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A Close Call and Calling it Quits in the Boundary Waters

Canoeing the Boundary Waters

One day before capsizing in the Boundary Waters.

My marriage was falling apart, but none of that mattered as we frantically collected floating items from the icy waters while swimming toward a rocky shoreline. We struggled to flip the canoe upright in an effort to get to our life preservers, which we had tied to the seat frames in the canoe. My husband screamed, "HELP!" at the top of his lungs. I could feel the chill setting in.

In August of 2010, my (now ex-)husband and I came up with a last ditch plan to perhaps breathe some life back into our dying marriage: vacation! A chance to get away from the stresses of life and reconnect. Romantic dinners on the beach. Beautiful scenery. As folks struggling with their marriage often do, we thought vacation might be just what we needed....

Did we book a relaxing, romantic trip to Hawaii? No. Did we reserve an all-inclusive vacation to an adults-only resort in the Caribbean? No. A cruise in the Mediterranean? Nope.

We booked an outfitted but unguided trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Not typically considered a romantic trip by any stretch of the imagination. No beaches. No real relaxation. No comfy beds. No gourmet food. No alcohol (except for the wine we lugged in). To fix our marriage, we decided to go canoeing for a week into one of the most wildernessy wildernesses. Why?

In retrospect, I didn't want to fix my marriage; it was already dead. I didn't want romance and intimacy. And so I picked a trip where we wouldn't shower for seven days, would sleep in tents on the ground and would be dog-tired at the end of each day of paddling. At the time, I justified this choice by recognizing it would be a trip of a lifetime and that my husband would be a great partner (despite the failing marriage) and willing participant. I thought the teamwork involved in such a strenuous and remote trip might bring us together.

The BWCAW is a vast wilderness connecting Minnesota to Canada. "Land of Ten Thousand Lakes" is not actually accurate. The BWCAW consists of over 1,100 ponds and lakes as well as rivers and streams. Even if it's not actually 10,000 lakes, there are so many lakes that one can canoe through the wilderness for days and weeks (or even months) on end with only short stretches of land between them. On these portages between lakes, you have to carry your canoe and gear to the next lake. National Geographic lists the trip into the BWCAW as one of its top "adventures of a lifetime".

Kevlar Canoe in the Boundary Waters

Our canoe during a portage between lakes.

The BWCAW has been used for thousands of years, by native Indians, then fur traders and now recreationists. It's an unspoiled land where you can hear wolves howling in the moonlight and watch busy beavers build dams in the morning. The star gazing is intense and, despite the wilderness's popularity, you can go for days without seeing another person due to the strict permitting and entry process.

We capsized that day because we were idiots. Neither of us had ever really canoed before. We didn't know how to safely paddle through the intense wind storm we suddenly found ourselves in and, worse, we didn't even realize we were in a potentially dangerous situation to begin with!

We both had our cameras out and loose in the canoe. We had our life preservers tied onto the seat frames. Our emergency locator transponder was in the bottom of one of our packs (the one we watched sail away at a fast clip after flipping, buoyed by air and powered by angry winds).

It was September. The water was pretty cold in Northern Minnesota. The wind was whipping something fierce. We were paddling, ignorantly and somewhat blissfully, across the middle of a large lake towards our next take-out and portage. According to maps and information we had previously received, the tiny trail leading to the next lake was obscured by towering granite cliffs along the shoreline. There was a narrow cut in the granite that led to the trail, but the cut was at an angle that was very difficult to see. Everything looked like a solid stretch of cliff!

We made it across the lake and were paddling up and down the cliffs looking for the entrance. The waves were big and, as they hit the cliffs, they bounced back, colliding into the oncoming waves at various angles. In the sailing world, this is knows as "confused seas" and it looks like what it sounds like.

We felt like we were getting pushed too close to the cliffs and that the cattywampus waves were becoming dangerous, and so we agreed to head back out a bit. As we turned the canoe, the winds gusted and the waves hit us broadside. In a slow motion sequence, we capsized.

The canoe was partially submerged - swamped! We had two large packs of gear and food and were thrilled to see them floating....but they were floating away. My husband wanted to retrieve gear; I wanted life preservers. We struggled to flip the canoe upright and retrieve our life jackets. Once donned, we struggled to get some of the water out of the canoe and then began the process of trying to collect floating items while swimming everything towards shore.

