Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Brandt-Gillis-Tuscarora-Missing link, with a capsize event
by user0317

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 05/12/2012
Entry Point: Brant Lake (EP 52)
Exit Point: Missing Link Lake (EP 51)  
Number of Days: 7
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
A great fishing opener off the Gunflint.

We awoke at dawn Saturday morning and hit Round lake first thing. There was a touch of frost on the car, but it was clear that it was going to shape up to be a nice day. The days travel to Gillis was fairly uneventful. I always find travel days though small lakes to be tiring though, as you are constantly loading and unloading. When we arrived at Bat lake, we decided to start trolling for Lake Trout. We found no trout and by noon we were on Gillis lake, looking for a campsite.

After choosing a site on the north side of Gillis we setup camp, drank some coffee, and headed out to do some fishing. Bowman Bob caught his first to lakers and we headed in for the day. We enjoyed a growler of Fitgers El Nino before turning in for the night.

Sunday morning we got up around 6am and had a breakfast of coffee, pancakes, and eggs. After cleaning up we headed out onto Gillis to troll for some lakers. Bowman Bob took the stern this morning, and as luck would have it the wind started to kick up. We noted that the wind was kicking the stern around, so we decided that in the future when we trolled the MN 3 unloaded, we would put a little weight behind Bowman Bob to even out the boat. We would catch no fish this morning before the wind drove us off the lake, so we sat at our campsite, awaiting a change in the wind so we could resume our search for lake trout.

Around 2:30 we decided to crack into a growler of Fitgers (starfire).  It was hot out, and the wind was stronger than it had been all day. In my estimation the lake was white-capping with 3 ft waves. Much to our surprise, we spotted a canoe on the water. There were 3 paddlers and I recognized the boat as a MN 3. I have paddled my MN 3 in high wind and waves (albeit with 2 paddlers rather than 3) and I know how stubborn this rockerless boat can be in such conditions.

The canoe was located between 100-150 yards off shore, and the stern of the boat was riding very low.  Later we would find out that they had taken on a considerable amount of water by this point. The bow on the other-hand, was smacking up and down off the larger waves, catching almost a foot of air. This did not look good. Suddenly, much to our horror, the canoe rolled over with the bottom of the canoe facing us. Bowman Bob and eye were pacing back and forth, wondering what to do, and desperately hoping to see 3 guys pop up out of the water. We spotted two of the guys, amongst backpacks and other ‘debris’, but the 3rd guy was not visible for quite some time. Possibly, he had been on the opposite side of the upturned canoe for a while. One of the guys (guy1) started swimming for shore immediately. His progress was remarkable considering that he was swimming perpendicular to the waves, which were trying to blow him to the east shore of Gillis. Guy2 was struggling with a backpack floating in the water. Later he would tell us that he had grabbed it for floatation, but it kept rolling over on him, tumbling him into the water. He managed to get one of his hiking boots off, and swam in with 1 bare foot. Considering the delay he had, I think he may have swam even faster than Guy1. 

Guy3 was becoming a definite matter of concern. He had merely floated up onto his back and was drifting east across Gillis, along with all of the other Debris. My fish-finder had reported a surface temp of 51f that morning, but I’m sure it came down a couple of degrees as the lake turned over from wave action. I wasn’t sure how long a person could ward off hypothermia in these conditions, but I was certain that it wasn’t long enough to wash up on the east side of Gillis coherently.  Bowman Bob and I wanted to row out and save him, but surely the waves that had turned over their loaded MN3 with 3 strong paddlers would make quick work of overturning our boat. What use would we be than, and what condition would we find ourselves in afterwards? Would the wind kick up even more? Would we make it in safely if we did overturn?

