Nov 30, 2011

Wildfire at McNiece Lake

Photo credit: Erik Danielson

In April I decided to abandon a career I enjoyed so I could take a seasonal job up north. I decided to go hide in the woods for seven months. I didn’t know anyone up there, but I met people I liked, and so when Erik asked me if I wanted to go on a month-long canoe trip in October, I decided that I should. I decided to buy a canoe and new boots, to get my passport renewed, to paddle whenever possible in preparation for the big trip. I decided to stare at maps after work, wondering what we would find out there. And while three of the original six participants dropped out before departure, I decided to get in the canoe and paddle further than I ever had before.

We had two re-supply stops in mind (Atikokan, Canada and Ely, Minnesota) but we decided against a set route, and so each day we would wake up and have our coffee, listen to the weather radio and start paddling, not sure where we’d end up. This is a great way to see something you’ve never seen before. We decided to enjoy ourselves instead of setting goals and hurrying to reach them. And sometime around lunch we’d look at the map and say, this looks like a good spot. 

On the fourth night we found ourselves on a huge rocky peninsula, looking north across Agnes Lake. We ate our soup with fresh dumplings and looked out on the massive lake. Later, reading in my hammock and watching the big sky, I thought, I’m really glad we decided to ride the south wind up here. I might've seen the aurora in the distance but I was so tired... 

And we moved forward in space and time, and the sun rose on Friday, October 7. We knew it was going to be windy and that we’d have to get off Agnes in a hurry, so we had our coffee and moved north again, through Silence and Sultry and Noon. We stopped for lunch on Shade Lake, and that’s when Erik spotted the plume of smoke to the north. It had been very dry, and now with the heavy south wind blowing, we weren’t surprised to see signs of forest fire. The smoke was in the general direction we were headed, but it was impossible to say how far away it really was, and we didn’t want to backtrack into the wind, so we finished our salami and cheese and decided to keep moving. 

That afternoon we hit lots of little lakes, passing from Shade to Dell to Grey and Yum Yum, and every time we got a glimpse of the smoke plume it looked closer, always to our north. At Yum Yum we had another decision: Keep heading towards the smoke or go south towards the Yum-Yum Portage, which by all accounts was a nasty path best avoided, despite it’s fun name. It was getting late in the day and nobody wanted to test the Yum Yum or the wind, so we pushed north into Shan Walshe Lake, and suddenly the smoke seemed much, much closer. It wasn’t scaring us the way it should have, though. We had heard there were virgin pines on McNiece Lake, so we put the boats and packs on our shoulders one more time and moved closer still. 

At McNiece it seemed we had finally gotten beyond the smoke (or maybe directly in it’s path), and I said to Erik as we pushed away from shore, this might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. But we paddled on anyways, both secretly hoping, I think, that the fire would be right around the corner... And it was! Pretty quickly we realized the fire was actively burning our only other route out of McNeice, which wasn’t a big lake. What to do, what to do? Back-tracking to Yum Yum now would mean paddling and portaging and setting up camp in the dark. There was a perfectly good campsite on McNiece itself, on the shore opposite the fire zone, so we decided to stop for the night about a mile from an active wildfire. Yeah... It was one of those decisions you make where you don’t even need hindsight to know it’s crazy.

But crazy isn’t always wrong! 

Here we were in the true interior of the park, five days of travel from anywhere, partially trapped and partially thrilled to be trapped. Canada doesn’t actively fight forest fires in wilderness areas, so we knew we were on our own up there. We started a fire in camp and fried up pike tacos with our last fresh avocado, always keeping an eye on the smoke and the wind. Erik and Paige and I all had huge grins on our faces and we kept giggling and remarking how crazy this was, saying things like, what in the hell are the chances? and, geeesh! and, hooooooly shit! It would be easy to say we were there because of fate, but no, I don’t believe that. 

I knew why we were here on this night, but I didn’t know how being there would change me. How, every decision I had ever made brought me here and now, somehow, and how being here would alter all of my future decisions. The Wildfire at McNiece Lake taught me an important lesson about the choices we make. The problem, of course, is trying to say what it really meant so that someone else can understand it. I just want to explain the rarity of this experience without comparing it to a conversation with a yeti, or the sensation of feeling the wind in your hair for the first time.

Darkness crept in but the fire shimmered across the lake, like northern lights within the rocks and water. Somehow, the wind got stronger - in excess of 50 mph - and we heard trees toppling all around us. Trees were exploding in the fire, booming across the lake. Thunder clapped, but we did not move from the exposed rocks, staring out at this glowing storm of destruction and rebirth. I thought about the things I had been thinking about a lot this year, watching massive pines erupt in flames, the fire creeping along the ridgeline very slowly underneath, releasing the explosions. Old things died. Something new started whirring in me, like the fire had released a sprouting seed in my guts. It was late when I got in my hammock beneath the rainfly and then very soon the rain started, heavy drops with an intense smokey taste. And the wind kept roaring.  

And we moved forward in space and time...
In the morning the wind had calmed and there was a haze lingering in every direction, but the big smoke plume had been drowned out, so we packed quickly and paddled directly into the difficulty. The shoreline was charred, individual trees were still on fire on both sides of the path, and we were over a mile from the next lake with no way to know what was going on in between. We got out and took pictures next to burning logs and laughed in disbelief. And this next decision we never really talked about. It would take each of us two trips to get everything through and we knew the path ahead was as dangerous as anything we could find out here, but we all understood this and knew we needed to do this, so we said nothing more, grabbed our packs and started into the wildfire. 

It was early in the morning but already hot, and as we walked over blackened earth and through fallen burnt trees, the humidex spiked. The forest was either burnt or still on fire, and I was covered in sweat by the top of the first hill. So many downed trees blocked the actual path, the one-mile portage kept increasing in length with every step. I felt like I had gotten myself in good shape for this trip, but halfway through I was using every bit of fuel I had to keep moving at a reasonable pace. Finally we reached the shores of Kahshapiwi Lake, covered in ash and blood (from where?!?), and we looked back. The wind seemed to be increasing again and we still had a food pack and both our boats sitting on McNiece. There was nothing to be done. The decision had already been made. We headed into the wildfire again at maximum speed.

The whole walk back I was thinking, How in the hell are we gonna get these canoes through these trees? It just kept getting hotter. The second run through was a true team effort, especially across the worst-hit sections, threading an 18-foot canoe through a tangle of charred branches, around standing pines that were burning themselves hollow from within and threatening to fall at any moment, shoulders and arms and lungs screaming for rest but something bigger pushing the legs forward. I found fuel I didn’t know I had and became a machine, incapable of stopping or being stopped... My eyes became cool water...  I burnt the pathway into my memory, took a deep breath and then we were out. We could see smoke rising from the trees behind us, all along the shoreline to the north, and there was a sense of quiet triumph. 

I drank mightily from the lake, and I was not the same after that. I can’t explain it any better, I can only live in a way that shows people how it changed me.