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Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

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Boundary Waters Magazine.com

Close Call on Tiger Bay by Bert Heep

At about ten P.M. on October fifth, my wife, Diane, and I came as close as we have ever been to dying. We were snug in our tent, camped at a neat site on the west end of Tiger Bay on Lac La Croix. It was a perfectly still night; not a breath of air. It was cold. It was snowing. We could hear the snowflakes hitting our tent. Earlier that day the rain had turned to snow and it ended up being the kind of day you expect in November; as winter is starting to make itself known. In the stillness of that cold snowy night, something happened that we will never forget. And hope to never experience again.

Diane and I had looked forward to this trip with a great deal of anticipation. This was the first time we were able to get away for an extended trip since our Summer of 2000 Adventure, when we paddled for four months. We were anxious to load up our trusted Wenonah Minnesota II canoe and head for the Quetico wilderness. We had some new country to explore. We flew into Beaverhouse Lake on September 23rd, still numb from the horror of September 11th, and looking forward to the healing solitude that we knew would be ours.

Because of September 11th our flight service out of Canada was not able to fly into U.S. airspace. So instead of catching our flight to Beaverhouse here in Ely we had to drive to Crane Lake, get a shuttle to the Sand Point Customs Station, and meet our pilot there. The customs agent asked us a few more questions than normal. A sign of the times.

We took the short flight to Beaverhouse, put a check for our overnight camping fees in the drop box (the Ranger Station was closed for the season), threw our packs in the canoe and we were paddling toward the portage into Quetico Lake before noon. This was familiar country to us, but the middle portion of our route would take us to places that we had not paddled. We had two full weeks to do this trip, which could have easily been done in half the time. So we anticipated a leisurely pace with plenty of time for layovers and short paddling days. Plenty time to explore, do a bit of fishing, and savor the country that we love so much.

Our intended route was to paddle east through Quetico Lake, drop down into Jean, Burntside, and the west end of Sturgeon Lake. From there we would head southwest on the Maligne River, back east along the creek into Poohbah Lake, exiting through Wink Lake, back to the Maligne, on to Tanner Lake, out past Twin Falls, skirting south of Bell Island into Lac La Croix, south on La Croix to the Tiger Bay area, through Lake Agnes and out to the Echo Trail via the Moose River.

The lure of a fall canoe trip is the prospect of warm sunny days, cool nights, no bugs, a splash of fall color, and few people. Of course, there is no guarantee that you will be blessed with all of these. There is always the chance of cold, rainy, windy, and even snowy weather if your trip is late enough. Diane and I chose September 23rd thru October 6th, and boy, did we hit it right! After the first day, which was very cold with a strong 20 - 25 mph wind out of the north, we had eight of the most beautiful days that one could hope for. It was absolutely spectacular!

We had day after day of cloudless blue skies, warm temps, gentle breezes, and clear nights that kept on getting better as the moon waxed toward full. The night sky put on a show for us every evening, and the final act was a full moon coming up over Poohbah Lake right into our campsite. It looked like a golden path across the water from our site straight to the moon! In fact, it got so warm one day that we actually had a bit of trouble with mosquitoes at a campsite on Wink Lake.

We found a wonderful campsite on the east end of Quetico Lake that was so nice that we had to take a layover day, even though we had just started the trip. As we paddled through Conk, Jean, Burntside and into the west end of Sturgeon we saw country that we had paddled during our Summer Adventure of 2000 and the memories made us talk about another summer long paddle soon.

When we left Sturgeon Lake and started paddling down the Maligne, we were in new country. This is always the fun part for us, because we love to paddle waters we have never seen before. The anticipation of what is around the next point or what the portages will be like always adds a level of excitement to our trips.

Our paddle down the Maligne was pleasant, even though the water levels were low. Heading east down the creek into Poohbah Lake we soon discovered that we were in for a long afternoon. Some spots in the creek were so low that we had to walk the canoe to avoid scraping bottom, and because the McKenzie and Fisher maps are a bit "inaccurate" on this stretch, it took us much longer to get into Poohbah than we anticipated.

