The ice goes, fire comes and new species redefine the North Woods

GUNFLINT LODGE, Minn. -- Bruce Kerfoot has enjoyed a 72-year love affair with Gunflint Lake, one instilled by his parents and grandparents. In 1929, they bought a small lodge on the lake's south shore across from Canada and began inviting fishermen from the Twin Cities and Chicago to test their luck in the labyrinth of Minnesota's Boundary Waters area.

Both literally and metaphorically, Kerfoot's life has been shaped by the seasons of the lake and adjacent woods. He is a living, breathing, talking barometer of environmental change, and he has adapted to all manner of landscape alternations wrought by drought, wind, fire, flood, ice and snow.

Through it all, Bruce and his wife, Sue, have maintained Gunflint Lodge as one of the few places in the North Woods to get a hot meal and a good night's sleep before plunging into the wilds of the state's northeastern tip, a landscape defined by remoteness, tranquility and the closest thing the middle third of the United States has to a forest primeval.

But on a recent Tuesday in late April, when lakes in this part of Minnesota should still be covered in ice, Kerfoot looked out the window of the Gunflint Lodge dining room to see loons swimming in the lake. The Adirondack chairs had been placed dockside weeks ago, and a small flotilla of rental boats sat moored and ready for the season fishing opener, still three weeks away.

This year's "ice-out" for Gunflint Lake came March 23, a full six weeks earlier than average and shattering the existing record, just 2 years old, of April 10. Air temperatures that day soared into the high 40s, a heat wave for what is arguably the last place in the Lower 48 to experience spring.

"I don't know what to make of it," Kerfoot said of the early ice-out. "We've stacked up a number of years where it's been earlier than normal, but I don't see a pattern yet. I remember my mother walked on the ice in June one year."

That was 1935. In all likelihood, the younger Kerfoot will never walk on the ice in June, or maybe even in April.

Scientists and locals agree that the Boundary Waters are undergoing a period of climatic change that could fill books of "I remember the old days" stories, much the way Kerfoot's grandmother used to tell of the days before electricity, plumbing and paved roads made their way up the Gunflint Trail from Lake Superior's North Shore.

'Savannification' is under way

Over the past half-century, this region of deep woods and clear glacier lakes has transitioned from a mixed boreal forest to one that's more typical of southern Wisconsin or central Michigan, where oak and maple thrive alongside species more associated with northwestern Ontario or northern Russia.


Lee Frelich, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Forest Ecology and a longtime observer of the North Woods, describes the process as "savannification," because older, native trees will die at a faster rate than they can be replaced, making room for new, nonnative species that will ride a wave of rising temperatures into the snowy thicket once dominated by spruce, fir and jack pine.

Along with the shifting plant species will come a change in the animal kingdom. Moose, already in steep decline because of disease and heat stress, will be succeeded by white-tailed deer. Lynx will make way for bobcat. Snowshoe hare will compete with an explosion of eastern cottontails. Black-backed woodpeckers that once enjoyed exclusive rights to the northern forest will share trees with their red-bellied cousins whose range extends to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Even earthworms, whose role in forest ecosystems is undervalued and often misunderstood, will usher in profound changes as they migrate north from more temperate zones, often in the bait boxes of North Woods fishermen.

Frelich noted that worms aid in the die-off of native hardwoods by raising soil densities, robbing trees of nitrogen and phosphorus, and consuming the ground's duff layer of decaying leaves and plants that provide a blanket for tree roots, protecting them against subfreezing winter temperatures.

As such scenarios play out, the very ecosystem conditions that once established northern Minnesota as a unique habitat within the United States will begin to "peel back," welcoming in a biology more associated with the central prairies and Great Plains. "And there's no way a moose or a spruce tree or any other cold-dependent species up there is going to live in the climate of Nebraska," Frelich said.

Predictions become a violent reality

At Gunflint Lodge, near Grand Marais, Minn., such changes are already evident.

