BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
September 22 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 11
Elevation: 1802 feet
Sawbill Lake - 38
Nightmare on Beth, but alls well.
June 26, 2023
Number of Days:
This was my perspective, I’m sure other members of our party have different memories and experiences. This is mine.
The days leading up to this trip made it feel like it would be an epic one. My son Grant "Timber" is in his first summer as a crew member at Sawbill, and he was excited for his first vacation and to share all he had learned with his old man. I had scored Taylor Swift tickets for my wife and two girls for Christmas, and the date landed on the Friday of the weekend we usually paddle in. They described the experience as "life changing" - and all were pumped to listen to TS all the way up to Sawbill. Weather looked a little iffy - but it was clearing, was cool and we were in great spirits. We enjoyed the Sawbill shop, roasted smores and hotdogs, enjoying a campfire in the campground before we entered the Fire Ban area. Last year's family trip to Stuart was a little hairy - and we got wind-bound on Stuart so we had to do that cursed portage twice. This time would be easy and relaxing, we told ourselves...
We figured we would paddle by the island campsite on Alton to see if it was open, otherwise we'd head to Beth. The kids wanted to fish, swim, jump off rocks...and the adults were ready to turn our brains off a bit, read, paint, fish...the usual. The island site was taken, so we continued on to Beth. Bugs were bad on the portage but otherwise seemed normal. The first few sites on Beth were taken, but the one we hoped for in the NW corner was open...perfect! Good breeze, no bugs, we rested, ate spaghetti, took a quick dip, and with the campfire ban retired early to bed. We were slightly tired, but it wasn't too hard of a day at all. Each of our girls had a friend along on the trip - and my wife's cousin ("S") and her daughter ("E) were with us. They had traveled from CT, this was their 5th or 6th trip. My wife was trying out a Hennessy Hammock for the first time. I quickly drifted off to sleep in mine.
Sometime around 4:15-4:30 am I woke with a start - I thought I heard screaming. My wife, 10 feet away, said it was coming from her cousin's tent. I heard her scream "mommy, mommy, mommy, WAKE UP!" I don't remember how but I was in that tent in a flash. E was rocking back and forth in fetal position in the corner, and S was locked up in a seizure, foaming at the mouth. It is hard to separate your head from your heart in emergencies like this. I had taken Wilderness First Responder training decades ago, and remembered I could only try to keep her safe and comfortable, and make sure the airway was clear. She had a mouthpiece she wore at night, but it was clenched safely in her teeth and I didn't want to attempt to remove it and risk her choking on it. My wife and daughter got E out of the tent and into the Bugout, where my daughter was consoling her. Grant fired up the Zoleo app and through their medical chat option, we began communicating while I sat with S. I asked for the time to get an idea of duration of seizure and we figured it lasted about 20 minutes. We decided to hit the SOS button on the Zoleo which sounds like a rocket about to blast off.
We decided that Grant would paddle my wife and E out to follow the ambulance, then return either the same night or in the morning. The EMTs arrived in camp around 9am, they were very professional, straightforward, kind and knowledgeable. We had E and others pack up all their stuff, so they would have it and so we wouldn't have to portage all their gear as well. The medical crew and S paddled off, followed shortly by Grant, my wife and E. The teenagers and I just stood around for a bit, stunned by what had happened.
That day and the three that followed are a little blurry. We got sporadic updates from Grant, my wife, and my brother. Winds picked up, Grant was exhausted, and he wisely decided to crash at Sawbill and return first thing in the morning. The EMT's, as they were packing up, told Grant that her condition was deteriorating rapidly so they flew her out of Tofte. All our hearts sank but I was especially worried about him - without either parents after trauma like that. I am grateful for my brother, who called him later that night to help him process and check-in, and the teens and I talked a lot about what had happened. It was good to talk though our emotions and support each other. We stress ate a lot of snacks. We wanted to try to salvage as much of the trip as we could for the kids, one of which - was in the BWCA for the first time. We paddled to the rocks on Beth and the kids achieved stress-release through jumping into the water on the famous Beth "cliffs" (with life jackets and shoes, of course). They asked why I wouldn't jump in...to which I responded, "well, I'm the only adult left...let's not tempt fate, shall we?" All agreed, and they were especially careful the whole trip. We came back to camp as a thunderstorm rolled in. We fished, swam, played cards, ate a lot of snacks...and dodged torrential rainstorms in our tents and the Bugout. We found that an XXL rainsuit, when pulled tightly around both your bare bum AND the privy, creates a blissful barrier against mosquitos (this would be dubbed the "pottycoat", but said in a British accent like "petticoat"). In a bad British accent: “Daaaddy, do you have the pottycoat, I simply must drop the kids off at the pool…” It helped with the bugs, and it helped to laugh. We had a lot of emotions - worry, stress, enjoyment - and guilt for trying to enjoy ourselves when we knew my wife, E and S were all still up to their necks in stress. It was hard. It was fun. It was fun and hard and emotional all at the same time.
The kids hit those portages like true champs, a well-oiled machine. Everyone would have to do two bags, plus my daughter taking a canoe on one portage trip, while Grant and I double portaged the other four canoes. And we had a dog. We made a plan to do "portage and a half", the girls paired off, setting their watches to ring approximately half-way considering the 10 rod/min rule. It was a pleasure passing by the dropped bags and seeing my strong young women kickin butt. Executed flawlessly. Record efficiency for this crew, they were awesome. With a dog in tow! I was extremely proud, and we pulled into Sawbill just before 3pm, with thunder and more torrential rains incoming. I walked into Sawbill, started a tab, and told my kids and the gals at the register, "whatever they want, they get." I then thanked as many Sawbill Crew members as I ran into, and asked them to pass my thanks on to the owners. I learned, earlier the previous day, my wife was driving E and S home from the hospital and hit a huge hole, concealed by water, that blew out two of their tires. AAA to the rescue for the tow and fix. When it rains...
It was a white-knuckle caravan of cars to the cabin, through driving rain, hail and fog. I just kept praying to get us all back together safely. When we finally arrived, many hugs, laughs and tears were shared. We waterskiied, tubed, fished, drove the ATV, and ate dinners around a campfire. Grant was able to salvage a good couple of days of vacation, and experienced some vicious ejections from an inner-tube at the mercy of his uncle. My daughters sharpened their waterskiing and slalom skills. Alls well that ends well. Still processing though, all of us are, I'm sure.
First thing my wife said to me when we met up at the cabin? "Next year we're going to the F*CKING BEACH." I think I better listen. And I think everyone should take a Zoleo or similar device. And review your emergency plans. And hug your loved ones more. And be kind, because a lot of kindness is what gets us through the hard things. And maybe I should patent the "pottycoat". Stay safe friends, and enjoy that sweet fruit that is life.