Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Trepidation on Tuscarora
by Aldy1

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 05/20/2020
Entry Point: Missing Link Lake (EP 51)
Exit Point: Missing Link Lake (EP 51)  
Number of Days: 4
Group Size: 3
Trip Introduction:
This would be my first trip on the Gunflint side. We planned to basecamp on Little Saganaga.
Part 1 of 2
We stayed at one of the bunkhouses at Tuscarora Lodge and woke a tad later than we had hoped. After we ate their delicious boxed breakfast (due to Covid) we slowly made our way down to the dock and pushed off at around 9:30am. Our aim for the day was to make it to Little Sag. Very doable considering we single portage. Our gear consisted of one hiking/canoe pack for each person, two food bags, and one MN III canoe. You either carried two bags or one bag and a canoe. The first portage into Missing Link was humbling. It was quite clear our early season muscles were weak. And that we packed way too much. We met an older gentleman on this portage who let us pass. He let us know he had planned on staying on Missing Link for the night and that he was in no rush. I like his style! Missing Link was a quick paddle, almost too quick. Now time for the long portage. Again, we were humbled. This portage just plain sucks. It's rocky, hilly, and long. It didn't help that we had to lug around the 3 person canoe. The added weight compared to a MN II was noticeable. We split up the portage into several sections, taking us about an hour. We took a short break on the Tuscarora side and hit the water again at around 11:00am. Our plan was to paddle directly south to the opposite shore into the head wind and then paddle directly west to the portage. I had circled the site on the southern shore that is tucked behind an island and wanted to check that out for future reference and to stay out of the wind. As we were near, I decided we stay on the north side of that small island, because I was more interested in getting a glance at the island campsite in the middle of the lake. Moments later, we hear a man shouting from that very island. At first, it sounds like he's simply yelling "Hey!". As time goes on, it's clear he's shouting for help. The man was waving a white shirt on the end of a stick. This seems urgent.

As we get near to the island, the man is rapidly alerting us that he and his crew has flipped their canoe. Admittedly, we figured they had just flipped the canoe and we'd probably have to go retrieve it from across the lake. It was when he says that it happened last night when our ears perked up. He tells us him and his two buddies flipped the canoe the night before, that one guy didn't make it back to their site and is currently across the lake, and one is still missing. Our stomachs drop. Missing? The situation just became dire. Now I know it's opening week, but I was dumbfounded that a popular lake like this has seen no travelers since last night. A guy in our group has taken the lead on communicating with this man and starts asking a million questions, where are you from, how did you flip the canoe, where is your buddy across the lake, have you been out here before - those sort of questions. He points across the lake and shouts to his friend, who we could then hear and maybe somewhat see. Since we had a 3 person canoe, we dropped off my friend in the middle seat to stay with the island site guy. Dan and I race across the lake to pick up the guy who had washed up across the lake and spent the night in the woods. As we near the shore where he is standing, we can see he has nothing but shorts, a tshirt, and lifejacket on. No shoes, no supplies. He is visibly sun burnt badly. He is shouting things to us like "You're angels sent from heaven. You've saved my life." He was clearly excited and looked to be in shock of sorts. We safely pick him up from the rocky shore he had washed up to and provide him water and a granola bar. As we head back towards the island we ask him a bunch of questions to get more of the story. He is very appreciative. He thought he was going to die. Here's the quick summary of the info we obtained.

