The History of the Fire Circle

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There are many places on the camp peninsula that look a little different this year, and many aspects of the CV summer that feel…off. The cabins are not filled with campers; the Mess Hall lacks the typical, prevalent chatter of trip tales and activity happenings. Pine Stadium remains mostly unoccupied aside from the storage of a few boats and has not hosted a big athletic game in 13 months. Indeed, the pandemic and the resulting cancellation of a full-fledged Voyageur summer have changed much of what has become standard for the season.

Yet, one area of the peninsula that somehow seems unchanged—enduring through this year’s weirdness and woe—is the Fire Circle. As the spiritual center of camp, and the pristine outcropping that has hosted everything from sermons to stories over the decades, the Fire Circle likely feels unwavering because it is one of the few areas of camp where solitude, rather than vociferous collaboration and celebration, is the usual end-goal. To that point, the Fire Circle is as peaceful as ever right now, almost like a watchful observer—waiting for the world to normalize a bit, patient for contemplative campers and counselors to return someday for tranquil soul-searching.

Sure, there are hand-crafted benches marking the Fire Circle’s outer boundary. Additionally, two large chairs carved from tree stumps once served as seats for camp’s founder, Charlie Erdmann, and his wife Mim, although only one chair remains (…the other having been lost to time at this point). More enduring, a campfire pit in the center of the Fire Circle has held cooking flames for everything from hot dogs and hamburgers to marshmallows and walleye over the years.

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Charlie Erdmann giving a sermon at the Fire Circle in 1967.

A Storied Past

The true allure of the Fire Circle has never come from the man-made accoutrements or the camp events held there. Rather, it is the space itself—perhaps even beyond the geography, space in a more metaphysical sense—that makes the Fire Circle so special. And that’s why even amid a global pandemic and a camp season that has been wholly upended, the Fire Circle is the part of camp that feels the most undisturbed.

Sigurd Olson

The famous environmentalist was friends with camp founder Charlie Erdmann, and would often give speeches at the Fire Circle.

As enjoyable as it is to ponder the Fire Circle’s spiritual captivation, it is equally as interesting to look at its real past. The Fire Circle is the spot on the camp peninsula where Ely greenstone, the greenish-gray metamorphic rock—2 billion years old and unique to the region—is perhaps most readily exposed. And topographically, such exposure gives the Fire Circle some raised elevation; this means it would have been an ideal place for respite for actual voyageurs, as well as Ojibwe paddling during the fur trade era. The Fire Circle marks a bend in the Kawishiwi River, approximately where the river meets the expanses of Farm Lake, Garden Lake, and White Iron Lake—with the whole water system ultimately bound for Canada. Such a valuable—and potentially strategic—position makes the Fire Circle even more special.

In essence, long before CV campers were using the Fire Circle as a point of session solitude, it served a comparable purpose for weary voyageurs, and indigenous peoples going back thousands of years.

1958 Lūʻau

The boys staged a Hawaiian ceremony where they cooked chicken and vegetables on hot rocks beneath a tarp.

A Logging Hotspot

More recently, in the area’s logging heyday of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the water around the Fire Circle would have been optimal for transporting harvested wood. In fact, this is not mere conjecture. At one point years ago, a scuba diver explored the root-beer-colored water surrounding the Fire Circle and found layers of sunken pine logs that had been felled a century ago—discarded relics of the bygone era when a logger from Quebec named Cyril Fortier owned much of the forested land.

Vicki (Erdmann) Burgman vividly remembers old logs occasionally being wrested from the lake floor by the current, breaching and floating into the CV swim dock throughout the 1960s. Much of the logging leftovers have now disintegrated, although a “dead head” still floats to the surface of the water on Farm Lake and South Farm from time to time.

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Solace for the Future

The Fire Circle’s importance remains unchanged, even though the fur trade is no longer active and the logging has long ceased. The Sunday sermons that Charlie Erdmann used to give to campers and staff are still talked about, as are the Fire Circle speeches by famed naturalist Sigurd Olson. The largest red pine stand on the camp peninsula—planted roughly 25 years ago—looms higher over the windswept point with each passing year. Other evolutions will likely continue in the future too. These will include new benches and wooden chairs to greet next year’s campers, and the clearing of the surrounding brush as CV cares for young pines and birch trees planted two years ago.

It is not a stretch to say that the Fire Circle is one of the most easily identifiable CV landmarks for campers of all eras. Generations have gathered there, in the same space with more or less the same layout, and will continue to do so for generations to come. And when a full-fledged camp summer returns, the Fire Circle is ready to play host to Sunday and Wednesday cookouts and camp stories once again.

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