Rescue shows heroism, provides opportunity for reflection

A recent rescue of eight canoeists from Basswood Lake after their canoes capsized in high winds was a scary episode that ended as well as it could.  We’re very glad that nobody was hurt in this incident, and we think there’s great value in using it as an opportunity to reflect on smart wilderness travel practices in the Boundary Waters and its challenge in general. To be clear, this is not second guessing the party that was rescued, just using the experience to help others learn.

First of all, this rescue once again demonstrates the professionalism and heroism of first responders. From the time a call for help was received, it was a matter of hours before rescue crews had located and evacuated the stranded party. It’s truly a testament to the preparation and skill of these folks, and they deserve our respect and thanks.

It’s also important to remember that you cannot rely on this kind of rescue when you are in the Boundary Waters. In this case, the party had a high-powered radio that allowed them to communicate with a nearby resort, but normal means of communication like cell phones are not reliable in most of the Boundary Waters. If you are traveling in the wilderness, you need to be prepared to self-rescue. This means having the training within your party to provide at least basic first aid to an injured person, to have the equipment needed to evacuate, and to have the mindset that you are primarily dependent on yourself and your traveling companions to get out safely in the case of an emergency.

Better yet, take care to avoid the need for a rescue in the first place. As serious as this incident was, it is exceedingly rare. Despite nearly 250,000 visits to the Boundary Waters each year, only a handful of rescue operations occur annually, and only a tiny number are as serious as this one. Visiting the Boundary Waters is very low risk, as long as you prepare and maintain an expedition mentality. Respecting and paying attention to the weather and your group members’ conditions is the best way to avoid the need for rescue.

Here are a few things that any Boundary Waters traveler should learn from this incident:

  1. Pay attention to the weather conditions: Remember that the waves in the middle of a large lake can be much more challenging than near shore or in a sheltered area.
  2. Wear your PFD when in the canoe: This rescue could easily have turned into a tragedy without them.
  3. Be ready and willing to wait for better weather: Allocate extra time in case you become windbound or encounter another unforeseen delay. Rushing to meet a deadline can cause you to make more risky decisions.
  4. Don’t rely on cell phone coverage: You can rent a satellite phone from an outfitter or use a device like SPOT if you want a reliable way to contact the outside world for help. If you use a satellite phone, have your rescue numbers written down and ready to use. 911 may not work on a satellite phone. This party had a high powered radio and well defined protocol for contacting authorities.
  5. Bring emergency equipment: A well-stocked first aid kit is an absolute must. In this case, the party used a strobe light to signal for help, which helped rescuers locate them. Plan ahead and prepare. Local outfitters are excellent resources for beginning BWCA explorers.

Hundreds of thousands of people safely enjoy the incredible beauty and the physical, mental and spiritual renewal of the Boundary Waters every year. But a wilderness area requires your respect and attention, as its wildness makes it unforgiving. We’re very glad that nobody was hurt in this incident, and we are thankful for the quick response by the professionals and volunteers with Lake County, St. Louis County, the Minnesota State Patrol, and the U.S. Forest Service.

- Aaron Klemz, Communications Director, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness

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