After the fire: Boundary Waters dogsled trip satisfying in many ways

BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE AREA WILDERNESS, Minn. -- Stu McEntyre hadn't been up this way in a long time. Nor had I. We had parked our rigs just off state Highway 1, the stretch of blacktop that connects Ely, Minn., with the North Shore. This was a da...

Isabella Lake
Its shoreline blackened with charred trees, Isabella Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was still and nearly completely devoid of wildlife one day in late February as Stu McEntyre, of Ely, and his dogs took a break. (Dennis Anderson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE AREA WILDERNESS, Minn. -- Stu McEntyre hadn't been up this way in a long time. Nor had I. We had parked our rigs just off state Highway 1, the stretch of blacktop that connects Ely, Minn., with the North Shore. This was a day in late February, and the sky hung low and gray.

We had wanted to run Stu's dogs into the Boundary Waters to see some different country. Usually by now we've been up to Knife Lake for lake trout. Following a team of dogs is a good way to spend a winter's day, and jigging up a fish or two through a couple of feet of ice adds to the excitement.

But the trail to Knife Lake has been a sled-breaker this winter because of a lack of portage snow. Stu has found some good fishing up Basswood way, and we could have angled in that direction. But we decided instead to run the dogs into a portion of the 90,000 wilderness acres that burned last summer, starting at Pagami Creek.

People who harness dogs as routinely in winter as Stu does find the quiet movement of sleds over snow quite addicting. Understandably so. All tails and tongues, my motley crew, once harnessed, pulled happily, following Stu's, while alongside us, red and white pine, jack pine, black spruce, aspen and birch passed in a blur.

A mile or so distant, we saw an otter's trail winding deeply into the woods. Also, in the manner of signposts, wolf markings appeared on the trail's sides, while to our amazement we saw an old set of moose tracks, and occasionally those of a deer. Hares seemed regular visitors here, too, their imprints grown oversized by the sun's heat, while above us, occasionally, beat the wings of a raven.


"You doing OK?"

Stu had stopped to rearrange something in his team's rigging, a reminder that asking 10 dogs to play nicely while pulling cheerfully toward an unknown fate can be akin to herding butterflies.

Years ago, when I lived in Ely, Stu was a young musher whose winters were consumed by the pursuit of fast dogs and distant races. Others might have preferred beaches. But Stu and his pal, Don Beland, were keen instead on subzero mornings, frozen water buckets, hard-starting trucks, frigid Alaskan villages and the dream of someday winning the Iditarod.

Nowadays, Stu's ambitions play out more locally. But he still keeps a few dozen dogs, and in winter he runs trips into the Boundary Waters with clients who come from as far away as Europe and Japan. To these wilderness interlopers, open spaces and running dogs seem somehow a distant notion, and often included in their happy rewards is wild rice soup heated over a campfire built in snow. Some trips are overnight, some not. Whatever: The clamor of everyday life is set aside in favor of the whoosh of sleds skimming atop snow.

The living forest soon enough gave way to the charred remains of last summer's fire. The power of the big blaze could be seen not only in the blackened trees that stood unending like ghoulish sentries but in the vast mishmashes of those that were toppled, roots and all, by the fire's whirlwinds.

Only limited travel is allowed by the U.S. Forest Service in the burn area this winter, and as Stu and I followed our dogs onto a narrow trail leading onto Isabella Lake, we were quite alone.

Featured on the path were low-hanging branches, and as I crouched below one, shifting my weight, I threw the dogs a curveball that they gladly returned, fish-tailing me trailside in a jumble of arms and legs.

Up ahead, Stu stopped the team, and as I trudged to catch up, two of my dogs exchanged what appeared to me to be high-fives.


Already last fall, grass grew in many areas that the fire ravaged, and this summer, plant regeneration will accelerate. Aspens will sucker from their root systems, providing some of the quickest regrowth. Birches will reseed through the air. While the cones of jack, white and red pines seared by the fire will begin the century-long process of rebuilding the same mix of woodlands the voyageurs came upon centuries ago, and Native Americans before them.

A total of 110 campsites were overrun by last summer's fire, and the Forest Service hopes to have most rebuilt by the May 12 fishing opener.

"In some cases we'll have erosion or other problems, and we'll be looking at alternative sites, if possible," said Mark Van Every, district forest ranger in Ely. "We'll have a large Forest Service crew in the area in April, and probably another crew in the first part of May. The goal is to be ready for fishing season."

On Isabella, windblown snow dragged on our sleds, slowing our progress. Surrounding us, or nearly so, was a ghost forest, and in time we bent our sleds in a long arch toward a distant shore, looking for a place to eat lunch.

"Let's heat up some soup," Stu said.

We staked the dogs and settled in. Even surrounded by so many burned trees, the distillation of everything in black and white seemed a pretty picture, an observation made more so when we ladled wild rice soup into paper bowls and cradled in our hands cups of hot cider.

When the sun had swung well past the day's midpoint, we hitched the dogs again. Long shadows would soon creep across this big country.

Yipping and howling, the dogs pleaded to run, and knew they were headed home.


Stu loaded his sled. I loaded mine. Then we pulled from the lake's surface the big hooks, or snow brakes, that held the sleds in place

Throwing themselves against their traces, the dogs were free to run once more.

We were off.

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