To preface this blog, the story below is a true story that was shared with us by the author, Scott. He is sharing this story as an opportunity for others to learn from his experience and a reminder to everyone that trips to the BWCA should be taken seriously.
My son, Andrew, graduated from Minnesota State University Mankato this past May with a degree in Construction Management. He signed on to work at Ryan Companies after graduation but desired to take six weeks between graduation and the commencement of his career. Part of that time included plans for a ten-day excursion with me to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) commencing about 50 miles up the Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais, Minnesota.
Andrew selected the dates. We would leave Chaska, Minnesota on Memorial Day, May 30th, stay overnight in a motel in Grand Marais, and put in on Round Lake the following morning. He obtained the permit but I was in charge of the rest of the planning and packing. I obtained plenty of dehydrated meals, purchased new lures and fishing line, and procured small bottles of vegetable oil and fish fry for the trout, walleyes, and northern that we would catch. I even replaced the 40+ year old life jackets that we had used on previous adventures to the BWCA and on the Mississippi River. Sleeping bags were washed and the tent set up to make certain that it was still in fine condition. All our clothes were packed in two-gallon and one gallon zip-lock baggies. We had plenty of warm clothes but only one pair of shorts each as Andrew’s research suggested that the water temperature of the lake was only 40 degrees with the ice only recently going out and the daily temperature range would be 40-65 degrees.
Three packs, two life vests, hiking boots, tent, and fishing poles.
Everything was ready to be loaded for our Boundary Waters adventure.
The last piece of equipment was a canoe. We have a 1971 Browning Marine 17-foot aluminum canoe that has served us well. Andrew and I used it on our 200+ mile Mississippi River adventure and once in the Boundary Waters. Using it once in the Boundary Waters was enough. The canoe weighs over 100 pounds, causing us to rest multiple times on portages over 50 rods. Andrew christened the canoe The Frickin Yacht. I am the youngest member by nearly 20 years of the Ten O’clock Coffee Club. This is a group of old retired men that gather every weekday morning at the Shorewood Community Center. The wife of one of the members calls it the Waiting to Die Club. One of the members of the club has a son, Chris Benson, who owns Frost River Trading Company, an outdoors outfitting store in Duluth. Chris graciously offered us the use of an 18-foot 50-pound We-no-nah Kevlar 49 canoe. On Memorial Day, we headed to Duluth in Andrew’s 1996 Ford F350 crew cab to pick up the canoe.
Chris had forgotten that we were coming that day and no one at the store knew about it. I could not raise him on the phone as he was in the theater for the premier of the new Top Gun movie. I called his father who had his mother call him. That received prompt attention. His father also contacted Chris’s associate, David, who soon appeared at the store and everything was straightened away. This should have been our first warning that we should turn around. While at Frost River, I purchased one of their t-shirts and a red sweatshirt. I had a red hooded sweatshirt when I was very young and growing up in Deephaven and it reminded me of those early years. Andrew found some root beer barrel candies in the store. We had had these on our previous adventures but I was not able to find them anywhere except that day at Frost River. After a couple rounds at Bent Paddle Brewing Company, across the street from Frost River, we headed to Grand Marais.
We checked into the Aspen Inn, which I do not recommend, and then had a late dinner at one of the restaurants. We checked the weather and noticed severe weather was rolling in for the night. There was actually a tornado warning in Duluth. The following morning, the severe weather had passed but it would remain cloudy and windy the rest of the day. We took our time, getting our entry permit from the ranger station at about 8:30 and then proceeded to the Duluth Trading Company to procure thermal underwear on the advice of David. By 10:00 we were on the Gunflint Trail heading to our point of entry.
We arrived at Round Lake about one hour later to find that two duo-groups got there just before us and were attempting to put in. The sky was cloudy, the wind whistled, and the lake was boiling with whitecaps and 3-4-foot waves coming across the lake directly at the landing. The first pair, Rick and Laurel from Oregon, attempted to load their canoe with each wave depositing another 1-2 gallons of water in their vessel. We searched the immediate vicinity for a better launching position, but a light rain developed and we all decided to wait out the storm. Surely it had to subside soon as the severe weather had long passed by during the night. As the six of us stood at the landing studying the situation, a substantial dead tree fell immediately behind us. Just another portent that we should turn back. With the skies still cloudy but the wind abated to the point of no visible whitecaps, Andrew and I put the canoe in about an hour later and made our way across the lake. Within ten minutes, the wind picked up again, however, we had already reached the calm waters of the leeward side of the lake.