But what shore? We were against a cliff. The path to an actual shoreline was a longer distance, but had to be done. We corralled floating gear as best we could and swam slowly, fully clothed and with shoes on, to a boulder-strewn shoreline.

My husband had earlier noticed a man standing on a point of land in the distance. He wanted to yell for help; I did not. In retrospect, I'm not sure what my issue was. I somehow felt embarrassed to call for help and believed we could handle all of this on our own. Thankfully, he ignored me and screamed loudly, "HELP!" We didn't know if anyone was still on this particular lake, nor if they would even hear us over the roaring gusts.

We reached the shore and my adrenaline-spiked blood allowed me to haul one 70+ lb pack practically over my head and up onto the higher rocks. We dragged the canoe up and flipped it to get the remaining water out. Thankfully, our maps were in a large ziplock bag and had survived. We began to plan where to go. We couldn't stay where we were - the rocks led to more rocks and cliffs. We needed a campsite and fire and dry clothes (if we could find some). We didn't know how to collect our other pack, which we could see getting shoved violently by the waves into the cliffs a ways away. Didn't look safe to canoe to it -- didn't look safe to try to swim to it, either! And the cold was sinking in.

I began shivering like crazy. Uncontrollable spasms. Looking back, I should have gotten back into the water as standing on the rocks getting blown over by roaring winds was making me dangerously cold. Evaporation is a cooling process, folks. But for as calm as we were, we weren't thinking straight. And as I got colder, my brain slipped further into la-la-land.

We located the closest campsite on our map and figured it was about 1/4 mile away. We could make it, right? We had no choice. But what to do about that other pack?

As we debated our options, our saviors suddenly appeared from around the bend! A man and woman were paddling fearlessly into the wind and swells, and they had ropes. They called out to us, but we couldn't hear what they were saying over the wind. They motioned to our stray pack and indicated they were going to get it. I was nervous for them, but they were on their knees in the bottom of their canoe, not sitting up high, and paddling seemingly effortlessly.

They secured our pack with ropes and towed it back toward us. They got close and yelled for us to come to their campsite, just around the bend a bit. YES! They didn't have to ask twice. I hadn't wanted to call for help, but I was sure as hell relieved once it arrived. I knew I was starting to experience a touch of the hypothermia and needed to get dry and warm.

The short paddle back to their camp was nerve-racking. Partly due to my fear of reentering the wind and waves, and partly due to my deteriorating motor functions. My hands weren't cooperating well and I couldn't speak coherently anymore due to the chattering teeth and intense shivering.

There was no time for pleasantries back on dry land. I was immediately ushered up from the shore to the camp. Sue, our female hero, started trying to light a fire. No luck. Soon, she was joined by her husband, Joe, who also tried. No luck. The wind was just too strong despite having an existing rock wall wind-break built into the fire pit. I knew I needed to get out of my wet clothes, but were the clothes in our packs even dry?

My husband helped me to an area behind their tent. He opened our clothing pack and found everything to be mostly dry - score! Unable to undress by myself, he helped me get out of the wet and into the dry. But, big bummer, our sleeping bags were wet. Not soaked, but probably too wet to use to warm me up (in retrospect, they were synthetic and not down, so would have worked well even though they were damp).

Joe and Sue gave me two of those little chemical hand warmer packs, which we shoved into dry shoes, along with my frigid feet.

With a fire still impossible, the four os us huddled together in an effort to warm me up. Slowly but surely, I went from a shivering, incoherent mess to a normal human being!

No longer strangers, we found Joe and Sue to be awesome folks! Once the potential hypothermia disaster was averted, they invited us to stay the night in their campsite. Insisted, is the better word. They weren't about to let us get back in our canoes that afternoon!

Sue and I get to know one another over dinner.

The winds eventually died down and the skies cleared. Joe and Sue had beer - and they shared! We got the fire started and broke bread together. After learning more about each other and telling stories beneath a now-clear and twinkling sky, we retired for the night. Our bags had mostly dried and we slept the deep slumber that comes after a traumatic event has come and gone.

In the morning, we parted ways. Our forward path was not the same as theirs. I shed a tear as we paddled away from them, our bond being incredibly tight despite only knowing one another for 18 hours.