Meanwhile Guy1 was ending his journey towards shore. I climbed down 10ft or so from our granite ledge campsite to the area that his was swimming into. It felt like a lame gesture to merely give him a hand to stand up, and helping him with the wet clothes he discarded. He looked at me frantically and pleaded ‘don’t help me, go help my friends.’ (expletives omitted).  Although Guy1 came up in good shape, he was shivering hard and was clearly spent from his battle against the waves. He had swallowed a bit of water as well. It became clear that Guy3 had little chance of making it in if he didn’t start to progress towards shore soon. Meanwhile, I had lost track of Guy2, and couldn’t see him from the landing.

I climbed back up to the campsite and set a few of Guy1’s things down. Much to my relief, Guy2 was already closing the gap between the capsize site and shore. Guy3 had made no progress, and was drifting in the same direction as the debris, only much more slowly since he didn’t catch as much wind as the canoe and backpacks. Bowman Bobs and I were certain that he was not going to make it in on his own fruition. The wave and winds weren’t quite as bad as when the rollover occurred, but the gusts were well beyond what I consider safe for us to navigate the MN3 in. Nonetheless, we would either sit there and watch guy3 drift away, or paddle out and attempt a rescue. We nervously decided to attempt a rescue, despite the fact that we were almost certain that we would capsize. 

As we prepared to launch I shed some clothes, stripping down to a synthetic t-shirt, long-johns, socks, and crocs for footwear. I figured that this would better prepare me for swimming to shore if we rolled the canoe. We grabbed our food-barrel and placed it behind the bow seat, hoping this would be enough to even the canoe out. We grabbed a rope to toss to Guy3, and headed out. 

We closed the distance between shore and Guy3 fairly quickly, since the wind and waves were working somewhat in our favor. The plan was to toss Guy3 a rope, and plead with him to not attempt crawling into the canoe. In retrospect, this was a bad plan. The rope that I tossed Guy3 did not reach him, and now we were faced with spinning the MN3 around in large waves and heavy gusts. This is not an easy boat to turn around in calm weather, much less these conditions. Luckily we somehow managed to turn on a tighter radius than I think I’ve ever spun that boat around. I think that the reduced contact between the boat and the water (due to the waves) helped us. We circled around Guy3 and turned around again, so the waves were at our back. This time was asked him to carefully grab the stern, which he did. He mentioned that he couldn’t feel his legs, but was otherwise coherent.

Attempting to turn around once more (with a person on tow) did not seem like a good idea. We did not have a lot of control over the canoes direction at this point, so we decided to pick a point on shore and basically crash into it. This side of Gillis (the North side) consists mostly of a steep hill rising quickly to 50 ft above shoreline. It is almost entirely burnt, with the exception of our campsite. We focused on a spot where a loan balsam tree grew near shore. I figured if the tree was there, there must be a little bit of a shelf to stand on, and possibly stash the canoe. Most of the rest of the shoreline was just a straight shot down. I had no idea if we’d be dragging Guy3 over rocks, but there wasn’t much we could do about it. Luckily this was not an issue, and despite his numbness, he seemed to be helping us out by kicking his legs.  We crashed in safely, but my canoe took a beating as waves tossed it up against rocks as we helped Guy3 out of his wet clothes. Bowman Bobs and I swapped some clothes around with him and got him in dry clothes, and my crocs for footwear. It became obvious why Guy3 was not able to swim to shore. He had large Rocky Hunting boots on that weighed several pounds apiece when wet.  There was absolutely no way that he could have swam with this on, nor was he able to unlace them. I asked Guy3 a bunch of questions (‘what is your name’, ‘where do you work’ etc…) to make sure that his cognitive faculties were still together, and it was evident that they were.

Now we were faced with the challenge of hiking up this steep, burnt over hill and heading back to camp. I was clothed in a t-shirt, boxers, and socks but no shoes. Bowman Bob Had no shirt but a lifevest, pants and shoes. Guy 3 had long johns, crocs, a wool hat, and a shirt. I knew that the blown over trees and raspberry bushes would make quick work of trashing my legs, but I wondered how my shoeless feet would deal with this terrain. I chose my steps carefully and we were back to the campsite in about 10 minutes. The struggling hike was apparently good for Guy3 as he turned from a bluish pink color to normal skin tone by the time we returned.

