Call on Tiger Bay, Part II by
Wow! That's my response after getting flooded with responses to the
first part of this article. I was overwhelmed with the number of
folks who wrote to say that they were moved by the account of our
experience on Tiger Bay last October.
I think that those of us who love canoeing in wild places always do
so with respect and a healthy fear, so when somebody comes close to
death in this way, it touches a chord in all of us. Many of you shared
your own ''close calls''... thanks for sharing your stories. I was
reminded again, that everyone has a story, I just happen to have the
context in which to share mine.
Looking back over the experience I have seen several ironies emerge.
We had been out for almost two weeks, and had some of the most beautiful
weather we could have hoped for. One afternoon, on a beautiful island
site on Wink Lake, we sat in the sun and soaked up the smell of white
pine needles and watched the sun sparkle on the incredibly blue water.
We had just finished lunch and were in no hurry to break the spell, so
we lingered and talked. As we jumped from one topic to another we
started talking about what Diane should do if anything ever happened to
me. What if I fell and broke my ankle or leg, what if I dropped over
dead from a heart attack, what if I got violently ill and was not able
We discussed the various scenarios and talked about the pros and cons
of Diane staying put and waiting for help to come or trying to make it
out on her own. We realized that there is never only one right response;
there are many factors that have to be considered in making the ultimate
decision. What time of year is it? Are we in a secluded area or are we
seeing people go by? How many more days are left until we are expected
out? If I died, how should Diane go about traveling alone, or should she
stay put? What should she do with my body? How would she carry the
canoe? What stuff should she take and what should she leave behind? How
should she load the canoe to make sure it is well trimmed? Most of the
time we concluded that the best thing for Diane to do would be to stay
put and wait for help to come. We always let someone know our
approximate route plan and when we expect to be home. It might take a
while, but eventually someone would come looking for us if we did not
We concluded that while not pleasant to think about, it is important
to talk about these things. To have a plan and know what should be done
so that the emotion of the moment does not end up paralyzing us in fear
or result in foolish choices that can make things worse. This topic
deserves another article sometime... I'll make a note to do that!
The irony of that afternoon's conversation is that we never expect
these things to happen to us. We really don't. These kinds of things
happen to others, not us. This time, something did happen to us. Sitting
in the sun on a beautiful island discussing scenarios is a lot different
than the raw fear that envelops you when the ''what ifs'' become
reality. But, it was important to have talked ahead of time.
Another irony is that we had discussed moving from that particular
site. As you recall, we had arrived tired and cold and were anxious to
set up camp and settle in. As we did so, Diane mentioned the possibility
of traveling a bit further to the ranger cabin that is located a few
miles from Tiger Bay. Diane, in recalling the moment, says that it was
not an intuitive feeling that something was wrong about staying at Tiger
Bay, but somehow the thought of being near the cabin was comforting.
Well, we were tired and opted to stay put. Ironic. If we had moved, we
would never have known about the tree that fell at Tiger Bay. We would
still have our Moss tent, and I would not be writing this story.
The final irony is a great one. Our future son-in-law works for the
Forest Service as a wilderness ranger. His district happens to be the La
Croix District, which is responsible for the Tiger Bay area. After Tom
heard about our experience he told us some details that made us shake
our heads. Early in the canoeing season the Forest Service sends out
crews to clear portages of trees that have fallen during the winter
months, check out campsites, and identify hazard trees that need to be
cut down. In his early trip that year, Tom had been to most of the sites
in the area and had made note of several hazard trees that would need to
come down. Throughout the season, as crews do their maintenance work,
they keep records of the hazard trees that are eliminated at the various
campsites. He remembers visiting the site we stayed at and had noted a
few trees that needed to come down. He also remembers talking to another
Ranger and realizing that of all the campsites he had scouted out, and
all of the trees that he had earmarked to come down, our site on Tiger
Bay was the only site they did not get to. How is that for irony? My
future son-in-law, ultimately responsible for our near brush with
death!! Do you think I will ever let him forget that?