We passed through West Round Lake, Edith Lake and Brant Lake without incident in relatively calm waters. As we unloaded the canoe in preparation for the next portage, I realized that we had left our fishing rods two lakes back. Another indication that we should have turned back. We retraced our paddling, fetched our poles and proceeded through Gotter Lake and Flying Lake. As we portaged from Flying Lake to Green Lake, a large pine tree blocked the way. A group with three canoes had pulled out at Round Lake as we were waiting there, having traveled from Gillis Lake that day. This tree was undisturbed, meaning that it had fallen less than three hours ago after the others had already passed through on their way out. Perhaps another sign not to proceed. After making the mere 25-rod portage from Green Lake to Bat Lake, we found a tempest blowing 3-4 foot whitecaps directly at the landing. We stood there contemplating our next move; to wait it out or possibly make camp at the portage. We decided to make some dinner and wait it out. While waiting, Andrew noticed that the plug in the forward flotation tank was loose and spent a few minutes properly securing this important safety device. Without it, the front of the canoe would sink if swamped. We broke out our propane stove, boiled some water and ate a meal of reconstituted chicken alfredo. As we ate, Rick and Laurel caught up to us and within an hour the waters calmed. Rick and Laurel headed out first and we followed close behind them. We hoped for a camp sight on Bat Lake, however, all were filled to capacity so we pushed on to Gillis Lake.
Conditions on Gillis Lake were choppy with a few whitecaps, but we had managed worse in the past and earlier in the day. The first two campsites were in a blow-down area and left little protection from the elements so we decided to cross the lake, about a one-mile paddle almost directly into the wind. We were well over halfway to our destination when a squall instantly appeared. We only had 5-10 seconds after noticing the storm to when it struck us. The 30+ mile per hour blast with rain nudged the canoe to
starboard. As we countered to both paddle on the right, our weight shifted slightly and another gale force wind blew us over and into the frigid water of Gillis Lake.
You might think that my reaction would be to notice the instant cold, however, the shock of the suddenness of the event left me inured to the cold. My first thoughts were that we were going to die from hypothermia. The image of our bodies floating face-down in the water appeared in my mind. I next thought that this was how I would die and how it was so unfair to my 22-year-old son who still had so many life experiences to enjoy. Then I could plainly see my wife, Beth, answering the phone and being told that her son and husband had died in the Boundary Waters. Andrew called out to me, “What do we do?” I was in such shock to our situation, that I do not recall him saying that. The next thing I remember was Andrew’s composed and serene voice directing me to, “Calm down Dad.” Three times he repeated this mantra until it took hold and we began to “work the problem.” A paddle was three feet away and I let go of the boat to grab it and used every last fiber of strength to regain the canoe. We got on opposite sides of the canoe and three times attempted to climb in. Each time sitting on a seat caused the canoe to capsize. The fourth time, I got inside the canoe and sat on the bottom, or rather floated in front of the stern seat.
Our packs were secured to the canoe with the clasps of the waist straps. This was something that my father taught me on my first visit to the Boundary Waters over forty years ago. Because of the allocation of supplies within the packs, we would need all three to survive. The smallest pack with our lighter, broke loose three times as the clasp was not strong enough. I caught it twice and reclasped the belt. Andrew caught it the last time and used the straps to tie it to the canoe. Andrew suggested that we swim with the canoe for shore. I did not think I would be able to manage that. I knew that we needed to stay with the canoe and our equipment but found myself unable to express that opinion out loud. Andrew attempted to remove his boots to gain a more efficient kicking motion in the water. He got one off and it immediately sank to the bottom of Gillis Lake, but the other was double-knotted and he was unable to loosen it. About this time, Andrew lost hold of the canoe and he swam harder than he ever had before to regain the boat.
About now, Andrew spotted Rick and Laurel almost at the nearest campsite to the portage from Bat Lake. He began yelling “HELP!” and blowing the whistle on the small backpack that he just tied up. I tried to yell as well, however, only a meager croaking “help” was emitted, barely loud enough for Andrew to hear. For them to enter the still-roiling water would be to place their lives in jeopardy, yet they soon were back in the lake. They intended to toss us a line and tow us to safety. The wind caught them and they sped past us at a rate that I have never seen a canoe move and about 20 yards to the north. They were unable to turn their boat lest they also end up capsized.