Guy1 and Guy2 were stripped down to their under layers and were already dried off by the wind and warm air. They were both grateful to be clad in wool. We started up a fire and began to warm some water up, although the air was so warm that this really hadn’t been necessary. Everyone was safe and in fair condition. We began to wonder about the possibility of the wind dying down so we could retrieve a little gear. As it was we had a hammock and a 2 person tent, but it would be nice to round up sleeping arrangements for everyone. Naturally, there was the matter of retrieving the rental canoe, and hopefully at least 1 paddle so they could return to Round lake on their own. 

I have no idea how much time passed, but Bowman Bob and I decided to hike back to our canoe and hopefully see what gear of theirs we could find. The waves were around 18”-24” at this point. We quickly found our boat and headed into a bay on the NE side of Gillis where we believed the gear would wash up. It didn’t take us long to spot their canoe. It almost looked like someone had parked it upside down on shore. As luck would have it, a Granite Gear pack was entangled with it. We flipped the boat over and stashed the canoe and pack up on shore. The Gunnels were really scratched up, but overall the hull made it through in good shape. 

We decided to paddle around a little more to seek out more gear. After a few minutes we located 2 packs that had washed up right next to each other. What luck! The sealline pack was lightweight and completely dry. The 2nd Granite Gear bag was soaked, and so heavy that I was afraid that picking it up would tear the fabric. We carefully unloaded it and managed to get a lot of water out. We threw the wet gear in our canoe and headed out. It felt like we were a bit overloaded but we elected to press on and stay close to shore. The wind was kicking up again and began to take on a little water. It wasn’t terrible, but naturally we were a little worried. 

After returning to our campsite the guys were busy unpacking their gear and hanging out their various clothes, tents, and hammocks. The wind which had been their foe earlier that day, was now an asset. Everything dried out fairly quickly. They pitched their sleeping arrangements and took a breather. Everything was going to be alright. We headed back out onto the water before dark, and retrieved the 3rd pack, 2 paddles, and a few other things. By the time we returned there was only a paddle and a hiking boot missing. Things were beginning to look up. There were certainly some electronics and various items that were totaled by the water, but overall it could have been much worse. We stayed up a bit late and enjoyed some more Fitgers beer, and looked forward to the next day when we could get everyone focused on their trip again.

Monday morning found Gillis lake dead still. Our company was still asleep, so Bowman Bob and I made some coffee and headed out to do some fishing. The lakers were cooperative today, and we returned a couple of hours later with 3 fish, having thrown back a couple more. We made a shore lunch while the 3 guys started organizing their gear to move to another campsite. Bowman Bob and the 3 of them crammed into our boat and retrieved their canoe. They also found the missing boot and paddle. Absolutely everything had been recovered! 

Soon Bowman Bob and I headed out fishing again, and they were gone by the time we returned. The weather remained calm all day, and we had caught 14 trout by days end. We had enjoyed their company, and found it interesting to compare gear and exchange stories. We ended the day with an Asian inspired trout soup with rice noodles.

Tuesday we were hoping to do a day trip Through French and Peter lakes, circling back via Virgin-West Fern-Powell-French. It was a little windy out on Gillis, but nothing like Sunday. We figured that the smaller lakes on our route would be a little calmer, allowing us to navigate and troll without too much stress. We portaged from Gillis to French and were surprised to see that little French lake was much rougher than Gillis. Perhaps the lack of trees made it worse, or maybe it was geographically situated in a way that the wind hit it more directly. We could have paddled it, but fishing would have been difficult, and I doubted that we would enjoy it much. Back to Gillis it was. The wind persisted all day, but we ventured out into Gillis several times. We decided that it was productive to practice paddling in some moderate winds. Bowman Bob landed a laker that we made trout burritos out of back at camp (taste better than it sounds).

