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Boundary Waters

By Stephen Wilbers


This chronology is presented in four versions so that you may choose according to your interests. The long version contains all entries, the short version is a knock-down version of the long one, and the wilderness management and natural history versions contain entries specific to those topics.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a 1.1 million acre wilderness located in northeastern Minnesota. I hope you enjoy browsing through this history as much as I have enjoyed compiling it.

Long          Short          Wilderness Management          Natural History

Please send comments, information, and corrections to me at wilbe004@umn.edu. Thanks. Stephen Wilbers

Three photographs by Craig Blacklock          Principal Sources




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Boundary Waters Chronology:
Natural History

4.6 billion-600 million years ago:
The granite bedrock of the Canadian Shield, which underlies northeastern North America and whose dramatic outcroppings characterize the landscape of the boundary waters region, is formed during the Precambrian period.

2.5 million-10,000 years ago:
Earth's climate cools by several degrees during the Pleistocene epoch, creating the most recent Ice Age. Sea levels drop by as much as 330 feet, and snow in the Hudson Bay region no longer melts, creating the fourth glacier to cover the area. Ice up to two miles thick expands southward at the rate of one inch to ten feet per day, scraping and gouging and reshaping the landscape of the boundary waters region under its tremendous weight.

30,000 or more years ago:
According to the Pre-Clovis Hypothesis of archaeology, the first humans to inhabit North America arrive. They arrive earlier than the humans who migrated across Beringia, or the Bering Land Bridge, from Siberia to Alaska.

20,000-12,000 years ago:
According to the Clovis Hypothesis (named after a site in Clovis, New Mexico, containing evidence of human habitation), the first humans to inhabit North America cross the Bering Strait on Beringia, the Bering Land Bridge, and migrate south along the west coast of North America.

15,000 years ago:
The most recent of four glaciers begins to retreat from northern Minnesota and the Hudson Bay area. Two and a half million years earlier when this immense glacier moved across the boundary waters landscape from the northeast, it gouged out easily fractured rock in lowland areas. Now, as the glacier melts, it deposits sand, silt, and gravel within the trough it had excavated. The deposits create barriers enclosing a series of deep basins along drainageways. The result: chains of lakes interconnected by small streams.

13,000-8,000 years ago:
White pine begins to migrate north and west from its glacial refuge in the Appalachian Mountains.

Around 11,000 years ago:
Hunting pressure and a warming climate lead to the extinction of many large Ice Age mammals.

6,500 years ago:
White pine, which for the past 7,000 years or so has been migrating northward from its glacial refuge in Appalachia, reaches the boundary waters region.

Climatic cooling creates a moister weather pattern known as the "Little Ice Age," which favors the growth of boreal spruces and jack pine over white and red pine.

Felt hats made from beaver fur go out of style in Europe and are replaced by silk hats, ending a fashion that lasted 300 years. By this time, the beaver population in the boundary waters region is decimated. It doesn't fully recover for 150 years.

A bounty system for wolves is established in Minnesota, offering $3 per dead animal.

Extreme drought results in the biggest forest fires in centuries, burning several hundred square miles, or 400,000 acres (an area comparable to the largest of the 1988 Yellowstone fires). Nearly half of the present Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness burns, including 434 square miles of forest between the Isabella River and Saganaga Lake, and 176 square miles of forest south of Lac La Croix. Earlier major fires occurred in 1595, 1681, 1692, 1727, 1755-59, 1796, 1801, 1822, and 1824, creating conditions for natural forest regeneration. Before the unnatural disturbances of logging and fire-suppression management in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this natural cycle of fire-mediated forest renewal or "patch turnover" is estimated to have affected about three-quarters of the landscape of the boundary waters region every 50 to 100 years, resulting in a mosaic of even-age stands.

Major forest fires, second in size in recent history only to the 1863-64 fires, burn more than 300 square miles of forest in the boundary waters area, affecting an area from Sawbill, Alton, and Kawishiwi lakes in the south to Alice, Ogishkemuncie, Tuscarora, and Cherokee lakes in the north.

Major forest fires burn 203 square miles of forest in the western boundary waters around La Croix Boulder Bay and Crooked Lake, as well as other smaller areas, including the forest around Alton, Sawbill, and Kelly lakes.

Red and white pine are logged in the boundary waters area during "the big-pine logging era," with the first significant logging occurring in the Trout Lake area north of Lake Vermilion. Red pine is taken principally for timbers used in mining, and white pine principally for lumber.

eaver, fisher, marten, and wolverine have all but vanished from the boundary waters area, probably as a result of trapping. The beaver population begins to recover in the 1920s and does not fully reestablish itself until the 1970s. The fisher population begins to recover in the 1950s, the marten in the 1970s. The wolverine is still absent.

Early 1900s:
The moose population declines. It does not begin to recover significantly until the 1950s.

Exceptional drought results in major forest fires burning some 80 square miles of forest in a number of areas south of Saganaga Lake and at the western end of the Gunflint Trail, the last time major fires burn virgin forests in the boundary waters area before "the fire-suppression period."