We were left to fend for ourselves. The “work the problem” and never give up mentality set in. Andrew repeated several times, “We’re going to be okay” and “We’re going to make It.” Andrew pushed our one remaining paddle to me and held on with his armpit around the gunwale of the canoe. Floating in the back of the canoe with water up to my armpits, I paddled with every last ounce of power in my body. I paddled on the starboard side in big sweeping motions ending far behind the boat in an effort to point us to the northerly shore. Days later, after looking at the map, it became evident that my paddling had little effect on moving us to the north.
It merely accelerated our movement toward where the wind was pushing the boat. It became obvious that we could not make the nearest campsite and I aimed for a rock outcropping as Andrew kicked from the starboard side of the bow. Waves crested over our heads, especially Andrew whose head was about 12 inches lower in the water than mine. After approximately 30 minutes in the
40-degree water, we made landfall on the end of a substantial island. I think I was still paddling when Andrew told me to stop and get out. I looked up at him in disbelief and asked if he was standing up. I was becoming disoriented and my brain was shutting down. He repeated his instruction to get out of the canoe and I complied, however, I got out on the lakeside and had to walk around the stern to get to dry land. I don’t recall letting go of our last paddle, but it was probably then that it also drifted away. Cognitively, we were both in shock from the events that had just unfolded and the hypothermia that was taking over our numbed bodies. Thoughts and words both came slowly. The words we used were not always correct, however, we both knew what the other was saying.
Andrew, shaking from the cold, pulled the canoe halfway out of the water and onto the rock landing. Together, we pulled the canoe up a bit further, but the stern still bobbed in the water. Andrew immediately grabbed the clothes pack, loosened the clasp, and pulled it from the vessel. The pack was 50 pounds dry and must have weighed nearly 200 pounds full of water. Three times he asked for help before my slow-moving thoughts complied. We tugged the bag further up the hill in increments of 2 feet before we stopped and I continued walking up. Andrew continued to drag the pack along the ground. I was just standing there in a mental fog as Andrew three times gave directions to “get naked.” There we were in the most unusual circumstance that neither of us could have imagined. We were both standing before each other completely nude in the Boundary Waters, dripping wet, and with an air temperature of approximately 45 degrees. I never saw Andrew open the pack. He told me his hands were so cold that he could barely manage to make them obey his commands to open the pack. Andrew began tossing plastic bags from the pack and, the next thing I remember, he was trying to rip open the zip-lock baggies and handing me dry clothes. We were racing to put on the dry clothes. It is immensely difficult when hypothermic to find the correct hole in a t-shirt in which to place your head. Luckily, the still fierce wind instantly dried our bodies and the clothes slid on instead of getting stuck on the wetness. I managed to put on four shirts and a pair of jeans. Andrew donned three shirts, a pair of his sweatpants and a pair of my larger jeans over that. I never saw him grab the tarp. Before I knew what was happening, we were both laying on the ground wrapped up in the tarp holding onto each other. I was convulsing and shaking from the hypothermia which stopped after about 20 minutes.
Andrew left me wrapped in the tarp to go start a fire. He found the small pack, still in the canoe, and pulled out the lighter, but it would not light because it was saturated with lake water. I do not remember asking him to set up the tent, but he says I did. While profusely shaking, Andrew accomplished the task complete with a tent fly. He came back to the tarp to warm up. After a while, we were both warmed enough for another excursion into the cold. Andrew found the air mattress and I inflated it with the battery-operated blower. While doing this, Andrew made another attempt to light a fire. He retrieved the propane tank and small camping stove and used the now dry and flaming lighter. I heard a cry of exaltation as he celebrated the ignition of a campfire. I did not need any prompting to head for the new source of heat. By now, the moonless night had enveloped us, yet he was able to find enough sticks to maintain a small fire.
We warmed ourselves by the fire for several minutes, celebrating the warmth and realizing that we now had a strong chance of survival. I was all but useless, suffering from hypothermia and having pulled muscles in my hips, shoulders, and back during the paddle to landfall. Andrew rummaged through the packs to find more flashlights and the small lantern. He began chopping more dead branches for me to add to the fire. He was trembling so much from the cold that he had to use both hands to control the small 9-inch hatchet as he chopped sticks into kindling. He spent the rest of the night barefoot, collecting firewood. Our water bottles and water filtration system floated away in the disaster. Andrew decided to get a pot of water to boil so we could rehydrate. He needed help with the light as he approached the water’s edge. I feebly held the brightest flashlight as he dipped the pot into the lake. He headed back to the camp stove but I remained behind. I grabbed the bow rope, untangled it, and tied it off onto two trees as the canoe was still partially in the water and still bobbing to and fro with each wave. It was amazing that the boat was still there.
