Field Report - Pagami #5

Dogsled Trip in the Pagami Creek Fire Area

During the fourth year post-fire, I made a late-winter dogsled trip into the fire area. I was honored to receive funding for this trip and two others the previous year through the Minnesota State Arts Board’s Artist Initiative Program. I am grateful to the people of Minnesota who voted for the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment in 2008 supporting the environment and the arts that funds this program.

Field Notebook – March 9, 2015

My biggest challenge proved to be lining up an adventure travel outfitter willing to take on this unique trip. Dogsled businesses usually offer packaged circuit trips in the Boundary Waters or Superior National Forest. The first outfitter backed out at the last minute two-weeks before the scheduled date.

Through an inspired referral from my friend Lawson Gerdes, I connected with Dave Freeman who in the winter, works for Paul Schurke at Wintergreen Dogsled Adventures in Ely. Dave, with his wife Amy, were 2014 National Geographic Young Explorers of the Year. He responded immediately to my urgent cold-call email and with Paul’s approval, scheduling and planning began in earnest – the trip was on!

Tomahawk Road (Forest Road 377) southeast of Ely is only plowed in the winter if there’s logging activity in the area – and it needed to be plowed and open at least halfway to my sites at the Island River bridge. Dogs really can’t break trail, so we hoped to find the remaining distance to the bridge packed-down by snowmobiles. Importantly, the weather had to cooperate – it couldn’t be too cold and the sky had to be clear enough (not overcast) with picturesque passing clouds, giving me options for light intensity and patterns on the landscape.

On Sunday, March 8th, I drove up to Ely and stayed at the Gerdes’s cabin for the duration of my visit. I am incredibly fortunate to have the encouragement of people who know, live in, and care for this landscape. We share a love of this place and want to see it preserved and flourishing.

The day of the big adventure dawned overcast; but partially-sunny weather in the 40s was predicted. We got an early start because it was important to run the dogs during the coolest part of the day.

We met Dave Freeman at Highway 1 and Tomahawk Road (Forest Road 377) at about 8:30 am, arriving exactly at the same time. The six dogs were in kennel crates on the back of a extended-cab pickup. Also on-board were two sleds – a single and a double. Lawson and I piled our gear into the truck and climbed aboard. We proceeded down a fortunately well-plowed and well-traveled Tomahawk Road, chatting along the way and hoping that as the plowed roadway narrowed, we would be able to get as close as possible. We got within about five miles of the bridge and did not encounter any logging trucks along the way, and good fortune - the unplowed roadway beyond was packed down by snowmobile tracks.

Dave parked the truck in a widened turn-around at the end of the plowed portion of the road. He unloaded the truck, then the dogs – Jack and Pecan, the joint-lead Inuit dogs for my sled along with Bullseye, a skinny, wily black fellow. Lawson’s sled had Flash, another twin to Bullseye, and Galena as leads for her sled. The third dog, a white mutt, was initially reluctant and wanted to climb aboard Lawson’s sled rather than pull it.

My Inuit pair were muscular, bulky, steady dogs – once they were pulling – but after unloading and during harnessing a noisy vocalizing ensued and rather undignified jostling and rolling in the snow. It was a challenge to get them harnessed.

Bullseye calmly waits for Pecan and Jack to compose themselves

Dave started out, skate-skiing in the lead 50-feet ahead of us, followed by me in the lead sled and Lawson in the rear. Her team was much friskier and faster than mine – but with me in the middle with the steady Inuits – the pace was kept slower so the dogs wouldn’t overheat. We arrived at the Island River bridge (about five miles distant) in almost no time at all. But not before a rocky start – Lawson got tossed off her sled while going over a bumpy mogul formed by the snowplow. However, once started, the dogs set a steady pace and it grew quiet as we glided along.

