MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It began as a tranquil trip into the boundary waters for a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter pilot home from war. Five days paddling a canoe would be the perfect tonic of both scenery and solitude.
“He was home for a couple of weeks on leave and all he wanted was peace and quiet in the woods,” said the pilot’s close friend, Greg Seitz.
Seitz and his buddies began their canoe trip on Lake One, just a short distance from where the Pagami Creek Fire had been quietly burning since Aug. 18. Forest Service crews had been carefully monitoring the small fire and even did a prescribed burn to keep the lightning-caused fire from creeping towards populated areas to the north.
On Wednesday, Sept. 7 the group set out to seek the solitude of the pines and wilderness lakes. Almost immediately they could see the plume of smoke rising in the distance.
“We didn’t feel too endanger. Once we got to Lake Three we could see the smoke and everything, but everybody was pretty calm,” said Seitz.
But as the days passed, the fire grew; fanned by strong winds it quickly grew into a monster. Seitz snapped photographs of what appeared in the distance to be large thunderheads, only these clouds were built of smoke. Some ash and partially burned leaves rained down on the water.
“There was a lot of smoke. In fact, a couple of times you could hear trees cracking and falling back into the woods,” Seitz recalled.
By Saturday, came the group’s first sign of evacuation. Seitz and his Army buddy were being buzzed by the very aircraft that he’d set out to escape.
“When we were portaging out of Insula, we were buzzed by one helicopter that kind of flew low overhead, as did a plane,” Seitz said.
Eventually, the party of paddlers made contact with a team of forest rangers stopped on a portage. That’s when they heard the direct orders to leave.
By Sunday, Seitz and his group paddled back to their entry point on Lake One and out to safely, amid the smell of smoke and pines and images of wilderness scarred by fire.
“I really feel for the people up there, that’s a scary thing to see on the horizon. It’s a big, big plume of smoke, and a lot of fire,” recalled Seitz.