On Thursday June 12th a group of Scouts on a trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness with the Northern Tier High Adventure Program were rescued by helicopter after their canoes capsized in a storm. Everyone survived, there were no major injuries.
I study incidents like this carefully because our troop has been doing canoe treks in Algonquin Provincial Park for nearly a decade. I was able to find an account of the incident described by the participants.
Thankfully these Scouts and Scouters were equipped with a satellite phone, a strobe light, and the presence of mind to use them. The group was accompanied by a guide from Northern Tier who played a key role in the rescue.
It’s all too easy to be a “Monday morning quarterback” when studying this incident, so I don’t want to offer any judgement of what happened (especially based only on newspaper accounts of the rescue). I will offer these thoughts before you read the account below:
The crew was apparently well equipped and responded to the emergency well.
They were wearing PFDs, which may sound like a no brainer, but it’s pretty stunning how many fatalities are owed to not wearing them.
They didn’t hesitate to summon help.
Without knowing the precise route it’s impossible to judge decisions the group made after the weather turned.
I’ll add that if you haven’t been in a canoe in open water with waves topping 3-4 feet you have no idea of what that’s like. What’s amazing about this incident was that two of three canoes remained upright, not that one capsized. Those conditions would challenge any skilled canoeist.
What this story reveals is the safety net of preparedness and common sense that we drill into ourselves and our Scouts averted any serious injuries or fatalities in a situation that could have easily resulted in both. Some bridle under what seems at times to be an excessively cautious approach, but they don’t appreciate the risk involved, how quickly things can go bad, or the fog of confusion and fear that overtakes us when they do.
Although they are published elsewhere I’ve removed all of the names of the Scouts and Scouters who were involved from the news account because I haven’t sought their permission to publish them. I have also included information from the rescuers that detail the incident.
A group of Scouts made national news after being rescued on Basswood Lake, north of Ely, Minn., Thursday evening (June 12).
It all began on a trip to the Northern Tier High Adventure Program, which is one of three high-adventure camps operated by the Boy Scouts of America.
After days of canoeing 10-to-15 miles a day and hiking with 80-pound backpacks and 85-pound canoes balancing on their shoulders, the group of scouts set out on Thursday coming from the Canadian side of the Boundary Waters and into the U.S. side.
“It started out sunny, just like every other day, but the weather got bad really quick. A light rain became a downpour, which came with heavy winds.”
The winds created three-to-five foot whitecaps, capsizing one of the scouts’ three canoes.
Spilling into the lake were a 55-year-old Scouter a 14-year-old Scout and a 50-year-old Scouter.
The guide for the troop, led the remaining two scout-filled canoes against the current (lakes don’t really have currents, so I imply “against the wind”) to a nearby island a few hundred yards away.
They arrived there safely, while the three in the lake held onto their sinking canoe and were being pushed further from land by the waves.
The guide recruited a 17-year-old scout identified by the guide as the strongest paddler in the troop, to paddle out with him in attempt to save the three scouts in the water.
They arrived at the capsized canoe and threw out a rope and they began to tow it. Instead of going to the close island, the guide decided it would be easier to try to tow the sinking canoe with the current to another island about a mile away.
The line pulled and the back end of the capsized canoe quickly began to dip below the water’s surface, pulling one Scouter underwater. The Scouter let go of canoe and was on his own.
“I looked at that close island and I knew I didn’t have a chance,” he said. “I started thinking about my family and if I would ever see them again.
“I had to put that feeling aside and try to get that other island about a mile away. I swam and looked up and didn’t think I was making any progress. I had those moments of panic, but I would purposely calm myself down. I couldn’t exhaust myself.”
Meanwhile, after rescuing the other two paddlers, the guide and the older Scout went back out in the stormy lake to search for the Scouter who was separated from the group.
They couldn’t find him and thought he had drowned.
The lost Scouter was hard to see in the waves, but he swam and drifted. He eventually got to the island that he thought he would never reach.
But, when he reached it, panic filled him again.
“The cold hit me so hard, I was shaking and I thought, ‘oh great now I made through the water and now the cold is going to kill me,'” he said.
In a panic he rushed into woods to get out of the wind, but remembered he needed to find the other canoe. He saw the canoe and trekked through the woods, over fallen trees, stepping over holes and stumps.
Eventually, he was reunited with the rest of the party. The group then huddled into a two-person tent until a dramatic water rescue by boat, plane and helicopter.
It wasn’t until 11 p.m., nearly 11 hours after the storm hit, that they were reunited back at the Boy Scout base camp. One Scout was treated for hypothermia at Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital. He ended up recovering.
The Scouts who initially made it to the nearby island assembled an emergency radio (a satellite phone is noted in other news accounts) and called for help.
Account from the rescuers:
The first call that the canoes were in trouble and missing came about 4:20 p.m. Within 30 minutes the searchers, using LaTourell’s Resort on Moose Lake as a base, found three of the missing canoeists near Canadian Point.
Barely a half-hour later the other five were spotted on land just north of Washington Island.
Two adults were spotted through the dense and tall tree canopy from the helicopter thanks to a strobe light they had along on their adventure. “It can be nearly impossible to find them without a strobe,” a rescuer remarked.
The float plane on the scene couldn’t get to the two because the waves were so high, and the state Department of Natural Resources “tried to land a boat [but was stymied] because of the rocky shoreline and the wave conditions,”
So they tried “shore hauling,” in which the helicopter hovered over the targeted area. The two Scout leaders swung at the end of the rope for a quarter-mile, strapped in and staring at the face of a rescuer and then delivered to a float plane that took them to safety, said one of the chopper’s crew members.
“Everyone was accounted for and safe” before 7 p.m., soon after, they were checked out at Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital.
From an article on NNCNOW.com
One rescuer recorded this video on his cell phone.
One of the Scouters involved in the incident contacted me after I published this story. Nothing in his account differs from what is published above. I did want to include his description of the response of the Northern Teir staff:
Upon our arrival (at base camp) we were taken to the cafeteria were we found that the entire kitchen staff had stayed on duty so that we could have coffee, hot chocolate and hot food. At the same time they made sure that each scout was taken to a phone so they could personally call their moms. The camp Chaplain provided prayers and offered counseling. We were given winter-rated sleeping bags and taken to a warm cabin. The incident began shortly after noon. It was approximately [11:00] PM when we made it back to camp. The entire administrative and cafeteria staff had remained on duty to be there for us.
The next morning, after a good night’s sleep and a hot meal we met with the base director for a debriefing during which each scout could talk about the ordeal. He knew that this would not only help him learn what happened, but would help each boy deal with what he had just been through.
I can not think of one thing that could be improved upon in the way that he and his staff handled the situation. He is a true leader and a “class act”.
Throughout the entire event there was nothing but words of encouragement and support. Never any judgement, never any criticism. We felt like we were with family – and indeed I guess we were!
I will forever be grateful for the quality of the program at Northern Tier, the professionalism and commitment of the staff.