I learned three commands to shout – “hike” to go, “whoa” to stop, and “loose sled” when I fell off. Both Lawson and I experienced our sleds tipping when the dogs doubled back unexpectedly. Dave said the dogs were being naughty. I got the impression that the dogs knew we were rookie sled-handlers and were playing with us. When I yelled, “hike,” released the brake and the dogs surged ahead, I believe it was because they wanted to follow Dave who was in the lead, not because I ordered them to “hike.”

We arrived at the Island River bridge at about 10:30 am. Dave tied-down the dogs and the sleds, and the animals proceeded to auger into the deep snow pack, curl up and go to sleep during what was now a quite sunny and warm day.

We strapped on our snowshoes and with Lawson in the lead to break trail, set out across the frozen meadow skirting Island River. The snow was wet and heavy, melting in the sun. We slogged through the meadow and then picked our way through downed trees to head up-slope. Before we began, we had strategized about how to get to the sites without leaving tracks across a field of snow that might later mar a photographic view.

The going became more difficult as we headed up-slope into deeper drifted areas. In some places the snow was several feet deep and because it was melting, when we lifted our snowshoes, heavy wet snow weighing several pounds came along.

The snowy landscape looked so foreign! I had great difficulty finding my first photo point: Site #2. But once I saw the geologic marker on the hillside – at least I knew the gradient, and was able to navigate to Site #2 which is marked by a faded pink ribbon I tied to an upright tree during my first visit in 2012.

With most of the interesting roots at ground level and therefore under snow, it was challenging to devise compositions. At Site #2, I used the wide-angle lens to encompass more of the hillside context and to work with the shadows of the upright trees behind me that were falling onto the scene. The light was a little hazy, but delicate; I was glad the sun was not blasting away.

Site #2, March 2015

Then came a cloudy period lasting almost two hours. The sun would peep through openings in the cloud deck for brief periods, throwing luminous beams across isolated areas of the landscape for a few seconds, often following the course of the frozen, snow-covered river. I did several short videos of this phenomena.

As the day wore on, blue sky with scattered clouds and then full sun came on. We trudged across the meadow at the front of an inlet and then up to the high point with the rock outcrop, Site #4. I produced several black-and-white exposures here. The sun came out just in time to dapple the background, painting the far hillsides in light and increasing the contrast between the blackened trees, roots, and rock outcrops, and the field of white.

Site #4, March 2015

At Site #3, the overlook to Island River which is the broadest view of the burned river edge, I switched to color because of the delicacy of the blue sky, puffy clouds, the band of light illuminating the frozen river, and the back-lit blackened trees.

Site #3, March 2015

Site #3 same view as above in June 2014

The last location was the water’s edge and because the ground plane plants (mostly emerging willows, bulrush, cattails, sedges) were covered with snow, this image became about the moose footprints that led into the frame and around one of the upended tree roots. I used the wide-angle here, as well, and worked closer to the trees.

At this point, I was running out of energy – I had been so busy that I’d just grabbed a few bites of cheese, crackers and trail mix – and I decided that this was it; I wouldn’t make it to Site #1.

Site #6, March 2015

I headed back to Lawson and Dave waiting for me at the bridge. The sunlight was fading and it was becoming hazy. I had also stayed out much longer than the 2 ½ hours I had told Dave that it would take to make the pictures.

We re-packed the gear and woke up the dogs. They were grouchy and groggy. Both Lawson and I had several false-starts because the dogs turned around and tipped the sleds. My dogs saw the opportunity to pitch me off the sled and took it. I screamed “loose sled” and Dave, skate-skiing about thirty feet ahead, spun around, madly yelled and waved his arms as the dogs barreled toward him. He grabbed the lead dog’s harness just in time to stop them from making a break for it – I would’ve had a five-mile walk back to the truck otherwise.

Dogs anxious to go (especially Bullseye) while I stand firm on the brake!

I’m really thankful that we were in Dave’s capable hands. Dave had hung out with me while I was photographing and it’s clear he believes in and supports what I’m doing. I owe him my thanks.