Major fires are suppressed in the boundary waters area during "the fire-suppression period," resulting in unintended consequences. Fire suppression interferes with the natural cycle of fires that create new stands of forests, curtails periodic elimination of the tree-killing spruce budworm, and causes a buildup of dead trees in forest understories. These unnaturally high fuel loads increase the likelihood of super hot fires that scorch the thin topsoil of the boundary waters area, killing organic matter and the seeds of trees such as jack pine, black spruce, and red pine, which normally reestablish themselves rapidly after fires.

"Moose sickness," an ailment causing moose to lose their normal fear of humans, to have a droopy ear, and to walk in circles or show other signs of disorientation, is first observed in Minnesota.

Woodland caribou no longer inhabit the boundary waters area.

Total annual precipitation is below normal, producing "the great drought of the 1930s," a decade-long hot, dry period.

May 16, Minnesota's record northern pike – weighing 45 pounds, 12 ounces – is caught in Basswood Lake by J. V. Schanken.

Major forest fires fueled by slash left from logging burn in the boundary waters area. On July 22, a fire starts on Star Lake and moves north, nearly trapping a fire crew camped on the south shore of Brule Lake near the Juno Lake railroad spur. On July 31, another fire starts north of Brule Lake and east of the Cone lakes. Together the Brule Lake fires burn 25,000 acres of forest, the largest fires in the Sawbill area in the 20th century. (See Mary Alice Hansen's "Forest Fire in the Woods," from her book, Sawbill: History and Tales.)

Jack pine, black and white spruce, balsam fir, northern white cedar, aspen, and paper birch are logged during "the pulpwood logging era," the second major logging era to affect the boundary waters area. The first era was the taking of red and white pine during "the big-pine logging era" of 1895-1930.

July 6, a state record-tying high temperature of 114 degrees, first established in 1917, is recorded in Moorhead, Minnesota. Prolonged record-breaking hot summer weather combined with a seven-year drought results in widespread forest fires, including 30 small fires in the eastern Superior National Forest. A lightning-ignited fire starts on July 12 and burns 3,200 acres of forest around Cherokee Lake and 3,500 acres around Frost Lake. (See Mary Alice Hansen's "Forest Fire in the Woods," from her book, Sawbill: History and Tales)

Late 1930s:
Smallmouth bass are introduced to boundary waters lakes.

Crooked, Lac La Croix, and Basswood lakes are stocked with smallmouth bass fingerlings shipped in by train from Wisconsin by Bill Zupancich Sr. and several other Ely outfitters.

Populations of spruce budworm, native to the boundary waters area, increase to epidemic proportions, perhaps as a result of fire suppression. In the latter half of the twentieth century the budworm, a defoliator that eats the new needles growing from buds each spring, kills vast areas of spruce, jack pine, and balsam fir (which despite its name is the spruce budworm's prime host), creating high fuel loads that can result in high-intensity, seed-killing fires.

December 19, a vast area of federal timber within the roadless area, north, east, and west of Lake Isabella is sold to the Tomahawk Timber Company, which represents several Wisconsin firms. The area includes about 130 square miles of land and water, with a net land area of some 73,000 acres in federal ownership. Logging of this area continues for two decades.

Railroad tracks are laid to Lake Isabella and construction begins on Forest Center, a logging town carved out of the southern edge of the roadless area, in preparation for logging by the Tomahawk Kraft Timber Co. A large turnaround and sawmill are built by the lake, and eventually more than 50 homes – as well as a church, restaurant, school, store, and recreation hall – are built, along with five smaller camps in the area. Logging by Tomahawk ends in 1964, when loggers reach a buffer zone created by the Shipstead-Nolan Act. By 1965 the town is gone, though the alteration in the southern boundary of the present Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness remains.

June, a forest fire burns 1,200 acres at Plouff Creek, crossing the Sawbill Trail and stranding guests at Sawbill Lodge for several days. Until the late 1980s a gap in vegetation is noticeable to people driving along the Sawbill Trail. (See Mary Alice Hansen's "Forest Fire in the Woods," from her book, Sawbill: History and Tales.)

The white-tailed deer population, dependent on new-growth forest, collapses from a loss of prime deer habitat with maturing forests in the early logging areas and in the extensive burn areas of 1863-64, 1875, 1894, and 1910. The moose population begins to recover from a decline that began in the early 1900s.

The beaver population is significantly reduced by a dieoff caused by tularemia.

Spruce budworm population increases to epidemic proportions throughout the boundary waters area and Quetico. In localized areas the population remains continuously epidemic from 1956 to the present.

Under protection from trapping, the fisher regains its former population levels. As a result, the number of porcupines, which are preyed on by the fisher, declines dramatically.

The wolf population in the lower 48 states is at an all-time low. Minnesota's wolf population is estimated to be around 400 animals. Other estimates place the population at 350-700 in northeastern Minnesota and about 20 on Isle Royale.

Snowmobile use in the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs, and Quetico grows, resulting in increased stress on lake trout populations from winter fishing.

In 1962, Dr. Roy Anderson and graduate student Murray Lankester demonstrate that a parasite, a brainworm known as Parelaphostrongylus tenis, normally found in white-tailed deer, causes "moose sickness," an ailment first observed in Minnesota in 1912.

