Nine years ago today the eastern section of the Boundary Waters canoe area was raging with fire. 75,000 acres of pristine land was burning wildly out of control. Houses were lost. Lives were risked. Smoke filled the air all the way down to the Twin Cities.
And that is when Sue and Bob McCloughan signed the purchase agreement to buy Bearskin Lodge, in the midst of a fire that threatened to burn down the business.
We spent our days at school with one eye on our students and the other glued to the internet news about the fire. Eventually I just gave up and said “Kids, let’s go off topic and learn something really interesting about fire, that will also explain why your eyes are watering now.” We all watched the changing fire maps and ravaged pictures.Photo courtesy Gunflint Trail Fire Department
As the fire came closer to Bearskin, Bob & I tried to ascertain what precautions were being taken by Bearskin. The owner wanted the lodge sale to remain a secret from his employees, yet from afar we were wildly concerned that “our” property would burn down and wished we could dare ask the employees what was happening. We called the owner, who said everything is fine, the sprinklers are going, and it’s so little to worry about that we’re flying to the tulip show in Iowa.
We already had enough history with him to think perhaps a second call was in order. I called Bearskin and got Dee, who would later turn out to be a dear friend. I said I was concerned about the Lodge and wondering what they were doing. Dee assumed I was another one of the many concerned members of the Bearskin fan club, and talked about the preparations to leave. “Are the sprinklers on?” I asked. It was evident that homes and businesses with the fire suppression sprinklers were surviving. “Um, no, we, um, won’t be using the sprinklers,” she said. “We don’t think we need them.” She was respectful enough of her current boss that she didn’t say, “No, we won’t be using the sprinklers because the FEMA sprinkler system was never maintained and is now in a thousand broken pieces, and actually we all think our boss believes it is in the best interest of the resort to burn down.” (She saved those truths for later, in the many re-tellings of the story.) Dee said other staff would be leaving for town with trucks and equipment, that the managers had left long ago to get a motel in Silver Bay to house their secret dogs and cats. The owners? Flying to a tulip show in Iowa. (Although we later heard they did show up at the lodge at some point, so good.) As we heard this on the phone, it was all we could do not to drive up ourselves and start pulling together sprinklers and trying to save the place.
Most Bearskin employees went to shelters in Grand Marais. Being low-level employees who ended up totally responsible for the stressful decision- making while the fire advanced towards Bearskin was very traumatic for some of the staffPicture courtesy Mn IncidentCommand
One of them had a seizure outside the shelter, changing his life for years to come. Another just cried and cried. The youngest employee, Adde, rose to the occasion and figured out how to be the adult in the group, a skill she can still muster up regularly in her real life today.
Of course, we only heard these stories after the fact. All we knew was that we just put a lot of money down and signed a pile of papers to buy a resort where no preparations were being made to keep the resort from burning down momentarily.
And luckily, it didn’t. A tongue of the fire made its way towards our area, but was kept under control. The physical beauty of our area remained untouched by fire and the cabins and resorts around us continued to be safe. This time. There’s a long history of fires in these big woods and we understand that our turn could come. We hope not soon.
The Ham Lake fires started because of one camper. Conditions were right to spread a fire very quickly – as they are today. The individual who accidentally started the fire was identified, demonized, persecuted, prosecuted, and basically dragged through hell until he eventually committed suicide. Politicians tell us we live in a Christian nation, but if so, we ought to be able to do forgiveness a little better instead of always focusing on retribution. He made a mistake. Any of us could. There’s a fine retelling of his sad story here.Photo by Sue Prom
The lesson is please, please, please be careful with fires up here. It’s dry and windy today. There are thousands of branches down on the ground from this winter’s bend-down. Keep fires small. Some of you folks —is this a southern thing?—who like their pile of wood to be in a 5 foot tall tipi shape when it gets lit are just asking for trouble with those giant fires. Small, under control, and always watched is the way the pros make a fire. Above all, don’t walk away from the fire. We see this all the time in the campground: raging fire in the pit, nobody around for miles—or even worse, obviously tents full of sleeping people. You can do better than that.