The dogsled trip was long anticipated, planned for, and imagined. I asked much of myself (both physically and artistically) and of Lawson and Dave – and there was not one moment of impatience – nothing interrupted the magical flow. Equanimity: mental calmness, composure and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation. Only the dogs were temperamental!

What did I observe? The whiteness of snow defining the topographic ghost of the landscape and pure silence with the echoes of muffled forest sounds (when the dogs weren’t vocalizing). This visit was more about impressions – and the resulting photographs less literal – than other visits. Winter gives the landscape an other-worldly aspect.

Field Report - Pagami #4

Years Two and Three - Post-Fire (2013 and 2014)
The Story of Plants, Part 1

The plants and rock outcrops are now as familiar and individual to me as family and friends and I'd like to introduce them to you. This post highlights plants I observed immediately after the fire. I'm indebted to Dr. Lee Frelich, forest ecologist at the University of Minnesota, and Lawson and Lynden Gerdes, retired ecologists with the Minnesota Biological Survey, for their insights and explanations.

What kind of landscape would replace the one just burned? According to Lawson Gerdes, the landscape before the fire was likely an FDn32 (Fire-Dependent Forest/Woodland System Northern Poor Dry-Mesic Mixed Woodland). The Field Guide to the Native Plant Communities of Minnesota, The Laurentian Mixed Forest Province says FDn32 includes pine and black spruce woodlands with paper birch and quaking aspen growing on the nutrient-poor shallow soils over the bedrock outcrops. Shrubs such as juneberries (Amelanchier spp.), low-bush blueberry (Vaccinium augustifolium) and bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera) would be prevalent.

Historic fire maps show that the last severe fire in the area was over 100 years ago, so this would've been a mature woodland. As the average rotation of catastrophic and severe surface fires is estimated to be 100 years, the forest was ready for replacement.

I  employed the Field Guide and a plant list generated by Gerdes with forbs and grasses to clue me in.

Big Pine Shorty, National Forest Lodge

Visiting the fire area, I often stayed nearby at National Forest Lodge in Isabella, Minnesota in a cabin affectionately known as Big Pines Shorty. The kitchen table was my work station for online plants research and verification before and after heading into the field. Fortunately, there was good cell phone reception!

Big Pines Shorty workstation, July 2014

In May 2012, less that six months after the fire, Lawson Gerdes led me to the fire area location on Island River recommended by Dr. Frelich. Bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) were the first colonizers carpeting the bare ground, thriving on the burst of available nitrogen. They have fabulous forms, shapes and textures. By fall of that first year post-fire, grasses and sedges sprouted and pink Fireweed (Epilobium augustifolium) bloomed among the bryophytes.

Site #2b during my second visit, September 2012. Fleshy bryophytes carpet the ground

The following two years marked the greatest change in the landscape.

Field Notebook, September 12, 2013
The day is moody with crystalline blue sky punctuated by linear, fluffy clouds stacked to the horizon, alternating with dull, somber gray masses that block out the sun.

Pagami Fire Area from Island River Bridge, 2013

After two growing seasons, the landscape is evolving. I can’t say it’s recovering; but rather it’s changing in profound ways. As the burned trees collapse or blow over, the soil is disturbed and a great network of potholes has formed. With the prevalent rains, the hillsides erode and are sliding down into Island River. A large, wide bench of spongy moss and bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) are forming at the edge of Island River on the soil washed down the hillside. This edge is rich with sprouting sedges, cattail, bulrushes, irises and shrubs and quite visually arresting.

This edge is a transition zone – but not especially interesting to ecologists – it is not a clear enough example of one forest type or another. It is a mixed blend of plants that may have resulted from seed material blowing in; or having been released from the existing seed bed; or carried down the hillside; floated in; deposited by birds or animals; or suckered from existing trees or shrubs. Too many variables are causing this landscape to form and re-form.