The estimated moose population of about 3,000 doubles to about 6,000 in northeastern Minnesota and to about 2,000 in the Boundary Waters.

Peregrine falcons are extirpated from all of Minnesota and adjacent regions as a result of DDT poisoning. The last nesting pair in the Boundary Waters is reported this year. In the mid-1970s, only 35 nesting pairs are reported in the entire U.S.

The last bounty ($35) is paid on a wolf in Minnesota before Minnesota's bounty program on wolves and the Minnesota Department of Conservation's control program are ended. Together the two programs resulted in the killing of more than 300 wolves annually.

White-tailed deer population further declines in the Boundary Waters and Superior National Forest as a result of a series of severe winters, a loss of prime deer habitat caused by maturing forests, and increased predation by wolves. By 1972-73, deer no longer winter in the Boundary Waters.

The gray wolf in the lower 48 states is listed as "endangered" under the 1966 Endangered Species Preservation Act.

The whitetail deer population in the Boundary Waters further declines and wolves switch from killing deer to moose, a more challenging prey.

As a result of DDT poisoning, the American bald eagle population declines to its lowest level, with only about 10 active eagle nests remaining in the Superior National Forest. A ban on the use of DDT is implemented on January 1, 1973. By 1989, the number of active nests increases to 74.

May 14-16, the Little Sioux fire, the largest forest fire in northern Minnesota since 1910, a crown fire, spreads from a slash fire and burns 14,000 acres or 24 square miles in the western Boundary Waters, killing the world record jack pine.

A limited moose hunt is authorized for the first time since 1922.

Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, a student group at the University of Minnesota, files a lawsuit to prohibit logging of old growth forest in the BWCAW until an Environmental Impact Statement is completed by the U.S. Forest Service.

The Endangered Species Act is passed by Congress, declaring timber wolves an endangered species and affording federal protection. Since 1965, when the last bounty was paid on a wolf in Minnesota, approximately 200 animals were killed annually.

A year of exceptional drought results in 516 forest fires burning 1,079,000 acres of forest in northwestern Ontario. On July 27, a camper-caused fire burns 1,006 acres around Prayer Lake.

A severe drought, with only .58 inches of rainfall recorded for the normally wet period of April 26 through June 6, makes this summer one of the driest on record, resulting in a travel ban in the Boundary Waters and widespread forest fires, including an August 21 fire that burns 3,380 acres of forest around Roy Lake, and an August 30 fire that burns 1,190 acres of forest around Rice Lake, and a September 7 fire that burns 1,025 acres of forest around Fraser Lake.

The Eastern timber wolf is reclassified from "endangered" to "threatened" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that administers the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The law still prohibits the killing of wolves with the exception of problem animals causing agricultural damage. The Fish and Wildlife Service also adopts a recovery plan (revised in 1992) for the purpose of increasing the number and range of timber wolves to ensure the animal's survival in the eastern half of the U.S. The recovery plan sets a population goal for Minnesota of 1,251 to 1,400 wolves by the year 2000, a goal that is achieved in the early 1980s. In 1989 a wolf population survey estimates the statewide population at between 1,550 and 1,750 animals.

All logging in the wilderness ceases under the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness Act, U.S. Public Law 95-495, ending some 85 years of logging in the Boundary Waters.

January, acidification of Boundary Waters lakes is detected, with 1,218 of 1,338 lakes identified as "sensitive" and 308 identified as "extremely sensitive," after a one-year investigation by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Department of Health.

The peregrine falcon is placed on the federal endangered species list. After a 20-year absence, peregrine falcons are reintroduced into the wild in Minnesota, including in Cook County. In 1999 the falcon is removed from the endangered species list. By 2004 its population in Minnesota reaches 36 nesting pairs. The peregrine falcon is the world's fastest bird. When it goes into a dive (called a "stoop"), it can reach 175 miles per hour.

May 29-June 24, a small island on Lake Two is set on fire by a careless camper, resulting in a major forest fire. For the first time in 76 years, a significant fire in the Boundary Waters is allowed to burn without intervention by the U.S. Forest Service.

Canada lynxes are no longer permanent residents in Minnesota but only occasional wanderers from Ontario searching for food, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