I began to shake uncontrollably again as the hypothermia surged back and I made my way back to the fire.
We watched as the pot of water began to simmer, steam, and finally boil. Andrew removed the pot, turned off the gas, and continued, still barefoot, to collect more fuel for the fire as the water cooled. Andrew finally held the cooling water, took a long sip, and handed it to me. We both exhaled in ecstasy as the warmth of the water ran down our throats, flooded our stomachs, and spread to the rest of our bodies. Half a gallon of warm water was gone in just a couple minutes. Andrew found our hooded water-resistant windbreakers and I hung them up to dry. I used the Velcro at the necks and wrapped them around two small pine trees. I then draped the shoulders over short boughs and we had our own scarecrow duo. The wind quickly dried the material, save for the neck area, and we now had another layer with resistance against the wind.
We huddled around the fire with Andrew periodically collecting more sticks. Even with a flashlight it was somewhat difficult to differentiate green wood from dead wood. Andrew grabbed one of the soaked sleeping bags and handed it to me. He must have hung it up because, although thoroughly wet, it was not dripping. I began to systematically hold up sections of the sleeping bag to the fire to dry it out, a process that took 1-2 hours. Andrew wanted to go into the tent to get some sleep, however, the mostly dry sleeping bag was not big enough for the both of us. I knew that staying awake and keeping the fire going throughout the night was our best chance for survival. Sleep would not be an option until the other sleeping bag was dry or help arrived.
At about 2:00 am, we both became drowsy and I watched Andrew nod off for a few minutes. The fatigue and aftermath of the adrenaline rush were taking their toll. I could feel myself about to fall asleep and was finally overcome with a sense that sleep was death because the fire would quickly die. I roused Andrew who thought of the root beer barrel candy that I bought at Frost River the day before. We munched on candy until the sugar took hold and we were able to continue. We also tried to eat some beef jerky, but our mouths were so dry it was like eating chalk and neither of us could eat more than one small piece. Andrew grabbed the other sleeping bag and I began to dry that as well.
At about 4:00 am, we could start to see that dawn was approaching and a little while later, Andrew returned to the lake for another pot of water. This time, he added the grape-flavored electrolyte mix and we enjoyed another rush of warmth and sugar. It didn’t taste very good and the grape flavoring was only enough to make it palatable, however, it did provide the nutrients our bodies needed to continue. At some point, Andrew provided me with two pairs of socks but he never had socks on the entire night until just before we left. I began to dry his Dude shoes by the fire. When we had daylight, perhaps 7:00 am, Andrew asked if I wanted breakfast and he made a skillet breakfast with eggs, ham, and potatoes. We dined out of the same bag with the same serving spoon. At about 8:00 am, Andrew began thinking about getting some help. He was able to see a tent at the nearest campsite and began yelling. They soon poked their heads out of the tent. Not long after, he noticed a large canoe in Gillis Lake. He grabbed my brand-new red Frost River sweatshirt that was still soaking wet, placed it on the end of a limbed tree, and began waving it in the air and yelling. The three men came over and I could hear the discussion from the fire where I lay. They were traveling light with only two packs and were on their way out. They would be at Tuscarora Lodge on Round Lake in 2-2 ½ hours (a trip that took us most of the previous day with double portages) and would get us help.
They offered to tow us out and Andrew explained that I could not manage the portages. They gathered a bundle of firewood for us and just as quickly departed for Tuscarora Lodge. Almost as soon as they left, Rick and Laurel appeared. They were in the tent that Andrew had spotted earlier. That night, they had seen where we landed and were relieved when Laurel finally saw that we had a fire. They asked what we needed and Rick pulled out his saw and began cutting larger-sized wood for our fire. Laurel began hanging all our soaking wet items on a line that Andrew strung. They stockpiled our wood supply and then returned to their camp for their dry sleeping bags and returned about 30 minutes later.