On the uplands, a webby net of sprawling Fallopia vines, now reddish after a frost, covers the downed trees, boulders and bare soil. Walking is treacherous; the vines catch on my boots, tripping me. They obscure the potholes and downed limbs. Other plants, shrubs and tree seedlings are having a difficult time competing with this vine. I wonder how prevalent Fallopia is in the burn zone and whether it’s an invasive that will inhibit other plants.

Site #2a on south-facing hillside. Fallopia vine spreads its net over the landscape

With these changes, some of the compositions at several sites have disappeared as trees fall down and vegetation, including the disgusting vine takes over. The quality of the vegetation is mixed. Fireweed, Jack pine seedlings, Bush honeysuckle and other shrubs, grassy plants, and in some cases ferns struggle to compete with the vines. What this landscape will become is difficult to perceive. A messy sorting process is going on.

Houghton's sedge (Carex houghtoniana) was found at both Sites #2a and #2b, a south-facing upland slope; but was common throughout the Island River burn area. I carried dog-eared pictures of my locations and they came in handy for connecting plants with their settings.

Field Notebook, June 7, 2014
Light rain was falling when I awoke, but the sky cleared around 10:30 am and I headed for my sites in the fire zone. The light is delicate and diffuse after the rain and the plants appear luscious; raindrops still cling to the fireweed. I work mostly with color film, using the Hasselblad with the wide-angle lens close to the ground on a short tripod. Later in the afternoon, around 4:30 pm, I switch to the 4x5 field camera and use the wide-angle lens.

I find the hillside blanketed with

Trees and Shrubs –
Populus tremuloides, Trembling aspen
Pinus strobus, White pine
Pinus banksiana, Jack pine
Picea glauca, White spruce
Picea mariana, Black spruce
Diervilla lonicera, Bush honeysuckle
Cornus rugosa, Round-leaved dogwood

Plants –
Bryophytes including Funaria grometrica, Lungwort
Epilobium augustifolium, Fireweed
Carex houghtoniana, Houghton’s sedge
Fragaria virginiana, Common strawberry
Rosa spp.
Aster macrophyllus (or Eurybia maculata?), Large-leaved aster
Geranium bicknelli, Bicknell’s cranesbill
Fern spp. on southwest-facing slopes
Rubus strigosus, Red raspberry
Vaccinium augustifolium, Lowbush blueberry
Corylus americana, Hazelnut
Cornus canadensis, Bunchberry
Aralia nudicans, Wild sasparilla
Viola spp.

Site #2b during June 2014 visit. Bryophytes, Willow (Salix spp.), Fireweed (Epilobium augustifolium), Red raspberry (Rubus var. strigosus), Large-leaved aster (Aster macrophyllus) and two-foot-tall Black spruce (Picea mariana)

Is the landscape becoming what it was – FDn32 – or becoming something else? The first colonizers were the bryophytes (mosses and lungworts) and they still form an under-layer, beneath the fireweed and other plants. At this point, the ground layer is dominant and shrubs and sedges are coming on strong. Scattered tree seedlings of White pine, Jack pine, and White and Black spruce are about two-feet tall.

To be continued...



Field Report - Pagami #3

So what is it like to photograph in the Pagami Fire Area? This post from a notebook that I began keeping in 2013 describes the physical, photographic and aesthetic challenges involved in documenting the fire area.

Year-Two Post Fire
Third Visit: May 22-24, 2013

Written Friday, May 24, 2013

I am sitting at a window with a view of Lake Superior, at Bob’s Cabins #3, Two Harbors, Minnesota. I stopped here last evening, bone-tired and beat up from my day photographing in the fire area and was fortunate to find an available cabin – turns out it’s one of my favorites!


This photography foray was particularly challenging. I will look back at the past week and find that I’ve turned a corner. Adversity has that effect…

I was invited by ecologists who live and conduct biological surveys in Northern Minnesota to bunk in their sauna building during my visit. I planned to participate in a relevé [in ecology: analysis of a small plot of vegetation, usually 20 meters square, as a sample of a wider area] led by one of them in the burn area and including two local citizen-scientists and two researchers from the University of Iowa. The fieldwork will take two days and then I will spend at least one day photographing my sites in the burn area.