September 14 and 15, an emaciated female black bear mauls two campers in a rare attack of a human by a black bear. On September 14, Tyson Crowder, 19, from Maryville, Tennessee, and enrolled as a student at the University of Tennessee, is mauled at Wabang Lake, south of Lac La Croix. He is hospitalized in stable condition with multiple lacerations, including a large head laceration and a fractured bone in his shoulder. The next day Jeremy Cleaveland, a 52-year-old real estate agent from Minnetonka, is attacked at Lady Boot Bay, an arm of Lac La Croix, a mile northwest from Wabang Lake. Cleaveland's injuries include bites and claw marks on his thigh, forearm, shoulder, head, and neck, and a badly twisted knee. In both cases the bear is driven off by other campers hitting it with a canoe paddle. On September 16, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources game wardens shoot the bear as it is ransacking a campsite near the scene of the attacks. The bear, an eight-year-old female weighing only 117 pounds, may have been suffering from digestive problems. Normal weight for a bear of this age and gender is 150 to 200 pounds. These attacks are two of only four recorded incidents of bears attacking humans in Minnesota. The other two, also non-fatal, occur in September 2002, while 24-year-old researcher Miles Becker is studying woodcock in the Four Brooks Wildlife Management Area 10 miles north of Milaca (Becker suffers broken facial bones, puncture wounds to his head and left leg, and a broken fibula; after the attack he radios his partner, who locates him partly by following his directions and partly by homing in on the radio transmitters Becker has with him to attach to woodcocks), and in September 2003, when 37-year-old Kim Heil-Smith surprises a sow with her cub in her garage in rural Grand Marais (Heil-Smith suffers scratches and bites on her head, shoulder and thighs, some of which require stitches; she escapes when she grabs the bear's nose and yells, "Get out of my house!").

July 1, peregrine falcons produce young in the Superior National Forest for the first time in 28 years.

July 15, a great regional downburst storm causes vast blowdowns in the Boundary Waters and Quetico.

Nearly half of Minnesota's 6,700 moose die over a two-year period as a result of a "winter tick" infestation, leaving a population of about 3,700 moose.

September 18, a windstorm causes major damage in the Superior National Forest, especially in the Gunflint Trail area.

The population of the Eastern timber wolf is estimated at 1,500-1,750 in Minnesota, 45 in Wisconsin, and 20 in Michigan.

The moose and white-tailed deer populations in the Boundary Waters decline, with severe winter losses in 1995 and 1996.

Major forest fire starts near Romance Lake, burns around Saganaga Lake, and spreads across 9 miles or 12,600 acres in the U.S. and Canada, threatening 40 structures on the Gunflint Trail. Fire 141, the largest fire, burns the areas around Kawnipi, Falls Chain, and Saganagons lakes. About 8% of Quetico is affected, an area larger than the combined area burned in the previous 60 years.

Miron "Bud" Heinselman's The Boundary Waters Wilderness Ecosystem is published posthumously.

June 14, a forest fire burns 4,450 acres around South Temperance Lake. The fire is fought by more than 260 personnel at a cost of $1.5 million.

July 4th, a severe windstorm described as a "storm of a century" blows down and damages trees in a 30-mile swath across the Boundary Waters, severely affecting approximately 367,000 acres or 32% of the Boundary Waters, 477,000 acres in northeastern Minnesota, and 108,000 acres in Canada. The storm also damages 1,500 of the 2,000 campsites in the Boundary Waters and completely or partially blocks 550 portages. With trees stacked up as high as 20 feet, the fuel load for fire is 5 to 10 times higher than it was before the blowdown, and the U.S. Forest Service begins planning a series of prescribed, controlled burns to reduce the risk of large, intense, uncontrollable fires in the years ahead.

March, the Canada lynx is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, giving it federal protection.

The moose population in the Arrowhead Region of Northeastern Minnesota declines from 5,000 to 4,000 from the previous year.

After 30 years of only occasional sightings, more than two dozen Canada lynxes inhabit the Boundary Waters, according to estimates based on DNA analysis of animal hair and feces.

For the first time ever reported outside captivity, three wildcat hybrids – mixes between male bobcats and female Canada lynxes – are confirmed by federal researchers, who analyzed DNA from hair and tissue samples from 19 cats in Superior National Forest. There is concern that, if the hybrids can reproduce, they might dilute the genetic purity of Canada lynx populations.

25,000-30,000 black bears inhabit Minnesota, up from 10,000 in the 1980s.

12,000 loons spend the summer in Minnesota, the most of any state except Alaska.

The estimated gray wolf population in northern Minnesota is just more than 3,000 animals, compared with an estimated 2,450 wolves in 1998. Because the DNR survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 700 wolves, the population appears to be holding steady. Completed in the winter of 2003-04, the survey used field observations, habitat models, and data from radio telemetry studies. In comparison, 400 wolves inhabit Wisconsin, and about 360 inhabit Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Also this year a lone wolf is found in Michigan's Lower Peninsula, the first sighting since 1910.

The estimated gray wolf population in the state of Minnesota is approximately 3,020 animals (or somewhere between 2,301 and 3,708 animals), a 23% increase since the last major survey in the winter of 1997-98, according to John Erb, wolf biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Most of these wolves live in about 485 packs averaging between 5 and 6 wolves each. The wolf population in Wisconsin is approximately 425 animals living in about 109 packs. In Michigan's Upper Peninsula the population is about 408 animals in about 86 packs. 
The main reason for the increased populations seems to be the abundance of white-tailed deer, the wolf’s principal prey.

