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Residents along Gunflint Trail return home

ON THE GUNFLINT TRAIL -- A ceramic mug with a crackle glaze was about all that was unbroken in Scott Mitchell's cabin on Seagull Lake near the end of the Gunflint Trail.

The mug didn't come with a crackle glaze -- intense heat from the Ham Lake wildfire that burned Mitchell's two-story log cabin on May 6 took care of that.

"They'll want that," Mitchell's uncle, John Rogge of Duluth, said as he set the cup on the cabin's bare foundation walls. Rogge has been vacationing at the end of the Gunflint Trail for 53 years and had spent months helping his nephew, who lives in Kansas, restore the log building.

Rogge loves the area so much that his father's cremated ashes were spread near Mitchell's cabin. On Thursday, he and his wife, Susan, made the trip just to survey the wreckage.

Property owners at the end of the Gunflint Trail were finally allowed past the roadblocks near the end of the trail and onto their property for a few hours Thursday.

It may be early next week before the Cook County Sheriff's office considers it safe for people to return for good, Deputy Chief Leif Lunde said.

Some evacuees went to check their sprinkler systems and clear spoiled food from refrigerators. Others wanted to kick through the thin piles of ash that had been their buildings. Some out-of-area residents had gone home after waiting for more than a week for the fire conditions to calm.

At Thursday morning's public briefing, Lunde read a laundry list of dangers that remained in the area: falling trees, stand-alone chimneys ready to topple, hot spots that might flare up, piles of melted glass and nails to walk through.

But after more than a week of getting secondhand information from the sheriff's office or from firefighters, plenty of people were ready to see for themselves.

What they found was a patchwork of survival and destruction.

While Mitchell's cabin had vanished, the picnic table was still tucked among the few unburned mature trees.

A boardwalk leading to two small islands was sound, while only nails remained of the wooden steps that once lead down to his dock. That crackled cup rested among a fearsome mixture of melted glass and metal scraps.

Across a small bay from Mitchell's cabin, Chris and Lynn Steele's home perched high above Seagull Lake was untouched. The fire burned right up to their buildings and wood pile, but the sprinklers stopped it, Chris Steele said.

Kenneth and Nathalie Rusk's home was misty green, their sprinklers still wetting down the home, garage and raspberry patch. A stone's throw away on the other side, two men were surveying a lone, towering chimney that had once been surrounded by a house.

Nearby, Jerry Carpenter stood quietly in front of what was once his garage. His truck's melted hulk rested under a pile of rubble, though a few doors away, the Carpenters' home of 31 years was fine.

"I'm kind of numb, I guess," Carpenter said. He was there to take inventory of what, if anything, was left. The truck, while not new, "was a good old truck," he said, sounding forlorn.

Susan Rogge was trying for the positive angle. As she walked around her nephew's lot with a videocamera, she noted that the stepping stones atop the missing wooden stairway were still there, and that Mitchell's cherished blueberry bushes, though their tops were gone, might still regrow. The two-stall garage was intact.

As bad as many lots along Seagull Lake were, the Rogges expected it to be worse.

"I expected there to be nothing left," other than toppled trees and bare earth, Susan Rogge said. They were cheered to see that pockets of mature trees were still green, though on both sides of the trail, many acres were either blackened or scorched brown.

After spending a month nearly every summer since he was 10 years old at the Sea Island Lodge on Seagull Lake, and then at Mitchell's cabin, John Rogge has watched the effects of the 1995 blowdown and the wildfires and prescribed burns since then.

But at 63, Rogge knows he can't wait 40 years for next year's tiny seedlings to mature along the Gunflint Trail. "It'll come back, but it'll be different," he said.

On their way back down the trail, many evacuees stopped at Trail Center for some company and conversation.

The Trail Center restaurant was closed to the public Thursday but open to evacuees. A small mountain of food and bottled water was free for the taking, and Red Cross volunteers were ready to talk with anyone who needed a friendly ear.

Cook County Public Health and Human Services Social Work supervisor Jane Howard was on hand to help, as she has been since the Ham Lake fire took off.

"I've seen people who are kind of rattled by the reality of it," Howard said. "I've seen people who are kind of afraid to go back there to live."

For some, a strong wind has become something to fear, and the sunshine "isn't as pretty as it was," Howard said. But in the nearly two weeks since fires began nibbling at the community, Howard also has seen something else.

As the fire, which continued to burn, but did not grow noticeably larger on Wednesday, begins to come under control, residents and area business owners are starting to look solidly toward the future. Many who have lost homes have vowed to rebuild them, including Mitchell.

"We have a community that is really good at supporting itself and one another," Howard said.