Here’s the adversity/challenging part of my trip… Day One (Tuesday) was spent in the field; it poured steady but benevolent rain all day. I was not able to photograph except with my digital camera, which got a little wet. But I wore waterproof layers and was cozy and relatively dry and enjoyed being in the elements.

Day Two (Wednesday) dawned sunny with intermittent clouds and was to be spent in the field and feature a short canoe-paddle to an intact area at the edge of the fire area at Island River. But plans were scrapped because the car belonging to the researchers from Iowa had a flat tire which meant a very late start; too late. So the ecologist and I spent the afternoon examining plant communities (on land) in the vicinity – an intact Fdn-32 (Fire-Dependent Forest 32 plant community), a bog and various budding willows along a forest road that followed an old railroad grade.

Day Three (Thursday) broke with a stunning orange sunrise viewed from my sleeping bag on the platform bed in the sauna. This was my day for photographing in the burn – I had one day to complete two day’s worth of photography! My intention was to photograph until 5 pm or so and then head back to the Twin Cities. It’s 22 miles down Tomahawk Road to the site and then six hours driving back home. Well, I made it as far as Bob’s Cabins…

The day was fraught with perils. I can see that the fire area will become more and more difficult to navigate, over time. The unstable and eroding soils and decaying downed trees will make the terrain full of booby traps. I got pretty banged up (tripped on a hidden limb and pitched forward onto a rock which resulted in a gouged knee and thumping my 4x5 camera on its back plate – fortunately the ground-glass was intact). Later I slid down an embankment after the muddy soil gave way and landed hard. The third mishap had occurred earlier while I was photographing in the Poor Conifer Swamp. I almost lost my one of my tall rubber boots in a sinkhole. The vegetation is recovering nicely, but decaying roots disguise the sinkholes. I stepped on a rock and my right foot slid sideways and I went in up to my knee. Fortunately, the boot was not over-topped – I had to pull my foot out of the boot and then take both hands and tug with all my might to free it. From that mishap, I merely got a bit muddy; no damage to my body or photo gear.

Burned Poor Conifer Swamp with Sweet Coltsfoot blooms

Sweet Coltsfoot blooming in Poor Conifer Swamp

As the day went on, I continued to struggle with the terrain and my gear and actually finding enough concentration and openness to make good images; they did not come into my camera easily. Walking into these environments (the burned and recovering bog, and the forest), it’s difficult to discern the framing of the subject that will tell the story. I understand how my cameras and their different formats/lenses can render a fragment of the landscape. But the challenge is to balance what are good composition and an evocative picture with what will actually convey content and the meaning of the landscape on an ecological level.

While waiting for the light to be right during one of my 4x5 setups, I made a series of movies with my digital camera, panning through the landscape that includes my still images. (This effect is conceptually similar – ironically – to the videos that I did for my Masters of Arts exhibition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1970s.)

Fireweed sprouts among a carpet of Bryophytes

Observations –

What are we seeing when we look at landscapes and landscape photographs? I visit sites because I want to see what happens… Looking to invest the landscape (through photography) as a subject with new meanings, that is more true to the subject and its truth and functions, than to our human, psychological need (that is hard-wired? trained?) to see landscape as a surface (onto which we project our psychological states) – as beauty – or object.

Empathy. Trying to capture/reveal the landscape on its own terms – as it is. My choice of landscapes is not driven by aesthetics – but there must be something inherently visually interesting about a place. My choice of places is largely intuitive with a sense of a landscape in transition, through ongoing change or outright destruction. This is larger than (personal) metaphor. That is, a desire for ongoing change, stimulation, transition, growth.

Today (Friday) is my gift to myself… to stay here at Bob’s Cabins facing Lake Superior and return leisurely – to transition – back to the Twin Cities. This is my vacation week, after all!