June 4, Lloyd Skelton, an experienced 58-year-old outdoor adventurer, buys a day permit to hike the 14-mile Angleworm Trail, deciding to delay his solo kayak trip until the weather improves. On June 17 his daughter reports him missing. When searchers find only his clothing and wallet, they assume he has succumbed to hypothermia and "paradoxical undressing," an irrational behavior that sometimes occurs when a person's core body temperature drops into the low 80s. As reported by Larry Oakes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, despite "a thorough search of the surrounding area with the help of dogs," no sign of Skelton's remains are found. "It's tough to talk about," says Lake County Sheriff Steve Peterson, a veteran of many searches, "but it's a reality that things don't last long out there. There is decomposition. There are wolves, bears, ravens. The longer it's been, the less the chance you'll find something."

August 6, after more than a month of drought, lightning ignites a fire that sweeps across nearly 1,400 acres near the Canadian border between Alpine and Seagull Lakes, an area with dead trees downed by the 1999 blowdown. The fire is the largest in 10 years and threatens 70 homes, cabins, and businesses on the Gunflint Trail, a few miles to the east. Firefighters set up containment lines with 35 miles of hose, 44 water pumps, and more than 100 sprinklers. With the assistance of three Bombardier CL-215 aircraft capable of scooping 1,400 gallons of water in 11 seconds, they contain the fire on August 19.

July 14, a lightning strike starts a fire near Cavity Lake and expands north to Sea Gull Lake near the end of the Gunflint Trail, a 60-mile road that leads northward from Grand Marais on Lake Superior into the wilderness area. The fire is one of at least eight burning in the Boundary Waters and Quetico Park that week, all started by lightning. Fueled by dry winds and timber blown down in the 1999 storm, the Cavity Lake fire burns about 50 square miles (about 39 square miles excluding lake surfaces), an area that makes it the largest fire in the Boundary Waters since 1894. About 60 campsites in the fire area are damaged or destroyed, but no one is injured and there is no damage to private property. Smoke blowing east from fire is so thick that motorists on the North Shore turn on their headlights to drive during the day. A series of prescribed burns since the 1999 storm that reduced the amount of downed timber on more than 37,000 acres prevents the fire from consuming an even larger area. "It's a good thing this fire happened when it did," says Jim Sanders, supervisor of the Superior National Forest, "instead of two years after the blowdown." Although no evacuation of the Gunflint Trail is ordered, the fire's eastern flank comes within a mile of the trail, close to the "trigger-point" for an evacuation. As the fire continues to expand, an elite team of firefighters known as the Pacific Northwest National Incident Team No. 2, one of 17 such teams in the country, arrives to fight the blaze. By August 4, the fire is reduced to hot spots and is declared 85 percent contained. By August 12, the fire is declared 95 percent contained, and according to Warren Wolfe writing for the Minneapolis Star Tribune there are signs the forest is rejuvenating: "Small sprigs of grass, ferns, and geraniums already are pushing through blackened soil, and tiny shoots of aspen and birch are emerging from charred stumps and roots." The cost of fighting the fire to that point is estimated to be more than $10.6 million.

September 15, about 200 people evacuate a 10-mile stretch of the Gunflint Trail at the "strong suggestion" of Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk because a long, narrow finger of a fire is moving northward toward the trail. About 14 people decide to remain on their properties. The fire was started by a lightning strike near Famine Lake, north of Brule Lake, on September 7 or 8. A smaller fire at Redeye Lake started at the same time. It is the fire's location rather than its 3.9-square-mile size that prompts the voluntary evacuation. The Famine Lake fire eventually grows to more that 6.5 square miles before the evacuation is called off.

January 29, Deputy Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett announces that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is "de-listing" or removing the western Great Lakes population of gray wolves from the federal list of threatened and endangered species. The Service is also proposing removal of the northern Rocky Mountain population of gray wolves from the list. Both actions are taken in recognition of the success of gray wolf recovery efforts under the Endangered Species Act. Gray wolves were previously listed as endangered in the lower 48 states, except in Minnesota, where they were listed as threatened. 

May 5, following a prolonged drought, a fire starts near Ham Lake, apparently from an unattended campfire. Before it is extinguished, it becomes Minnesota's largest and costliest forest fire since the 1918 Cloquet fire. On May 6, a mandatory evacuation order is issued to about 100 people on the last seven miles of the Gunflint Trail as the rapidly spreading fire is fueled by strong winds. As with the Alpine Lake fire in 2005 and the Cavity Lake fire in 2006, the fire's intensity is at first limited because the fuel load of downed trees on its eastern flank had been reduced from prescribed burns, but four structures near Sea Gull Lake are destroyed. Many buildings in the fire's path, however, are spared, probably because of propane-powered outdoor sprinkler systems installed since the 1999 blowdown. On May 9, firefighters conduct an intentional "burnout" in the fire's path to rob it of fuel. On May 10, Twin Cities residents can smell smoke carried by northeastern winds. By May 11, the fire has grown to 55,000 acres, or nearly 86 square miles, and it has moved 13 miles into Canada and 12 miles down the Gunflint Trail, destroying 138 structures worth $3.7 million, including the Seagull Outpost Lodge, Superior North Canoe Outfitters, 44 structures in the 51-year-old Wilderness Canoe Base on Sea Gull Lake, and 62 cabins and homes. According to Matt McKinney, writing for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, residents who saw the blaze described it as "a roiling black monster throwing off green clouds, white thunderheads, and a noise like a a freight train." By May 15, the fire has consumed 93 square miles or 59,611 acres of forest and is only 15 percent contained. On the U.S. side of the border, 700 firefighters battle the blaze, some climbing atop buildings and dousing them with fire hoses as their own cabins burn. Finally, on May 22, after consuming nearly 119 square miles in Minnesota and Canada, the fire is contained, and the last seven miles of the Gunflint Trail are reopened.

