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Of Woods and Words: After Fire

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During the last five years, we’ve learned to love rocks at the end of the Gunflint Trail. When the Ham Lake wildfire roared through the area in spring 2007, the fire consumed over 75,000 acres of forest, more than 100 buildings, and a large amount of the topsoil covering hills of granite bedrock. The fire left charred, branchless tree trunks scratching at the sky, and exposed dark pink granite cliff faces.

Each winter it seems the snow scours the granite, making the rocks’ rosy and ivory hues gleam brightly from the roadside in the springtime. The proper geologic name for the granite is Saganaga Tonalite and it’s some of the oldest rock in the world. Until the wildfire, towering pines and brushy undergrowth stole the spotlight from this million-year-old rock. Now, moss is slowly regaining its footing in the granite cliffs’ nooks and crannies and soon the rock will once again disappear under a shroud of green.

Jack pine seedlings crowd the top of these granite hills. The tiny trees nestle so closely that their branches overlap and interlock, making them appear ready for the ultimate game of Red Rover. Each spring, the trees grow a little taller and stronger and now most of them are at least two feet tall.

Many people who pass these jack pine stands comment on how happy the little trees look. From their perch on hilltops, the little jack pines do seem friendly and decidedly less stand-offish than the remaining towering pines who stand sentinel with a rather bored dignity. These little trees are even newer to the world than we are and since they haven’t reached the size where they have to compete for their spot in the forest yet, they seem especially fresh-faced and optimistic.

Whenever I come close to stumbling into the cliché of marveling that fire was five years ago already, I remember that five years ago those cheerful little trees were nothing but the speck of an idea of a tree, tucked inside jack pine cones which require 122 degree Fahrenheit temps to release their seeds. The charred tree trunks that stood straight and inky blank in the days after the fire, now lean precariously and have faded to a silvery brown. The burnt trees that have fallen now disintegrate into a shower of rot when tapped with a foot.

There’s also no denying that I’m no longer the freshly minted college graduate who arrived on the Gunflint Trail May 19, 2007, exactly two weeks after the fire started. I spent that summer working for a canoe outfitter and shuttled many a slack-jawed tourist through the burn area as I transported them to the starting point of their canoe trip.

Now when I drive up the Trail, I’m heading home.

Five years have definitely passed. The evidence is everywhere. Cabins have been rebuilt, millions of trees planted, and landscapes that once stretched out all gray and black to the far horizon, now glimmer with the green of seedlings and undergrowth. We’ve all gotten a little older too.

I’ve never felt a need to dwell on what this little corner of the world would look like if it hadn’t caught fire in the spring of 2007, but perhaps that’s because I didn’t really learn this neck of the woods until after the fire. Still, I have to think that the sweet taste of blueberry pie, compliments of the bumper crops in the burn area, must wash away some of the angst and heartache the fire caused for so many.

There’s plenty of proof that this land will once again host towering pines it’s known for. But for the time being, I’ll enjoy the sight of happy little pine seedlings perched on top of bright pink granite cliffs, soaking up sunshine.

Airdate: April 25, 2012

Photo courtesy of Eli Sagor via Flickr.