Planting Trees, Remembering Fire

The families came to plant trees last Saturday for Gunflint Green up. I can’t tell you what a pleasing little tradition it has become these last five years.
Tom and Julia (who add a little more style to Cabin 2 every summer) and I were a trio. My job was to hoe the grass clumps, Tom would dig, Julia would plant. I was truly a happy hoer.

Last year at this time of year, Shelby wrote a poem of her memories of the start of the Ham Lake Fire. We really would have preferred to shelter our kids from the whole forest fire experience. Not something to wish on a 10 and a 12 year old. Even though adversity builds character and resilience, I think this one went a little too far.

However, we’re proud of the young adult she is becoming.

(12 year old Shelby)


Five minutes to fit my entire world into

This vacant suitcase in front of me

All my memories, necessities, smiles

Crammed in a single duffel

My heart pounds a

Panicked fluttering inside my chest

What what what?

What should I choose to bring?

The photos smiling on the walls

The battered lamp beside my bed

My favorite strawberry T-shirt.

What do I treasure most?

My time is ticking away

Throw in a few pairs of jeans

The money from my top dresser drawer

A third grade year book

What should I save?

Everything? Nothing?

Grab some pictures off the wall

Toss them in the pile

Five minutes and my entire world is packed into

This bulging suitcase in front of me

The tromp of heavy boots echoes upstairs

A firefighter’s gruff voice hollers

I sprint up the steps

Bag slung over my shoulder

Sunlight beams through the haze

As I dash to the idling Jeep

My dad at the wheel

My brother beside me in the back seat

We roar down the dusty driveway

A blanket of smoke curling thick among the pines

Now, I count

One dad, one brother, one panting Labrador…

No Mom

Where is Mom?

We round the corner

And collide with the flames

I open my mouth in a silent scream

Hands clench the door handle

A cocoon of fire envelopes the road

Flaming tree tips plummet and ignite the parched straw

Red and orange flickers burn my wide eyes

With their terrorizing image of destruction

As I glimpse mom’s grey suburban

Motionless at the Cross Bay Lake Entry point

The terrifying truth burbles up

And washes over my forced calm

Straining against my seatbelt

Hysterical panic exploding inside of me

Out there in the blazing inferno

My mom faces a hurricane of flame and heat she can’t fight

Helpless tears streak my cheeks

Strapped in a car; stuck

We approach the second entrance to the Cross Bay Lot

A grey suburban pulls out ahead of us

My heart soars

Stopping the sobs

We screech to a halt at the Gunflint Trail

And slowly turn

The smoky billows climb the air

Purple and orange hues blossom through the gray

Our house, our life

Disappearing into the sky

I discover the panic has stopped

Take a shaky breath

Somehow, some way

We’ll survive this

Waiting, breathing, accepting

Watching the firefighters

Hearing the radio exchanges

Dreading the hour we’ll see the destruction


The mile driveway stretches into millions

As we head back in the anxious car

The true wrath of the fire

Is revealed

Wasteland stretches before me

A desolate scene of smoking silence

Charred black from the raging blaze

Only a splintered shadow of the majestic beauty this forest once was.

The flames have stripped the very soil of its memory

Scraped down the rich dirt to raw rock

Leaving beached granite whales

In the ocean of blackness

The ashes ache with death

A forest that was once filled with life and energy

Now flutters between my fingers

And blankets the ground with a heavy sadness.

Towering white pines

That I had loved to lean against

Because they felt so completely solid and secure

Are left as frail slivers struggling to stand

But my eyes stretch over the hill

There, in a sparkling bubble of green

Lies our house, our resort

An island of survival in the sea of disaster

And my heart flies higher

Than the topmost branches of the soaring white pines

Because there will be new life in this desert

A new emerald woods

It may be my children

Who are the ones leaning against grand old trees

The ones who get to experience their great support

But sprouts are already tunneling up through the ash to sunlight

So I unpack my world, my suitcase

Put back my treasures

And watch this stunning forest

Create and recreate its beauty

(This poem appeared in the Boundary Waters Journal, Spring 2011 issue.)