September and October, near-record rainfall ends a nearly two-year drought in the boundary waters area, but fire danger remains. As reported by the Associated Press, "The Forest Service is more than halfway toward its goal of purposely burning 109 square miles to create a strategic series of firebrakes across the [1999] blowdown area." But the danger may remain elevated through 2017 or longer, according to Jim Sanders, supervisor of the Superior National Forest, because of all the dead timber that remains, especially in western parts of the forest closer to Ely, an area that has been mostly spared by fires. According to Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk, "The Ham Lake fire wasn't the big blowdown fire we've been talking about for so many years. That's still out there, still a possibility."

The 1929 Brule Lake Fire

"Forest Fire in the Woods"

from Sawbill: History and Tales

Copyright by Mary Alice Hansen

In 1929 there were no automobile roads in the forest area. However, the General Logging Railroad stretched across Cook County from Four Mile Lake (just over the Lake County line) all the way up to Rose Lake near the Gunflint Trail. Sparks from the stacks of the locomotives which were pulling carloads of logs through the woods were a serious fire hazard. This was especially true on uphill grades where they poured on the coal to build up power causing fire to pop right out of the stack. Although there were rules about screening the stacks, the practice was not always observed. The General Logging Company, a branch of Weyerhauser, was cutting the last of the big white pine stands, with hundreds of lumberjacks working. The area was littered with white pine slash. Frank Kelly, the General Logging Company's superintendent in charge of the operation, had formerly been with the Forest Service and was very much aware of the fire danger and totally cooperative in trying to prevent fire. He had a speeder patrol follow each logging train to watch for stray sparks and he had arranged to have slash removed from the right of way and from other hazardous areas. Slash removal was also the subject of a Minnesota state law but it was not being consistently followed by all loggers.

In spite of all precautions, it was at 11 a.m. on July 22, 1929, when the Cascade ranger station received a call that there was smoke along the railroad spur near Star Lake, just south of Brule Lake. Five minutes later, the Pine Mountain Lookout also called in to report the smoke. The ranger and two other men immediately left by speeder, arriving at 11:30 a.m. They found a camp foreman and 30 lumberjacks fighting to control the blaze, which, fanned by west winds, had already jumped to the east side of Star Lake. The ranger, recognizing how serious the situation was, made his way up to the lumber camp and called back to Cascade for more help. He was able to get the message through just before the camp's telephone line burned out. The Grand Marais ranger got the message and immediately ordered a substantial fire-fighting crew to be sent to Brule.

Transportation difficulties prevented a speedy response. Firefighters from Duluth and Ely had to drive long distances to the intersection of the railroad and the Sawbill Trail. There a logging train was waiting to take the first 70 men another 16 miles to the scene of the conflagration. Meanwhile, 186 more firefighters from the logging company's camps at Swan and Flour Lakes in the Gunflint area came south by railroad. By evening, a substantial fire control force was assembled. On the fire lines, though, things were going badly. About 4 p.m., the wind shifted to the northwest, threatening another logging camp and the company's main base at Cascade Lake. At 5:30 p.m., the clerk at Camp One called headquarters in great alarm asking that an engine be sent immediately to pump water. The superintendent who was at dinner did not feel the situation could be all that serious and failed to take action. At 6:10 p.m., 40 minutes later, a second desperate call came through saying that the whole camp was in flames. Fortunately, all personnel escaped before the camp burned.

The attack on the fire began in earnest at 3 a.m. the next morning with more than 200 men on the fire lines. Although the crews worked eighteen hours a day, the fire continued to spread west and north during the next three days, jumping Homer Lake. On July 26, 70 more firefighters were sent from Duluth. A seaplane, which arrived from Ely with supplies, was used to scout the fire. Nevertheless, it burned over two more square miles to the north, approaching Juno Lake. On the night of July 27, the wind shifted again, threatening the town of Cascade. Superintendent Kelly directed a dramatic fight to save the village, but elsewhere the fire raged out of control. Two small logging camps on the south shore of Brule were destroyed.  Lumberjacks from one of these camps were being evacuated by barge when the barge caught fire out on Brule Lake. They were rescued by an alligator boat and death was averted. By July 31, the fire was completely in Forest Service territory and they assumed full charge. The situation was complicated by a spot fire two miles north of Brule Lake which necessitated shifting crews back and forth across the lake. Seventy more firefighters arrived from Duluth on August 1. In response to pleas for help, other US Forest Service personnel arrived along with equipment from the State of Minnesota and other agencies.

Still the fire raged on and was only brought under control when a substantial rain fell on August 7. Workers spent four more days grubbing out fire lines around the area to prevent further spreading. Over 25,000 acres burned and the cost to the government was estimated at well over $50,000 in 1929 dollars.

