We are anxiously watching every news broadcast and searching the Web as we attempt to learn everything we can about what is happening with the fire in the BWCA. We stay up late to study the current burn area, comparing it to our McKenzie maps. We search for photos showing the extent of the damage, and we hope the fire will be under control and extinguished soon.
My husband and I, along with two of our children, ages 7 and 9, were among the very last families to be "assisted" out of the BWCA on Sept. 11 when the entry points were closed due to the Pagami Creek fire.
The kids are full of tears and questions, as am I. Were we the last ones to set foot on the campsites we so enthusiastically explored and grew to love?
What about the crazy red squirrel that spent two hours just before dawn on Saturday hurling pinecones at our tent? After five days of sharing his island paradise, did he suddenly want us to leave, or was he trying to warn us that the smoldering fire was about to explode? The kids want to know when we can go back to check on him and say thanks. They will never forget the freaky full red moon rising, and then having to walk down the dark path to the toilet. They refused to sleep until the red moon had faded a bit to a decidedly happier pumpkin color around midnight.
Even though most of the answers to their questions are tough to discuss, it is clear how much they, too, care about the forest and wildlife we left behind. The good news is that they care, and want to know how to help. Each trip seems to highlight different skills or strengths gained. This year's lessons were clearly about compassion and overcoming fears.
After our first long trip with little ones, then 3 and 5, we thought maybe renting a cabin on Burntside Lake would be a better idea. Surprisingly, despite the hardships of a wilderness trip (no ice cream, no Wii and zillions of biting insects), the kids actually preferred going into the BWCA.
My dad took me camping as a child and those experiences developed into a lifetime appreciation of nature. I'm grateful to be able to experience and share the incredible beauty of this relatively friendly wilderness with my young children and fellow nature lovers.
I have witnessed firsthand the benefits to our family of spending more than a long weekend together in the wilderness, especially in this world of ever-increasing technology. I embrace technology, and all it has to offer. Yet as our kids become more attached to their electronics, we want to ensure that their experience is balanced by all the lessons that nature provides. Their school textbooks cannot adequately provide the knowledge of nature that that they gain from being in nature.
(My 9-year-old is reading over my shoulder and adds, "That's for sure!")
The BWCA is one of my favorite places in the world and we are still holding out hope that the island we refer to as "Golden Island" on Lake Insula is still golden. It was there that my husband proposed under a brilliant starry sky back in 2000. We returned to spend 14 glorious days with our babies in 2007 and spent a wild and windy 12 days there last summer.
My husband built a beautiful cedar canoe in which we have made three long voyages into the BWCA with the kids. The route from Lake One is particularly important. It is the only motor-free family-friendly route I know of that allows us to truly get away from it all to teach survival skills and demonstrate teamwork to our young family. And it's a budget-friendly alternative to Disney — with even greater thrills and family fun.
We've tried every kind of camping but nothing can compete with living in the wilderness. While we enjoy the convenience of car camping and the ease of using a motorboat, nothing compares to the stunning absence of the modern world with its accompanying lights, noises and distractions. The Boundary Waters will always be a magical place.
Depending on the degree of stress left behind, it can take several days to realize what you haven't heard — cars, trucks, airplanes, barking dogs and sirens. We've found that it takes at least five days in the wilderness to break the trance and pace of civilization.
We spent eight precious days in the BWCA on Lake Four and Hudson. Then the wind shifted and a heavy smoke settled on the lake's glassy surface, shrouding the camp in an unnatural darkness. Ashes fell like snow around us. We'd had perfect weather, yet know how quickly that can change. Taking the clever little squirrel's hint, we agreed; it was time to head out.
While I am thankful we made it out OK, and for the memories and photos, it is nearly unbearable to imagine what is going on there right now.
Deborah Bailey Billmeier, a former paralegal, now is a wife and home-schooling mother of three. She is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.