Archive for September 7th, 2020

CAMPFIRE STORIES, FEATURING…THE FIRE

September 7, 2020

We pulled up to the empty campsite on Knife Lake, just east of the Eddy Lake portage, and I hopped  out of the canoe to check it.  Mark and I were doing a sweep of the District during a week’s time, checking permits, people, campsites, picking up litter, digging new latrines and covering old ones, but mostly taking a long canoe trip and being paid for it.  Earlier that day, we came upon a group of seven young women and an older man leading the trip.  Mark said to the guy, “I want your job.”  When the guy heard what we were doing, he said, “I want yours.”

I saw something on the site that I still vividly remember, nearly three decades later: a fire was burning well outside the fire grate, the flames high, fed by the wind, and about to reach the grassy area nearby.  Fire inside the fire grate is almost friendly.  Fire outside the grate, burning uncontrollably, is not.  

We both used our hats to get water, shovels, and Pulaski to gradually get the fire under control and then out. Had the summer been much more drier, this fire would have been off to the races. There was no Knife Lake Fire that year, and we continued our trip uneventfully towards Fraser Lake.

Later that summer, I did a trip on the Kawishiwi River and fully a third of the sites we visited had a fire area with outright active fire or warm ashes.  

I was taught that a campfire burns itself out overnight.  We left sites that way.  Finally, one time I decided to check that proposition and burned myself on hot ashes.  I learned what has been said for a lot longer than I have practiced—put the fire dead out, drown it, and don’t leave until the ashes are cold to touch. 

Five years after the Knife Lake incident, I was on a volunteer trip with the late Mike Manlove.  We came into Good Lake, and at the first site there was a tent up but nobody there and a fire burning. I still remember the leader of the trip’s coming back to the site while we were there and apologizing. As Mike wrote him a $100 fine for an unattended fire, the man was upset and embarrassed, saying he had spent over four hundred nights in the Boundary Waters and nothing like this had ever happened. I wonder how many unintended fires he had during that time.

Back then, I was pushing 200 nights and knew clearly that on day trips, one was better off not building a morning fire. Drowning it would make it harder to start that evening.  Eat a stove heated breakfast and save the fire for evening.  I’m now over 300 days, will never hit 400, and I still canoe that way.

Three years ago, I took a backpacking trip to the coast with one of the premier leaders in the Club. The area was nice, but the trip didn’t work for me. I learned that the leader’s sleep schedule and mine must be in synch.  Ours weren’t. The leader sat around the campfire drinking whisky at night and slept until 9. By 9, I have been up for 3 hours, eaten breakfast, taken a walk on the beach and was ready to go somewhere else. 

That’s not a criticism of the leader. But when we were leaving the site, he kicked some dirt over where the campfire had been and scattered the logs.  I went over and put my hand on the ground.

It was hot.  Ouch hot. That is a criticism. Shameful. That is a criticism of the leader.

It wasn’t easy getting water, since we were on a bluff over the ocean. I did work my way down to a stream for two trips and got enough water to make the area cooler.  I had to move quickly, however, because others on the trip were leaving the camp for their cars, and I didn’t want to miss my ride home. I left the site better, but worried for a full day that maybe the fire had burned under ground and would come up somewhere.

I was stunned: how could a leader leave a fire area hot?  The prior day, we left the campsite about 10, and I realized that I had not checked the campfire, perhaps because I hadn’t sat around it and assumed the leader would have put it dead out.  Wrong assumption.

I haven’t been on trips with this leader since.  I invited a Club member on a canoe trip with me in 2017; he drank Canadian Club at night and slept in the next morning.  It spoiled the trip.  We got on the water late, and the best time of day had passed.  Paddling lakes in the early morning is special.  The wind isn’t usually up, birds and other animals are more likely to be out, and there is a stillness that won’t last but a couple of hours. 

Two weeks ago, I was with the Crew doing trail work in the Diamond Peak Wilderness when a two young women backpackers came by us, having hiked up from Corrigan Lake, one of several nice lakes on the west side of that wilderness.  They commented that they had put out an abandoned campfire that morning on their way out. They knew it was there because they saw it the prior night.

“Why anyone would have a campfire in these temperatures is a mystery to me,” one said. I thought there was a campfire ban, but it was beginning the following day. Still, talks of imminent campfire bans are a good reason not to have campfires.

We thanked them for their help and continued working our way towards the lake.  I then remembered that the Club had had a backpack into Corrigan that very week.  The same leader was leading that backpack, mentoring another, and I wondered whether it had been their campfire. 

When we returned to town, it wasn’t clear to me whether they had had a campfire.  I wrote a board member with my concern, not proof, because others could have been at Corrigan, although not many, since it is a small lake.  I mentioned my concern and the issue on the coast three years prior.  I also mentioned that I had heard that one fire almost had gotten away from that same leader up in the Cascades. That was hearsay, and I admitted that.  I got a reply that the board member had seen pictures on Facebook of the group with two different campfires.  He took that information to others and the Club now bans all campfires.  If one wants to build a campfire, we can’t stop them, but it is not allowed on a Club trip.  That may not stop people, but it protects the Club.  I can think of three other violations I’ve heard about on Facebook.  Be careful what you post.

And put the fire dead out when you leave the site. Fires start fast, and it only takes seconds for a fire to be high enough in a tree that you will never reach it.

Corrigan Lake with Diamond Peak