We finally made it into Poohbah and found a great campsite. Our plan was to layover for two or three days; do some fishing, explore the lake, and check out all of the portages going in and out of the lake. After checking out all of the portages, the conclusion that we reached was simple; if you want to get into Poohbah, there is no easy way! I am sure that when the water levels are up, going in via the creek is not too bad, but the other entries are either very difficult or downright ugly. So, if you want to get into Poohbah you really have to want to.

There must have been a bad storm that passed through the area last summer, because the portage on the west end of Poohbah going into Wink Lake was very difficult to find. Right where the portage was supposed to be, a large segment of the shoreline was a jumble of fallen trees, so the landing and first section of the portage was invisible. As we paddled slowly along the shoreline, where we thought the portage should be, I looked carefully through the leaves, hoping to catch a glance of the trail as it ascended the ridge. I spotted what looked like a faint trail, got out and scampered over several large white pines and fallen debris, and sure enough, there was the portage. Hopefully portage crews will get in next spring and work on this one.

We left Poohbah, headed back to the Maligne, and paddled through Tanner Lake, continuing southwest down the river, until we got to the Twin Falls area. We were impressed with the beauty of this area, and found one of those 5 star campsites just east of the falls. Another layover day was in order. Like I said, this was an easy trip! We used this opportunity to take a day trip down to Minn Lake and check out a portion of the Darky River.

Then the weather started to change. It was getting much cooler, clouds were moving in, and we started getting periods of rain and wind. We only had three days left in the trip, so we were not too concerned. After all, we could not expect 14 days of perfect weather. Could we?

On Friday morning, October 5th, we awoke to a heavy gray sky that threatened rain if you breathed too hard. As we paddled up to Twin Falls we stopped to watch a mother and two baby otters frolicking in the reeds along the shore. They were chasing each other and were totally oblivious to us. They made a very loud bird-like chirping sound we had never heard before. We also saw a ruffed grouse and a mink. What a treat!

As we skirted the southern side of Bell Island we found ourselves paddling into a very strong wind from the west, northwest. It started spitting rain and was quickly becoming the kind of day that you made you wish you were sitting in a small cabin in front of a cozy fire with a good book and a cup of tea. The unspoken question we both had was what we would find on the open water of Lac La Croix. We knew there would be some wave action for sure. Just before coming to the big water we pulled over to stretch our legs, put on a layer of fleece under our rain gear, and take a bathroom break. Through a narrow gap we could see low hanging fog and whitecaps rolling down the lake. Suddenly, the rain turned to snow! Big white flakes. Diane and I looked at each other, wide-eyed, and exclaimed, "Can you believe this?"

Paddling in a westerly direction, hugging the shoreline as much as possible, we were being pelted with alternating squalls of snow, rain, or sleet. At times it was coming down so hard we could hardly look up. The pellets of ice/snow stung our faces, and as we leaned into the wind, the low banks of fog flying by made us feel as if we were standing still. It seemed to take forever, but we finally reached Eastbend Island and were able to turn south and find a bit of shelter from the wind. When we had to come out from behind the protection of the islands we had a strong wind and waves coming in on our right flank; much harder and more dangerous than hitting them head on. At times we had to tack back and forth in a zigzag pattern.

Our original intention was to camp somewhere around Coleman Island. I suggested to Diane that we keep paddling and head down to the Tiger Bay area. Sometimes, if the conditions are miserable, it is better to keep paddling and put some miles behind you in hopes that if the weather improves, you can then enjoy a nice layover day. We did not have to be out until Monday, October 8th, so we had plenty of time.