In addition to these ironies, I have found myself reliving the entire
experience over and over and asking myself several questions. Did I do
anything wrong? Was I negligent in anyway? Could I have done anything to
prevent what happened? What would we have done if our canoe had been
smashed? What if we had been pinned and unable to get out from under the
tree? What could Diane have done if I had been killed? Did I have the
right kind of equipment to deal with the situation? The big question...
why did that particular tree fall?
When Diane and I arrive at a potential site we check it out to see
how it measures up. You know, the typical kind of things... good tent
pad, high elevation, beautiful pines, good view, cleanliness of the
site, open or protected... depending on the weather, and so on. I also
look to see if there are any dead trees that are hung up or standing
dead trees that are ominously close to the tent pad. These trees that
are hung up are called ''widow makers''... graphic imagery!
When we got to Tiger Bay that night we were tired. It had been a long
day and we had covered 18 miles in wind, snow, and rain. So, we were not
as ''fussy'' as we can be sometimes. As we went about the process of
setting up camp we discovered that there were two tent pads. We chose
the one that looked most level. Bad choice eh? The lesson learned from
this experience is that the worst tent pad is the place to pitch your
tent! :-) Just kidding. I specifically remember glancing around for
dangerous looking trees. Nothing. The ultimate culprit was 35 to 40 feet
away, almost hidden by another tree and standing perfectly straight. So,
did we do anything wrong? I don't think so.
I don't think we were negligent, however, this experience will assure
that we will check even more carefully trees immediately around the tent
pad. I have joked with friends here in Ely, that from now on, everyone
will be able to tell where Bert and Diane have camped... there will be
no trees within a 40 foot radius of the tent pad! A cross cut saw will
be a required piece of equipment on all future trips. You know those
circles they find in grain fields? Alien activity? Well, they have been
landing their flying saucers in canoe country lately. That must explain
all of those treeless circles through out the BW.
Remember how close the tree came to smashing our canoe? Picture a
canoe lying upside down. Now picture a large white pine lying right next
to it with barely an inch between them. That's how close we came to
losing our canoe. Afterwards we speculated about what we would have done
had the canoe been smashed. I know Kevlar is tough and duct tape is
incredible stuff, but it might have been beyond repair. It would have
been a good challenge to see if we could have come up with a seaworthy
craft; but when you need to paddle out and your have no canoe, there are
not a lot of options. It probably would have been a long wait until
someone came looking for us. We were not due home for three days and we
had not seen anybody for several days. It was October 6th and there
aren't a lot of people tripping at this time. Another irony... October
6th is my birthday!
If Diane or I had been killed or severely injured, it most certainly
would have been a more harrowing experience. For either one of us to
deal with the other's death would have put us to the ultimate test. I
think, that though traumatized, we would have made it. We do what we
have to do. We had a fair amount of food, plenty of water, and we had
shelter. It would have been a nightmare, but we would have made it until
With regard to equipment, I learned some lessons. I will NEVER travel
in the wilderness without a collapsible saw. Even with the adrenaline
flowing I was not able to lift the tree off of Diane. A hatchet or ax
would have worked, but it would have been a slow process. The saw was
indispensable. There are several types on the market, so make sure you
take one, and know where it is. It is not a bad idea to keep it easily
accessible even on portages. You never know when you might need to do
some clearing along the way.
I also recommend that you bring a small emergency tarp... the thermal
blanket type are very handy. Diane and I have often quickly strung ours
up when stopping for lunch on a rainy day. I threw ours over the gaping
holes in our tent that night and it kept us dry the entire night. Again,
keep it handy and know where it is. You don't want to be digging around
in packs in the middle of the night.
