Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Capsize - rapids - lost canoe - self-extraction
by DaveKasprak

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 05/14/2022
Entry & Exit Point: Cross Bay Lake (EP 50)
Number of Days: 14
Group Size: 1
Trip Introduction:
I was planning on a 2 week solo trip. Mother Nature had other plans for me.
My permit was for May 14, 2022, entry point 50 - Cross Bay. I was planning on going on a 2 week solo trip down through the Frost River and eventually into Little Saganaga. Typically this route would be ideal in the spring. However, there are record water levels in the boundary waters this year. I discovered small creeks that are typically capable of being walked across were turned into 60 foot wide white water rapids, with water 15+ feet deep. I made out past 2 sets of rapid covered portage landings and flooded portage trails and was heading through an apparent calm narrow way from the bay just after the 2nd portage into the big part of Ham Lake when a strong current instantly turned me sideways and flipped me into the ice cold water. The current was pushing me into the center of the lake, away from shore and toward the rapids. I hooked and grabbed my canoe, paddle and 3 packs (1 main pack and 2 small food packs) with my one arm and started kicking and using the other arm to swim for the closest shore, which was a rock with a downed tree. I was in icy cold water for about 1 hour swimming against the current. My legs went numb and slowly stopped moving at some point. I had to shed one of my food packs to decrease the drag and continued to swim with one hand. I managed to get to the partially submerged tree and pull myself onto it and then straddle it like a horse. I pulled my boat onto the tree with the gunwales facing down, and flipped my boat over it to empty the water and get it upright. I then got back in. Similar to an open water canoe retrieval with a 2nd boat. I tried to drag my large main pack but it was dragging my boat sideways from being pulled by the current. So I reluctantly put my main pack and 1 food bag I had with me into the boat. I was top heavy since I was not able to distribute the weight of my packs in the boat properly. I then tried to paddle over to get the other food bag still in the water that was heading for rapids. The current once again took me and this time sucked me into raging rapids dumping me into the water. Then I was sent down rapids and beaten by trees and rocks. I kept my arms in front of my face to absorb most of the blows. I had my life jacket on but the current and waves were so strong, that I was constantly being pushed under water and would only come up once in a while to grasp for part of a breath. My body was giving out. I kept my legs up to try to avoid being trapped by underwater debris. While my lungs started filling with water, I threw my arms up with one last hope to grab something. Luckily, I managed to blindly grab a tree while I was underwater and pull myself up. My canoe came right up behind, pinning me against the tree and pushing with such force I could barely move. My legs were caught in branches below the water, but my head was now above. I took a few deep breaths and coughed up some water. I saw my main pack barely caught on a branch next to me, I grabbed it and hooked it securely to the tree I was pinned against. I managed to pull my legs out of the debris and work my way down the tree toward shore, out of the water and onto the land. I managed to go back for my pack and bring it ashore. I am hypothermic and was going into shock. I quickly pulled the tarp out of my bag, ripped my clothes off, wrapped myself in the tarp, fell to the ground and threw up a few times. I turned myself to the side before allowing myself to pass out, to prevent asphyxiation if I vomited while unconscious, which I did. When I came to, I was shaking and burning cold. I managed to get my head together and focus back. I quickly got dressed in dry clothes and began to assess the situation. My spot tracker, phone, watch and maps were all torn from me in the rapids. I had no canoe and no food. I assumed that nobody would be coming close to me for a while due to the conditions and I wasn't expected to return for 2 weeks. I accepted there will be little to no chance of rescue. I needed to get out on my own and quickly. I am sore, beaten, bruised and cut up but nothing broken and everything mostly works. I looked at what I have... I thankfully had my main pack that had dry clothes, tarp, hammock, sleeping bag, compass, first aid kit and spare water filter. I then heard thunder and the skies went dark. I set up camp immediately along the shoreline where I landed and where my canoe was still pinned about a foot below the water. I managed to get the tarp up and get into my hammock before a short thunderstorm came and went. I made some weak spruce needle tea, rested in my hammock and began to make an escape plan. While planning, I decided to draw a rough map from memory on a bandage wrapper while the information was still fresh in my mind. I stayed hydrated and rested all night. I woke up Sunday morning at dawn, hydrated well, packed up camp, threw my main pack on my back and headed out into the woods using my compass and little hand drawn map. My visibility was limited at times to only a few feet in front of me. My feet were sinking in muck if I stayed too long in one spot. I could not follow the shore line as the water was so high. So I had to go inland. I was zig-zagging through the flooded terrain, going up steep climbs and rocks covered with such thick brush it's like trying to run in a dream. The constant resistance was unimaginably exhausting. Adding to the struggle were the branches whipping me in the face and jabbing my body as I walked. Due to the Ham Lake fire, the terrain is covered with younger trees that still have their low branches tangled with and thick, gnarly ground cover. Even the highlands were saturated with the recent rains and snow melt. Every step was a mushy, entangled, uneven nightmare and strains the ankles and knees. A few times I had to throw my gear down the edges of rocks and climb down, hoping there was a way out. I started hearing the 1st sets of rapids grow louder and began to head toward them. This led me through a flooded lowland area that was covered in thick, submerged brush but had small grass patch clearings above the water line. I tried to keep to these, but then realized I was walking in piles of fresh wolf scat everywhere. I stopped for a moment, but could not see anything through the branches. I could only hear multiple animals scurrying and splashing all around me. It seemed that the wolves were using the dry, grassy patches for bedding and I was walking on their beds. I continued through this for a few minutes without confrontation. I then had to cross a section of flooded forest in chest high water while navigating the submerged underbrush for about 10 minutes. I was slowing significantly once I got out of the water. I was water logged, freezing and shaking once again. I decided to go a bit farther and reach higher ground to assess again. As I pushed a bit farther, I suddenly popped out of the wilderness directly behind my car in the entry point parking lot. For four hours, I trekked, drudged and bushwhacked with a 60 lb pack on my back and ended up directly behind my car at the entry point parking lot. After my return, the Forest Service subsequently temporarily suspended permits for EP #50.

I would like to thank Tuscarora and Voyageur Canoe Outfitters for their help and support upon my return.