As a boy, Kerfoot didn't know what a red maple tree looked like. The species lived too far south of Gunflint Lake. He later came to admire the tree's brilliant fall colors, and he set himself to add a few to the lodge's grounds before giving up in frustration.

"I'd plant the damn things and they'd die off," he said. "Now we've got whole hillsides of them coming up." Over 50-plus years, Kerfoot said, he's watched hard maples migrate 50 to 75 miles north, a line that approximates what Frelich delineates in his research as the prairie-forest border of central North America.

That boundary, according to Frelich, also represents an important dividing line between warm and cool, dry and wet, fire and ice. According to recent research published in the Ecological Society of America's Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, climate change is pushing all the former conditions to the north and east across Minnesota's Arrowhead region, much as it did during the last major warming period 7,500 years ago.

The same research predicts a "greater frequency of droughts, fires, forest-leveling windstorms, and outbreaks of native and exotic insect pests and diseases."

If that sounds like a passage from the Book of Revelation, consider events at Gunflint Lake over the past 12 years.

On July 4, 1999, nearly a half-million acres of North Woods forest was brought low when a line of storms packing Category 2 hurricane-class winds swept across northern Minnesota and southern Ontario. The "blowdown" snapped or uprooted 30 million trees across the Superior National Forest and adjacent state and private lands, creating gaping holes in the forest and altering many of the trail's postcard vistas.

The Kerfoots viewed the storm then, as now, as an anomaly of nature, not a deal breaker for their 70-year-old business. In a June 2006 blog post, Sue Kerfoot recalled the difficult months after the blowdown and alluded to what experts had predicted but no one had witnessed.

"Finally April came and the Gunflint Trail was a sorry looking place," she wrote. "Clearcut areas were just flat and bare. If we managed to survive this great fire that was coming, it would still be forever before we had our forest back."

Within a month after she wrote that came the first of three massive wildfires that once again changed the character of the Boundary Waters.

A new landscape painted by fires

The first blaze, known as the Cavity Lake Fire, was the largest in the North Woods in more than a century. Using the downed trees as tinder, it burned 32,000 acres across a swath of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to the west of Gunflint Lake. Smoke plumes rose on the horizon, but the high tourist season remained largely undisturbed along the Gunflint Trail and points east, and cooling rains over the later part of July knocked down the flames.

Then, the following May, came the "Great Fire," started accidentally by a visitor who failed to extinguish a campfire at nearby Ham Lake. The fire, fueled by 30 mph wind gusts, burned 75,000 acres of blown-down forest on both sides of the international border and threatened to consume Gunflint Lodge and neighboring properties along the Gunflint Trail.

The Kerfoots braced for the worst but remained hopeful their lodge would survive. It did, thanks to the Forest Service's strategically lit backfires and lucky quirks of weather and geography. Gunflint Lake's entire north shore -- the Canadian side -- is a ghost forest today, burned to the water's edge. The south side remains wooded, tranquil, undisturbed.

A series of quiet fire seasons were interrupted again last year by the latest and most severe wildfire to date -- the Pagami Creek Fire that consumed 93,000 acres over four days. It raged mostly within the remote Boundary Waters wilderness area but came close enough to resorts and private homes that portions of tiny Isabella, Minn., were put on evacuation alert.

Asked whether the fires, and other challenges wrought by climate change, have changed their perspective on living in the North Woods, the Kerfoots are resolute. There's no place they'd rather be, come hell or high water.

"My talking points have changed some," Bruce Kerfoot acknowledged. "I may not talk as much about the mature forest habitat. Instead I talk about regeneration after fire. Once people understand what they're looking at, they're inclined to find something to like about it, even if it doesn't match their idea of what a forest looks like."

And if the forest he's known his whole life becomes more Iowa and less Canada?

"I don't mind the changes at all," he said. "You don't want to live in a static state. You learn to talk about what you've got now, not what you had before."

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