We will have fire on the Gunflint Trail again. We are all a little more prepared for it now, after lessons learned from Ham Lake. Bearskin has invested in an outstanding all – encompassing FEMA fire suppression sprinkler system. We test it regularly, keeping it in perfect shape each year. Bob and Quinn are fire department members, who have been well-trained to assist in a fire or a rescue and best of all, they have fire department radios to be in quick contact in an emergency. And needless to say, if something bad happens Bob, Sue, Quinn & Kate will not be off at a flower show, we will be here every minute to make sure, first of all, that our sweet staff is safe and untraumatized and secondly, to do what we must to preserve all your Bearskin memories here.
But let’s avoid another Gunflint Trail fire if we can. Do your part!Photo by Lee Johnson
Almost everyone who visits Bearskin has high hopes of observing three specific northwoods animals. The number one goal is always to spot a moose, then glimpse a bear (but only the rear end, as it runs away), and maybe, with luck, see or hear a wolf.
So you might be surprised to know that none of those creatures are the animal that Bearskin guests talk about the most during their stay. Foxes are actually the critters that make our guests extra happy. Hundreds of photos of posing and preening foxes are snapped every summer around the Main Lodge. We sell dozens of fox stuffed animals, foxy kids’ purses, fox books, and fox cards.
Bearskin has a long history of having fairly tame red foxes living on the grounds of the resort. When we first arrived at Bearskin almost a decade ago, our employee Adde regularly made meals for a ridiculously tame fox, and even allowed the fox into her apartment occasionally. Foxes have been known to get in canoes, and supposedly a fox can untie a boat from the dock. They peek in windows, pose on deck railings, and occasionally run off with meat intended for the grill. The Shoe Stealing Fox (aka Imelda), was perhaps the most famous Bearskin fox, covertly sneaking flip flops, hiking boots, and tennis shoes off the deck and steps of cabin 7. Many a family combed the woods behind cabin 7, desperately trying to find a missing sneaker so a kid wouldn’t spend the remainder of their vacation limping around with only one shoe.
So here is a story to add to the fox legends: About a week ago, when the ice was still solid, Kate and Quinn observed a fox crossing the bay with something in her mouth. At first they assumed the fox was carrying a rabbit or squirrel, killed for dinner. But as they looked more closely, they realized she was carrying a baby fox kit all the way across the lake. Then she came back for another. And another, and another. By the time she was done ferrying her whole litter across the lake, the fox looked exhausted. It was no small task to move her family. This was peculiar behavior. Quinn and Kate wondered why she would go to that much trouble to abandon a home and move so far away.
Previously, Quinn and Bob had been rebuilding the steps to cabin 7. When they pulled the old steps off, they found chewed boards, broken styrofoam, and multiple signs that animals had been tunneling under cabin 7 for years. So, of course, Quinn and Bob did a top-notch job of resealing every crack and hole, nailing up new boards and filling every possible animal entry point with spray foam. No creature would be getting back under that cabin!
Quinn thought about the fox mother for a few days and then started to wonder if her grueling move might be connected in some way to the rebuilding of the cabin 7 steps. Yesterday Quinn and Bob went back to cabin 7 and pulled off a few of the new boards, attempting to see under the steps.
It was a surprise to discover a sizable fresh tunnel under the steps, circumventing their repairs. At that point it became apparent what must have happened: Bob and Quinn had accidentally entombed the litter of baby foxes. For two days they had worked on the steps, sawing and pounding and probably terrorizing a little fox family. When the job was over and the foxes’ fear subsided, that mother dug an incredibly difficult new tunnel, removed all her babies, and stoically carried all of them as far away from that dreadful Cabin 7 as she possibly could.
We were left with two thoughts:
First, that is an extraordinarily heroic fox mother.
And secondly, deep under cabin 7 there are probably several years’ worth of missing shoes.
Fox photo by Jane Kolarich