Remembering the Ham Lake Fire
By Cary J. Griffith
Twelve years ago, the Ham Lake Fire devastated the border region around the Gunflint Trail. Fueled by a dry spring, erratic winds, and tinder from the 1999 blowdown, the fire grew to be one of the largest in Minnesota’s history. For over two weeks the fire burned over 75,000 acres, destroying cabins, businesses, and family residences.
Though much of the old growth forest in the area was lost to the fire, the past dozen years have seen the area rejuvenate. Ashes gave way to sprouts and those sprouts have turned into trees. Moss has begun to cover the scars on the rocks. In his book, Gunflint Burning, published last year, author Cary J. Griffith gives a dramatic account of the firefighters and locals who were at the frontlines of this historic wildfire. The following account, which is referenced in his book, has been expanded by the author.
When Tom Kaffine was in the 10th grade he was 6-foot, 132-pounds. His physique could have summoned lots of nicknames, but the one that stuck was Blade. The first time I heard his name was during an interview with Sue Prom, co-owner of Voyageur Canoe Outfitters. Interviews often lead into unexpected territory, and on this occasion I asked about a legendary Gunflint Trail and Boundary Waters camper who came into the area in the early spring, spent the next four months living remotely, mostly off the land, and returned to civilization sometime after the first snowfall.
“The Kek Man?” Sue said. “If you want to know about the Kek Man you need to talk to Blade.”
The Kek Man is something of a local legend. He spent his summers 2.5 miles up the Kekekabic Trail camping in and around Mine Lake, where he remained until returning to a more civilized domicile in Grand Marais or Minneapolis (the exact location was vague). Residents in the area knew him because every couple of weeks he would leave his camp, hike 2.5 miles back along the Kekekabic to the Gunflint Trail, and hitch rides to Grand Marais to replenish his supplies.
One of the special attributes of the Gunflint Trail is its sense of community. The Trail’s citizens watch out for and support each other. Given this communal spirit it was no surprise that on the afternoon of Saturday, May 5, 2007, when the Ham Lake fire was just beginning to kindle into one of the largest Minnesota forest fires in nearly a century, several of the residents familiar with the Kek Man and his whereabouts felt concerned enough to contact the US Forest Service (USFS).
As the fire grew, numerous USFS, volunteers and others were quickly called up. Tom Kaffine was recruited to work as a USFS safety officer.
By the end of that first afternoon, the fire roared around Tuscarora Lodge, incinerating one of its outbuildings (the first structure to be burned by the fire), and kept heading west. Mine Lake and its environs, and presumably the Kek Man’s campsite, were directly in its path. Tom Kaffine’s first task was to find and evacuate the Kek Man.
For several reasons, Tom was the right man for the job. First, he had worked for the USFS off and on for more than 25 years, much of it in a public safety capacity. Second, he had been a wilderness ranger for 18 years and during the winter often cruised timber. He had lots of personal familiarity with the entire BWCAW, including the Kekekabic Trail. “I knew fire and I knew wilderness,” Tom commented. “At the time I was a full-fledged USFS crew boss and was certified as an [Incident Commander] IV.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he knew the Kek Man and had a pretty good sense of his camp’s location.
On Saturday evening Tom recruited two firefighters from Ely to assist with the effort. They all agreed that given the dry, windy weather, and pace and direction of the fire they should head up the Kekekabic Trail well before first light.
“I wanted to get in there before the fire got active,” continued Tom. He had spoken with an air attack pilot and determined that at sundown Saturday the fire was about a half mile east of Mine Lake. “Given how forest fires bed down at night, we thought it would probably still be there by morning.”
Unfortunately, the Ham Lake fire was atypical; throughout the night it had continued burning west. By the time Tom and his two colleagues reached the head of the Kekekabic Trail, he could see a steady glow in the distance. “We walked in and within a half mile ran into the fire.”
At that point they wondered whether or not it was safe to continue. If they moved ahead they would be hiking into fire. But if they abandoned their effort, what would happen to the Kek Man? Tom and his two colleagues were experienced firefighters. After some consideration they decided to pull on their gloves and brace themselves against the intense heat. They continued up the Trail.
The first thing they noticed was how the fire front had unexpectedly moved during the night. “We were walking through burning brush and snags,” Tom explained. For a couple hundred yards the fire heat was so intense they used their gloved hands to shield their faces.
By the time they finally reached Mine Lake they were standing on a small ridge. It was early morning and the air was thick with smoke, limiting visibility. They peered out over the lake and noticed a small grassy island near its middle. Squinting through the haze they also noticed what appeared to be a blue tent and aluminum canoe.
Tom made his way down to the shoreline and called across the water.
“Tom,” the Kek Man said, surprised. “Is that you?”
Calling across the water, the Kek Man explained how in the middle of the night, threatened by the impending smoke and flames, he broke camp and moved to safer environs. Over the next few minutes he gathered his gear and paddled ashore.
By this time it was around 7:00 in the morning, but everything was black. “The sun was just coming up,” recalled Tom. “It looked orange in the sky from all the smoke. It was surreal.” The Kek Man donned a pair of goggles and wrapped a bandana around his face and the four of them started hiking out.
This part of the BWCAW is dotted with old exploratory mines. One section of the Trail runs beside the Old Paulsen Mine, dug in 1893. “As we got closer to the Paulsen Mine,” Tom explained, “we ran into the flame front again. By 8:00 it was getting a lot more active and we realized continuing along the Kek Trail was not an option.” The fire forced the team to detour through a swamp. On either side there were ridges bordering the swamp, now aflame. At one point, the Kek Man turned and said, “Tom, I think I was safer back in camp.”
Then something bizarre happened. Within thirty seconds of each other there were two distinct explosions that sounded like dynamite or blasting caps. In the past, Tom had worked with explosives. In retrospect, he figured the explosions were from dynamite either buried or left over from past explorations. Others speculated it could have been caused from the combustion of superheated rocks. Regardless, it prompted the team to pick up its pace.
In the end they safely evacuated the Kek Man, who with gear in tow began hitchhiking to Grand Marais. Eventually he was picked up by a USFS water resource management employee whose trip into the BWCAW had been short circuited by the fire. But that is a different story.
After the fire, the Kek man continued to spend summers on the trail and every few weeks, hitchhiked into town for supplies. The Kekekabic Trail itself was entirely burned over in the Ham Lake Fire, but has come back gangbusters. Visitors still come across blackened trunks but for the most part, the are is lush and thriving. Tom Kaffine retired in 2018. In retrospect, he recalls his evacuation of the Kek Man as one of the more harrowing wilderness rescues with which he’s been involved. Demonstrating his mastery of the understatement, Kaffine concludes, “It was definitely interesting.”
Cary Griffith is the author of three non-fiction books and two novels. His non-fiction includes Lost in the Wild (Borealis: 2006), Opening Goliath (Borealis: 2009 – winner of a 2010 Minnesota Book Award), and Gunflint Burning (University of Minnesota Press: 2018 - Finalist for a Minnesota Book Award). His novels include Wolves (Adventure Publications: 2013 – winner of a Midwest Book Award, Finalist for a Minnesota Book Award), and Savage Minnesota (Star Tribune: 2014 – the Star Tribune’s 2014 Summer Read). He loves in Rosemount on the edge of a 47-acre wood.