Back to Chronology     Sawbill History and Tales

The 1936 Cherokee Lake Fire

"Forest Fire in the Woods"

from Sawbill: History and Tales

Copyright by Mary Alice Hansen

In 1936, there were three serious fires in the Sawbill area, devastating nearly ten thousand acres. The afternoon of Saturday, July 11, was exceptionally hot with large thunderheads in the sky. Shortly after noon, a light shower began, preceded by heavy flashes of lightning somewhere north of Sawbill Lake. The tower man at Kelso Lookout reported several lightning strikes a few miles northeast of his post, but no smoke was visible. At 3:45 p.m. the next day, he sighted a gray-white plume rising to the northeast and notified Sawbill camp of his discovery. Simultaneously, the Brule Lake Lookout reported the smoke. A cross-reading placed the fire near the portage between Gordon and Cherokee Lakes. D. M. Williams was the Tofte ranger who immediately requested help from Grand Marais, Ely and Duluth. Reaching the fire was a difficult matter as all those canoeists who have made the trip to Cherokee and Gordon Lakes can attest. Two principle routes were used. The shorter one involved a truck trip to Sawbill Lake then a canoe trip up Sawbill, through Ada and Scoop Lakes, and then through the Cherokee River and Cherokee Lake to the scene of the blaze. This entailed making three or four portages as well as paddling miles across the lakes. The second route was by truck and logging railroad from Grand Marais to Brule Lake. From there motor boats, barges and canoes were used to transport people and equipment through North Temperance and Sitka Lakes to Cherokee. This trip, including two difficult portages, took about eleven hours compared to four or five hours from Sawbill. Ranger Williams was the first to reach the fire, arriving by seaplane about three hours after receiving the first report of smoke. The blaze already covered about 60 acres and was threatening the Cherokee ranger cabin. Williams immediately sent the plane to Seagull Lake for a fire pump and by 8 p.m., he and a mechanic had it in operation. They saved the Cherokee cabin and a few virgin white pines. Fire crews came in from Sawbill and worked all through the night to build fire lines. Progress was good until Monday morning when a 20 mph wind arose from the northwest. As the day proceeded, the temperature soared into the nineties. With little warning, the fire roared out of control, jumped across the east bay of Cherokee and went racing down the eastern shore of the lake. The 295 fire fighters who had arrived by this time were forced to take refuge on the islands. By late afternoon, the magnificent white pines of North Temperance lake were engulfed and the fire was rolling toward Brule Lake. By 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning, the firefighters were back in action building fire lines around the lake. Once again, heavy rain which arrived on Tuesday night was the deciding force in stopping the spreading fire. It took four more days and a total of 619 men before the fire was completely trenched and under control.

The Cherokee fire burned 3200 acres of forest and was responsible for one death. G. H. "Jerry" McDonald, superintendent of the Sawbill CCC camp disappeared on Friday night, July 27, during the final stages of the battle. His body and his overturned canoe were found on Sitka Lake on Sunday. Apparently his canoe swamped and he was too exhausted from a solid week of fire fighting to save himself. Roger McKeever now of Schroeder was an enlistee of the CCC, Sawbill Camp. He ran the speeder between Cascade Lake and the Sawbill CCC camp where someone else usually took over and took it on to Wanless Lake. Sometimes Roger made the whole trip.

When fire broke out on Cherokee Lake in 1936, the CCC men were enlisted to fight it along with other recruits from Duluth and elsewhere. Roger remembers that they walked all the way from Sawbill to Cherokee on a rugged path through the woods. This was known to locals as the Hudson Bay Trail because it supposedly went all the way to Hudson Bay. It had been cleared by CCC crews and was used by local trappers. Roger's job on the fire scene was to make sure the pumps were running. When the fire was out, everyone was expected to hike out and each one was expected to carry a tool, perhaps an axe or a pulaski. The plane which had been used to dump water on the fire was about ready to take off when Roger asked the pilot if he could ride back. The pilot said he wasn't allowed to carry any passengers but that if someone stowed away behind coils of rope in the back of the plane he wouldn't be likely to see that person. The pilot walked away and Roger climbed in. Back at camp, Roger received a tongue lashing from the ranger. As punishment, he was told to report immediately to the Gunflint Trail area where another fire was in progress on an island. When he got over there, he found they had a big boat capable of carrying 25 men but no one could get the brand new motor to start. Roger offered to try. He was able to turn it over in short order. As a reward, he got to be the skipper of the boat which delivered the fire fighters to the island. After it was all over, someone asked Roger how it was that he always got these good driving jobs.

