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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.
survillo_outalive_wildfire_445Illustration by Jamie Givens

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.

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