Danger, Beware of Unaware
Hey it’s a nice sunny day in the great outdoors. What could possibly go wrong?
Below are a fraction of my actual BWCAW stories encountered from my 60 wilderness trips.
Story #1) “How are you doing?” I asked an oncoming paddler. “I was h-h-h-hit by l-lightning a c-c-c-couple nights ago and it m-m-m–messed up my n-n-n-neurons a b-bit”. Quick thinker that I am…”Wow, sorry” and we passed happily on, us out into the big lake with gathering clouds and he back toward the entry point and probably a doctor.
* Lightning strikes the ground unusually often in the BWCAW area because of the high iron and mineral content in the rock and soil. Lie on a good ground pad while sleeping and stay dry in the night storms. No paddling around the lakes in electrical storms.
Story #2) “ Stu (name changed) fell down and he cannot walk, he just falls down again.” This 18 year old was afraid I would not let him go on this BWCA trip with a badly sprained ankle so he didn’t tell me. Now he had fallen on a very steep portage trail (stair-step rocks). Slitting his pant leg I found that his knee had landed on a sharp rock and he was cut to the bone. Sliding down the trail on his leg with a canoe on top of him the rock had taken his muscle off the leg bone half-way to his ankle. The ground in debris didn’t allow it to bleed much. The skin had stretched down and then pulled partially back up toward the knee with a pocket full of nature.
Do you believe that everything is a coincidence? No one in that group does. It just so happened that a shaggy young man with a dog was at the bottom of the trail. He was a paramedic trainer at a University coming out of his three week solo trip. His car was an hour away parked in the brush at a new entry point off a logging road. We on the other hand were 17 miles and several portages from our entry point. He and I lugged out Stu to his car and drove him to be patched up (four hours of surgery). Mr. Wolf (I still remember his last name) took me back in the dark to a sorrowful group of teens I had left in the wilderness alone.
*Since that accident I have always had knowledgeable co-leaders. I also have beefed up the first aid kit. I find myself subconsciously monitoring the physical and mental condition of each team member throughout each and every trip.
On a side note: Stu went to the same University and tried to look up Mr. Wolf. He could not find anyone who knew someone by that name in that department. I’m sure there are logical explanations and a whole lot of illogical ones.
Story #3) My Co-leader did not tell me he was struggling with Diabetes.
First day: Full sun with a gentle breeze. I pushed the group of macho guys hard to get 12 portages and 17 miles into a great fishing lake. Bad sunburn for those too cocky to use sunscreen. My Co-worker was hurting and badly burned on the side of the leg. The sun’s rays had glanced off the inside of the bright silver aluminum canoe all day and cooked his leg. By day four he cannot walk with a pack and he now tells me he has diabetes and it was infected. I give the little man studs a map and tell them where we are and which lake to meet me on by the evening of the next day. I did all the paddling and portaging while angry at both of us for being so unaware of the danger to potentially all of us. I found the kids the next day after crossing big water, a long portage and paddling around a 3 mile lake for a red shirt hanging high to mark their spot. Seems they barely beat me there as they had to learn how to read a map and chase down other groups for directions. Now they were just kids, glad to see me as well as ready for more fishing and cooking lessons.
Story #4) “We lost one” said a sorrowful man I met lake-side of the portage trail. “He jumped in the back of the canoe with no paddle or life jacket in the river above the falls. The front end lifted up and he went into the falls and drowned”.
I was heart-broken for this close knit group of guys. I know the spot. It’s very dangerous because you need to push off the portage into the back water rather than the current. The problem is that it does not look dangerous. If you swim for it you better be good. The current is unusually flat (unseen) and fast. You end up in a tumbled log jam. The back water is not dangerous at all. It’s safe.
*Look twice in any unknown river situation. Study the currents. Don’t run rapids before looking it over (people do all the time…it’s a popular way to either die or come close). Do I really have to say “Wear your life jacket!!!” also do not get in a canoe without a paddle!
Story #5) Grab a cup of coffee or tea and find a nice easy chair. This long story cannot be told in short form.
7” of rain in 24 hours is life threateningly dangerous, anywhere. The day after those rains I lead a small group of teens and two youth leaders into the BWCA wilderness. We met a canoe going home with a wild story. Seems they were sleeping well in the rain until a flash flood came through their camp site and washed their tent (and occupants) into the lake. Fortunately the lake was shallow quite a ways out from shore (which is unusual in that area) and they were able to get out of the tent safely. On this beautiful sunny day who would have thought we would be put into a life threatening situation.
No danger here, Right?
From Birch Lake to Knife lake is a series of 5 portages up the river into Knife Lake (where Knife Lake Dorothy spent most of her life). I had cheated most of those portages a few times as the water is fast running but shallow. Dorothy would usually take one look at our wet clothes and say “I see you cheated the portages”. One can walk up the shallow river dragging the canoe much of the way (except for the sudden holes you fall in chin deep if you are tall). 7” of rain had now caused the portages to be under water by 4-5 feet with the rushing water foaming through all the surrounding forest. The water was so fast we could not pull ourselves through the portage by pushing and pulling off the trees. The big red ants had claimed a lot of the smaller trees and seemed miffed over their situation. After quite a bit of expressed ouches and a few painful screams we chose the woods. We portaged by handing our canoes and packs up and over a small cliff and bush-whacked through the woods to the forth portage. It was a lot of work but much safer. The last portage took us to a small pond below a now huge waterfall into a small pond where we had to cut across to portage #5 located on the Canadian side of the river. Each side of the pond had a good back-eddy going with a short but mighty surge of rushing, turbulent and extremely fast water. Our plan was to canoe up the back eddy and run with the rapids at an angle to cross into the back eddy on the other side. All life Jackets strapped on, all fishing rods secured to the canoe and away we went. I took lead and crossed safely, Canoe #2 and canoe #3 crossed well and then canoe #4 almost crossed safely but tipped as they were entering the back eddy. With life jackets on it was an easy but wet job to get everyone and everything to shore. The back eddy would almost grab and thrust you towards shore and back out again (whirlpool style).
