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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

Close Call on Tiger Bay, Part II by Bert Heep

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 to travel?

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 show up.

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 somebody came.

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 night.

Weather 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.


--article courtesy of

Sans Souci Winter Sojourn

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