Minnesota's Boundary Waters Face Extermination By Climate Change

As temperatures rise, Minnesota's North Woods will likely go up in smoke.

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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.

A longer growing season is not good for this tree, Frelich explained, because it goes hand-in-hand with warmer soil temperatures. And paper birches, which range from here to Alaska, can’t tolerate warm soil.

That’s why paper birches are among the species that Frelich says will migrate from the Boundary Waters entirely if, as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts, average global temps rise another 2 to 11.5°F by 2100. Other trees in Frelich’s climate-change dead pool include balsam fir, black spruce, white spruce, jack pine, and red pine. That’s nearly every species for miles around. Take those trees away, and this forest is rendered unrecognizable as North Woods.

“If the trend continues, Boundary Waters is going to lose the boreal forest as we know it,” Frelich said as he poked around the campsite. “I don’t see any way around it.”

After a dinner of campfire-grilled steaks (packed frozen and thawed on our first day’s journey), I proposed a sunset hike. Behind our campsite in one of Frelich’s research plots, we walked past a waist-high grove of birch saplings regenerating after a prescribed burn in 2002. Those saplings, Frelich said, have the best chance of adapting to a warmer 21st century. That’s because most boreal trees release seeds every time the forest burns, and the seeds that succeed become new trees that are genetically coded to cope with the climate they’re born into.

Climbing up a ridge, I scrambled across pink granite boulders unearthed by a fire that burned away the soil. At the top, I hopped from boulder to boulder above the tiny birches. The setting sun painted distant granite outcroppings a radiant rouge. My eyes told me I was somewhere out West, maybe Utah’s redrock country. Then a moose sauntered out of a black spruce bog in a draw that had escaped the flames, and my mind snapped back to Minnesota. She climbed the ridge, glanced back, dipping her bulbous brown nose to give her eyes an unimpeded view, then disappeared down the other side.

I took a closer look at the ground. Vigorous, nascent blueberry bushes, a few ankle-high spruces, and several jack pine seedlings were poking up: boreal forest reborn, at least for now.

MORNING BROKE ON DAY TWO with a calm that had us scrambling into the canoe to take advantage of the flat water. We paddled to another research plot a bit farther down Three Mile Island–a grove of ancient, if stunted, northern white cedars.

The canoe nudged ashore near trees that Frelich dated at 550 years old. Their granddaddy–a cedar estimated at 1,000 years old, quite possibly Minnesota’s oldest tree–stood a few feet inland. Only about 25 feet tall, its bark was a weathered and gray, with a hole in the trunk that reminded me of the agonized face in Edvard Munch’s Scream.

This plot is important for Frelich’s research. These cedar trees could be the future of the Boundary Waters, because they are one of the area’s few native trees that could prosper in a warmer climate. All across northern Minnesota, however, white-tailed deer keep white cedars from branching out across the landscape in a classic climate-change domino effect: Milder winters allow more deer to survive and propagate in spring. The deer (whose population is at an all-time high) need to eat, so they munch the cedar saplings. And the cedars take a big hit. Now deer are encroaching on the BWCAW, where 150 years ago they were rare and caribou (now gone) were common.

Soon we were off to another plot on nearby Eagle’s Nest Island, which was scorched last year when the Cavity Lake fire burned more than 30,000 acres of forest. The standing dead trees sport black, bubbled bark the texture of burnt wheat toast. Poking around, Frelich found new life. He pointed to fresh shoots of liverwort, a plant with bright green sprigs that belie its pallid-sounding name. But his explanation of their role in a resurgent post-fire forest is suddenly interrupted. Three planes roar low overhead, our first indication that there is a problem very close by.

Now, after surveying the fire from the ridgetop, we head back out on the water and ride lake swells that wash ice-cold water over the rear gunwale, then land at a campsite in a protected bay on the mainland. The aircraft traffic to and from the plume is constant. That night, the fire casts a red glow in the southern sky. It’s not the cool green-and-white northern lights display I was hoping to enjoy, and the flames’ proximity creates a searing lightness in my gut that feels like the time four grizzlies wandered into my camp in Denali.

Day three brings a smoky haze that settles on the lake, socking us in. Our eyes sting, and our throats burn. The only thing that’s clear is the fact that we’re not going to get off Seagull Lake today.

Frelich doesn’t need to go far to show me more, though.

“Ah, I see we have aporrectodea in our midst,” the professor intones as I labor over breakfast. He means angleworms, and he identifies them by the Lilliputian mounds they create with their excrement. Anglers likely brought the worms to the area as bait. They don’t belong. There are no native earthworm species in the Boundary Waters.

But you can add worms to the list of nonnatives that will prosper here in a warmer climate. Worms change the soil’s chemistry in a way that devastates native plants and makes the ground more fertile for buckthorn–a particularly aggressive invader.

Walking about our campsite, Frelich is clearly wound up, a man in his element. He stops abruptly. “Whoa!” he exclaims. “This red maple grew 4 feet last year! This is definitely not a boreal climate any longer.”

Red maples are more common a few hundred miles to the south in central Wisconsin. Frelich says this tree could dominate a warmer and wetter Boundary Waters in 50 years, a prediction that sometimes elicits a “So what?” from people who wonder why it matters that different trees will grow here.

Frelich’s answer: We’re facing the unraveling of a complex ecosystem. Much of what makes this wilderness special for backcountry paddlers–the chance to spot a moose or lynx, catch a trout for dinner, or marvel at the splotchy artwork of caribou mosses and crustose lichens on a boulder–will be threatened as the Boundary Waters loses its rich forest mosaic of intermixed aspen and birch, spruce and fir, and three species of pines. This forest, which has stood here for more than 3,000 years and even inspired the Wilderness Act of 1964, could vanish within the next century. In its place will be a plain-vanilla forest, driven by deer, buckthorn, and earthworms–a place no more special, ecologically speaking, than a typical county park.

That’s why, among other things, Frelich has urged the Forest Service to reinstate fire as a natural force, igniting prescribed burns in areas not touched by wildfires. This, he says, will give some boreal tree species at least a fighting chance of surviving moderate climate change.

The Forest Service isn’t listening. In 2004, it issued a new 100-year management plan for the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters that disregards global warming altogether.

WE ARE STRANDED at our campsite for the next two days by screaming winds. After sundown, I don’t even need my headlamp–the bloody-orange luminance in the sky casts shadows. The fire is sweeping from south to east, past our entry point. Our cars back at the campground parking lot could very well be melted by the time we return.

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.

Plan It

Boundary Waters


McKenzie Maps 6 and 7 (bwcamaps.com)
Outfitter Voyageur Outfitters (canoeit.com)


For technical route info: Paddling the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park, by James Churchill ($17). For the mind: The Boundary Waters Wilderness Ecosystem, by Miron Heinselman ($30). For the soul: Singing Wilderness, by Sigurd Olson ($16), poet laureate of the Boundary Waters and author of the Wilderness Act of 1964.


Required; get yours for entry point #54 at bwcaw.org ($10/person).

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