We paddled south through alternating fog, snow, rain, and short periods of sunlight. We paused briefly to check out the pictographs on the north end of Irving Island. Always incredible! Pictographs never fail to stir our emotions. As we coasted into Tiger Bay, heading to the campsite tucked on the western shoreline, we were tired and anxious to get our tarp up and have a warm bowl of soup and a cup of tea. The site was sheltered but the wind still whipped around and we found ourselves getting chilled. It was raining steadily now and we wondered if it would turn to snow later on that night, as it got colder.

We put up our tarp, heated some water for tea and soup, and were glad to be home for the night. We had traveled about 18 miles, were very tired, and the plan was to put up the tent as soon as there was a break in the rain, get into our sleeping bags and call it a day. About five P.M. we had the break we were looking for; it was getting dark and we knew the rain would pick up again. There were two possible sites for the tent and either one would work. We picked the one that seemed more level and had our "house" up in no time. I thought about lowering the tarp in case the rain did turn to snow, but ended up just tightening the ropes and calling it good.

In our tent, snuggled into our bags, we wrote in our journals, looked at the maps and talked about our plans for the next three days; and read until our arms got cold and our eyes heavy. The rain did turn to snow. We could hear the change in sound as the flakes softly fell on our tent. We were warm and secure; a good feeling. Our tent is a Moss Little Dipper; a four-season tent that we knew could withstand the weight of the snow without problem.

I was startled by a loud crack! I immediately thought of our tarp. "I bet the tarp pole cracked", I told Diane. I could just picture our tarp laden with s now; the weight too much for the small pole I had used. Normally, I will look for a fallen spruce or pine, good and sturdy, to use for our center tarp pole. This night, I had just grabbed a small dead spruce that was only about two inches in diameter at the base. I got out of my bag, unzipped the front door and peeked out. I wanted to see how much snow we had anyway. I shined my headlamp on our tarp and though it was sagging a bit, everything was fine. It must have been a cracking branch that made that noise. The snow was starting to accumulate and the ground was white. It was not melting now; the ground had finally gotten cold enough. I debated about getting out to lower the tarp but the call of my warm bag won.

We turned out our lights, talked for a while, and lay there listening to the sound of snowflakes landing on our tent. Soft little sounds. There was not a breath of air. No loons crying. Silent. Soon, we drifted off to sleep. CRACK!!!! My eyes were open immediately. In the next instant, in the pitch dark, I felt our tent collapse around us as a tree fell across my chest pinning Diane and me to the ground. I can still feel the sensation of the weight of that tree on my chest. I can still smell the odor of wet bark that permeated our fallen tent. I can still feel the cold snow hitting my face. I can still feel the rush of cold air into our tent. I can still remember the feeling of shock as the reality of what had happened took hold in my mind. I can still hear the sound of raw fear in my voice as I cried out "Diane, a tree fell on us!"

Those few seconds, are so forcefully imprinted in my memory, that I can close my eyes and resurrect all of those feelings immediately. I know that the from the time I heard that loud crack, to the time that tree fell on us, was only two seconds; three maximum. Crack. One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand. In an instant, life is different. Life is fragile. The powers of nature are so much bigger than we are, and nature is no respecter of persons.

In disbelief and shock, with adrenaline being pumped into my body, I started talking out loud about what we needed to do. I probably did this to reassure Diane that we were going to be ok as well as helping me to move into a course of action.

I asked Diane if she was ok. Her voice was trembling, but she said she was OK. I fumbled around until I found my headlamp. I tried lifting the tree off of my chest but was not able to budge it at all. I felt this stabbing pain on the left side of my chest and thought, broken ribs, but quickly realized that this was not the case; not enough pain for that. I began to squirm out from underneath the tree.

Getting out of a sleeping bag is a challenge for me in normal circumstances. Doing so with a collapsed tent and a tree across my chest must have been a sight. I finally squeezed out, struggled to unzip our back door, crawled into the vestibule, pulled on my rubber boots and put on a fleece pullover; all this time, talking to Diane, giving her a running litany of what I was doing so she would not be any more frightened than she was.