Wednesday morning started off calm and quiet. Everyone seemed to be packing up today, including the guys that capsized in front of our site. I crawled out of the hammock around 6:30 just as they were paddling by. They thanked us again for our help and continued on. We broke camp ourselves and made way for Tuscarora via Crooked and Owl. 

On our first portage we finally got to look over the damage my boat took from the rescue mission. Between crashing on shore with Guy3, and landing in rocks and waves to retrieve gear from tight spots, we did years’ worth of scratching in a single day. I’m not one to fret over scratching my hull, but it was disappointing. Likewise, my new double whiskey-jack paddle took a bad chip in the rockguard from prying against a rock to prevent a collision. I was a bit bummed out by this but it was a worthwhile sacrifice to be able to help someone else out.

The Gillis to Crooked portage was gorgeous, and we enjoyed seeing the trapper’s cabin, and a couple of small waterfalls. By the time we got to Tuscarora, the wind was picking up a bit. We cruised by a couple of campsites and picked one out on an island on the West half of the lake. It was a great site, with a very handy fire pit. Soon we were out fishing, and it didn’t take us long to find the lakers. They had been running small (mostly around 17”) so far on both Gillis and Tusc, but Bowman Bob pulled out a 22” fish from Tusc. Not huge, but a decent fish. This day ended too soon, and we both wished that we had more time to spend on Tusc. Dinner was a trout stir fry with rice noodles, asparagus, garlic, lime, black beans, and a few other goodies.

Thursday started out with a bit of wind. The sort that wasn’t a problem to paddle in, but was no fun to troll for any amount of time. We really wanted to fish Tusc more, but we elected to tackle the infamous Tusc-Missing Link portage. We were soon on it, and although it was tiring it went by faster than we anticipated. We ran into a group of 3 coming from the other direction and exchanged a little fishing and campsite information. We were soon on Missing link and found it empty. We picked the middle campsite and fished from shore a little. The wind was up and we decided to wait for it to die down before trolling for brookies. After a nap and an early dinner of trout burritos, we headed out. 

I had no idea what to expect from BWCA brookies. I grew up spoiled by large coasters in the Upper Peninsula, so I don’t typically expect to be impressed by Minnesota’s brook trout fisheries. I was surprised when I hooked my first Missing Link brookie. It put up a great fight and when it was said and done I had a 19” trout in the boat. Sure, catching a trout from a ‘put-and-take’ lake is not the same as catching a naturally reproducing fish, but this was a lot of fun. We landed one more fish, and I lost one at the boat. Bowman Bob had never caught a brookie before, so we were hoping he would land one the next morning. We headed to shore just before dark and polished off a growler of Fitger’s Apricot Wheat.

We slept well and woke up first thing Friday morning. We would be heading out today, but first it was time to fish for brook trout. We skipped coffee and breakfast, and hit the water. It was a little windy, and it seemed like we were constantly turning in this little lake. Luckily Bowman Bob landed a nice trout, so it was time to pack up and be on our way. We were soon on Round lake and paddling towards the landing. There were 2 guys getting ready to head out on the landing. I thought they were waiting for us to land before putting their canoe in the water, as they stood on the landing talking for several minutes. When we were about 75 yards from landing, they decided to put in. We waited offshore until they shoved out, and then we were out of the water. 

Overall it was an eventful trip with great weather. The wind was annoying at times (as usual) but the temperatures were great and it hardly rained a drop. We learned a lot from the capsizing incident and I think that we will be better prepared paddlers because of it. We both had a lot of conflicting feelings when the boat first rolled over, but in hindsight I think that it was productive to hold off from immediately putting in and attempting a rescue. By waiting it became evident who needed assistance and who didn’t, and most importantly the wind and waves had lessened from peak strength.  Everyone ended up being safe, and aside from some material loss, relatively unscathed.