The 2021 Superior Fall Trail Race is scheduled to be held two weeks from today – September 10 & 11, 2021. The following is an update on the wildfire situation here in Northern Minnesota; the impacts on our event thus far, and the potential impacts in the days to come.
Wildfires are not uncommon in Minnesota. In Summer and Fall, fires can occur in the Northern part of our state. A unique and contributing factor to the severity of this year’s fires is that we have been in an extreme drought most of the Summer. The Greenwood Fire is burning approximately 20 miles Northwest of Tettegouche State Park. In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area; the Petit, Whelp, John EK, Fourtown Lake, Second Creek, Rice Bay and Steep Fires are burning. The closest fire to the North Shore and the Superior Hiking Trail (where our race is held) is the Greenwood Fire. The Greenwood Fire was started by a lightning strike and has grown to 26,000 acres in size. The fire was about half that size earlier this week, when hot, dry and windy conditions allowed it to go on a big run. Where the general feeling was of concern a week ago, everything has since quickly escalated. From what I have been able to decipher by reading between the lines, the current accepted thinking among the experts is that the actual fire will not reach the coastal portion of the North Shore and thus the Superior Hiking Trail. The portions of the trail that are the closest to the fire, and the forest closure boundary / fire containment area, run from about the County Road 6 trailhead to Crosby-Manitou State Park. Today the region is starting to get much needed rain, hopefully it will be enough to impact the fires.
Throughout the week I have been in daily contact (in person, phone and email) with our partners at the United States Forest Service, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Lake County, Cook County and the Superior Hiking Trail Association. We have great relationships with each entity and they are all rooting for us. I have been on all of the back roads, on the trails, and to every race trailhead. Wednesday night I attended a multi-agency informational meeting for the Greenwood Fire. I am monitoring the situation and gathering as much information as possible in order to make the most informed decisions possible in the coming days. It should also be said that some decisions have already been made for us (see bulleted items below), and there are additional decisions that could be made for us in the days to come – read; most all of this is out of our control.
Below is information relevant to the situation:
• The Superior Fall Trail Race is held on the Superior Hiking Trail. The Superior Fall Trail Race course crosses lands owned by The United States Forest Service, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Parks and Trails Division, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Forestry Division, Lake County, Cook County, and some private land.
• Homes, cabins and other structures have been lost to the Greenwood Fire. Lake County Sheriff’s deputies have been enforcing evacuations, getting folks back into their properties to get belongings when safe, and facilitating the return of these residents after an area has been cleared. Many residents have been displaced.
• Nearly 500 personnel are actively working the Greenwood Fire alone. A significant number of additional personnel are working the Boundary Waters Fires.
• The 1 million acre Boundary Waters Canoe area, visited annually by hundreds of thousands of visitors, was closed last week by an official USFS Forest Order, with little warning.
• Several of the hiking trails off of the Gunflint Trail (a road that is a major artery into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area) have been closed by an official USFS Forest Order
• Superior National Forest backcountry campsites were closed today by an official USFS Forest Order. This includes many Superior Hiking Trail campsites.
• Dispersed / backcountry camping will be prohibited, starting Monday August 30, by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in state forests in northern St. Louis county and all of Cook, Lake, and Koochiching counties, this includes many Superior Hiking Trail campsites.
• Today the Superior Hiking Trail Association announced the full closure of all SHT campsites, and has stated that only day use of the trail is permitted – both until further notice.
• We learned yesterday that the Finland Recreation Center, the mile 52 aid station for the 100 mile race, and the start headquarters of the 50 mile race, is no longer available for us to use. The Eastern Area Management Team for the Greenwood Lake and Cook County fires will be taking over the entire site for a command center in order to accommodate about 80 staff.
• A couple of our key HAM / Amature Radio Operators that provide communications for the race, are on fire incident response teams working communications for the fires. Additionally, several of our other HAM Radio volunteers live on the Gunflint Trail have been put on evacuation notice should the fires in that area continue to grow or new fires develop.
• A significant number of Forest Service and fire contractors are staying at Caribou Highlands Lodge. While race participant’s reservations are secured / guaranteed, should the event proceed, those individuals will have to relocate over the race days.
• Generally speaking, both Lake and Cook County law enforcement and emergency management have had to allocate a significant portion of their staffing and resources to these fires. These are the agencies that would respond in the event of an emergency associated with our race.
• Depending on weather and winds, the AQI (Air Quality Index) on the North Shore has been going from “good” (0-50) to “unhealthy” (151-200) very quickly, sometimes multiple times in a day.
• Fire danger remains high on the North Shore – burning bans are in place.
• Additional closures, restrictions and revocation of our permits could happen at any time, with little notice.
The outlook today is not good but we are holding out hope. We need favorable weather / winds and additional rain in the coming days. We are continuing planning and preparations for the race. We are coordinating with our volunteers, vendors and partners. We have purchased all of the food and supplies and aid station bins are being built / packed. The first trailer has been loaded and rental trucks are scheduled for pickup. We have taken delivery of the t-shirts, finishers sweatshirts, belt buckles, medals and bib numbers. Simultaneously, I am having to plan for the cancellation of the race. As much goes into the planning and execution of the race, to pull the pin and do so in an orderly, responsible and respectful fashion, taking all of our awesome participants, volunteers and partners into account takes an entire additional level of planning and execution.
Obviously none of this is what you wanted to hear. Please know that I have been, and will be on this 24/7 until there is a resolution. I will provide you with updates as soon as I have them. Timeline: we start mobilizing to the event site the Monday prior to the race. Setup starts on Tuesday and continues through Thursday evening. I also know that you have your own travel and logistics to consider. My current thinking is that one way or another we need to have a final answer by next weekend. Even that is running it down to the wire, but the more time we can give it, the more time for things to possibly change for the better.
I love you all and am grateful for you. Trail people are incredible people, and it is an honor to serve you. These problems, whether or not we can hold or run a race, all fall under the category of first-world problems. That said, it is not lost on me how important our running is, and the inner and outer journeys it facilitates and how it fortifies our physical, mental and spiritual health. I know how disappointed I will feel if we cannot share the SUPERIOR experience again this year, I know it is at least double for those of you who have trained so hard and have looked so forward to this for so long. The world is and has been in such great turmoil, let’s hold those less fortunate in our hearts, let’s be grateful for what we have, and let’s allow that gratitude to alleviate any disappointment that may come our way.
If you need anything, please reach out and I will get back to you, as always, as quickly as I can.