They were fishing from shore around 6pm on Tuesday evening. One of them got a snag on their fishing line and they decided to hop in the canoe to undo the snag and to continue to fish a bit from the canoe. The guy we just picked up in the canoe believes the man who is still missing may have had caught a fish, which caused a jerk and thus flipped the canoe. He said they initially didn't take it very serious and thought they could flip it back over quickly. They attempted several times, but each time the canoe would fill with water and was too heavy to flip back. It was very windy that night. He thinks they may have tried this for around 15-30 mins. The water was probably in in the mid 40s, very cold. They then tried their best to swim back to their island site, which was straight into a strong head wind. He said it was nearly impossible to swim into the wind, considering their limbs were numb. At this point, he said they all realized the severity of the situation and things became quiet and they started to separate. The guy we first came into contact with miraculously made it back to the island site. He said it was pure adrenaline that pushed him through and he kept thinking of his family. He needed to see them again. He was real big and strong too. The guy who didn't make it back to the island said he realized the wind and waves were too much and he quit trying to swim and let the waves take him across the lake. He said he couldn't feel his limbs anymore. He estimated he was in the water for an hour. They believe the guy who was missing started drifting straight west of the island towards shore. But as soon as they all made it to land, they did not hear from him when they were shouting his name. Island site guy said he was purple by the time he made it to land, shed his clothes, and wrapped himself up and laid out on the rocks to warm and dry. The guy on the shore similarly tried to warm himself but had no dry clothes to change into, no food to warm his belly. He climbed up the rocky shore and spent the night in the woods. He used his shirt to cover his legs for warmth. He said he managed to sleep, but I cannot imagine for very long. They both woke around 5am to begin shouting at each other again. Still no sign from their missing friend. The guy who washed to shore let us know he planned to attempt to swim back to the island at 1pm on Wednesday. We arrived around 11:30am. Knowing the water temperature, I'm not sure he would have made it.

By the time we brought him back to the island site to join his friend, it was around Noon. All of our minds were racing on what to do next. It was determined that my group of three would head back to Tuscarora Lodge and alert their team of the situation and start a search and rescue. We let the guys know we may not see them again, but assured them that we were going to do this as quick as we can. We exchanged names, numbers, shook hands, and they gave us their gratitude. We were just happy they were alive after knowing all the details. And hoped someone would do the same for us. As we left, those two were hugging. I think of that image now. What a moment for those two.

We set back out and aimed for the portage, the long humbling portage. It had occurred to me that the man we met on the first portage of the day mentioned his plan was to stay on Missing Link. Since he was a solo paddler, we thought he just might have a Satellite Phone. We hoped. We dropped our gear off at the Tuscarora side of the portage, to lighten the load and make for a quicker trip. Our plan was to eventually come back and most likely stay on Tusc. We did the portage in sections again. We were beat. As we completed the portage, it was a lovely sight to see the site on Missing Link to be occupied by the man mentioned above. We pull up near and shout to him the situation we were in. I think it helped that he already knew us. I'm sure folks can be a bit freaked out if you're asking to get out on their site. Thankfully he let us know he just got a satellite phone! He said he can send text messages out. We're brainstorming who we should alert. We think one of our moms? No, they would freak out. So I decide we would text my brother thinking he would handle the situation swiftly. We send the text around 1:45pm and sure enough, he responds almost immediately - although he says "Sorry, but I think you have the wrong number". I quickly respond saying it's me, provided him all the details, and instructed him to call Tuscarora Lodge with this info, they'll know what to do. He simply responds "Will do.". We are relieved that he responded so quickly and that we wont have to paddle all the way back to the lodge. We thank the man for letting us use him phone and set back out on the long portage towards Tuscarora. We are almost to the lake when we hear the Beaver plane overhead, not more than 30 mins after the text. This gives us an extreme high, knowing that the plan worked out and that search and rescue is this efficient (we later learn, the pilot was already in the air, doing firewatch rounds on the eastern Gunflint side and that it's not usually this quick). Still, it was very impressive.

We dash over the the southern site tucked behind the island and decide this will be our home for the night. As the afternoon continues we see the search and rescue canoe team (three 3 person canoes) enter the lake to come get the guys on the island and retrieve the missing canoe. Before the canoes take back off, the Beaver plane takes off. The canoes leave and we see the two guys leave with the S&R team. Although we don't know the fate of the missing man, we know he is not in those canoes. We learned from the other two that the man missing is the most athletic of the three and the one with the most survival skills. This gives us hope he may still be out there. The night passes by, and amazingly we are still the only ones on the lake that day.

We spend the night doing mostly what we would normally do, but we're all clearly affected by what had just happened. We could not stop talking, thinking, theorizing about it. It affected our moods and appetites but we made the most of it. This site is not as nice as I was thinking it would be based on reviews. There is a nice sandy landing, but the site is well protected and thus very buggy. We made a plan to slowly break camp in the morning and head north to check out one of those sites for the remainder of the trip. Overall we had done 1,200 rods of portaging that day. Time for rest.

Below is a recording of our first day using my AllTrails app. I took a screen shot of this on the second night, so you'll notice the blue dot was my current location at time of screen shot - not the location of night one.