THE BOUNDARY WATERS— The COVID-19 pandemic and increased cell phone coverage in even the most remote parts of Minnesota are combining to create a record summer for members of the St. Louis …
THE BOUNDARY WATERS— The COVID-19 pandemic and increased cell phone coverage in even the most remote parts of Minnesota are combining to create a record summer for members of the St. Louis County Rescue Squad, as more people than ever are finding themselves in trouble in the wilderness.
Inexperience and a sense by some wilderness travelers that help is just a phone call away, may be encouraging an over-reliance on rescuers, even in cases where the need for rescue is questionable.
Take the incident this past Saturday on Fourtown Lake, north of Ely, where members of the rescue squad evacuated a group of nine paddlers from the BWCAW who had abandoned their canoes on a weed-choked river while out on a day trip from their base camp on Fourtown.
The group, who hailed from St. Louis Park, included two dads, a mom, and six kids. They had decided to canoe what appeared on their map to be a convenient circle route of lakes and a connecting stream, known as the Moosecamp River, as a way to explore more of the wilderness.
But the day was hot and humid and the bugs were out in force. And after a day trip that had already included several portages, they discovered that the Moosecamp River, which was to have been the final leg of their journey, was choked with weeds and beaver dams. Low water levels didn’t help matters and as the group grew increasingly frustrated, they made the decision to abandon their canoes and walk the rest of the way back to Fourtown.
Once on Fourtown, they managed to flag down passing canoeists, who agreed to ferry them them back to their campsite where most of their gear was stored. The next morning, they called their outfitter to report what had happened.
Their outfitter suggested they hitch a ride with passing canoeists to recover their watercraft. Instead, the group called for rescuers to come and get them.
Kristian Jankofsky, a volunteer with the county’s rescue squad, said he got the page about 6:30 a.m. this past Saturday and headed toward Ely from his house in Angora. He had no idea that the incident would consume an entire day for the five rescuers who responded to the call.
By the time they arrived, they found the group relatively relaxed at their campsite, with no member of the party reporting any medical issues. But with their canoes now miles away, they wanted a lift out of the wilderness. The rescue squad volunteers obliged, although the situation was complicated by the fact that the members of the group had apparently left their life vests with their canoes. Because the rescue squad wasn’t willing to violate state law by ferrying the group without life vests, it meant the squad had to make multiple trips back and forth, leaving some volunteers behind while letting members of the group use the life vests the rescuers had brought for themselves.
The rescue squad, as its name suggests, only rescues people, not gear, which left it to the local outfitter to figure out how to recover all the gear as well as the group’s canoes now abandoned miles up a weed-choked stream.
“It was one of the crazier things that’s ever happened,” said Steve Piragis, who had outfitted the group. The group had not indicated where they planned to go, or Piragis’s staff would have advised them not to attempt to travel on the Moosecamp River, which is known to be “pretty thick” this time of year, particularly in a drier summer.
Jankofsky said he didn’t want to dwell on the mistakes made by the group, but all involved agreed that abandoning their canoes was the biggest mistake the group could have made.
It’s part of a trend that Jankofsky said has become apparent in recent years. With expanded cell coverage into many parts of the wilderness, more people with minimal experience are venturing into the Boundary Waters with the expectation that they can be rescued if they run into trouble. That’s not a good idea, notes Jankofsky. “People need to understand that help isn’t necessarily just a phone call away.” He noted that if the rescue squad had gotten another call last Saturday morning, they likely wouldn’t have had anyone available to respond to the group on Fourtown— for hours, or possibly for days. “Folks should realize that wilderness areas are remote, and that people need to be prepared to have a successful trip,” Jankofsky added.
While wilderness users are typically required to watch orientation videos as part of their permitting process, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted changes in that process and now allows wilderness users to print their own permit confirmations at home without necessarily watching any videos. While those videos probably can’t instill common sense, they do provide a substantial amount of useful advice on how users can limit their impact as well as ways to avoid situations that might require rescue.
Jankofsky said he’s been shocked to see how busy the Boundary Waters has been this summer. “I have never seen the portages so packed. And people are carrying a ton of stuff in their canoes.” More people, and more inexperienced people, carrying too much gear in many cases, has proven to be a problematic combination for the rescue squad.
And despite some recent rain, the region remains in varying levels of drought depending on location— and that’s another factor that can impact travelers in the Boundary Waters. “It gets harder to navigate later in the season,” said Adam Macht, assistant outfitting manager with Piragis Northwoods Company. “With the low water this year, it’s even tougher than normal.”
It’s all part of the challenge of wilderness travel, notes Jankofsky. “It’s a complicated thing. There are weather variables, unpredictable water levels. We’ve had a lot of people who are inexperienced going out in the wilderness this year.” And that’s translated into the busiest summer ever for the rescue squad.
About the rescue squad
The St. Louis County Rescue Squad is a volunteer organization operating under the auspices of the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office, which provides highly-trained individuals who engage in wilderness search and rescue, first aid and public safety, and boat and water rescues. They operate almost entirely through donations from the public.