I always keep a headlamp or flashlight within reach in our tent. It
really helped that night to be able see what I was doing as I crawled
out of the tent and dealt with the situation. I also keep a Nalgene
bottle of water next to my head at night. I often wake up during the
night and am thirsty. If Diane and I had been pinned and not able to get
out, it would have been a lifesaver to have that water nearby. I have a
small fanny pack that I keep within reach as well. It contains an
emergency whistle and some Power Bars in a zip lock bag. Again, if we
were pinned, periodically blowing the whistle could alert another
canoeist. And eating a Power Bar in the tent would have been acceptable
in those circumstances right?
We did not need it that night, but a good first aid kit is a must
item when you pack for a trip. Most often we never even use our first
aid kits, but travel without a complete one is foolhardy. Something else
I would suggest is an orange flare. If a plane is flying by, it is a
surefire way to get the pilot's attention.
Several people have asked if we had a cell phone. We did not. At
best, the reception is spotty in most of the BW and Quetico. I struggle
with the wisdom of bringing one along and most often will say that they
should be left at home. This is a very subjective opinion and you should
do what makes you feel comfortable. However, don't fall into the trap of
thinking that ''instant communication'' can ever replace good wilderness
skills and sound decision-making.
Earlier I mentioned duct tape. A good repair kit is also a must on
any well-equipped trip. Duct tape, some wire, extra screws for your yoke
pad and thwarts, and a good multitool are minimal.
Now, the big question that I have been asked more often than others.
Why did the tree fall? The answer... I don't know and probably never
will. There was not a breath of wind that night. It was perfectly still
all night. If you have spent any amount of time in the wilderness you
know the feeling of lying in your tent listening to the wind howl like a
freight train and wondering if you will be crushed by a falling tree. We
normally don't think of that when it is dead calm like it was that
wise it had been a strange day. Snow mixed with rain and freezing rain
all day. Was there a build up of weight on an already weakened tree?
Could be. There were not a lot of branches on this tree, but there could
have been snow build up on the windward side. I think the most likely
reason was ice build up from freezing rain/snow. We had heard a loud
crack earlier in the evening, thinking it was the tarp pole, but it most
likely was the tree starting to give and crack under the weight.
Well, I have probably milked all I can out of this experience, but
let me close with a few words about how this has changed me. I say me
and not us, because I don't want to speak for Diane on this level. In
fact, I think it affected me differently than Diane. She was able to
move on sooner than I was and she did not struggle as much as I did
during the days immediately afterwards. I am the kind of person who
displays emotions easily and openly. For weeks after the experience I
could hardly talk in any detail about it without tearing up. And if I
was telling the story to someone else who was as emotive as I am, I
would cry pretty easily.
I had flashbacks for several weeks. I could close my eyes and be back
in that tent in an instant. I relived hearing that crack and the feeling
of raw fear as I realized that a tree had fallen on us. I had a hard
time sleeping at night, so much so, that when I crawled into bed and
turned out the lights, I would feel fearful and not want to close my
eyes. It sounds dramatic, but it's true.
I began to wonder if I would be able to go canoeing and camping
again. Would I be too afraid? How would I handle lying in the tent
hearing the wind blow? How would I react during a heavy thunderstorm?
Well, I am ok now. I think even writing about it has helped. I look
forward to getting out again this year. We are planning a two-week trip
this May and I can't wait. The jury is still out on how long I stay in
the tent during my first big thunderstorm, but I think I'll make it. :-)
I can always hold Diane's hand.
One final thought. I think that most of us have changed since the
terrible events of September 11th. I know I have. That, coupled with our
brush with death, has made me more grateful for everyday that I have. It
has reminded me of how special and wonderful life is. It has made me
more determined to live my life well and fully. It has reinforced the
importance of family and friends... I cherish them all. It has helped me
prioritize a little better lately and choose the important things, not
just the urgent ones. Finally, it has strengthened my faith. Many people
have commented that God was with us and protected us. He most certainly
was. I also believe that God would have been with us even if we had
died. He would have just taken us home a bit earlier than we had hoped!
Again, I welcome your comments or questions. firstname.lastname@example.org