, the fire right on my heels. I dove into the 50°F water as fire engulfed all sides of the lake, vaporizing our tent. When I reached Julie, we clung to my kayak’s side as whitecaps splashed soot into our throats and nostrils. Even though we were soaking wet and safe from catching fire, we could hardly breathe.

I knew we would asphyxiate if I didn’t act, so I fumbled for a fleece jacket we had stashed in the kayak, dunked it in the lake, and put it over our heads. We repeated this cycle, taking turns submerging our heads to clear away the soot.

After an hour of repeated dunking, breathing through the damp fleece, and treading water, we started to shiver violently. We swam toward the safest-looking shoreline, where the fire had already consumed all available fuel, and came across some small rocks protruding from the water—just large enough for the two of us. Then it started to pour. The fire’s plume cloud had collapsed, causing strong wind that forced the firestorm toward us before all the cloud’s moisture fell at once, dumping several inches of water on the forest and dousing the fire. The rain turned to hail, and within minutes the entire inferno was extinguished.

We survived the 40°F night huddled together on the rocks while the lake glowed red, reflecting the smoldering roots and moss. We paddled out the next morning having survived—narrowly—the largest wildfire Minnesota had seen in a century.

Key Skill
Stay safe in a wildfire
»If fire is in your area and you can’t get out, position yourself on the lee side of natural firebreaks such as lakes, boulder fields, or snowfields, where you’ll have more time to observe the blaze and act if it approaches.
»Always flee laterally to the way the fire is spreading. Some fires move faster than 50 mph; you can’t outrun one.
»Mountain wind patterns can be complex and drive fire quickly, so keep a wary eye as you travel. Seek out topographical features that deny fire a continuous source of fuel. Or step “into the black”—areas that have already burned are devoid of fuel.
»Avoid ravines and canyons, as they trap and amplify heat.