About noon, we heard an airplane flying overhead and Andrew began waving my red Frost River sweatshirt on the pole. Without the red, we were almost invisible in the dense green trees. I was still laying by the fire and could see Andrew’s back and the red sweatshirt flying back and forth over his head. Then I saw the airplane as the pilot tipped his wings to signal that he had seen us. He circled twice to determine the best landing approach. Soon, a roaring 1956 Beaver with its large rotary engine from the Ely Area Ambulance Service taxied to our makeshift campsite and cut its engine. Suddenly, we knew that we had survived our Brief Adventure. With a weight lifted and an immense sense of relief, we both broke down in tears. Amy, the EMT, came to the fire to ascertain my condition. I was stable but very week and could barely stand on my own. I needed assistance from both Amy and Joe, the pilot, to make my way down the rocks to the shore. The Beaver is a 4-place airplane with a small cargo area. We could only bring our small pack and any valuables.
The small pack contained about $10,000 worth of camera equipment but when Andrew heard to take our valuables, he grabbed our propane camp stove and put it in the carrying bag. He still can’t figure out why he thought that was valuable other than it was what saved our lives. I got on the plane with the assistance of Amy and Joe. Andrew was able to get on under his own power. With the onshore assistance of Rick and Laurel, Joe was at last able to cajole the airplane off the rocks and taxied out into Gillis Lake. In seconds we were airborne and on our way to the hospital in Ely, a 25-minute flight. Rick and Laurel remained at our campsite, packed our tent and belongings in the two remaining packs and placed it all under our tarp which was weighted down with small logs. Amy did her triage mid-air. My temperature was still low at 97.5 degrees, but I was not in serious trouble of hypothermia. She started an IV and was about to hook up a bag of saline until I told her that I need to pee really bad. Andrew’s temperature was normal at 98.7.
At Ely Bloomenson Community Hospital, we both had a full medical evaluation. We were both mentally exhausted and were having trouble with our thoughts and speech. Mine was severe enough to prompt a CT scan which showed normal. Other than slightly elevated levels of carbon monoxide from the campfire, we were healthy. The doctor told us the cognition problems were brought on by stress and fatigue and should rectify with plenty of rest and sleep. While still in the hospital, Andrew called my wife Beth, his mother, and her heart sank when she saw his name appear on his phone as she did not expect to hear from us for another 9 days. She was soon relieved when Andrew explained that we were both alive and in Ely. She dropped her work day and started the 4 ½ hour drive to northern Minnesota. Meanwhile, back at the hospital, staff was trying to figure out what to do with us. We were not going to be admitted and needed a place to go and a way to get there. There are no taxis or Ubers in Ely. After a short delay, it was determined that there was room at Grand Ely Lodge and that the Ely police would provide transportation. Andrew and I were escorted to the ambulance bay where a squad car awaited and Ely Police Chief Chad Houde greeted us. I thought this was a grand gesture even for a nine-man department. We soon found that the Chief of Police had no voice in his presence there as his wife, Jill, was our nurse. We grabbed some clean smoke-free t-shirts and sweatshirts from the lobby of the Grand Ely Hotel and were soon ensconced in room 324. After quick showers, we crashed into the beds and slept for 4 hours when Beth arrived from Chaska.
The following day, Thursday, we returned to Chaska. On Friday, I woke early and went to Fleet Farm to buy two new fishing poles and some lures. Then I went to the Waiting to Die Club and asked my friend, Jim Janis, to borrow his pontoon so that Andrew and I could enjoy that father and son time that we missed out on. I called Andrew at 11:30 to get him out of bed and told him my plans. We were to meet Jim at his boat slip at 1:00 pm. That afternoon, as we left our house in my wife’s convertible for a sunny day on Lake Minnetonka, Andrew plugged in his phone and the first song to come on in random order was, I Feel Like I’m Drowning by Two Feet. We enjoyed a grand sunshine day, Andrew drinking bear and me drinking root beer. We each caught one substantial fish which we cooked for dinner on our return home. Andrew contacted Sean, a Gunflint Trail guide, and contracted with him and two of his friends to retrieve our belongings and the canoe. They could not find any of the items that floated away, but had everything from the campsite at Tuscarora Lodge by that Saturday. Sunday, we returned to Round Lake to get Andrew’s truck and our belongings. We returned the canoe that was severely scratched from bobbing on the shore for many hours to Frost River in Duluth and headed for home that night. Nearly 700 miles of driving in one day.