The exceptionally hot summer of 1936 contributed to a record number of fires all over the forest. On July 18, there were thirty small fires in the eastern part of the Superior National Forest. On August 6, another large fire broke out north of Timber Lake. Reinforcements of men and equipment were brought in from Duluth and by August 11, that fire was under control. Further trouble developed the next day. On August 12, a smoke was reported at Frost Lake. Three Forest Service workers who were already nearby were dispatched to take initial action with reinforcements promised. Everything went wrong. The first three decided to wait for the reinforcements but these fellows got lost in the dark on unmarked, difficult portages. By the following evening, the fire had already burned 250 acres. Troubles increased as strong winds kept changing direction. On August 18, a fire camp on Long Island narrowly escaped destruction when the wind suddenly shifted, and flames surrounded the camp. In the end, 3400 acres burned leaving only charred rubble between Gordon and Long Island Lakes. Eight hundred men helped to fight the fire at a cost of $25,000 plus a timber loss of $46,000. Equipment transported into this remote area included thirteen pumps, 41 canoes, four boats, two radios and a portable telephone.

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The 1948 Plouff Creek Fire

"Forest Fire in the Woods"

from Sawbill: History and Tales

Copyright by Mary Alice Hansen

The Plouff Creek fire in 1948 crossed the Sawbill Trail, stranding guests at Sawbill Lodge for several days. The Forest Service placed a marker on the Sawbill Trail telling a bit about this fire. For the next 40 years, the gap in the vegetation was very noticeable to anyone driving on the Sawbill Trail. Ten years after the fire, there was still a mostly bare swath. Then the jackpines which had reseeded as a result of the fire began to be evident. It looked like a big plantation. By 2000, the trees are mature enough to blend in with the rest of the forest and the site is not so obvious.

Like most wildfires, the Plouff Creek fire burned in a mosaic pattern. In some places, the fire burned so hot that it consumed the forest floor duff and the organic material in the soil. In other places, it moved through the forest understory and left the big trees untouched. A stand of red pine next to a swampy area survived the fire. Bruce Giersdorf, USFS fire officer, measured some of the trees in 1998 and found them to be 85 to 90 years old. The pattern of growth which can be read in the rings of the wood showed that the trees had experienced a growth spurt after the fire.

This is because the fire released a burst of nutrients into the soil. This all started on June 11, 1948, when careless smoking ignited a blaze two miles northeast of the former CCC camp located at the intersection of the Sawbill Trail and the Grade Road. The blaze was quickly attacked and brought under control but it led indirectly to the main disastrous fire. A logger on Plouff Creek, who had sent his regular bulldozer to fight the first fire, continued to haul logs with a spare tractor. This extra machine, which had no exhaust pipe, apparently dropped sparks into the dry undergrowth, quickly resulting in flames. Fire was soon racing south along the Sawbill Trail. The efforts of 200 fire fighters with five bulldozers and a dozen pumpers were ineffective in stopping the fire. Urgent appeals for help were answered by the Duluth office of the Forest Service and by neighboring forest installations who sent 852 men, 21 bulldozers and 29 pumper units. In two days, twenty miles of fire line had been built and the flames had been checked. Even so, 1200 hundred acres were burned.

This fire was notable for the developments in fire fighting. Large scale resources were quickly brought to the scene and damage to the forest was limited. The ability to control fire was well demonstrated, but this type of fire fighting was becoming increasingly expensive, with costs to the Forest Service on this occasion topping $100,000. Since the Fourth of July, 1999 blowdown, fire has become a more serious threat to the BWCA because of the abundance of fuel now lying on the ground. Lightning strikes are more likely to cause significant fire and the fire will burn with much more intensity. Studies predict that fire will now be much more difficult to control. The Forest has alerted people who own property near the BWCA, urging them to be vigilant and to take additional steps to prevent fire damage such as installing metal roofs on buildings. They are encouraging campers to use stoves instead of building campfires. They have hired loggers to clean out the blowdown outside the BWCA in order to decrease the fuel available in case of a fire. They have increased their own vigilance and have brought in extra personnel for the times when fire danger is usually highest. The fire seasons of 2000 to 2003 passed without major fires occurring, much to everyone's relief.

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Wilderness Management

Natural History





Principal Sources

Michael Furtman, Magic on the Rocks: Canoe Country Pictographs (Birch Portage Press, Duluth, 2000)

Mary Alice Hansen, Sawbill: History and Tales (Sawbill Press,2005).

Miron "Bud" Heinselman, The Boundary Waters Wilderness Ecosystem (University of Minnesota Press, 1996)

Duane Lund, Our Historic Boundary Waters (Adventure Publications, 1980)

Joe Paddock, Keeper of the Wild: The Life of Ernest Oberholtzer (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001)

Kevin Proescholdt, Rip Rapson, and Miron L. Heinselman, Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (North Star Press of St. Cloud, 1995)

Newell Searle, Saving Quetico-Superior, A Land Set Apart (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1977)

Jerry Stebbins & Greg Breining, Boundary Waters (Nodin Press, 1983)

Boundary Waters Journal articles by Larry Ahlman, Michael Furtman, Mary King Hoff, Patrick Karns, Helen Sue Manzo, and Jon Nelson

Friends of the Boundary Waters Timeline for Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Superior National Forest at http://www.friends_bwca.org/aboutus/timeline.html

W. J. McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America at http://pws.chartermi.net/~duluthikes/bw_ikes.htm

Superior National Forest History at http://www.superiornationalforest.org/history

Please send comments, information, and corrections to me at wilbe004@umn.edu. Thanks. Stephen Wilbers



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