Racing The Pagami Creek Fire, With An Unexpected Finish Line: Olivia

Submitted/ Ron Mossberg pauses while paddling to view the growing thunderheads comprised of smoke from the fast-growing Pagami Creek fire.

OLIVIA – What the United States Forest Service called “extreme shifting winds’’ caused the Pagami Creek wildlife to begin “a sequence of unprecedented crown fire runs’’ on September 12, 2011.

By the end of the day on September 13, the wildlife covered approximately 93,000 acres, most of it in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Dan Coughlin and his three camping buddies had a two-, maybe three-hour lead on the fire when they broke camp on September 12.

“It went from little wisps of smoke to atom bomb sized stuff,’’ said Coughlin, city administrator for Olivia.

He hobbled out of the BWCA a few days later using paddles for crutches and questioning the wisdom of having told his friends at the start of the trip that he needed a few days to “wrestle with God’’ and figure out the direction for his future. He certainly didn’t know all of this would lead him to Olivia.

In relating his experience, Coughlin said that all that he and his friends knew for sure when they set up camp on Hudson Lake was that they were exhausted and ready to kick back and spend the next three days right there, fishing and relaxing.

The four men, ages from the mid-30-s to mid-40’s, had been making annual BWCAW trips for nearly two decades at this point. Most of their trips had been 10 or more days in length.  They always challenged themselves to paddle and portage deep into the wilderness, said Coughlin. This year was their opportunity to base camp and relax, he explained.

Or so they thought: A solo canoeist arrived at their camp on September 12 before the four friends could finish breakfast. He warned them that the Lakes One, Two, Three chain from which they had entered the BWCAW had been closed and they needed to move.  The small wildfire they had been advised about when they picked up their permit had started to grow.

Coughlin said he now considers the canoeist’s visit only the first of the life-saving miracles this “relaxing’’ trip would deliver.

Submitted/ From left, Dan Coughlin, Ron Mossberg, Doug Erickson and Jason Hult joined for the obligatory “before” photo at the Lake One entry point, where they started their fateful Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness trip on September 9, 2011.

The four realized they needed to traverse 37 miles of water and numerous portages in the next three days, just to get out. All they had was a 1974 vintage fishing map to use for navigating this stretch of  wilderness they had not planned to visit. “Sinking feeling,’’ said Coughlin.

They broke camp and ventured out on the wind-whipped waters. Now they could see the rising, roiling clouds of smoke and ash filling the sky. The sky itself was being turned orange by the expanding fire. “It felt apocalyptic,’’ said Coughlin.

By their estimation, the fire reached the campsite they had left about 2-1/2 to 3 hours behind them.

Six USFS rangers would spent that night on Lake Insula hunkered in their fire tents having been unable to out race the fast advancing fire.

Treacherous waters, orange sky

Powerful winds stirred up big waves. On one portage, quarter-sized hail pummeled the four friends.  All of it was caused by the weather system the firestorm created. “All we need is locusts and we’d pretty much be set here,’’ Coughlin said they told one another.

Five- and six-foot waves forced them to reverse their path and hunker down before attempting to cross Lake Insula. The island-filled lake is over five miles long and as much as 2 ½ miles wide.

The four paddlers eventually made their way north and they thought, out of harm’s way.

After an arduous, two-day flight from the fire, they set up camp on an island with hopes of resting up. Two in the party went fishing on the lee side of the island, as the winds continued to howl. Coughlin, with a sore back, sprawled on his self-inflating mattress in one of the tents.  His paddle mate, Ron Mossberg, relaxed outside with a book.

Coughlin said he heard his friend give out a banshee like scream, and he bolted upright. “Then this thud that will haunt me in nightmares forever,’’ said Coughlin.

The winds had knocked down a dead tree on their tents. The trunk had karate-chopped Coughlin’s right ankle. A widow-maker sized branch would have crushed his head had he not bolted upright when his friend screamed.

Coughlin said his friend told him he thought he was dead. “The first thought that went through his head, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to call his wife and tell her he’s dead,’’’ said Coughlin, laughing.

His ankle swelled to the size of a grapefruit within minutes, said Coughlin. Mossberg informed the weary crew that their rest was over: They had to get him out fast.

A new urgency in fleeing

A long, rocky portage separated them from Snowbank Lake on the border of the BWCAW. Coughlin used paddles as crutches- turing his upper body black and blue because of it- and covered most of the distance before he started succumbing to shock. He said his friends put their arms around him and assisted him the rest of the way, just like football players taking an injured player off the field.

They reached the wide-open waters of Snowbank Lake as daylight was disappearing. They paddled with hope of getting to a landing where Mossberg could begin a 10- to 15-mile run to where their vehicle had been left. That is, if it hadn’t been consumed by fire.

To their surprise, Coughlin said they spotted the red glow of taillights as they paddled the shoreline.  They raced to catch up to the men they saw pulling a boat from the lake. The men told them their boat motor had quit on them shortly after authorities warned them to leave the lake. The fire might be headed that way. The boaters had limped to the landing using their trolling motor, and then a problematic winch on their trailer further delayed their exit.

Their delay until the paddlers could reach them was yet another miracle, Coughlin said he couldn’t help but think.

‘Entertaining angels unawares’

The boaters gave Mossberg a ride to their vehicle at the Lake One entry. Coughlin said he sat with his ankle in the cold water, and told the others as a full moon glowed over the lake: “You know, this is as close as I think I will ever come to the Biblical verse of entertaining angels unawares.’’

Not much later, Coughlin texted his wife, Lora from the Ely Hospital to report that they were out of the BWCAW and safe. Aware that this was a day ahead of schedule, she texted back to ask where he was. And then she called, asking specifically about his whereabouts. “I’m in exam room 2 of the Ely hospital emergency room,’’ he confessed.

He had suffered a severe crush syndrome wound, X-rays and an MRI scan revealed. He faced the possibility of having his lower leg amputated due to the damage done to muscle and tissue. Somehow, likely due to his air mattress, his bones had not been fractured.

From September to February he convalesced at home in Richmond. He interviewed for his current position in Olivia on the very first day he could walk without the aid of a cane.

Two inches of snow fell the preceding night. All of the candidates and their spouses were asked to walk with the interviewing committee from city hall to Master’s Coffee Shop, a distance of a few blocks. Instinctively, Lora came to her husband’s side. “I extended an arm to her to be chivalrous and allow her to make it look like I’m helping her while she’s making sure I don’t fall on my butt,’’ said Coughlin, laughing.

Whether or not what appeared to be an act of chivalry on his part made the difference in his being offered the job may never be known, but Coughlin is convinced it didn’t hurt his chances.

Three of the four men-Coughlin included- have continued to make annual trips to the BWCAW ever since. Coughlin always carries along a piece of the tree that fell on him. His friend Doug Erickson now carries a satellite phone. Just in case.

The Pagami Creek Fire grew from “little wisps of smoke to atom bomb sized stuff,” said Dan Coughlin.