I unzipped the vestibule door and stumbled to my feet. It was cold and there was a good layer of snow covering everything. I tried lifting the tree off of Diane, but could not do it, just too heavy. I felt as if everything I was doing was in slow motion and I was observing all of this as from a dream. I quickly found the pack that I knew contained our saw, and as I was cutting the tree, I was shocked to realize how big it was. I would later measure it and discover that it was a 12" diameter white pine.

I have a Sawvivor camp saw and I knew that I would not be able to make one cut from the top all the way through. So I sawed as far as I could and then had to come up from the bottom. Suddenly, Diane let out a loud cry that made me think the tree was hurting her. I asked her if she was OK, and she started crying. I tried to reassure her. "Honey, we'll be ok. Don't worry". She then told me that she was looking at a large branch that had poked through the tent and had just missed, by inches, the spot where my head would have been. Another branch had just missed her thigh. I was busy doing things and she was just pinned there so it was no wonder she was scared. She was having time to process just how close we had come to dying.

Finally I was through the tree and I lifted it off of the tent and Diane. Amazingly the tent popped back up a bit. The Moss Little Dipper has four equal length poles that slide through sleeves giving it great rigidity and strength. Three of the four poles were busted, but the sole survivor was enough to make the tent pop up enough so we could spend the night in it. I threw an emergency tarp over the tent and tied down the four corners. At least we would stay dry in our tattered shelter. The snow was continuing to fall. We had a long night ahead of us.

As I walked around the tent, surveying the damage, I glanced up at our canoe, which I had brought back into the campsite. The tree that had fallen on us was lying parallel to the canoe, and when I went to get a closer look I discovered that there was literally only an inch between the two. The fallen tree had come within inches of smashing our canoe as well. My mind began to race with "what if" scenarios. I began to notice the chill, so I headed back to tent.

Diane was doing her best to bring order to the chaos. She was cleaning up the snow, bark, branches and other debris that littered the inside of our tent. We talked and tried to understand the reality of our nightmare -come-true. We could not believe that this had happened. We were grateful to be alive. We offered prayers of thanks for being spared. We thought of our girls. We hugged each other and cried. Diane took a sleeping pill and asked me if I wanted one. I refused. I was afraid to sleep.

Soon Diane's breathing became slow and measured and I knew she was asleep. I was glad. I lay there with my eyes wide open; afraid to close them. I listened. I could hear the snow falling on our shelter. I listened. I re-lived all that had just happened, breaking it down in my mind, seconds stretching out into minutes. I kept on hearing the loud crack and picturing that tree falling toward our tent; feeling the sensation of weight on my chest. It would be a long night. My chest hurt and now that the adrenaline was wearing off I found it hard to move and I could not find a comfortable position. I listened. All night I listened for another crack! Would I be able to carry the packs and canoe tomorrow? Would I be able to paddle? Sleep did not come easily and, when it did, it was fitful and short.

At five A.M. it was still pitch dark and cold, but I could not lie there one minute longer. I sat up and began to get dressed. Diane stirred and I told her that I had to get up. We took our time getting dressed and packing up our gear. As we stiffly crawled out of the tent there was a faint glow in the east.

Everything was covered in ice and snow. It was beautiful. Our tent was smashed, and we were shaken, but we were alive and the world around us was beautiful. Beauty is a constant in canoe country but it was something to be savored on this morning.

We made short work of packing and were saddened as we packed our tattered tent. It was like an old friend. We could set it up blindfolded. We would miss it. Sure, we could get a replacement, but this tent had stories. This was the tent that we used on our four month Summer Adventure 2000.

As we paddled out that day we began to see people. We had hardly seen anyone for the whole trip. Normally, we like to chat with folks we meet on the trail, but not today. We were subdued and did not feel like talking to anyone; and we did not want to talk about what had happened. That would come in time.

To read more about Bert and Diane's adventure, please see Close Call, Part II.

 

--article courtesy of BoundaryWatersMagazine.com

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