We knew that two other groups were behind us and we watched a three-some (dad and two strapping college sons) get in their canoe. I yelled at them over the rushing water falls and rapids to strap on their life jackets and take the back eddy up to the falls to run the rapids at an angle. I think the adrenaline started flowing in my veins when the dad waved me off and yelled back “we know what we’re doing” while pushing off to head straight across the fast water.
Picture this: A foaming water fall coming into a pond with a 30 yard section through the middle of the pond being rolling fast water with 2-3 foot boiling waves of turbulent water. At the end of the pond the river drops away to a chute with higher waves and even faster water which dashes up against a huge boulder with some uprooted trees stuck against it. The only safe zone is the back eddies on each side. The woods on the sides of the chute were 4-5 feet deep in heavy enough current so the trees were bending and some uprooting. This was beyond dangerous and the dad was unaware. Their canoe rolled as soon as they hit the boiling water.
The boys were good swimmers and made it to some small trees on our side after hitting the first part of the chute. The dad couldn’t swim and found himself on a floating but sinking pack on the back eddy on the other side of the river from us. He was gradually drifting toward the chute. I’m guessing it took only a few seconds for him to realize he was going to die as his kids hung on to bent over trees on the edge of the chute calling out to him. He began saying his good-byes. There were tons of intense emotions in such a short span. This kind of experience changed us, at least for a while.
We do not know how we will react in life threatening situations. One of my staff sat on a rock crying as she had tipped her canoe and knew she was helpless. I heard the other staff pick up his canoe and mutter “the poor guy” and walked over the portage. I threw a paddle at the strongest teen and we had this conversation: “you are going to be a Ranger right?” “Yep!” “Now’s a good time to start, get in the canoe!” “You’re crazy!!” We ran the rapids to catch the dad and made the wild ride safely but the dad had given up. As we pulled up beside him I had to tell him we were going to let him hang on while we would drag him to shore. I watched him seem to almost coil as if to spring at the canoe and realized this big man would tip us quickly so I raised my paddle to knock him out if he did. He understood the gesture, came to his senses and just grabbed with one hand.
I had never tried paddling a canoe with someone hanging on to the edge. The current was dragging the canoe toward the edge of the chute faster than we could paddle to the closest shore. We pleaded with the rescued man to let go of his pack and he would not. At just the right time the 3rd group traveling this border river came through and formed a small human chain in the churning backwaters to us with an extended canoe paddle to my future “Ranger” teen in the front of the canoe. Grasping the canoe paddle we were pulled in by the group as the canoe swung around with our man within five feet of the ripples on the edge of the chute. Our adrenaline rush was complete as we once again paddled up the back eddy and crossed one more time to safety. The other highly competent group promised to oversee the rescued man. They rescued his canoe, emptied the water from his pack, made him unbuckle the life jackets from his canoe seats and reunited him with his sons in sad but fair shape.
Later on I figured out why the other group was so willing to take over. I was told I was not nice to the man after we rescued him. Because of the danger he had put us through, I guess I was rather loud and did some name-calling as well as informing him of his IQ and other little known facts not normally discussed in public. I had the shakes all that night from adrenaline loss. By morning I was perfectly fine until I saw a 500 pound bear (an unusually huge monster) thinking he was hidden behind a little spruce tree at 30 yards. I felt the familiar flow in my veins…I was invincible again. My bear stories are down the future blog road.
So play it safe!
*Avoid putting a canoe in rivers like I described. The only safe method of transport in this situation was a hot air balloon. Period.
Side note: I still have dreams vivid enough for adrenaline. One week after coming home I was at a camp. The guys all told me I was on top of my sleeping bag loudly rescuing people in a raging river at three AM. Funny guys, very funny; I would have remembered that.
Conclusion: It has taken me years to understand why some people have called me “wild man”. Sometimes I have been the idiot taking risks with myself and the group I was leading. Some-day I may write about nearly drowning myself and a friend. I could write many more stories where I did not come out as the hero or even a good guy. I would like to say I’m all better now but clarity of sight seems to get better with distance.
My take on the Easter Story: I realize some of my experiences may be a strong argument for there being a God, Guardian Angels, a purpose to the universe and other eternal discussions. Personally, with all my experiences and stories to tell, I have not changed nearly as immensely as the disciples of Jesus Christ who ran away and left Christ to die alone. After seeing the Jesus Christ who didn’t stay dead they became martyrs for their faith. Even those events do not account for the drastic change in what quickly became thousands of lives willing to die for This Jesus. It takes an act of God to change us inwardly. The account as recorded is true. I for one believe and am changed because of Jesus. That does not mean I don’t do dumb stuff now and then. So in all of life and in the spiritual realm…Beware of unaware.