It was an unusually dry spring in the Grand Rapids Uplands, 400-500 kilometres north of Winnipeg. As we crested the Pas Moraine and began our gentle descent toward Grand Rapids, we were surprised to see small cumulus clouds floating low in an otherwise clear sky. Driving closer, the cause became obvious: a huge forest fire was generating water vapour along with its smoke, and the vapour condensed as it rose.
Each day we drove past the burning area. Some mornings it smouldered gently with just a hint of smoke. Some afternoons the brown smoke billowed upward, yet the fire did not really appear to be migrating. Nevertheless, we were very lucky to finish our work when we did, as the fire monsters had awoken and were on the march. The smoke became so dense that the road was closed, and if we had been going south just an hour or two later our trip would have required a four- or five-hour detour (roads are far apart in the north)!
At dinner time, the restaurants in Grand Rapids were busy. Firefighting crews arrived for supplies, purchasing large quantities of burgers, sandwiches, french fries, bottled water, and all the other necessities of firefighting. There is little lumbering done in that part of the north, but forests are treasured, not least as the home of wild game, so fighting fires (or at least controlling them) is a serious business.
Other than the fires, it was a typical northern spring. The flowers and the blackflies had returned in profusion. On Saturday the breeze died down and the blackflies became unbearable; it is very hard to concentrate on work when you are inhaling flies, swallowing flies, feeling tiny flies crawling in your ears and eyes and, yes, occasionally being bitten.
Toward Grand Rapids the sky is now behaving itself. No rogue clouds confuse our vista of high summer blue and heat haze. The fire was exciting and mercurial, and I have to say that I enjoyed the frisson created by its presence. This sky seems very dull and predictable, but it bodes well for our ability to get work done. And, I guess, that is why we are here.
Driving north from Grand Rapids on the first day, for a considerable distance we can see the dark signature of fire-burned trees out on the horizon, where the pale haze must reach its tendrils toward Moose Lake and Cormorant. Now the skeletal trees begin to approach Highway 6. Here are the remains of contorted jack pines and stark black spruce, with green grass already springing up beneath.
There are places where the fire had leapt across the road, where it torched aspen shrubs below the steel power towers. Did it damage the lines themselves? I don’t recall any issues with power in the south, but the sight generates talk of the fragility of our far-reaching hydro system. Civilization is a thin cloak that fits poorly on this land. We are just a wire’s width from feral, though most of the time we choose to forget this.
We can’t stop today for a close look at the awful beauty the fire has made. It is past lunchtime and there is rock to split, eurypterids sending us messages that they are there for the finding. We must rush onward to liberate them from their cool, stony resting places. But we will stop this week. Really. And we will try to get some photos that capture this strange place.
© Graham Young, 2010